How to Live Forever
Callahan, Gene, The American Conservative
How to Live Forever The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, John Gray, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 273 pages
John Gray is an interesting if elusive figure. He was an advocate of the New Right in Britain in the 1980s and an accomplished commentator on the works of Austrian economist F.A. Hayek. The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott began to have an increasing influence over his work, and in the 1990s Gray came to support New Labour. (I leave it to the reader to decide if those facts are connected.) During much of that time he taught at the London School of Economics, where he is currently emeritus professor of European Thought. By the aughts, he had arrived at a position that at times might be summed up as, "There is no hope for a happy ending; just enjoy whatever moments you can of the journey."
The Immortalization Commission expresses the last of those positions, although its mood changes as it progresses. Gray's meditation here is on the human ambition to cheat death, which he sees as a symptom of a spiritual malady. The book has a curious structure: it opens with a number of unjustified claims about the "message" of Darwin's theory of evolution, then continues with two sections describing efforts to achieve immortality-one that occurred in Great Britain and the other in the Soviet Union. It might strike the reader as though Gray has pasted together two disparate essays, but he largely succeeds in tying them together by the end.
Gray wants to draw deep conclusions about "the meaning of life" from the theory of evolution. But Darwin's big idea, understood in its proper context, is a scientific theory of how the biological forms we find around us emerged in the course of natural history, something various major religions, such as Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, have had little trouble accommodating within their metaphysical picture of the world. The question of how human bodies came into existence in the physical world has little to do with the question of whether human beings are merely bodies. So it is nonsense when Gray writes: "Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no different than other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. That was the message of Darwinism..."
Gray is correct when he contends that science has been used as a substitute religion by many people over the last couple of centuries, a truth he expands upon later in this book But that this was because of Darwin's "vision" is quite doubtful: only someone who had already substituted science for religion could fall into the trap that Gray has of thinking that Darwin's theory has religious implications.
Gary writes, "Darwin forced [Victorians] to ask why their lives should not end like those of other animals, in nothingness." He seems to be suggesting that before Darwin it hadn't occurred to anyone that humans were animals, and that no one previously had confronted the question of our whether our ultimate fate might be oblivion. (Gilgamesh, anyone?)
He dismisses the idea, present in some Eastern religions, that all living things have souls that continue in existence when their bodies pass away: "How could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead-not only the human generations that have come and gone, but the unnumbered animal species that are now extinct-living on, preserved forever in the ether?" Does he think the infinite rooms of eternity's mansion will be too crowded?
One difficulty in reviewing this work is that the introduction and the beginning of the first chapter seem to have been written by an author other than the one who wrote the last chapter. The Gray of Chapter I writes, "A glance at any human should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being." Here, I think, is the root of this Gray's gloom: the author of this chapter really dislikes people in general and cannot bring himself to believe that they deserve anything better than full extinction, both personal and species-wide. …