Spring 2011

Do You Want to Live Forever?

– Edward Tenner

In longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal.

Americans have become obsessed with the once esoteric topic of how to retard, suspend, or even reverse aging. Low-calorie diets, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, electronic scanning and uploading of the mind’s contents and powers, and the preservation of cadavers for ultimate revival are among the suggested antidotes. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near, in which the computer scientist predicts that humans and machines will merge and make immortality possible, continues to inspire media coverage six years after its publication. The time is right for a humanist counterattack against such radical technological utopianism. For polemical verve, the new death defiance has met its match in the prolific English political philosopher John Gray. The Immortalization Commission, in which Gray melds history with philosophy as he seeks to demonstrate the futility of pushing against death’s outer limit, is in a genre of its own.

The book appears at first to examine two seemingly unconnected groups: the small band of upper-class Englishmen and -women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who sought proof that the mind persists after death, and a group of Bolshevik theorists and officials who aspired to re-engineer the species. The English psychics (who included eminent figures such as former prime minister Arthur Balfour) were alarmed by Darwinian theory’s intolerable implication that humans were no different than animals and might be doomed to extinction; since most of them had given up on religion, they turned to science to prove that human personalities survive death. The Bolsheviks likewise rejected the notion that they were “the spawn of chance,” and set about remaking the human animal in an attempt to conquer death. Though they never succeeded in extending lives, they ended millions prematurely in their quest to destroy and then rebuild humanity.

In seeking evidence of mental life after death, the English group went beyond conventional séances to produce texts supposedly dictated by the spirits of the dead that, Gray argues, were merely projections of the living writers’ shared philosophy and culture. Their most spectacular project was the natural conception and birth of a boy they believed had been planned by the spirits of the dead to deliver a messiah for humanity in crisis. Only recently has it been revealed that a man and a woman of the circle, married to others, carried out this plan, possibly with the tacit knowledge of the woman’s husband. They never proclaimed their goal or told the child of his destiny, and he lived a conventional if adventurous upper-class existence as a Guards officer and spy, learning something of his origin only near the end of his life, after he had become a Catholic monk.

For the Soviets, the goal was not communication with the hereafter but physical transformation on earth. The so-called God-builders of the late tsarist era, who believed that science could be harnessed to cheat death, were influenced by the Russian Orthodox mystic Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, who proposed reconstituting the bodies of all the earth’s dead and sending them into space to colonize the universe. Upon Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, the revolutionary Leonid Krasin established the Immortalization Commission of the book’s title to plan Lenin’s mausoleum. The memorial, which was erected in Moscow’s Red Square, was not just a public symbol of the dead leader’s continuing influence, but a laboratory for the conservation and eventual resurrection of his body and mind (though physical deterioration and invasive study of Lenin’s brain soon foreclosed that option). On a much grander scale, in Soviet hands the idea of overcoming death by remaking humanity became, Gray argues, an inspiration for human experimentation and eventually mass murder, which he recounts with bloody specificity.

Gray’s goal, revealed in his last chapter, is to expose cryonics, the Singularity, and other forms of modern immortalism through extremes of tainted lineage: English ineffectuality and Soviet carnage. To those who believe that by mid-century technology will achieve the God-builders’ goals, Gray’s book will seem the desperate expression of a doomed outlook. But others will find in The Immortalization Commission a darkly rewarding vindication of their suspicion that in “longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal.”

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Edward Tenner, a contributing editor of The Wilson Quarterly, is the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996) and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity (2003). He is a visiting scholar at the Rutgers Center for Mobile Communication Studies and the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. 

Reviewed: "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" by John Gray, Farrar, Straus & Girous, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons