Book Review: John Gray, “The Immortalization Commission”

London: Allen Lane, 2011; 276 + xii pp

If some people are to be believed – not least certain former JME editors – saving lives is a duty that doesn’t stop with children drowning in ponds: it extends to there being a moral obligation to pursue scientific research so that death can be actively avoided for as long a time as possible, and by as many people as possible.  Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey both, in their different ways, have devoted significant chunks of their careers to not dying, too.  John Gray’s subtitle, “Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death”, hints that he’s going to offer us an investigation into the putative-and-possibly-real strangeness of this project.

He doesn’t.

The book has three chapters: the first deals with a small group of English people, most of them Trinitarians (albeit in the Cantabrigian sense of the word), who thought that people survived death and that this could be demonstrated empirically; the second deals with a small group of Bolsheviks, who thought that death could be abolished (especially in respect of Lenin: “The Immortalisation Commission” was apparently the name of the group assigned the task of preserving him so that he could be revived later (pp 157-8)); the third, a very short chapter, deals with a grand account of what science is, what religion is, how the two meet and interact, and just about everything else besides.

To Gray’s credit, he’s dead right when, in chapter three, he has a go at people like Ettinger and Kurzweil for being – not to put too fine a point on it – weird.  The hypothesis that “[p]hilosophies of progress are secular religions of salvation in time, and so, too, is the Singularity” (p 217) may well have something going for it as well, though it’s woefully underargued here.  But outside of that, the enterprise behind the book is very odd indeed.  It’s less about science’s quest to banish death – and no real evidence is produced that that’s even a part of what science is about – than about a few people’s refusal to accept the finality of death.  And it is a very few: the chapter on the English Spiritualists’ experiments with automatic writing and “cross-correspondence” deals with maybe six or seven main characters.  None of what they got up to was scientific, either: it actually wasn’t even pseudoscientific.  Gray’s implicit claim – that this tells us something about the state of the intelligentsia and of science at the time is so paper-thin that he has to bulk it out with long diversions into slightly salacious biography.  The chapter can be summarised as “At some point, some people did some silly things.  Some of those people are the sort you wouldn’t have expected to do these silly things”.  There.  Done.

The chapter on the Soviet attempts to forestall or reverse death deals with a programme that was no more scientific, but perhaps at least counted as pseudo-scientific in parts.  But, even here, Gray lets himself get distracted by diversions into the lives of some of the more colourful, eccentric, and esoteric figures that were in circulation in Moscow in the 1920s; the result is an account that could almost have sprung from the mind of Alan Moore.  Does it tell us much about “science and the strange quest to cheat death”?  No, not really.  It tells us that there were Bolshevik thinkers who thought that science might be able to cheat death, and that there were other Bolshevik thinkers who had distinctly odd beliefs about geometry.  It also wanders off into accounts of anti-Bolshevist plots (both real and imagined), and HG Wells’ visits to the young USSR, that have little or nothing to do with science or death-cheating.

Chapter 3 presents as certainty the claim that

genetic engineering is sure to be used to develop methods of genocide that destroy human life selectively on a large scale (p 210)

– for which precisely no evidence is produced; and the lack of evidence is perplexing, especially given that the title of the book leads us to expect something about science preventing, rather than causing, death.  Oh, well.   He bumbles on for a bit about how religion and science or religion and naturalism are apparently compatible, too: apparently both are just metaphors for a reality that can’t be expressed in literal terms.  Of course, when we read this, we should ignore the fact that a metaphor has to be pretty powerful to be able to put a man on the moon, or see the inside of a tumour through a mechanical process that relies on antimatter (antimatter!)… so powerful, in fact, that it isn’t really a metaphor after all.  But apart from that…

It’s interesting to compare this book with the other book that I’ve been reading at the same time, for pleasure rather than business: WG Sebald’s rather wonderful The Rings of Saturn.  There’s a strange overlap between the two, in that both are books in which the author allows a thought to wander.  But whereas Sebald knows he has a thread linking the chapters – a walk through East Anglia – and uses that to see where his thoughts take him (he’s writing essais based around an essai), Gray seems to have let his thoughts wander and then tried to work out how they link together.  He’s generated for himself a reputation as being the go-to guy for Radio-4-friendly debunking of modernity; but this book tells us nothing more than that people sometimes do silly things.

It tells us something about the strangeness of some people; but it tells us next to nothing about science or about cheating death.

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