on 3 May 2012
John Gray is a hugely important writer, and an extremely knowledgeable and qualified man. His 'Straw Dogs' should be virtually required reading if you want to confront and discard some comforting delusions about humanity and reality. However, there are always perspectives on, and attitudes towards, how to think about something, and how to write about something. It seems to me significant that he is admired by Will Self, a brilliant writer, i.e. a man who understands the dramatic emotional impact of how things are expressed in writing. That is not the same as cold objective philosophical truth. And it is easy to think that Mr Gray is being "a philosopher". Really, however, like all of us, he filters the world through his own disposition. He says things which seem to be designed to stir people up, or to make an impact - in other words, he is a poet rather than a philosopher. He is prone to melancholy and perhaps in love with despair. He encourages us to think "Oh God it's all hopeless, let's just shrug helplessly and realise that things have always been this way, it's human nature, everybody dies, what the hell."
If people say we will end up among the stars - which is inevitable really, even if it takes twenty thousand years longer than people expect - he just says it costs so much money to get anybody out into space that we can forget about it as any kind of solution to any problems. Yes, we who are now alive won't end up there. But humanity or some of its descendants will.
He loves to make out, in more of his books than this one, that "modern atheism" is a kind of off-shoot of the cultural background of Christianity, which it can't shake off and converts into other interpretations of concepts like resurrection or the Kingdom of God (defeating death or a social and scientific utopian society). He almost insists that it is evangelical and that there could hardly be anything more religious than trying to convert the world to unbelief. But the truth about the intelligent secular person is that they are most probably ignoring religiousness more than anything else, because they just think it's as silly as believing in UFOs and messages from Venus - you just take no notice of that sort of thing, you don't go around looking for them and converting them to unbelief in UFOs.
It is perfectly true, as he tells us in fascinating detail, that there is an awful lot of death-denial around. It is also true that every single one of us alive today is going to die. But unless Mr Gray himself was not subject to a kind of "spiritual respect" for the concept of death and new birth, no doubt inherited from the cultural wallpaper of his own upbringing in a Christian/post-Christian society, he would know perfectly well that an increasing understanding of genetic processes - of what happens with things that are virtually immortal, i.e. self-replicating genes, throwing away the organisms but getting passed on and on - then he would know that a cold objective viewpoint on ageing processes is that they are fundamentally an engineering problem. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say an involved series of engineering problems. And therefore people are going to tackle them and do something about them. Again, it may very well take twenty thousand years longer than we expect - but there is no physical fact about the universe preventing it (other than the premature destruction of conscious scientific beings of course).
No, solving the genetic engineering problems would not confer immortality - it would not remove accidents, murder, mysterious new illnesses, etc. And it would be an appalling development, because who would want to hijack the processes to extend their lifetime first, other than those with enormous egos and political power and ruthless drive - we can only be thankful that this has not been available to Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao - or even Thatcher or Blair, come to that. But that is an entirely different point from saying "forget it, everything dies, stop kidding yourself by mucking about with engineering problems".
As for the attitude in this book, and others of Mr Gray's, that the best attitude towards religion is "look, we've always had it and always will, it's human nature" - well, there are plenty of things that were part of cultural attitudes and alleged human nature for a long time, which we don't perpetuate or wish to put up with forever - slavery, homophobia, torture. Yes, they still exist. But it's only another form of denial not to confront the serious stuff put forward about a positive future for humanity, and the actual existence of progress - which Mr Gray denies utterly. I'd love him to cheer up a bit, he might be happier. He could start by reading Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist, and Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, and maybe Diamandis's Abundance, although I hate to give publicity to that because I've already been nauseated by the amount of salesmanship around it. But the point is, yes, The Immortalization Commission is a great book and worth reading, but readers could balance it with some other stuff with a more positive view of the future and human nature.
'The Immortalization Commission' looks at one aspect of the intellectual consequences of Darwinism: the effect of Darwin's ideas on the perennial human fantasy of immortality. It does so by concentrating on two groups of people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who might at first blush seem to have little in common: psychical researchers and socialist scientific utopians. In fact, as Gray demonstrates, the Society For Psychical Research and the Russian Bolsheviks shared a common belief, as well as a few personal connections: that a true understanding of the hidden nature of the world, whether through psychical research or scientific Marxism, would allow humanity to understand its semi-divine nature and ultimately to conquer death. As such, the book is best understood as an episode in Gray's project to undermine recent certainties about the absolute separation between scientific and, by contrast, 'irrational' spiritual or ideological knowledge, and the supposedly no-nonsense foundations of contemporary liberal beliefs.
This is an entertaining book, partly because Gray writes so intelligently and so well, but also because of the colourful cast of characters, many of whom refuse to fit neatly into stereotypical roles - hero, villain, seductress, spy, seductress, fraud, dupe, hypocrite - and instead provoke mixed feelings of sympathy and horror, admiration and disgust. This is particularly true of the second section dealing with the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, which revolves around the project of scientific socialism and culminates with the attempt to 'immortalise' Lenin by preserving his body not merely as an object of secular worship but in the hope of future resurrection.
One of Gray's strengths as a writer on this subject - apart from his evident humanity - is his refusal to indulge in easy scorn. Gray presents his late-Victorian psychic researchers with understanding, declining to mock them and instead showing how their views were shaped by personal tragedy and by the devastating effect on them of evolutionary theory - a theory that they were for the most part too intelligent to be able to dismiss. The same is true of his accounts of various junior players in the tragedy of Bolshevism, who had to deal as best they could - often by silence or deceit - with circumstances absolutely beyond their personal control.
The book briefly comes close to losing its way. Not unnaturally, Gray finds the spectacle of the 'remaking of man' in the Russia of the 1920s and '30s hypnotically awful, and spends considerable time making clear just how far moral debasement may be entrained by high ideals. Nonetheless, the reader's faith in the author's powers is justified when in the third section he pulls his material together and makes some trenchant points about the twin evasions of belief in material immortality and in 'life after death', identifying both as pathological products of human inability to accept man's limited significance, and likely brief endurance, in an indifferent universe.
In spite of a few careless errors - I don't remember Trotsky being killed 'with a pick-axe' - I found this well worth my time. I recommend it to any open-minded person interested in Gray's unusually eclectic approach to the history of belief, and the roots of contemporary thinking; and to anyone who thinks he understands the history of our times.