Immortal Trouble

How and why did science move into the immortality business, and at what cost? Philosopher John Gray, author of The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, attempts to answer these questions.

By Michal Meyer | July 15, 2012

John Gray. The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Chicago: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 288 pp. $24.

In 1924 a Russian engineer named Leonid Krasin took literally the traditional cry of “the king is dead, long live the king!” When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died that January, Krasin tried to freeze the body. His ultimate goal was to resurrect the first leader of the Soviet Union. Mortality has long been the province of religion and philosophy. But Krasin’s attempt at creating immortality was based in science, like today’s cryogenic resurrection men, who for a fee will freeze the recently deceased in hopes of future technological advances that will return them to life.

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The death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Though attempts to preserve Lenin for future resurrection failed, the science-based quest for human immortality continues to this day.

Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations

How and why did science move into the immortality business, and at what cost? Philosopher John Gray, author of The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, attempts to answer these questions.

In the late 1800s despair crept into the lives of many intelligent, educated Christians in the Western world. According to Gray, this despair was at least in part due to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which “disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they die and eventual extinction as a species” (p. 1). Gray’s underlying premise is that science, specifically evolutionary theory, had become such a powerful force that it trumped religion whenever the two competed for cultural power and influence.

Gray lays bare this struggle with two case studies: the first in late-19th- and early-20th-century England and the second in early-20th-century Russia. Both concerned themselves with immortality: the continuation of the personality after death in the first case and physical immortality in the second. In both cases the search for immortality was rooted in science rather than religion, or at least so their believers thought. But as Gray makes clear, this quest broke down boundaries between science, religion, and magic, producing a toxic froth of grandiose claims supported—or so some thought—by the science of the day.

In England certain members of the cultural and political elite looked for evidence of survival beyond death. Unlike the Russian quest to resurrect Lenin, they were only seeking survival of the personality and thus attempted to communicate with the dead, a pastime that if not scientifically respectable, still had backing from enough scientists to be taken seriously by a segment of the general public. The United Kingdom was politically and socially stable, and attempts to communicate with the dead were more personally than politically motivated. This was not the case in Russia. The real-life Immortalization Commission, whose job was to preserve the remains of Lenin, was just a beginning. For some, like Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, “revolution was not just a radical change in social life. It meant a mutation in humans—the creation, in effect, of a new species” (p. 144). Of course, the rhetoric of revolution proved far more powerful—and dangerous—than the science of the day, but that did not stop figures like Trofim Lysenko, the man in charge of Soviet science. An agronomist by training, Lysenko aimed to create a new people, as he had tried (and failed) to create a new agriculture to sustain the Soviet Union. Ideas can kill, especially in a country where the building blocks of society have been ripped apart. The communist utopia-turned-bloodbath that engulfed the Soviet Union should act as a warning to modern-day attempts to remake humanity.

Gray does a wonderful job in bringing these little-known stories to life. He hopes to make a broader point, one of interest to all those concerned with science, religion, and modernity. “Science,” he writes, “continues to be a channel for magic—the belief that for the human will, empowered by knowledge, nothing is impossible” (p. 205). I would rephrase this to say that science cannot answer questions of meaning and that we deform science when we make the attempt.

Underneath it all is Gray’s concern with the differing implications of mortality—where life is worthwhile in its very closeness to death—and immortality. Our current version of immortality is transhumanism. In its extreme early-21st-century form transhumanists seek to dump our physical bodies and achieve immortal life by uploading our consciousness onto digital devices. As with all utopias, this approach has theological aspects. It is a form of technological transcendence, a core of garbled religious ideas clothed in science.

Today it is easy to call the efforts of the English and Soviet immortalists pseudoscience. But this label is a historical judgment of the present on the past. Gray’s strength lies in his readability and in his case-studies approach, which gives readers the context of those times and a sense of how and why real people took for granted what we now label junk. He means his book to be a warning for our own times: this way of thinking about life brings very real dangers.