In "The Immortalization Commission," John Gray offers a bracing rebuke to this vanity of human wishes. Mr. Gray, a British philosopher and historian of ideas, has made a career as the intellectual equivalent of an FDA official: He tests utopian schemes to see if they are fit for popular consumption. For Mr. Gray it is more often than not modern science that tampers with our common sense, deluding us with its false promises of certainty. Here he makes the case that immortal longings were slipped into modernity not, as we might expect, by religion but rather by scientists trying to perfect human existence.Then, there is the tyrannical history, illustrating where such attempts at hyper control can lead:
"The Immortalization Commission" gains murderous momentum in its Russian section. "In our Soviet Union, comrades, people are not born," declared the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko under Stalin. "Human organisms are born, but people are created." Mr. Gray stretches the definition of "immortality" to encompass the Soviet idea of creating "eternal man" in the Marxist sense of a "species-being" unsullied by individual personality. The credo quickly became a carte-blanche for mass murder. To build the new society, forced labor was required, show trials were routine and millions of lives were a reasonable price to pay for the glory of future Soviet generations.Like I always say, the prime danger we face from each other doesn't come from religion, atheism, science, or rock and roll. It is Utopianism--the true impetus for genocide. But what about today? Despite it all, the reviewer still wants to believe!
How long do most of us reasonably want to live—100 years, 120 years? Doesn't the value of time depend on the quality of life? For Mr. Gray, dramatically longer lives are a bad idea regardless of their quality. It is more important, he says, to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are dying animals: "What could be more deadly than being unable to die?" Perhaps Mr. Gray is right. But for a purportedly liberal philosopher, he is too narrow in his vision. He simply decrees that the planet could never support generations of 120-year-olds and condemns science for raising the possibility. Yet to suggest the appropriate length of a human life is as insidious as limiting the number of children a woman should conceive. Surely it is worth imagining a world in which science works on behalf of both the Earth and humanity—one that allows for greater human flourishing without resorting to the false hopes of immortality or the cruelties of utopian dreams. The effort to prolong life well beyond what we consider a "natural" span will ultimately be a social and political matter—and an ethical one. To help us meet the challenge, Mr. Gray might next turn his attention from our past follies to our common possibilities.An extra twenty or thirty years? To do what? Golf? Enrich the manufacturers of Viagra? Watch Dancing With the Stars? Good luck with that. Every time this topic comes up, I remember listening to Aubrey de Gray lecture at a transhumanism conference--his ZZ Top beard twitching, his eyes gleaming, his voice rising--urging that money be taken away from health care for destitute and desperate Africans and be put instead into his vain quest to never die. Indeed, he called it terrorism not to do so. Can you imagine the self centeredness? Even IF we could add twenty or thirty years of healthy life, it would be a desperate and solipsistic endeavor mounted by terrified denizens of the privileged West (read, baby boomers) who think we are so entitled we have the right to even cheat death. We are not. As Queen put it, "Who Wants to Live Forever? Forever is today." In an "era of limits," radical life extension research is a luxury most of the world can't afford. So, let us be content with making the best of the years we currently have. That's challenge enough for now. And then in proper time, let us be gathered to our fathers, in the evocative Biblical term, and see what-- if anything--comes next.