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Live and Let Live

The mortal implications of man’s place in nature.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The Immortalization Commission Science and the Strange Quest

to Cheat Death

by John Gray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $24

John Gray, not to be confused with the John Gray who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Cincinnati, or however that went, is a maverick conservative British political philosopher and sworn enemy of all militant versions of progress. He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, but long ago, in books like False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), turned against free-market economics. As an admirer of Hume, Burke, and Mill, and a friend and disciple of the late Isaiah Berlin, he arrives at his own party-of-one conservatism by way of skepticism and pluralism. It’s allowed him to become an unpredictable but effective saboteur of utopian, apocalyptic, and end-of-history projects. 

Yet in Straw Dogs (2002), he presented, with a certain sour misanthropic relish, his own end-of-history vision:

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. .  .  . The Earth will forget mankind. 

What? Even Lindsay Lohan? 

He seems to have decided that man, or at least modern man, isn’t the rational animal so much as the radical animal (not that he sees much difference between rationalism and radicalism). And Mother Earth is the last real conservative. In Straw Dogs he defended the Gaia hypothesis, which presents the Earth as a living organism that will eventually rid herself of any lesser organisms. Here, the human race gets a sharp elbow nudge that drastically disturbs her complex, self-preserving balances. For Gray, human beings, given their unsustainable numbers and their reliance on technology and massive extractions of resources, have become a revolutionary horde, burning and pillaging. 

The Earth, in other words, can’t, and won’t, take much more progress. The Enlightenment ideal of progress, he believes, is just a secular ghost of the millennial Christian belief that history must have a final goal and meaning. He much prefers the ancient Greek view of history as cyclical, a going-nowhere process in which the destinies of individuals and societies are ruled by arbitrary fate
or chance. 

This is a bit reductive about the Enlightenment utopianism that was rare until the Jacobins arrived, and the American Founding Fathers, like their mentors Locke and Montesquieu, never succumbed to it. Nor did Voltaire and Diderot, or Hume, Hutcheson, and Smith. But his point is that, if we are to take Darwin seriously, we have to admit that we’re just part of Nature in all its chaotic randomness, not set apart for a special destiny that we can rationally or willfully control. Ultimately, this desire for control, however scientific its guise, takes on an occult character.

At least that’s what he suggests in this fascinating and puzzling new book, which is about two very different pseudoscientific attempts to deny or defy death. The first was typically Victorian/Edwardian British: modest,  empirical, tentative, genteel, eccentric, high-minded. The second was typically Russian/Bolshevik: extreme, feverishly ambitious, lethal.

In late 19th-century England, some nice, well-dressed people who were deeply disturbed by the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution went looking for a kind of spiritualist extension of it in order to soften and moralize it. They attended séances or engaged in “automatic writing”—believed to channel cryptic messages from the departed—hoping that some scientific evidence for human immortality would turn up. If they could succeed in communicating with the dead (including members of their own psychical-research set who had promised to send specific messages back to them as soon as they got wherever they were going), then human life might recover, with the prospect of further spiritual evolution, the higher meanings and dutiful morals that seemed to be lost in the Darwinian melee.

Darwin himself attended a séance in 1874, but quickly walked out, convinced that it was all humbug, a conclusion shared by the novelist Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), who was there, too. But other eminent Victorians took the plunge. They included Alfred Russel Wallace, a collaborator with Darwin, Henry Sidgwick, a distinguished and perplexed Cambridge don, Frederic Myers, whose idea of a “subliminal self” anticipated the unconscious of Freud and Jung, and Arthur Balfour, the philosopher and future Tory prime minister.

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