Allen Lane £18.99

The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, By John Gray

Our greatest anti-utopian thinker returns to a favourite theme: that there's no such thing as human progress, and science cannot save us

Last February, I had a long argument in a Starbucks with one of the cleverest conservatives in our country. (He was subsequently elected to Parliament).

We disagreed on the question of whether or not John Gray is a philosopher.

I said that he is. My argument at the time was based on two propositions. First, if its etymology is anything to go by, philosophy is the love of wisdom, and anybody who has read Gray, or made cursory enquiries into his academic career, cannot reasonably doubt that he is a lover of wisdom. Second, if The Oxford Companion to Philosophy is anything to go by, and philosophy is "thinking about thinking", well, see above.

To this came the impressive retort that, at least in recent years, Gray has been banging the same drum. Far from being the wide-ranging public intellectual for whom no subject is off bounds (Bertrand Russell is the archetype), Gray has revisited and revised the same arguments in each of his works since Straw Dogs (2002). Not for him, vast reams on the epistemology of logic, the limits of Kierkegaard or the sanctimony of the Stoics. Rather, Gray's hatred of utopianism in all its forms has infected each recent book, so that they have really been mere variants on that same unifying theme. This makes him not so much a philosopher as a pamphleteer – one who satisfies William Buckley's conservative ideal of the steward who "stands athwart History, yelling stop".

So evidently is this true that, by a happy dialectic, my companion and I alighted on common ground. John Gray is a pamphleteering philosopher obsessed with hatred of utopianism. To this view, The Immortalization Commission is a brief but cogent addition.

Gray's life was changed by his reading of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. (It happens to all of us). In that seminal work, Cohn argues that the millenarian movements of medieval times and secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century shared a foundational characteristic with the Abrahamic religions. They saw history as teleological. More than that: they considered history rectilinear, and so possessing both a direction and a destination. The secular totalitarianisms were essentially religious, because in sponsoring this teleology they saw human history as a moral drama whose final act is salvation. But whereas traditional religion is animated by faith in God, these secular religions are animated by faith in progress, as delivered by science.

Yet science, Gray contends, cannot deliver what we want it to, which is salvation from ourselves. Scientific knowledge grows incrementally, but moral knowledge can be lost as easily as it is gained. The cult of progress suggests that our values and goals will converge as knowledge grows, but 20th-century history suggests that the opposite is true.

And what is the search for immortality, but the quest for salvation from ourselves? It fits neatly into Gray's scheme of animosity, and shows that we are yet to heed the central lesson of Darwin's work: humanity is no different from other species in being doomed to extinction on an unforgiving planet.

This book comes in two halves. In the first, Gray documents the late-Victorian and Edwardian intellectuals who, through their research into the psychic realm, presumed correspondence with the dead was possible. This fantasy infected the cream of English society, but is yet to yield any tangible evidence of the afterlife.

In the second half, Gray relates the familiar and grizzly history of the Bolshevik God-builders, who were similarly animated by a belief that science could overcome mortality. The absurd body set up to preserve Lenin's corpse was the apogee of this project, and provides the book's title.

Linking these two worlds is HG Wells, the utopian whose affair with Maxim Gorky's third wife furnishes Gray with some splendid reportage.

In documenting this history, he exposes the tawdry relationship between theology and ethics. Many immortalists, like the great ethicist Henry Sidgwick, think that without an afterlife there is no point in acting morally: the promise of heaven is the sole incentive to be good. Yet this view is a first step on the path to tyranny, because it empties moral actions of their true worth. Being good must be good in and of itself – rather than merely instrumental to some future experience – if people are to be convinced to act ethically. Gray's debunking of theology's grip on ethics is therefore timely and timeless.

Gray has made himself the most compulsive iconoclast and anti-humanist writing in English today. His prose stinks of perspicacity. This book is written with his customary urgency and wit. But those of us who have made a serious study of his writings for several years have little new to work with in this tome. The aria is familiar, the conductor is the same – only the orchestra is new. Gray has played this tune before, and better. For the sake of the philosopher within him, it is time to move on.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there