An obsession with the nature of death lies at the heart of the human experience. For most of our history, religion provided a clear explanation for life and the afterlife. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this framework came under relentless pressure as new ideas – from psychiatry to evolution to Communism – seemed to suggest that our fate was now in our own hands. We would ourselves become God.
The Immortalization Commission raises a host of fascinating questions about what it means to be human. The great and terrible implication of Darwin’s ideas was that natural selection made humans into animals like any other, doomed one day to disappear from the face of an uncaring Earth. The refusal to follow this logic and to insist instead on our immortality resulted in a series of experiments that carry on to the present day, some of which ravaged whole countries and some of which generated more private forms of pain. The implications of Gray’s book will haunt the reader for the rest of their lives – and perhaps beyond.