John Gray

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The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bullocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the 81-year-old, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and working on a system to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In “The History of the Future,” John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

Many who have been optimistic about the possibilities opened up by technology have wanted to use it for purposes that would now be recognised as highly regressive; some of the most widely influential among these people have been renowned progressive thinkers. When a cult of technology is joined with fashionable ideas of human improvement, the upshot is very often gruesome inhumanity.

Consider eugenics. Writing of the interwar enthusiasm for policies that would “improve the human stock”, Bowler reminds us that exhibitions promoting Nazi eugenics and “racial hygiene” toured the US freely in the Thirties, while many American states enacted legislation for the compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be feeble-minded. For many progressives, eugenics was as quintessentially modern as town planning. Eugenic policies attracted the support of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and progressive luminaries throughout the world. In Sweden, the architect of the Scandinavian welfare state, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that a programme of mandatory sterilisation was necessary for social progress, with tens of thousands being subjected to the procedure up to the mid-Seventies.

Some in interwar Europe went so far as proposing the compulsory euthanasia of people classified as socially obstructive or useless. Bowler cites the French surgeon Alexis Carrell (1873-1944) as recommending that habitual criminals “should be humanely and economically disposed of in some euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases”. Carrel was attacked for links with the Nazis, but policies of this kind were not confined to Nazis and their sympathisers. Carrell’s views were anticipated by George Bernard Shaw, whose long-time enthusiasm for involuntary euthanasia Bowler does not discuss.

In a speech to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, Shaw declared: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time looking after them.” Here Shaw was not speculating about a hypothetical future society. In his introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s English Prisons Under Local Government (1921), he explicitly advocated large-scale use of the lethal chamber as an alternative to imprisonment. In The Crime of Imprisonment(1946), he reiterated his view of how anti-social elements should be treated: “If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way.”

Shaw’s belief that many human beings were “not fit to live” was a recurring theme among early-20th-century progressive thinkers. As Bowler notes, Wells looked forward to a future in which “The unfit would be painlessly eliminated, the mentally ill encouraged to suicide out of a sense of duty and the inferior races of the world would face extinction.” When in his non-fiction study Anticipations, first published in 1901, he considered the future of the “swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency” in a scientifically ordered World State, Wells concluded that these and other “inefficient” human groups would have to disappear: “The world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go”. Here Wells was expressing a view of human progress that he never renounced.•

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Pushing back at Bill Gates’ favorite book of the last decade, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, philosopher John Gray argues in the Guardian that those who believe global violence to be on the wane are using accounting that’s too messy and theories too neat. We assign violence to backwardness when the cutting edge has the potential to be the sharpest of all. The essay comes from Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette. An excerpt:

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples. Destroying some of the most refined civilisations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fuelled by western demand for the country’s natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it.

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example. Around a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American jails, many for exceptionally long periods. Black people are disproportionately represented, many prisoners are mentally ill and growing numbers are aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America involves continuous risk of assault by other prisoners. There is the threat of long periods spent in solitary confinement, sometimes (as in “supermax” facilities, where something like Bentham’s Panopticon has been constructed) for indefinite periods – a type of treatment that has been reasonably classified as torture. Cruel and unusual punishments involving flogging and mutilation may have been abolished in many countries, but, along with unprecedented levels of mass incarceration, the practice of torture seems to be integral to the functioning of the world’s most advanced state.

It may not be an accident that torture is often deployed in the special operations that have replaced more traditional types of warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism to include assassination by unaccountable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by drones is part of this shift. A metamorphosis in the nature is war is under way, which is global in reach. With the state of Iraq in ruins as a result of US-led regime change, a third of the country is controlled by Isis, which is able to inflict genocidal attacks on Yazidis and wage a campaign of terror on Christians with near-impunity. In Nigeria, the Islamist militias of Boko Haram practise a type of warfare featuring mass killing of civilians, razing of towns and villages and sexual enslavement of women and children. In Europe, targeted killing of journalists, artists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen embodies a type of warfare that refuses to recognise any distinction between combatants and civilians. Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.

Deaths on the battlefield have fallen and may continue to fall. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being employed, the Long Peace can be described as a condition of perpetual conflict.


Certainly the figures used by Pinker and others are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for.•

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If I had to say one thing about the time we’re living in, I would say this: Jesus H. Christ, our phones are great! Our phones are better than ever! I’m not sure if we’ve improved otherwise, but, wow, we’ve such progress in the area of phones! 

Seriously, we seem to be making progress in a variety of ways (see the current reversal in the attitude toward gay marriage in America), but there’s still a lot of suffering and unfairness in the world. Are we moving forward or laterally–or even backwards? 

John Gray, political philosopher and author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, believes our contention that we are moving human rights forward is self-satisfied bullshit. From an interview Gray did with Johannes Niederhauser at Vice:


Isn’t the belief that everything will get better and that the world is now moving toward a blessed end state kind of schizophrenic, in the sense that we’ve actually been living in a deep crisis since the 1970s?

John Gray:

The rapid movement in technological advancements creates a phantom of progress. Phones are getting better, smaller, and cheaper all the time. In terms of technology, there’s a continuous transformation of our actual everyday life. That gives people the sense that there is change in civilization. But, in many ways, things are getting worse. In the UK, incomes have fallen and living standards are getting worse.


And advances in technology don’t mean that things are necessarily getting better in the grand scheme of things.

John Gray:

Oh, absolutely. Technological progress is double-edged. The internet, for example, has more or less destroyed privacy. Anything you do leaves an electronic trace.


Some people even want their mind to be transferred into the Internet to be digitally immortal.

John Gray:

That’s kind of moving in a way, but also utterly absurd. Even if it were possible to upload your whole mind on to a computer, it wouldn’t be you.


There seems to be a wide misunderstanding of what it means to be yourself.

John Gray:

Yes. You haven’t chosen to be the self that you are. You’re irreplaceable. You’re a singularity. We are who we are because of the lives that we have. And that involves having a body, being born, and dying.


Especially dying.

John Gray:

Yes, especially. A lot of contemporary phenomena, like faith in progress, is really an attempt to evade the reality of death. In actuality, each of our lives is singular and final; there is no second chance. This is not a rehearsal. It’s the real thing.”

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At the Browser, John Gray decries the idea of Utopia, which was considered extremist in the days of George Ripley’s failed Brook Farm experiment, but has become more centrist in our age, resulting in tortured nation-building experiments in the Middle East. An excerpt:

Q: If utopias are unreachable – you could say that in Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, which coined the term, that’s the whole point – why does that make the striving for them pernicious?

John Gray: There are those who say that utopian projects, while they can never be achieved, are valuable because they spur human advance. That’s not my view. My view is that the attempt to achieve the impossible very often – if not always – has huge costs. Even if a project has good intent, its colossal cost always outweighs its reasonability, as we saw inIraq. What is distinctive about utopianism at the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st is that it has become centrist. In other words, for the first half of the 20th century utopianism was extremist, but now we have the utopian idea of building democracy inLibya or Afghanistan. So the utopian impulse – the impulse to achieve what rational thought tells us is impossible – has migrated to the centre of politics. That is connected with humanism and the idea of progress.”