Review: Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave

>>Published: April 2012

>>Finally got around to it: June 2012

It is nature, after all, that decrees that we must die—that causes our joints to seize up, our skin to wrinkle and cancer to strike. In order to live forever, we must, like the gods, rise above these natural limits. This therefore is the grand project of science, its answer to the Mortality Paradox: death and disease might be what nature intends for us, but we can master nature and thwart her plans. The founding fathers of the scientific method were quite explicit about this. René Descartes, for example, talked openly of seeking knowledge that would “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature” and was considered by his contemporaries to be obsessed with the extension of life. And Francis Bacon pursued what he considered this “most noble goal” of life extension to his death—in 1626 from pneumonia, which he contracted when experimenting with the use of snow to preserve corpses. Throughout its history, science has sought to make life unending and death reversible.

***

As unjustifiably fearful as we are of the differences between us—the different colours of our skins, differences of religion, of politics, of sexuality and attraction—we, as humans, are most fearful of the one thing, the only thing, that all of us have in common: we are going to die. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t look forward to it, and given the gluttonous amount of late-night infomercials peddling stay-young-and-fit skin creams and homeopathic remedies, we’ll leap at any opportunity—no matter how deep into the red it spikes our bullshit radars—to cheat our way out of an early grave. Kevin Trudeau has made a living off of this fear (and several get-rich-quick schemes), as have so many doctors, scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders. Author Stephen Cave, however, wants you to understand both sides to the immortality coin.

Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization is a surprisingly modest analysis of the myths, legends, and facts surrounding immortality and how the ambition to live forever has crossed all historical and cultural barriers.

By modest I don’t mean bereft of detail, rather that Cave recites his thesis without unnecessary hyperbole, presenting his topic with an academic’s attention to detail. Divided into four sections for the four families of thought regarding immortality—Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy—Cave employs a wide breadth of examples—from the Egyptians, Alexander the Great, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, to more recent pioneers in the quest for immortality like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil—to bridge the fact-fiction gap.

The strength of Immortality is Cave’s willingness to present the dark reality to the search for humanity’s literal Holy Grail. The yearning one feels to live forever is a desire born of ignorance; because forever isn’t several lifetimes, or a few dozen, even. It’s all of them. It’s billions and billions of years, until the heat death of the universe or the Big Crunch or something equally disastrous and capable of annihilating all life on Earth and every other life-sustaining rock in the universe comes to pass.

The pursuit of immortality has given rise to entire industries and religious sects, but the advancements of thought and faith and science represented therein are born from the carrot on a stick that will most likely never be within our reach. The mummification of bodies, the Christ resurrection myths, and so many similar folktales and established belief structures have promised a life beyond this one, or a continuation thereof, but we remain, to this day, without proof. In fact, only the Legacy branch of the quest for immortality holds any weight, as evidenced by the stories still told of Alexander the Great, past Presidents of the United States, of celebrities and figures of some notoriety that have lived on in narrative if not in flesh. Though arguably a form of immortality, it’s difficult, when all is said and done, to see where the benefit lies for the dead who, despite the lasting impact they’ve had on the world, are still very much worm food. And like such legacies, immortality is a story beyond tangibility.

But what of the future? Of digitally mapping the mind, uploading one’s consciousness into a clone or a synthetic avatar of some kind? That presupposes that the mind and what makes us human are memories and thought patterns. Even if that were the case, death would still inevitably take each and every one of us—a mind could theoretically be copied and mapped to the body of another, but the original, soul or no soul, would still have ceased operating and thus moved on to whatever’s next, or nothing at all.

As a natural extension of itself, of the severe longing at its unobtainable core, the pursuit of immortality is indeed a tragic one. Cave, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, makes no attempts to lessen the oft-neglected gravity of the search and the likely impossibility of actually achieving immortality. In the end, he suggests the pursuit of immortality is a life-wasting quest in more ways than one. Yes, the time and energy spent on such a quest is in and of itself a waste, but there remains the possibility, far reaching though it may be, that the impossible may one day become a reality. If that were to happen, our lives would slow, grinding to a halt, because it is the fear of death, the “dread that, on our deathbed, we might look back on a wasted life” that pushes us ever forward, to realizing our true potential. “The clock that steals a second of our lives with every tick reminds us that the time to act is now. In other words: death is the source of all our deadlines.”

Immortality is never weighted down by the magnitude of its central topic, or by the almost universally faith-based set of ideologies that form the basis of Cave’s thesis. Instead, it offers a reasoned, sober series of conversations, both debunking the myths and legends of the immortality quest, and encouraging new thoughts and ideas to be brought to the forefront. Though it is likely a search for the impossible, and though our attempts to discover the key to our immortal souls remains a mystery, it’s the nature of the search that will invariably push us to one day realize our full potential—to extend our temporary, tangible lives as far into the future as possible.

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