Book Review – How to Live Forever or Die Trying, by Bryan Appleyard

It’s a sad fact that my first book review on this blog is of a book that I really didn’t like.  So many books I read are good, a few are indifferent, a few are brilliant.  But this book got the reviewing juices flowing.

The book appears in three parts.  The first and the third parts concern themselves with the trashumanist movement, particularly the elements that concentrate on  attaining immortality.

It is fair to say that I am in general agreement with Appleyard’s distaste for the movement to make immortal humans (or transhumans).  Given the ways that the human experience and the organisation of society would have to change as a consequence of the achievement of immortality either by a minority or everyone, I would not want to live in such circumstances.  This utopia of American neo-liberal technophiles is my idea of hell.

The first and final thirds of the book are the more tolerable.  They contain some fairly interesting accounts of some of the advocates of immortalism, and their projects and ideas.  But these parts are written in a journalistic way, and there are serious lapses in accuracy.  The oldest ever human, Jeanne Calment, did not die in 1977, she would only have been 102 then, not the 122 she reached.

When he deals with science, and the history of science, falsehoods and myths are created and perpetuated.  To pick just a few of the worst, his characterisation of Darwin and evolution.  First of all, Darwinism was not opposed to Lamarckianism.  In many respects, Darwin was a Lamarckian.  Secondly, Evolution is not the same as natural selection – natural selection is merely one of the mechanisms by which evolutionary change occurs.

Thirdly, the following on page 191:

“Occasionally, however, a cancer suppressing gene may be knocked out.  Cancer is clonal, it starts from a single cell. The damaged gene grows uncontrollably and ultimately, forms a tumour. This is an improbable chain of events but it only needs to happen once and there are trillions of cells in the body.”

The confusion of terms here, and knocked out genes suddenly resurrecting themselves and forming tumours, demonstrates a lack of basic understanding.  Tumours are formed by uncontrolled cell division.  There usually have to be multiple mutations in certain genes over generations of cells.  And the various methods organisms have to prevent or deal with uncontrolled cell growth have to be compromised or ‘outfought’ in some way.

I could outline the various other historical and scientific howlers that I encountered, but I think the point is made.

And that was the relatively tolerable part.  The middle section was what can only be described as 115 pages of tedious waffling about death and mortality, where he makes the claim (espoused even more tediously by the weirdo Enlightenment-basher John Gray, whose endorsement of one of Appleyard’s previous books should have warned me) that belief in scientism (that science and technology will inevitably by itself make the world a better place, a view I do not hold) is a faith.  Given that faith is also a key part of religion, this makes scientism a religion.  Now not only does this not follow, it helps underpin his argument for a definition of religion so broad as to be utterly meaningless, and unrecognisable to those who would call themselves religious and those who would not.  He makes some decent points about the medicalisation of death, but this is buried in so much pointless material that these points failed to have the impact that perhaps they deserved.

Not content with flawed reasoning and waffling, he wildly mischaracterises the Enlightenment, and Marxism.  The latter exemplifies the main, fatal flaw with the whole book.  Not the ridiculous distortions about Marxism, that is par for the course for a lot of writers.  The libels that Marxism is a ‘faith’, ‘utopian’ and ‘devaluing human life’ are nonsense, but are just yet more examples of a lack of accuracy.  No, the fatal flaw with this book is exemplified in the part where he discusses Marxism.  It is the utter humourlessness and miserablism that pervades the book.

The following passage from page 128 demonstrates this:

“after a drunken night, some hard Marxist student friends parted company with my own ideologically vaguer group.

‘Where are you going?’ I called across the street.

One of the Marxists thrust his fist into the air. ‘Where the struggle leads us!’

He was not joking.  It was, for me, an epiphany, a revelation of an utterly different type of imagination, one that saw a continuous flow of meaning and justification in every event and in every individual action.”

I feel a little mean in writing this review.  I have attempted to tone down my criticisms, and try to focus them on the book, not the author.  It was because the topic of the book is interesting that I am so disappointed with it, and felt the need to go to town on it.  I believe that potentially promising subject matter was let down by inaccuracies and mischaracterisations, and the tone and style of the book.  Bryan Appleyard picked a great topic, but he wrote the wrong book.

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