I was speaking to an ex-student of mine last week about the possibility of getting a head-transplant. It seems about time. For me, that is, not for her.
And according to an Italian surgeon, Sergio Canavero, within a couple of years it should be possible. They have, to coin a phrase, the technology.
As a matter of fact we have had the technology since 1970, when for reasons best known to themselves some scientists transplanted the head of a monkey on to the body of another monkey. The new composite monkey survived for nine days before the body rejected the head (or the other way around). It required artificial respiration and could not move, since no attempt was made to attach the spinal cord. If not a success, then it was a proof of concept (a slightly freakish concept, but there you go).
Needless to say, there have been some objections, either along the lines that Dr. Canavero is delusional and a head transplant is many years away, or that it might not, for some reason, be desirable – your identity would be lost like the proverbial ship of Theseus (although the point of that particular thought-experiment is about the preservation rather than loss of identity).
But such ethical quibbles aside, the six-million dollar question remains, whose head, or what sort of head, would I want? I would say better-looking, if it were not for the fact that a man with a better-looking transplanted head would probably be less attractive, taken all round, than an average-looking one with his own original head intact. Which leaves more intelligent. I wouldn’t object to having a real think-piece up there on my shoulders, but perhaps more interesting would be the option to have the new unit arrive pre-loaded with various skills – languages learnt (natural and artificial), sciences grasped, some cooking know-how, a bit of juggling, who knows, perhaps even some basic anatomy. It is the future. The future of heads.
My student had a different objection, one that to me makes no sense: she worried that there would be a fatal dissociation between the person (head) and the soul (heart, or possibly liver). There may very well be a fatal dissociation, but I do not think it will be spiritual. I once saw a programme in which people were duped into attending interviews in the belief they might be selected for a new reality TV show, and in those interviews they were asked various strange questions and secretly filmed answering them. One chap was asked which of his own body parts he would eat last were he to be stranded on a desert island with no food. He ‘thought’ for a bit and then answered me ‘ead. I, too, would eat my own head last were I stranded on a desert island; but I would do so with no qualms whatsoever if my own head were in fact someone else’s.