Thinking Through Head Transplants
In September, Sam Kean examined the next frontier in medicine (“The Audacious Plan to Save This Man’s Life by Transplanting His Head”).
I think Sam Kean misses an important point in his otherwise fine article. I am the recipient of an artificial aortic valve and a Dacron aorta. I am obsessed with research, physiology, and medical technology. But I give no money to research, because I believe we all have to die of something. Once you can transplant the kidney, heart, liver, and head, where do you stop? Once you can grow new organs from a donor’s own T-cells, where do you stop?
If we can all eventually live to be 150, who is going to subsidize those last 50 post-retirement years? Steve Jobs could afford a new liver. Bill Gates can afford a $10 million head transplant. The rest of us will just die, as we are supposed to. Perhaps we should concentrate resources on simply alleviating suffering. And this comes from a guy who should be dead by now.
Kean’s article reminds me of many histories I read about the atomic bomb. Just because it’s possible, should we do it? I am dependent on medicine, but I see technology fast outpacing our ability or willingness to question the ethics, morality, and financial implications of the “advances.”
Sam Kean has given us a fascinating, if not chilling, look into the process of creating a human chimera. But his article stops at the most crucial junction. How do the doctors end Valery Spiridonov’s life if and when the transplantation fails? Imagine this scenario: Two weeks after the operation, he is alive, his heart is beating with regularity, his kidneys are miraculously functioning, and a tube is providing essential nutrients and oxygen. He is conversant and in markedly good spirits. Suddenly, after two months, it becomes apparent that organ rejection has set in and Spiridonov’s head is losing contact with vital organs in his new body. Without life-support equipment, the body will certainly collapse. It is becoming nothing more than a paralyzed appendage hanging from a rapidly deteriorating head. What now? Assuming that Spiridonov is kept apprised of his condition, what happens if he asks to be euthanized rather than experience a slow, possibly agonizing death? Who will do the euthanizing? Will that person be arrested for murdering a conscious “human”? Who will take possession of which body parts? Have any of these issues been thought through by the surgical team?
Wouldn’t it be simpler to perform a brain transplant? No trachea, esophagus, muscles, or tendons to worry about. Just blood supply and spinal cord. Access holes in the base of the skull could facilitate these attachments. Psychological impacts would perhaps be not much worse than those involved in a face transplant. Given that we don’t know the limits of mind/body plasticity, why not give quadriplegics and others a second chance?
The September issue included an essay by Thanh T. Nguyen, the winner of this year’s Atlantic and College Board Writing Prize (“Reading Raphael in Hanoi”). Nguyen—who was a high-school student in Vietnam when he wrote the essay and who is now a freshman at Duke University—articulated the lessons he’d gleaned from Raphael’s The School of Athens.
Speaking as a Vietnam veteran, I find something hopeful and renewing about “Reading Raphael in Hanoi.” As someone who spent more than six consecutive years focused on defeating North Vietnam on the battlefield decades ago, I was very impressed that a high-school student could pen such a perceptive essay. I especially liked Thanh’s most insightful lesson: “Great thinkers are there not for us to respect unquestioningly, but rather for us to question respectfully.”
Duke University is lucky to have attracted such talent.
Richard A. Beckman
Las Vegas, Nev.
In October, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained “What O. J. Simpson Means to Me.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on the meaning of the O. J. Simpson trial is wonderfully lucid, explaining how a predominantly black jury could exonerate Simpson, based on years of official oppression and outright murder by police officers. It should be required reading for people who regard the verdict as a simplistic “us against them” statement. People had plenty of reasons to distrust the very institutions that were gathering evidence and performing the prosecution.
Unfortunately, near the end of the piece, Mr. Coates wanders into dangerous territory in terms of moral thinking. Though believing in Mr. Simpson’s guilt, he comes to accept his escape from justice as a kind of equalization for all the crimes that have been visited on black people over the centuries. That impulse is understandable, given the logic Mr. Coates has laid out.
But the danger here lies in the concept of “collective guilt” used by demagogues like Hitler and Donald Trump. The poor record of the Los Angeles Police Department changes nothing about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. They were murdered, and justice was not done in that crime. But they were white, O.J. was black, and blacks had suffered. Therefore their deaths, while tragic, were somehow understandable.
That’s the kind of thinking that led to the repression of black people and others, as well as to Dachau. It was justified because of who the victims and perpetrator were, not because of anything they had personally done.
O.J. is now in jail on an unrelated charge. The racist Mark Fuhrman gets paid by a cable news channel as an expert consultant on law enforcement. Black people are still routinely subjected to injustice by the “justice system.” So the “escape” of Mr. Simpson did not improve anything, and may have made things worse by increasing everyone’s sense of the “otherness” of people not like ourselves.
In short, we need more explanatory essays like Mr. Coates’s to help people understand things, but we should not yield to the impulse to see victory for “our side” in a blatant miscarriage of justice. That simply mirrors the kind of thinking that got us into our present state in the first place.
Ta-Nehisi Coates replies:
I deeply appreciate Howard Schmitt’s reading the essay and taking it seriously. I take his criticism to heart, and hope he continues to read and write in.
* * *
The Big Question: Who was the most influential politician in history?
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered November’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
5. Napoleon Bonaparte. He began as a second lieutenant and rose to become emperor. He toppled some of the great thrones of Europe and emancipated Jews. And the legacy of his legal code lives on in places as disparate as Belgium and Louisiana.
— Nadine Bonner
4. Muhammad. He grafted a new system onto the Judeo-Christian tradition.
— Grant Lobrano
3. If you had asked "Who is the greatest politician in history?," I might have reasoned Abraham Lincoln, or Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt. But for the question that you actually asked, I can't see how the answer could be anyone other than Adolf Hitler.
— Cori Schlegel
2. Julius Caesar. He crafted the transition from republic to triumvirate to empire and left a legacy of leadership that was emulated for 2,000 years, and continues today.
— Andrew Gombos
1. As president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt radically changed the futures of both the United States and Japan.
— Bailey Rogers
* * *
“Sympathy for the Robot,” by Christopher Orr (October), neglected to cite Lisa Joy as a co-creator, along with Jonathan Nolan, of HBO’s Westworld. The photos accompanying “The Case for Hillary Clinton—And Against Donald Trump” (November) mistakenly did not include credits for the photographers Justin Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, the picture library ullstein bild, or the photo agency Getty. The November Technology dispatch’s “Brief History of Surveillance” said that Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in 5000 b.c. The correct date is closer to 500 b.c. We regret the errors.
To contribute to The Conversation, please email email@example.com. Include your full name, city, and state.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.