TURIN, ITALY – Scientists are divided over the viability of head/whole body transplants, and have been since Dr. Robert J. White chopped a monkey’s head off and grafted it onto the body of another in 1970. Considered to be the first successful procedure of its kind, the ghastly experiment involved the decapitation of more than a hundred rhesus monkeys, which his own colleague called “barbaric” and found to be a worthless scientific exercise.
Despite surviving only eight days and being paralyzed from the waist down, White and his supporters deemed the resulting Frankenstein to be “by all measures, normal”, and suffering no complications. “Whether such dramatic procedures will ever be justified in the human area,” wrote White in 1975, “must wait not only upon the continued advance of medical science but more appropriately the moral and social justification of such procedural undertakings.”
Half a century later, this monstrous exploration has reared its bloody head once again through the work of Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, who replicated White’s experiments with monkeys in 2015 and opened the door to performing these gruesome tests on human subjects in 2017, when he performed a “rehearsal” head transplant on two cadavers.
Canavero has now teamed up with Chinese surgeon Xiaoping Ren to attempt the grim stunt on living persons. Claiming to have already had some success with animals, their Head Anastomosis Venture or HEAVEN project seeks to solve the spinal linkage problem faced by White and Canavero in their previous attempts, which turned all of the unfortunate victims of their experiments virtually catatonic.
According to Canavero, “the technology only now exists for such linkage”, referring specifically to certain inorganic polymers called PEG, which allow for the “fusion” of “cell membranes damaged by mechanical injury”. Coupled with a nanotech-based hydrogel delivery system similar to the mRNA vaccine delivery method developed through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and first covered by this author, Canavero expects to overcome the challenges of plugging one man’s severed spinal cord to another’s detached head.
Religionists vs Cerebrocentrists
Critics for such abominable initiatives are not hard to find, and Canavero has faced his share of pushback from within the scientific establishment. In the most recent issue of The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, questions of “personal Identity, experimental Surgery, and bioethics” are posed by a panel of international scholars in the context of Canavero’s HEAVEN project, in an effort to address such matters as “who” is the person that survives a hypothetically successful procedure of this kind – the original owner of the torso, legs, hands and feet or the person whose brain is now attached to the new body.
“The assumption,” reads the article, “is that the head will somehow straightforwardly integrate with the donor body, which will itself be reanimated, becoming the living embodiment of the individual whose head was transplanted.” In philosophical circles, the above constitutes a “Cerebrocentrist” position, and is challenged by Saint Louis University professor and bioethicist Jason T. Eberl, who contends – without a hint of irony – that an individual’s identity cannot be split from the neck up.
Eberl, who is a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America, has written numerous books on the topic of identity vis-à-vis human nature and biotechnology. The Nature of Human Persons: Metaphysics and Bioethics published in the summer of 2020, deals with the question of “what is required for a human being to continue existing as a person despite undergoing physical and psychological changes over time”. His stance is rooted in the existential philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century Dominican friar who merged Aristotelean philosophy with Christianity, and who placed the concept of resurrection at the center of his theology.
On the implications of Canavero’s HEAVEN project, Eberl follows Aquinas almost verbatim, stating that “a human being is an individual substance brought about through a rational soul’s informing a material body . . . while a human person is of a rational nature insofar as her soul possesses capacities for intellective thought, self-awareness, and autonomous volition, a human person is also a living animal by virtue of various non-mental capacities possessed by her soul as well”.
The religious overtones of the debate are inescapable. From the project’s acronym to the nature of the philosophical tensions it elicits, the meaning of human life is being thrust on center stage as the technological imperative increasingly seeks to make humanity itself into one of its substrates.
Love Conquers All
Valery Spiridonov, a former Olympic pair skater, volunteered to be Canavero’s first head transplant subject in 2015. Disabled by a neurodegenerative disease, which affects the spinal cord and progressively paralyzes the body, Spiridonov figured he had nothing to lose by offering his body to science.
Initial funds for the ambitious surgical procedure came from Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, who has embarked on a mission to make humans “immortal” by 2045. An Eastern version of Elon Musk, Itskov wants to create a transhumanist nightmare where technology will allow us to “live on forever as artificial versions of ourselves”, through brain/consciousness uploads to computers.
“I’m motivated by the fear of death,” he explained to The Sun in 2019. A candid moment in the transhumanist community, whose fear-based philosophies are a driving force in the seemingly infinite quest to tether humanity to ever more confined technological prison cells, and cheap duplicates of living beings are marketed as some kind of improvement on man.
In The Eternal Life of Data at the Altar of the Transhumanist Death Cult, Silicon Icarus explored the relationship between transhumanist ideology and its basis in the Catholic Church’s centuries-old immortality play, which emanates from the concept of resurrection Eberl uses to fashion his objections to the Cerebrocentrist viewpoint. However, this does not contradict the broader transhumanist agenda, but only seeks to massage the finer details of its philosophical underpinnings.
Ultimately, what constitutes a person cannot be defined by any philosophical system or legal code. Consciousness cannot be constrained within the parameters of a software program, and the experience of human life can never be reproduced by circuits and algorithms. No matter how close a simulation can be achieved by plastic and pixels, it will never be anything close to living.
This is what Valery Spiridonov realized in 2019, when his wife gave birth to his son and he decided to back out of HEAVEN and the head transplant surgery. “Life goes on”, he told a British morning show, which interviewed him about his decision. “Some plans changed in my life,” he continued, noting that he had fallen in love, and that there were certainly other ways of finding cures for the disease he suffered from.