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Robert White: The Brain Transplant Surgeon March 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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A common criticism of transhumanists is that we’re nothing but a bunch of technofetishists and utopian dreamers, convinced that the inevitable march of technological progress will bring about our wildest dreams.  As such it is also assumed that we as a movement welcome any and all scientific research, no matter what form it takes or the costs associated, as long as it increases our chances of living forever or uploading ourselves into a computer.

Robert White, the subject of a new documentary, would then at first glance seem to be a poster boy for transhumanism.  As a neurosurgeon working in the 1960’s White performed some of the early experiments on organ transplants.  While he seems to have been a good scientist in many ways he is no doubt best remembered for a different aspect of his research: attempting to transplant the head of one monkey onto the body of another. Yes, this is real.  Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

Watched it?  Good, now let me make myself abundantly clear.  I consider myself a transhumanist, for whatever that’s worth, and though I obviously cannot speak for the community as a whole I can state how I as a transhumanist view this type of research.  How do I view it you ask?  It sickens me.

Frequent readers of this blog (if I have any) will no doubt have surmised that I hold pretty staunchly to a negative utilitarian view of ethics and as such I believe that if the consequences of an action result in a lessening of suffering in the world we should perform said action.  In short, that which reduces suffering is good.  It would seem then that if Dr. White’s experiments, grotesque though they are, eliminated more suffering then they caused I would have no choice but to support them.

Here’s the problem with that sentiment.  Inflicting suffering to prevent suffering is always a slippery slope.  I will not deny that there are cases in which it is the right thing to do as such a stance is indefensible.  World War II, often cited as the perfect example of a just war, inflicted massive loss of life and suffering but also stopped what may be one of the few examples of a genuinely evil regime from carrying out a program of mass genocide.  For an example a little closer to home surgery inevitably involves inflicting a relatively minor wound in order to heal a greater one.

Clearly causing suffering can sometimes be justified if the suffering prevented is greater.  My problem with Dr. White’s research is that I’m not sure that can be said in this case.  Even if the knowledge gained by transplanting the head of one monkey onto the body of another resulted in knowledge that has saved lives, something I highly doubt, I cannot believe that this knowledge could not have been gained through a less barbaric path.

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