Arguably the best part of my job as a radio producer is meeting, greeting, and dissecting the minds of some of the scientific world's most prolific, intelligent, and captivating individuals. Last week was no different. On the other end of a Skype call sat one such individual who, on top of all the mentioned, was also charming and driven, albeit with somewhat narcissistic undertones.
His name was Dr Sergio Canavero. And next year, he will attempt the World's first (known) human head transplant.
A boyhood dream of his which has been a quarter of a century in the making, Dr Canavero displays all the telltale signs of a maverick (and a psychopath). And although his tone was both genial and charming, it's almost impossible to avoid a knee-jerk, toe-curdling shiver when you hear him speak ever so clinically and matter-of-factly about chopping off a man's head and attaching it onto another's body.
It just feels wrong. But why?
Is it the fact that his head donor (Valery Spiridonov, a 31 year old volunteer who has severe muscular atrophy and has been a wheelchair user all his life) might die should the surgery fail?
As explained by Canvero in an interview with The Guardian last year;
"The only person who can decide to undergo this surgery is the man who will benefit. Not you. Not society. The patient decides."
Seems pretty sensical when one puts it like that.
What about the fact that Canavero has been shunned to China, historically not squeaky clean when it comes to human rights and ethical standards as depicted by 'the West'?
That doesn't paint a pretty picture. But then, should we shun all the science that sits outside our own clinical comfort zone? And if so - where do we draw the line?
One only has to glance back a few decades to Steptoe and Edward's somewhat shaky and shady journey into the development of in vitro fertilization (IVF), which at the time was supported almost entirely by public funds after being declined by the UK Medical Research Council
Whether next year is too soon - only time will tell. And whether more animal tests should be done before attempting the surgery on humans - are human lives more valuable than an animal's?
And so it went on.
One thing that Canavero was clear on was the need in science for mavericks: "History is dotted with them."
Whether it's gastroenterologist Barry Marshall, who famously experimented on himself to reveal the cause of stomach ulcers. Or Darwin's largely frowned upon Theory of Natural Selection. Or even further back - Copernicus and his Sun-centric view of our solar system. The list goes on.
Will we look back in 40 years time and view Dr Sergio Canavero through similar rose-tinted spectacles, which retrospectively alter both his goals and his image?
Or is he to blame for opening the floodgates to the potential of immortal transhumanist billionaires with new bodies?
I really just don't know. And neither do you. Neither does anyone.
But that was largely how our conversation went. I teed him up again and again, and, for the large part, he answered with a cold, emotionally sterile, but largely logical response.
Rounding off the brief exchange by claiming; "This will be one of the greatest revolutions in the history of humankind."
And as hard as I try; I find that last point impossible to pick holes in. The ramifications of this surgery (if successful) are huge. And not just for those like "guinea pig" Spiridonov. It could touch on the likes of consciousness, the mind-body problem, agency, and the concept of 'self' - arguably, the very phenomena that define what it is to 'be human'.
In his own words; "This will change everything."
This article originally appeared at Radio Wolfgang
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