Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, asserts that he can transplant a human head on the body of a donor whose brain has died but whose body is still healthy. He thinks that he will need a preparatory period of about two years and then he can do the transplantation. Or so he says. Canavero has found already a candidate who wants to give his head for the operation: A Russian man called Valery who suffers from a serious neuromuscular disease. Will it be possible? Then I am not thinking of the technical possibility of the operation. Such a transplantation will certainly not be possible within two years but sooner or later it can be done and I am convinced that it will be done. But what will we get then? Canavero and his future patient seem to think that we’ll “simply” get another Valery (or who else will be the patient) with the same head as before but only with another body, and nothing else. But is this what we’ll get?
The basic idea that it works this way goes back to the philosophy of René Descartes (1598-1650). According to him, man consists of two entities, joined together: a body and a mind. This view is called Cartesian dualism or substance dualism. It says that body and mind are two different substances, and fundamentally they can be separated. What really makes up our personality is our mind in this view. If it were true, it would imply that we could put a head (which is supposed to contain the mind) on another body, indeed. The only practical question would be whether both parts will well grow together and then form a material unity.
However, is it true? Is it possible to change the body for another one (where “body” means the part below the head) just as we can change clothes? Of course, we like one pair of trousers more than another pair, because it fits better or because of its colour, but basically they all fit. I think that getting another body is not that simple. If you get another body you’ll become another person.
In an article on personal identity I discussed the case of two runners who swapped bodies. In order to make the present case more plastic let me suppose that our Russian patient Valery gets the body of a woman. Or, making the case even more plastic, let me suppose that Valery, a white man, gets the body of a black woman (or a black man; actually it’s not important for my argument). I think that this makes clear that there are other aspects in a body change than merely the technical aspects that the head and the body must technically fit together (the “wires”, like spinal cord and blood vessels, must be connected) and that the body must not reject the head (or the other way round). There are also wider medical aspects and there are psychological and social aspects as well. As for the wider medical aspects, for instance every body has an endocrine system that has an important effect on how the body works. It is not so that we have a system for our head and another one for the body, but we have one for the whole. It regulates in an important way how the body works and how it behaves. There are individual differences between one man and the other and these have a deep influence on what kind of personality we are, for example whether we are a man or a woman, our sexual behaviour and much more. As for the psychological and social aspects, how you look like, how you behave and so on have such an influence on how you are treated and on the kind of person you are that it is hard to imagine. Ask a black man in the USA about what it is to be black in a society where the standards are white, and he (for example Barrack Obama) can fill hours with his stories.
Here in my blog I can present my arguments only superficially. I don’t have the space to discuss them in detail. However, also when Valery would get the body of someone who is more like him (so the body of a white man) problems of the kind I have just touched would still exist, albeit it maybe in a lesser degree. What I want to make clear and put forward is this: If someone gets another body, she or he does not simply get another body. It’s not like getting another coat in a different design. Of course, some “technical” problems have to be solved: the “wires” have to be connected, you have to learn to walk again etc. etc.; but Canavero seems to think that after a year or maybe two years you’ll be back on stage as before. Just this “as before” is the crux of the matter, for the change of getting a new body will not be marginal but substantial: A new person will be born. But also: another person has died. Is that what we want? That’s what a body transplant is about and not about whether we’ll be able to connect the wires.Sources: De Volkskrant, March 21, 2015 (“Sir Edmund”); Surgical Neurology International 2013, 2015; my “Can a person break a world record?”, on: http://www.bijdeweg.nl/PersonalIdentity.htm