Sunday, April 19, 2009

In Defiance of Death...How Far Will We Go?

I was very inspired by Jessica Knapp's post, Cryonics. In this piece, Jessica points us to a fascinating episode of This American Life that deals with the screw-ups and very shaky ethics of cryonics enthusiast, Bob Nelson. It is, indeed, a "must listen"!

Having little faith in the success of cryonics, I couldn't help but think about the Futurama episode, Put Your Head on My Shoulder. Which, in turn, started me on a search regarding the subject of head transplants and grafts. I didn't have to look far... and what I found was not the least bit funny...

1950's Vladimir Demikhov's dog grafting (Warning: not easy to watch)

Kentaro Mori's blog, Forgetomori, covered the topic very well in his April 12th post, A Head (or body) Transplant for Stephen Hawking. His article includes an excellent seven-part documentary about neurosurgeon Robert White. Dr. White, famous (and infamous) for his extensive, successful experimentation with monkeys, sincerely believes that we are now ready for the first human, total body transplant and would love it if Dr. Hawking would be the first in line for the procedure.

Here's a clip, from 1970, of Dr. White at work...

I must remind you, that anyone out there that feels that this is the next great thing for quadriplegics... well, you're wrong. With current technology, the spinal cord remains "unconnectable". In my opinion, Stephen Hawking, with all of his state-of-the-art "tech support" and superb medical care, should remain just as he is.

Not much help for Captain Pike, either.

There are no words to sufficiently describe my amazement and horror upon discovering the magnitude of the human will to defy death and infirmity. Just how far will we go?

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Mary said...

Fear is a powerful thing.

I wonder how long one would want to hang on? For what? What happens after everyone you know is gone? Who pays your can't be retired for a gazillion years without continuing to work. If everyone is able to not die, where will we all fit? Since we haven't yet perfected a utopian society...or even come close, what makes one think we ever will (so that we all work and support each other and explore space and colonize planets (for more elbow room) for ever and ever.

I don't want to live forever. The very idea is exhausting. I am not quite ready to go now (50 yrs old).
And I don't want to come back! I'm placing my hopes on a better life/place after this one....and my odds of that are at least as good as one's living forever here in a perfect one world society.

Jessica Knapp said...

Hey! Fascinating research. Thanks for jumping off of my post. I love it!

That dog-grafting video is horrible. I can't believe people actually did that. (But at the same time, part of me is amazed at what you can find on YouTube.)

The This American Life episode I referenced in my post on cryonics kept making me think, are people really that desperate to hang on? And beyond that, even the supporters of cryonics know the science for it isn't that good. Many of them are just hoping they can freeze themselves until the science gets worked out one day in the future. Really, the more and more I think about it, it seems like a fancy, sci-fi narrative that some people are using to avoid accepting death.

Cool post dethmama!

dethmama said...

@ Mary... You raise several valid points. Humans seem to be the only species that is afraid of death. Why can't we "cowboy up" and face this like all other sentient beings?

dethmama said...

@ Jessica... Yes, people are really that desperate to hang on. As a member of a supposedly "superior" species, it brings me to shame.

Thank you for your inspiration.

risaden said...

Must read! "Death with Interruptions", by Jose Saramago, in which death is put on hold, while the ill continue to deteriorate, just never die. Fascinating picture of a world where people have to deal with the crisis of the loss of death.

Gail Rae said...

Excellent follow-up to Jessica's post! Got a few comments on the videos:
1. The dog head transplant actually appears to be an upper body transplant. It also looks as though the video is of a dog that was deformed in the womb. It's impossible for me to imagine that someone, somewhere, has figured out how to connect the bodies of two separate, physiologically complex beings which allows the resultant one being to appear to operate fairly normally. Surely, "we" would have heard about this.
2. The monkey experiment also leaves out a lot which I assume is a part of the longer series. The only part of the operation covered is the connection of the blood vessels. What about all the pulmonary and digestive tubes? Since the spine can't be reconnected, what about the autonomic nervous system which handles things like auto-breathing and auto-heart pumping and part of which is controlled by the base of the spine? Was the esophageal tubing connected? Can the monkey digest what it eats? How, in fact, is the monkey capable of experiencing hunger? Isn't part of hunger an autonomic response, part of which is handled by the spinal base? I don't know...I'm very suspicious of both of these videos, however, my suspicions about the second video may have been answered in the longer explanation, which I haven't yet read. Plus, of course, I'm not an expert on the science of physiognomy. I know, shocking, isn't it?!?
Overall, though, my feelings are much the same as those of others: If immortality or something approximating it is possible other than in science fiction, it doesn't seem as though it would work socially if it wasn't simultaneously extended to everyone. In addition, how does one know one is immortal? For instance, in Cocoon, the Antareans assumed their immortality until one of them died on Earth.
I loved your comment, dethmama, about why can't humans "cowboy" up to death like other species. I'm wondering, do we know whether there are any other species besides us who think about death well ahead of its approach as we do? I know that there are many other species that are aware of, even mourn, the deaths of others in their social circles. I know that there seems to be evidence that many animals know when others are dying and know when they, themselves, are dying and adjust to this. But, how many other species actually obsess about their own deaths long before there is any reason to calculate one's own death into one's daily equation? Do we know that, yet?
Maybe, if we're the only species that does this, well, at some point we might be the only species that figures out a way to, somehow or another, defy death on a physical as well as a spiritual level. Not that I'm looking forward to this but, you know...or, well, I guess, you never know...

dethmama said...

@ Gail Rae... Regarding the "dog grafting", it did, indeed, take place. Both dogs (an adult w/puppy graft) reacted "normally"and individually to stimulation, food, etc. In this particular case, the dogs died about six days after the surgery.

Dr. White's first procedure was carried out at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Because of the institution's reputation as a highly respected research facility, I'm sure that all of these experiments were fully documented. Dr. White was a professor at Case Western Reserve for 40 years. According to one source I found, he eventually "perfected" the transplant to the point where the monkeys could live "indefinitely". (They were euthanized)

Gail Rae said...

Well, damn, dethmama! That makes all those examples even creepier!

dethmama said...

@ Gail Rae... Very creepy.