It's been about a month since I've sent anything out! With Beliefnet it's
feast and famine--I turn in columns and they store them for the opportune
moment, which is sometimes a bunch all at once and sometimes with long
stretches in between. I'm pleased to say that they liked this one so much
it's the site lead today--the first piece you see when you go to the site.
Because of this prominence it gets an illustration, which most columns don't.
The column is based on a very bizarre news story. A posting on the
"mini-board" (miniature discussion board that runs next to the column) claims
that the whole thing must be bogus, and that British journalism is full of
absurd stuff like this. However it appears it really happened--an Ohio doctor
transplanted a monkey's head onto a different monkey's body and kept it alive
a few days. Fans of "That Hideous Strength" take note. There's a link to a
Cleveland news story next to the column, and the Dr says that when the
creature woke up from anesthesia it tried to bite the doctor's hand. Of
course, there was no neurological connection between head and body, the body
was a mere pump to keep the head alive, and the head could not control the
body. Words fail me, almost.
Sometimes I add a note here about the writing and editing process, and this
is another one of those times when I have to say "thanks" to my editor. I
dashed this off in a burst of consternation, and it had a grand sound to it,
but unfortunately the middle part didn't make sense. Or rather, it didn't go
anywhere discernible, it wasn't leading into my conclusion. As usual, I
hadn't made an outline--I almost can't, I have to start writing to find out
what I think. "Brick by brick" method rather than "multiple draft". There I
was laying down brick after brick, and some of the bricks were there because
I thought I might take it in a different direction--for example into the
whole question of the role *thinking about* things plays. Playing with mental
Legos, exploring the possible and impossible, as a distinct phase of the
process. This is something that has interested me ever since I read Camille
Paglia's essay on the Marquis de Sade. Well I had put those bricks in, and
then before I knew it I was at the word limit, and had to scramble back over
to my conclusion. This is a pretty common problem with me and columns--that I
have too many ideas for 800-1000 words, and I hate to cut any of them so I
stuff them all in and then try to sit on the suitcase lid to close it. And
hope the editor won't notice.
Fortunately my editor did catch that the whole thing kind of went into
neutral in the middle, and the return to the conclusion was not as crisp as
it should be. He sent me his rewrite, and I rewrote that, and we went back
and forth a few times before ending up here. The piece is stronger for it,
but I confess that I always hope I can slip things by without having to do
reworking. How nice to hear "This is just fine the way it is," but I know
that sometimes what's fine is the writing style, not the logical content.
It's like I always say: Writing is easy--thinking is hard.
On a very bright note, my daughter-in-law Marcella is in labor *right now*!
We expect William Isaac to make his debut any time. He joins big brother (and
his daddy's namesake) David Benjamin, who celebrated his first birthday this
past Saturday. I've heard people call this both "Scotch Twins" and "Irish
Twins", and also been told that they are neither since they're more than a
year apart. Whatever you call 'em, we love 'em. Little cousin Hannah, 8 1/2
mos, was over to visit last night and pulled herself up to stand for the
first time. Life is sure going to change, for both those families! I can't
believe that just a year ago Gary and I had no grandchildren, and now we have
three. What a joy it's been.
Monkey Can, Monkey Do?
It's got the head of a monkey and the body of a monkey. But not the same
You probably don't want to hear any more details of this Mondo Bizarro
medical news item. According to pioneering scientist Robert White, the
mix-and-match creature he fabricated in a 1970's experiment survived for
"many days." This experiment raised hopes, he told the BBC in an interview
last month, because "People are dying today who, if they had body
transplants, ...would remain alive."
This comment raises the bar in the competition for stating the obvious.
Nevertheless, for most of us, the idea of swapping monkey heads prompts an
immediate, instinctive revulsion, a reaction that may also feature
incredulous laughter. Between those two reactions--this is too hideous to
consider, this is too absurd to consider--there remains a stubborn reality:
somebody somewhere did consider it, and then went ahead and did it. In a lab
somewhere, monkeys were beheaded, reassembled and then kept temporarily alive.
The advancing front of the "life sciences"--cloning, gene manipulation,
tinkering with body parts--keeps sending similar unbelievable and appalling
items our way. Medical ethicists are regularly convened to fret about them,
and on a recent TV show an audience member asked the panel the old familiar
question: "Has our ability to produce these new technologies outdistanced our
ability to cope with them ethically?"
The question has a weary quality, because we suspect that ethical concerns
are going to have very little influence over what eventually takes place.
It's efficiency, or the illusion of it, that governs these things. Look for
comparison at the field of weapons development, where new killing devices
have historically been implemented as soon as they are invented–the
guillotine replacing the axe, for example. Handwringing about ethics seems
irrelevant. Weapons technology hurtled forward until the proliferation of
nuclear missiles brought the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction, and
people realized no one would be around to enjoy this absolute efficiency.
That glimpse into the abyss, rather than newfound scruples, prompted a
pullback from the brink.
So the short answer to the woman in the audience is, Lady, that happened a
long time ago. The human tendency to let technology overrun ethics appeared
the first time somebody picked up a rock and hit somebody else over the head
There's an extra creep factor with these new experiments, though. We've long
been familiar with technologies that increase the efficiency of death. This
latest round, however, confronts us with technologies that bring to life
things we instinctively sense should not be. They feel disturbing and
ominous, as if they violate the harmony of nature. Even when they engineer
life, they participate in death.
Yet it's a disservice to dismiss these innovators as merely lacking in
ethics. Dr. Joseph Guillotin was troubled by the clumsy and gruesome axe
beheadings that he witnessed during the French Revolution, and the machine he
proposed was welcomed as more compassionate. To a culture awash in blood the
guillotine seemed an obvious improvement. Today, however, we would question
whether factory-style decapitation ever advances social reform.
Similarly, Robert White, the monkey doctor, says that he was moved by the
plight of people with severe spinal injuries. It seemed to him that a "body
transplant" was the ideal solution. Once he started thinking about it, the
idea became no stranger than a liver transplant.
How do you overcome instinctive revulsion at bizarre new technology? Just
think about it long enough. Gradually, the strange and horrible comes to seem
noble and benign, especially if it is more efficient. Too many drooling old
people? Euthanasia can erase their embarrassing presence. Too many Down
Syndrome babies? Track ‘em down and snuff ‘em before they're born.
Quadriplegics fading away? Maybe decapitating them, then sewing on a fresh
headless body, would give them a new lease.
Against this principle of vigorous efficiency we have only the defense that
we "instinctively sense" when things are going too far. That standard seems
vague, but not because it lacks firmness and authority; rather, it is because
it is being communicated to us from a place we don't regularly consult. We
don't know how to hear this voice reliably. It's our ability to perceive or
receive these convictions that is cloudy, not the convictions themselves.
This voice is related to conscience, another human capacity that is
persistent and firm, yet can be overcome by reluctance, confusion, or
rationalizing. Rationalizing in the name of efficient compassion is
especially effective; it can record over the voice of conscience with an
identical, mimicking voice, allowing us to commit feats of horror with
placidity. The last bloody century provides any number of examples of the
"banality of evil."
When we object to these bizarre new uses of technology, we tend reflexively
to say that such undertakings constitute "playing God." We sense that God has
something to do with this whole business of life and death, and that there
are some ways we can assist his work, and some things we should respectfully
back away from. We say we "feel" it, but the impulse comes from a different
place than either emotion or rationality. We know it's not merely the voice
of our pet notions and desires, because it has a propensity for telling us
things we don't want to hear. It's more like a still, small voice inside.
Now more than ever is time to amplify that voice. As technology races into
these realms of death-scented life, the leaps are greater and the decisions
come faster. Everyone, not just ethicists, should become more intentional
about listening to that quiet, yet authoritative, voice. Until we do, better
lock up your monkeys.