You are not your face

"Ethical" concerns seem to be sweeping the press and some sectors of the scientific world regarding the recent "face transplant" in France. People are concerned about many things:

  • the identity confusion of a person having someone else’s face
  • whether the use of stem-cells should have been undertaken at the same time
  • the mental health of the patient
  • whether something less radical could have been done
  • whether or not the patient should receive money for photographs

Some perspective is needed: First, we should be celebrating the fact that medicine has advanced to the point where such an operation is possible. Second, we should be most concerned whether the procedure works, and whether the patient can tolerate the foreign tissue long-term. That answer won’t be known for months. Let’s hope she makes a full recovery.

There are larger issues, however, about the social perception of this event. Predictably, questions are raised about how this affects the notion of who we are as human beings, especially if the patient begins to look anything like the donor. Also, many people feel sympathy for the donor family, as they have lost a loved one only to have someone else running around who might now resemble their loved one.

While these are very real human concerns, we should focus on what’s important: As a human being, we are mostly what is in our mind. Our face could change like we change our clothing, and we are still the same person. In the future people will routinely perform body modifications that may be far more radical than a face transplant. An example of this would be a ‘live’ tattoo with moving images composed of bioluminescent molecules under the skin. Some even see body modification as the ultimate statement of individuality. The bottom line here is that the woman who lost her face has now gained an opportunity to once again have a normal life. That the new skin came from another (now dead) person is immaterial. A decade from now, doctors will "print" a new face on a custom molecular scaffold, using "ink" composed of a person’s own skin cells. So the current experimental method is simply a forerunner to a much more humane procedure. This in turn is only a special case of what will likely become the unconditional ability to repair our bodies and even regenerate limbs. What’s amazing is that with all the suffering in the world, critics still jump on the bandwagon and denounce such life-enhancing measures.

Every new scientific advance seems to be greeted with a firestorm of criticism. Especially those that begin to unravel the mystery of who we are as a species, and reduce the "wonder" of life to mechanical processes. First people say it won’t work. What they are really saying is that they don’t like the implications, so they hope it won’t work. Then when it works, they try to say it’s unethical. Eventually, protocols are worked out, and the procedure becomes commonly accepted practice. People are forced to change a little bit about what they feel it means to be human. This process is in various stages for in-vitro fertilization, organ transplantation (especially xenotransplantation), cloning, and use of stem-cells. Expect things to get a lot more interesting.

It will be a lot easier to accept the coming advances if we come to grips with some basic truths: There is little difference on a cellular level between single celled bacteria, and hundred-trillion celled humans. Metabolism is nothing more than the operation of molecular machinery, and this will be duplicated by nanotechnology in just a few decades. We need to redefine what is the essential nature of life, and get over the idea that humans are special. We may currently be better organized and more intelligent than other life, but we can be superceded by our own technology, and most likely will be soon. The essential nature of humans is as thinking beings, external appearances are a question of style and success in the mating game. Improved appearance, therefore can be seen as conveying an evolutionary advantage that will be too great to ignore. Therefore, we can expect body modifications and improvements to be embraced by everyone who can afford them, which will eventually be the entire human race. Likewise, improvements in intelligence will be embraced as soon as they are effective and affordable. This will take place through both DNA modification (‘designer babies’) and brain augmentation with artificial implants.

The only people threatened by such events are those who take a sentimentalized view of human nature–and who see human imperfection and death as a necessary part of life. This deathism fits in nicely with a supernaturalist worldview, where ‘god’ metes out rewards and punishments, and where man is firmly pigeonholed into an inferior (and mortal) position. It is surprising how many people will viciously argue the necessity for disease and death, as a ‘natural’ part of life. But equally universal is the quest for a fountain of youth, and to extend human health and productive years as long as possible. Very few people would refuse a chance at a longer life.

It all depends on whether you see the goal of life as one of preparing for a vague and nebulous afterlife, or whether you believe it should be lived for making the most of what it can possibly be while we’re here on earth. This also goes to the heart of the debate over whether or not you own your body, and can profit from it (by selling organs, for example). An individualist or a person with a reasonable, human-centric worldview, would have no problem with the face-transplant surgery, nor with the idea of the patient making money from her notoriety.

I have one question for the naysayers: Hasn’t she suffered enough?

Comments (2 comments)

Aaron Kinney / December 9th, 2005, 11:26 am / #1

Great post, and some keen insights. And it is true what you said: you are not your face. This new medical technology should be hailed as a wonderous acheivement of humanities ability to control its own destiny and in a sense “heal” the physical damage to individuals that would otherwise not have been able to recover.

And what is the big deal about face transplants making people look different? Plastic surgery has been around for a long time and people have been using it to change their appearances, sometimes dramatically.

BlackSun / December 9th, 2005, 10:33 pm / #2

Yes, Aaron, your plastic surgery analogy is correct. I guess what is pissing people off is that a person’s face is so strongly associated with their identity. So even if they’re dead, some people still get squeamish.

I don’t even think we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg with body modification. We’ll have people with modified bone structures (horns, protrusions), extra limbs and appendages, bionic limbs, extra (or no) sexual organs, etc. But why not welcome diversity…limited only by the imagination?? If it can be done, it will. These anti-gay-marriage assholes have NO IDEA what’s coming!

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