If you transplant a human head, does its consciousness follow?
In the book, you describe White meeting a 45-year-old Cleveland man named Craig Vetovitz. He regarded White’s work as “noble” and White regarded Vetovitz as his “perfect patient”. Why was that?
People have said, “If you are successful you will create a crippled patient.” That’s a very capable argument, isn’t it? But for Craig, he was already quadriplegic. And he’s had a busy life. He said, “No, my life is good. I travel, I have children, I am married. I own my own business. I have a busy life and this life is worth preserving.
He was interested in participating because his organs – many quadriplegic patients do – eventually shut down. So for him, he felt like he didn’t have much to lose: “Okay, I’ll still be quadriplegic, but I’ll live because I’ll have a better body.” And that’s part of why White called it a body transplant, he stopped calling it a head transplant. They just give you an organ transplant, but all the organs at the same time. It sounds better when you think about it that way.
Ultimately, Vetovitz did not have surgery, and paralysis remained a persistent obstacle to approval of body transplants. At WIRED, we’ve got you covered brain computer interfaces, prostheses, and patches to treat paralysis. How far do you think we are from this technology taking off?
I don’t think it’s as far as people think it is. I am blown away by the changes that have taken place over the past five years, let alone what may happen in 50 years. But it’s only because the brain itself is so plastic and flexible that the brain says, “Okay, so that’s something we’re doing now.” And then the connections are faster next time.
White has faced backlash, of course. From whom?
Animal rights groups were extremely angered by what he did. Even the way he talked about animals bothered a lot of people.
And transplant medicine has a kind of racist history too, doesn’t it?
It has become a real fear that black bodies will be harvested to serve white patients. This was something that was extremely troubling to the black community when heart transplants began in the 1960s. And one of the first heart transplants, which took place in South Africa, is a black patient whose heart is between. in a white man. South Africa was still under apartheid at the time. And the papers said, “Listen, now his heart can go where his body was not allowed.” He can enter theaters inside the white man that he couldn’t have gone inside the black man.
After writing this book, do you think you would still be yourself after a body transplant?
If I had to guess I would say I don’t think so. I think we are composite creatures. And in fact, the LGBTQ movement talks about it a lot too. People making the transition, for example, what their body is and does and who they are, are really intrinsically linked for many people. And I think, therefore, identity is an interesting and heavy thing that doesn’t fit well in boxes, even the box of our heads for that matter.
What was Robert White like as a person?
I leaned a little heavily, not on the idea of Frankenstein, but on the idea of Jekyll and Hyde. It really seemed like almost two people to me. He’s a family man. And it saves children from cancer and preserves people’s lives and their ability to move around. At the same time, I was reading his tales of how he would just gut people – sorry, probably a bad choice of words. But he was incredibly good at rhetoric. I saw debates he had with animal rights activists, and his ability to simply cut people off was alarming.