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Science hands humanity a conundrum

Hands are one of the most personal parts of the human body. They’re involved in almost every action we take, one of our main ways of interacting with the outside world and their incredible dexterity is behind much of our achievement as a species.

So the idea of replacing your own hands with somebody else’s cannot an easy concept to deal with. But as a BBC documentary last night showed, a double hand transplant can provide a new lease of life.

Transplant operations no longer mean replacing relatively simple or at least self-contained organs, but systems of bone, muscle, blood vessels and nerves that all have complex interactions with the rest of the body.

Hand transplants have been successfully performed for over a decade. Last year, a team of 30 doctors carried out the world’s first full face transplant. And a hospital in Spain has received permission to give a patient two new legs.

On top of this, robotic limbs with incredible degrees of control, sensitivity and movement are becoming increasingly common. We’ve entered a new era where people no longer have to accept the total loss of something so central to everyday life.

Watching footage of transplanted or robotic limbs brings to mind some of the best and worst images from science fiction. So far, this branch of medicine has had almost entirely positive results. But it also raises fundamental questions about what makes us the people we are, what makes us human.

Looking down at a pair of hands that you haven’t always owned, that appear different from the rest of you, that you don’t know or can’t operate like your other body parts but can control with your brain nonetheless must be mind-boggling.

But this doesn’t change who you are inside. Thanks to our emotional responses, a transplant or implant has the potential to emphasise our humanity instead of degrading it.

What if, however, we one day replaced far more of the body with new parts? Would we be able to accept possessing arms, legs, organs and a face that all once belonged to someone else (or more likely several different people)?

The robotic limbs of companies such as Scottish firm Touch Bionics are incredible to behold and allow owners to do things they would never otherwise be able to. One day, amputees might become perfect nuclear reactor operators because they can put their arms where no one else can.

We’ll probably have to stop using the term “disabled” once those who’ve lost their natural legs can run faster and jump higher than those who still have them. We’d need a third contest alongside the Olympics and Paralympics that would be more akin to motorsport than athletics.

And what if a completely healthy person wanted a cyber-arm? If they were happy and able to pay for it themselves, we’d be creating a sub-race of super-rich, super-strong humans? They’d probably be super-beautiful too as cosmetic surgery advances.

Going even further, if we could create a mechanical system that supported the head, or even the brain, as the only way of sustaining a life, would we want to do it? Even if this new body could replicate or improve every function of a natural one, I suspect many people would see this as too high a price.

Most of these scenarios have already been played out in the pages of science fiction novels and screenplays. But sci-fi was always about using the impossible to illustrate the world we live in today.

While inter-stellar travel is still out of reach, medicine is now forcing us all to confront issues that writers have been grappling with for 200 years.

Readers' comments (5)

  • It raises the same issue as was seen quite recently with the Le Mans Bentley. The engine was installed in a different chassis and a new engine fitted to the original chassis. Which one is the car that won Le Mans. How long will it be until we have the same discussion as to who the chimera is. And if the "spares" had committed a crime who would serve the punishment. However these issues are a long way off, I think!

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  • Cars don't win races, drivers win races.
    Who we are resides in the brain, everything else is an add-on, a peripheral. The brain is in control.
    History shows that if it can be done, it will be done, regardless of moral issues or legal issues.
    As far as beauty goes, this is literally in the eye of the beholder and as such, no-one or no-thing can be classed as super-beautiful.
    Bring on the Cybermen (and Cyberwomen, Cyberdogs etc)!

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  • This is a serious area of medical ethics and is constantly understudy by medical ethicists. How far can, should and are we going? Replacement parts in the form of transplants that gives someone the ability to continue living has been demonstrated and proven viable as have many types of prostetics. Going beyond the current technology where these then lead to enhanced abilities has been discussed and generally has been rejected by most ethicists because it does not conform to current standards. As these potentials come to the fore however, these discussions will be raised once again and if there is an ethical, logical and essential requirement for this kind of enhancement then it could go forward on an individual basis. But, the moral, ethical and physical requirements will still hold sway as the science moves forward in these areas.

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  • Movie - Bicentennial Man
    Soldier - Kurt Russel
    Blade Runner
    AI - Will Smith
    Gamer -

    We are in the flux of a SINIC Diagram
    Seed innovation to Need impetus Cyclic Evolution- as humanity we will both embrace this new future and be repulsed by it at the same time, this is an evolutionary protection in case something goes wrong in our evolution and we go down an incorrect path.

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  • Spock's brain comes to mind where they stole his brain to power an alien civilization. Eventually we will be able to regrow damaged parts and then replace them. I don't think the brain will be one of the things they can grow a replacement for as how would you transfer the memories.

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