Science hands humanity a conundrum

Senior reporter

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.