College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Intellectual Exchanges on Whole-body or Head Transplant

Whole-body or head transplant sounds like a plot of novels. Indeed, many past and modern writers, from Mary Shelley who created Frankenstein two centuries ago to contemporary Japanese novelist Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾), have works about placing one’s brain into the body of another person. Surprisingly, head transplant has also been a topic of imagination, research and debate in the academic world for many decades. An even fiercer discussion was ignited in recent years, as some experts claimed to have made significant breakthroughs in this subject area. 

On 13 to 14 December 2019, the Department of Public Policy of CityU hosted an international conference on “Whole Body / Head Transplants: Ethical and Policy Issues” and welcomed a list of experts from the United States, Hong Kong and Mainland China to present papers themed around the philosophical, ethical and policy issues generated by developing whole-body or head transplant technologies. Two scholars also joined the conference by presenting their papers via Skype. Commentators were invited to express their views and bring out notable arguments which could stimulate a further discussion among the participants.

Most of the experts set out their arguments by citing Italian neuroscientist Dr Sergio CANAVERO’s contentious studies and experiments. Dr Canavero, who has been working with Chinese surgeon REN Xiaoping, claimed to have re-fused severed spinal cords in a monkey and was ready to perform a head transplant trial on human body. He believed such technologies allow human to live longer lives free of disease and disability. However, scholars around the world see numerous ethical, social and legal questions on his attempt, let alone the technical and scientific difficulties involved. As philosophers and researchers in humanities, the participants of the conference reviewed the issue from various social science perspectives, such as personal identity of the receiver of another person’s head, human dignity, moral permissibility, impacts to the donors and receivers, and relationships between a potential donor/receiver and his/her family members. Some also questioned if immortality or extremely long human life as a result of technology advancement is a sufficient condition for a meaningful life. 

Several scholars from Mainland China examined the topic from Confucian perspectives, which has a very important value in eastern Asia. Regulations governing researches, experiments and possible real-life applications of relevant technologies, especially those in Mainland China where Dr Canavero’s human body experiments may be carried out, were also discussed. 

This conference gave valuable insights into whole-body or head transplant, of which controversial will, very likely, to go on in the scholarly communities worldwide for more decades.