Sergio Canavero's Head Transplant

by James Hampson

You may have heard of Sergio Canavero. If you need a refresher, he is the Italian neurosurgeon who makes headlines in ever-credulous broadsheets that he is a few years away from performing the first human head transplant, in the same sense that Del Boy and Rodney were only ever a year away from becoming millionaires. Now, you don’t need to have spent two months at medical school, like I have, to know that this idea raises more than a few issues and eyebrows. More on these later.

Tickets for the neuro conference this year sold like hot cakes because of Canavero’s presence as the keynote speaker. The hall was packed throughout the day to hear a series of predictably brilliant and engaging talks. There was a general theme throughout the day of medical outsiders and innovators, embodied in the presence of Charlie Teo from Australia, who put pictures of his adversaries up on the screen and told us which ones were arseholes and which ones were ‘real arseholes.’ But none of them prepared us for the one, the only, Sergio.

The lights dropped. He dragged a chair centre-stage and stared at us. He clicked through candid photos of humanity in our various decrepitudes: women drinking, people being shot in war, old people looking old. As he tastefully lingered on three graphic images of a vaginal delivery, he began: “we are a failed species. We are stupid, we are sheep…” Thus the spirit of humanity and warmth which pervaded his talk was firmly established. “Let’s rock n roll!” he implored, I think hoping the lights would come back on or something. Do let’s!

What followed was over an hour of the most incoherent nonsense I have seen since my immunology PBL. His presentation looked like a 14-year-old emo boy’s Geocities page. Green CGI skulls grinned at us from under black hoods. Out-of-context Nietzsche quotes, formatted to look like poems, sprawled down the page in angry red Times New Roman on a black background. It was awful.

In one of many faintly threatening demands of audience participation which instilled more fear than the front row at The Stand, he asked anyone who ‘believed in the possible’ to stand up. When the vagueness of this question was eventually shed, it was revealed he wanted to know if anyone thought nothing was truly impossible. Half a dozen people stood up, while the rest of us sat motionless and presumably allowed thoughts of surpassing the speed of light, breathing underwater and four-sided triangles to drift through our mind. And also, perhaps, transplanting the head of a human being onto a corpse within the next two years.

He was consistently antagonistic and often borderline malevolent. He told a member of the audience to stand up because he “loves blondes.” He put on a wheedling voice to mock the “medical establishment” with their insistence that damaging the central nervous system reduces motor function. Cranks!

The lecture was infused with this George Bush-esque with-me-or-against-me, do-you-believe-in-me-YES-OR-NO black/white dichotomy, often directly asking it of hapless audience members, and dismissing their mildly put concerns as a result of them not understanding his papers. It was bullying, and like all bullying was founded on insecurity and fear of being found out.

He talked about space for a bit for reasons passing understanding. He insisted that extra-terrestrial life was an absolute certainty and life on earth did not arise by accident, a claim unburdened by the need for facts or explanation. This wasn’t important: it is around number 257 on the list of problems with what went on. An extended musing on the illusory nature of consciousness floated by with similar irrelevance.

Forty-five minutes in he began on what we all had come to hear- news of his latest progress. He showed a picture of a monkey whose head had been transplanted, luckily onto the body of another monkey. This was it: a photo. He claimed “they’re moving” but told us he could not tell us more because the New York Times had been cruel to China, where the experiments take place due to his non-grata status everywhere else. As Chinese people believe in courtesy, he claimed, he could not talk about his experiments due to the Times’ impertinence. Blaming a non-existent lawsuit between a foreign newspaper and the Chinese government for not being able to answer a question is so brazen and obviously false a move that I actually sort of respect it, and wish I’d used it when I skipped essays in school.

The questions segment in the end went by smoothly and courteously, with objections from senior clinicians addressed in a focussed, empirical and well-thought-out way. Kidding! He called people “darling” and said “fuck you if you’re not with me.” People actually cried out “outrageous!” like they do in films about mad Victorian scientists. It went on and on. Any question was met with a demand to read his books (self-published on Amazon) or papers, as it is “all in there.” It was insulting to previous speakers and the audience for assuming we wouldn’t notice, or shouldn’t care, about the clear evidence gap in everything he was saying.

There’s a Peter Medawar quote which should be recited at the start of every seminar, lecture, or conference for the rest of time: ”no one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.” It extends beyond writing. If you can’t explain an idea to someone who’s new to it, it is either because the idea doesn’t make sense or you don’t understand it yourself. With Canavero? Bit of both.