I think we can all agree that it’s wrong to eat people. This is rightly one of our strongest taboos.
The word Cannibal is derived from word Caribbee (the Carib people of the Caribbean) corrupted by Spanish to ‘Canibbee’ and thence to the English ‘Cannibal’. The Carib people practiced a form of ritualistic cannibalism intended to imbue the cannibal with the strengths and powers of the victim. In modern times we use the word more broadly to include the extraction and reuse of spare parts from cars and other equipment and in marketing to mean the sacrificing of one product in order to increase sales of another.
Oddly enough ritualistic cannibalism in symbolic form remains at the heart of the Catholic Church’s ceremony of Holy Communion during which the wine and the wafer are ‘transmogrified’ into the blood and body of Christ – and consumed by the congregation. Perhaps because we know it is not ‘real’, the public ritualistic cannibalism practiced within Catholicism seem to be socially acceptable. If, as was the case in the past, the Catholic Church argued that in the moment of consumption the wine and wafer were genuinely transformed into human tissue – that might engender a different response.
Apart from this peculiar religious exception, Cannibalism – actually to consume the body or body parts of another human being – is a source of universal disgust. Even the case of plane crash survivors who were forced to eat the frozen bodies of their fellow passengers in order to survive, while understandable, fills both us, and the survivors themselves, with loathing.
If, as has been documented, individuals proffer their flesh to be eaten on an entirely voluntary basis, we are still repulsed. It cannot therefore be a question of whether the human flesh is given voluntarily or not. That can’t be it at all. Whether as an act of altruism, compassion, kindness or necessity we just don’t like to see people eating each other.
Why then, when it comes to blood transfusions and organ transplants, do we take the diametrically opposite view?
When it comes to the Red Cross Blood Bank and Transfusion Service we applaud both the donors and the harvesters, and we count the end recipients fortunate indeed at such public spirited behaviour.
When an accident victim is given a blood transfusion they are assimilating material from someone else’s body into themselves. When someone accepts a kidney or a liver they are, for all intents and purposes, doing the very same thing, yet there is no public outcry. We do not think of this as cannibalism.
Blood transfusions and organ transplants are, from this point of view, essentially identical to cannibalism but for some reason they do not trigger the same abhorrence.
We might attempt to tidy all this unpleasantness away by arguing that it is really the act of eating human flesh that is wrong, but there are other factors to take into consideration. Firstly, the purpose of ritualistic cannibalism was, amongst other things, to provide the recipient with the strength and powers of the, albeit unwilling, donor. This sounds remarkably like the expressed purpose of blood transfusions and organ transplants to me.
Further, according the US heart research and stress management organisation, HeartMath, the mind is distributed throughout the whole nervous systems. “The heart and brain maintain a continuous two-way dialogue, each influencing the other’s functioning. The signals the heart sends to the brain can influence perception, emotional processing and higher cognitive functions. This system and circuitry is viewed by neurocardiology researchers as a ‘heart brain’.”
Furthermore, the human gut itself contains a nexus of over one hundred million neurons (more than the spinal cord) called the ‘enteric nervous systems’ which directly interacts with and affects brain function too.
These facts suggest, certainly in the case of heart transplants, and possibly in relation to other human organs, that the recipient is in effect excising a diseased part of their own distributed mind and replacing it with healthy parts of dead person’s distributed mind.
And it’s not just a matter of some kind of abstract biochemical substrate either, transplants have long been associated with changes in tastes, interests and even musical like and dislikes of the recipients.
In Thomas Fields-Meyer’s article (http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20147267,00.html) he identifies three individuals all of whom reported substantial changes in their tastes and preferences after receiving a transplanted organ and all of whom associated their new preference or taste with that of the organ donor:
- Bill Wohl, found himself weeping and rocking to a Sade song having never previously even been aware of her. Later he discovered that the organ donor had been great Sade fan.
- Paul Oldham’s donor had been a fourteen year old boy. Paul suddenly found himself developing a taste for chocolate bars having never previously had a sweet tooth.
- Jamie Sherman suddenly experienced cravings for Mexican food – his donor had been a lover of cheese enchiladas. Jamie associated his sudden and unexpected bouts of anger post-transplant with the fact that his donor had died in a fight.
There are therefore significant reasons to question our view of organ transplantation as benign and cannibalism as evil. Both cannibalism and organ transplantation share the same purpose and both may share the same unintended consequence of passing on more between ‘donor’ and recipient than was intended or has previously been widely understood.
Comments welcomed: Poppy