SCI/TECH: "Losing Face: Redefining Identity"

A US medical team has requested permission to perform the world's first face transplant.

Researchers from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, have requested approval to carry out the complex and controversial operation. The team is about to submit a lengthy document detailing their plan to a university ethics committee.

Skeptics have questioned whether such a transplant would be worth the side-effects of anti-rejection drugs, and whether the family of a donor would recognize their loved one in the face of the recipient.

The Louisville team has carried out research that, they claim, indicates such obstacles can be overcome. The team has been using the faces of bodies donated for medical research to practice the groundbreaking operation and the results suggest that a transplanted face will not be recognizable as either the donor or the recipient - in effect creating a third face.

“New Scientist” magazine is running a six-page spread about the topic, but so far, no one has addressed the cultural implications of, let’s face it, swapping something that goes a little deeper than flesh and bone.

Geography used to play a huge role in defining tribal or national boundaries and traditions, in isolating gene pools, the development of language. With technology came a greater level of evolution, freedom and rapid change.

‘Identity’ was no longer so clearly defined.

But what continues to be the primary stamp of verifiable ID?
Look at your driver’s license. Even if it’s a dorm-room special. Or your passport.

Sure, biometrics has moved on, to include retinal scans and digitized fingerprints. The whole “Gattaca” scenario might not even be as far away as we realize.

Transplanting your face. Hmm. Does a new face give you, by default, a new identity? If you add a new screensaver to your computer screen, does that significantly alter anything about the underlying system?

And, given the popular appeal, also, of movies like “Face Off”, how much experimental scientific research is influenced by pop culture, and vice versa?

Just a random queritorial from “Arte Six”, to ponder over coffee. Or the next Café Scientifique.

Read more cutting-edge science news in the June 2004 issue of "Arte Six".