X-Message-Number: 74
From: Kevin Q. Brown
Subject: disembodied head patent 
Date: 14 Apr 1989

I have appended below an article concerning a patent for keeping a disembodied

head alive.  This article was published in both the March 1989 issue of Cryonics
and the April 1989 issue of Claustrophobia.  I have also appended my comments
about the issues raised in the article.  Reproduction of the article is OK
provided the copies include the credit below.
                                       - Kevin Q. Brown


Review: If We Can Keep A Severed Head Alive by "Chet Fleming"
  by Thomas Donaldson

Polinym Press, 1987, 1988 (available from Loompanics Unlimited)

Cryonics, March 1989, Vol. 10, No. 3
ALCOR Life Extension Foundation, 12327 Doherty Street, Riverside, CA 92503
(800) 367-2228

Claustrophobia, April 1989, Vol. 13, No. 4, Issue No. 148
1402 SW Upland Dr., Portland, OR 97221
(503) 227-6848

This book is interesting from several headings.  In a sense, it's even worth
reading, although I'll say that I disagreed with the author on almost all
points.  I don't even think it's well written.

"Chet Fleming" (a pseudonym) is a lawyer who observed that it was within medical
reach to put together a complete system which would keep alive a human (or

animal) head for a certain time, perhaps days and with effort perhaps months and
years.  This possibility disturbed him so much he took out a patent on the
basic device needed to do this.  The aim of his patent was to force anyone who
did this to talk to him about it first and also to apply to relevant bioethics
committees at their institution.

This point alone is very useful.  Alcor has made a point of publishing their
results.  Alcor therefore can't be stopped, up to now, by Chet Fleming's
technique.  But it remains important that someone could stop cryonics research,
or cause trouble for us, merely by successfully getting a patent.  The current
countermeasure of publishing everything defeats that move, whether or not we
publish it in a normal "scientific" periodical.

It's clear from reading his book that Chet Fleming feels uneasy with the idea
of disembodied heads.

To be fair to him, I don't think he believes that his circuit, alone, will make
possible survival of a disembodied head for a prolonged period.  What he is
implying is that if we can maintain disembodied heads even for a short time,
it's in the course of science to find ways to maintain them for longer and
longer.  That is, he sees a way to PROCEED to disembodied heads rather than
their immediate possibility.

His circuit for maintaining discorporated heads merely contains all the
elements now known to be needed for sustaining a discorporated head.  Other
elements may be discovered.

Fleming makes his main purpose in writing the book very clear in his
Introduction.  What he wants to do is to start off an open debate about this
technology, BEFORE it actually produces any discorporated heads.  He's
obviously concerned about what such a technology will do if it comes about.
The book contains a draft of a law, "The Discorporation Control Act," to
control production of discorporated (but still maintained alive) heads of
either animals or people.

This strategem of the author (for that is what it is) deserves to be
discussed first.  With very little actual technology, Chet Fleming proposes
to obligate scientists to consult a series of committees about the ethical
feasibility of what they propose to do.

I have myself seen the spread of "bioethics committees" through all the
medical institutions of our society.  In some abstract sense, for some abstract
society (existing perhaps on a planet of the Andromeda Galaxy, or even farther
away) this seems an innocent way to proceed.  In the same abstract sense, it
even seems a desirable way to proceed.  But we do not live in this abstract
society, but in our own.  In our own society, bioethics committees have so far
done no good and great harm.  Why is simple: who really sits on a bioethics
committee?  Why, people who are afraid of technologies and wish to suppress
them.  The tempest about recombinant DNA is the best example of what really
happens with bioethics committees.

It follows that Chet Fleming's proposals are either duplicitous, or sick at
their heart.  Without doing the experiment, we don't know how it will affect
the animal OR ourselves.  What the experiment does to OURSELVES is always at
least as important as what it does to its "real" subject.  Somewhere in Latin
America or elsewhere the experiment will be done.  Those who do it will be
affected, well or badly.  WE will not get any benefit from this.  Trying to
control the outcome of an experiment isn't even desirable.  It's no longer an

As cryonicists we can provide many experiments with far stronger effects on
society than discorporated heads.  Chet Fleming takes care to point out what
discorporated heads are NOT.  They aren't means to immortality.  They aren't
means to any special psychic powers, despite all the science fiction which
tries to make out that they are.

In fact, the only thing they are is a new variety of paraplegic.  If we ignore
all the medical / scientific apparatus sustaining a discorporated head, we
have a situation no different from that of paraplegics today.  The problems
and opportunities discorporation presents are virtually identical to those of
paraplegia.  I find it hard to see a need for any special laws or regulations
for this new variety of paraplegia.  Yes, some people become eligible for this
paraplegia who were not eligible for the other kind.  And so?

As a cryonicist I also have a serious problem with a second, less basic, but
still fundamental question.  Just what is the real prospect of this
technology, anyway?

First, we don't really see a body of citizens or patients urging discorporation.
It hasn't even got the support of work on artificial hearts.  There are (I kid
you not) more people advocating research on immortality than people advocating
discorporation.  This fact should tell Chet Fleming something.  As a technique
for application to human beings, discorporation just doesn't have a real,
serious following.  And to provide a "discorporation technology" medically
suitable for human patients isn't something a single researcher can do.  It
requires the concerted work of many people, spread over many years and millions
of dollars.  We look around us and see none of that.

Certainly we might see such as interest develop.  Anything is possible.  But
one conclusion from current medical research is that almost everyone,
scientists and lay people, have ALREADY decided the issue of discorporation
research.  Their answer is: they're not interested.  It's not hard to see
why ...

In his discussion Chet Fleming puts forward several science fiction works in
which human heads are kept alive for various reasons.  Some of these are:
David Osborne's book HEADS (1985), CS Lewis's THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, Lawrence
Sanders' THE TOMORROW FILE and others.  We do not live in science fiction.
Many people know this very well.



Chet Fleming's patent immediately brings to mind the neuropreservation option
for cryonic suspension, but whereas cryonic suspension stops all metabolism,
his patent is for maintaining metabolism and thus appears to not apply to

cryonics.  Also, as Donaldson pointed out, since the details of (both whole body
and neuro) cryonic suspension already have been published, nobody can stop
cryonic suspension by patenting it.  Nevertheless, Fleming's patent may cause
problems for cryonicists.

One of the main difficulties with cryonics today is that nobody can prove that
it works; nobody has been frozen and thawed out and then walked away from it.
Of course we only have to master the freezing part now; reanimation can wait
until later.  And we have a LOT of evidence that our freezing process does a
good job of preservation.  Nevertheless, a demonstration that a human or animal
can be recovered from cryonic suspension would greatly enhance the credibility
of cryonics.  One of the simplest ways to accomplish that demonstration may be
to vitrify the brain of a mammal (such as a cat or dog), thaw it out, and then
maintain it on a circuit of the type that Chet Fleming patented to show that it
still functions.  (Vitrification [see messages 6 and 35] causes less damage
than straight freezing and is a more promising route for reversible suspension
of whole organs in the near future.  Since vitrifying a single organ is much
simpler than vitrifying a whole body, the organ of greatest interest - the
brain - would provide the most convincing demonstration for cryonics.)
Unfortunately, Chet Fleming or his "bioethical" colleagues may decide to veto
the experiment, with the result that cryonicists (in the USA) would be
restricted from performing the simplest kind of proof that cryonics works.
This in turn may result in (1) pushing cryonics (research) offshore and
(2) delaying the proof of feasibility of cryonics, which would likely result
in the needless deaths of many people who otherwise would have immediately
signed up for cryonic suspension but died instead.

Chet Fleming's technique of patenting "objectionable" technology could be used
to block other technologies, some of interest to cryonicists.  For example,
one way to restore a neuro patient to a full-bodied human would be to create

an anencephalic (no neocortex) clone and then transplant the revived (and cured)
brain in the new body.  Someone, however, might patent the technology to create
an anencephalic clone simply to prevent people from doing it, and thereby
restrict that route to revival from neurosuspension.  Furthermore, just as
Fleming proposed "The Discorporation Control Act", "bioethical" pressure
groups might propose and even pass a law called "The Anencephalic Control Act"
for restricting or outlawing production of anencephalic clones.  Do we have any
reason to be concerned about such a possibility?

Yes.  Such pressure groups do exist and they have sometimes been successful
blocking new biotechnology.  For example, in addition to Donaldson's article
on Chet Fleming's book, the April 1989 issue of Claustrophobia included the
following news item:
  "...The first experiment to insert foreign genes into humans has finally
  received approval to proceed - but is now being blocked by a lawsuit by ...
  (you guessed it) our old friend Jeremy Rifkin.  In the U.S. alone, someone
  dies from cancer every minute."
Another new technology that may become targeted for restrictive lawsuits or
legislation is the transplantation of fetal brain cells for possible life
extension benefits [message #37].  This has been quite controversial because
the fetal brain cells are harvested from induced abortions.  The use of
brainless humans for spare parts, such as the anencephalic clones for restoring
neuro patients, is likely to be at least as controversial.  (Imagine both the
"Right To Life" and ACLU folks fighting the use of anencephalic clones!)

As you can see, cryonic suspension itself looks rather innocent and harmless
compared to the technologies for reanimating people from cryonic suspension.
We do not want monstrous misuse of our biotechnology and we also do not want
to be deprived of its potential benefits.  Foresight Update (The Foresight
Institute, Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306) presents not only the progress
toward nanotechnology but also expresses concern about possible ill effects
from it.  (That is, in fact, where the name comes from: to provide sufficient
foresight to enable us to avoid major disasters.)  In (the March 1, 1989)
Update #5 Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of the
advisors for the Foresight Institute) suggested that anti-technological people
(even irrationally anti-technological people) serve a useful purpose; they
slow down technological development that otherwise may proceed too fast for
people to (1) adapt to and (2) design well.  He gave as an example the Alaska
pipeline, which was delayed by environmentalists concerned about the caribou.
As it turned out, the original pipeline design had many faults and the pressure
and delay created by the environmentalists made the pipeline designers redo
their design, resulting in a much better product.  In the case of genetic
engineering, however, Brand suggested that the Asilomar conference (which,
I believe, resulted in a temporary, self-imposed, moratorium on recombinant DNA
research) may not have been useful; it gave opponents of genetic engineering
(such as Rifkin) the argument "See, even the scientists had some doubts about
this, so we should REALLY be worried."

Where does that leave us?  As Saul Kent pointed out in the fliers for last
year's Life Against Death conferences: "These are very exciting times.  The
political phase of the Life Extension Revolution has begun."

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