Background to Animal, Mechanical and Me

Animal, Mechanical and Me: The Search for Replaceable Hearts is a Wellcome Trust project led by Dr Gill Haddow in Science Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

The social science project aims to explore patient experiences and public reactions to using material from non-human animals or from auto-biotechnologies to repair, replace or regenerate the human body. It asks the question that “If you had to make the choice would you choose to have your organs replaced with animal or mechanical ones?”  Does having parts of your body replaced with materials from other sources make you feel any different?

By looking at what is currently repaired and replaced we can also learn about what to expect in the future. This research will undertake a sociological investigation into current practices of repairing and replacing the human heart specifically by interviewing ‘everyday cyborgs’ – those people who have received a cybernetic device called, an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).  These are usually permanent implants that emit electric shocks to the heart but the effects this has on the everyday lives of individuals and families is poorly understood.

Studying the heart  allows us to consider the intersection between medical science, embodiment, and identity. The repair, replacement or regeneration of tissues and organs can help unearth some of our deepest held beliefs about what:

  • is it that is human about the human form and
  • effects (if any) replacing body parts has for ideas of the human

In some way, if our body parts represent who we are then how do changes or additions to the interiors of the body then alter our sense of self? That is, if the use of different animal / mechanical implants is progressive and science and technology gives the capability to use animal or mechanical organs, what can we learn from recipients, their families and those who seek to develop or implant the technology? Are there lessons that we can take more broadly from the specifics of the current situation around pinpointing the ethical limits to what is acceptable in the future; for example the existence of an ethical ‘slippery replacement slope’? If we completely rebuild the body through replacement is it still the same person, in the same way that if we replace the blade and handle of an axe is it the same axe?

Hence, Animal, Mechanical and Me can contribute directly to the little that is known of decision- making in the area of animal/mechanical implants and it can also generate wider explanations for public reactions to whole animal or mechanical replacement. Focus group studies in the UK found that the public reactions to xenotransplantation was of a ‘yuk factor’ variety a term in bioethics used to refer to  a ‘morality-based  disgust’;  sociologically it  may be more  about the importance  of naturalness (Brown & Michael, 2001, 2004; Douglas, 1966; Michael, 1996; Michael & Brown, 2005). Then, is ‘yuk’ about the ‘animal in us’ that challenges the natural order in a way that the mechanical does not? Or does any type of implant ultimately challenge the norm of natural:

The contemporary need for naturalness can be better understood as a response to the fact that technology makes reality more and more makeable and, consequently, more contingent. Advancing technology changes everything that is, into our object of choice…[I]f human nature itself becomes makeable, it can no longer naively be laid down as the norm (Swierstra, Van Est, & Boenink, 2009).

Maggie’s Story

The first film inspired  from the interviews with ICD ‘everyday cyborgs’ was a collaboration between film maker Ross Ziegelmeier and a participant-actor called Maggie who took part in the interviews about how it feels to live with an implantable auto-biotechnology such as a cardiac defibrillator and myself. The film shows ‘Maggie’, newly implanted with an implantable cardiac defibrillator, writing about the various emotions, her own inner dialogue and people’s reactions to her, written out on a variety of different backgrounds (Letters, diaries, appointment cards, ECG readings etc).


An animation by Cameron Duguid has also been produced however because we are entering it into competitions we can only give a small selection of some of the stills from the film called ‘Electrifying Cyborg Heart’

In-valid You/th

The next step in the project will be a further film produced by a handful of young people in Muirhouse in Edinburgh. This will go beyond patient experience to public engagement with those whose views are often missing from discussion around high energy technologies.

The inspiration for the provision title of In-valid You/th comes from the 1997 science fiction film GATTACA, where in a future dystopia, individuals considered socially worthy – the valids – are defined by genetics. The ‘in-valids’ are relegated to the social periphery of an underclass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s