Gawking at Science

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While in my home state of Minnesota last week on vacation, I read a very troublesome editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. On display at mall: Human indignity, written by columnist Katherine Kersten, takes to task Bodies... The Exhibition, a Body-Worlds-type exhibit that opened recently at the famed Mall of America.

For those unfamiliar with Body Worlds, this traveling anatomical exhibit of real human bodies has proven very popular and successful in demystifying our inner workings. It respectfully showcases the elegance of our anatomical structure, and provides visual lessons about the destructive outcomes of smoking and obesity. The smoker's lung is not pretty.

Kersten's opening salvo:

If you're heading to the Mall of America this weekend, you'll find something new to gawk at, along with the lacy lingerie at Victoria's Secret and the sea horses at Underwater Adventures. It's "Bodies ... the Exhibition," a show that features human cadavers.

Really? C'mon. Comparing an aquarium, a human physiology/health exhibit, and scantily-clad Victoria's Secret models is the beginning of, well, a scantily-clad argument.

She goes on to use terms like “high-falutin'” when describing the exhibit's educational goals.  She criticizes the choice of location for the exhibit, the Mall of America, as being too commercial (shouldn't exhibits be held where the people are?). The issue of whether or not the exhibit bodies were procured according to accepted medical standard, raised midway through the article, is a very valid and important concern. Kerstens, however, quickly returns to the crux of her argument:

At "Bodies ... the Exhibition," we sense the danger of a line being crossed. The issues the show raises intersect with many of the important questions we face about the nature of humanity in our scientific age.

In short, she thinks the exhibit is in poor taste and that it markets death as entertainment. I don't see it that way at all.

What better way to spark a sense of wonder, amazement, and self reflection on what it means to be human than to present an authentic look at the human form? A particularly thoughtful review of the exhibit is here. Moreover, any exhibit that can bring public discussion about end-of-life issues, altruistic organ donation, and the evils of smoking and obesity is a good thing. That a young adult might be inspired to look further into a career as a nurse, doctor, or scientist is laudable.

Kersten's not done, though. After some additional rhetoric about science reducing human beings to commodities, she ends her column with a quote from Lutheran bishop and critic Ulrich Fischer:

When taboos along life's boundaries have been broken, has it not led in the end to man's assuming power over human life in ways that our limited human abilities should preclude?

The idea that taboos should guide our moral thinking is just plain absurd. It plays on the idea of fear – that which we do not know, accept, or understand is to be avoided, suppressed, or outright banned. Scientific findings often challenge the very essence of our core beliefs (we're too young to remember the Earth as the center of the universe). Is she insinuating that we regulate science to the point of restricting inquiry?

Had we historically followed this flawed logic – that gut instinct should serve as moral compass - vaccinations would have been outlawed on religious grounds, organ transplants forbidden, and genetic technology that produces nearly all the insulin for those suffering from diabetes banned. And this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of racism, bigotry, and other reprehensible acts that were justified in the name of "this just isn't right."

In some cases we do need limits for how scientific technology is applied, or to whom access is given. It's a fine balance. The UK's limits on reproductive technology are a good example of where most agree that the balance works. But in this case, displaying real human bodies, artfully preserved and in an educational setting, is far from denigrating humanity. I would argue the reverse - it celebrates and informs it.

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