I’ll confess that I “paid my nickels” (for the interested, that’s 490 nickels¯or $24.50¯a head) to see the Bodies exhibition at South Street Seaport . I also think that the exhibition (or at least its concept) is worthy of defense.
Four categories of objections to the Bodies exhibit can be garnered from Jordan’s post , Fr. Neuhaus’ “While We’re At It” in the June/July Issue of First Things quoting Elizabeth Marquardt’s Letter to the Editor in the New York Times , and general conversation floating around the First Things office. I share two of the four objections but will argue against the other two (which I suspect are the dispositive ones for most First Things readers).
Ethical objections to Bodies: The Exhibition :
(1) Bodies and other similar exhibitions do not require that proper consent procedures be followed in obtaining the cadavers they feature.
(2) Even if proper consent procedures were agreed upon, Bodies and Bodies -esque exhibitions obtain their cadavers from plastination and mummification factories in the People’s Republic of China. Enforcement of ethical standards has never been the PRC’s strong suit and, frankly, the last thing the West should encourage is the growth of a corpse industry in a China already inured to organ trafficking. The incentives of high demand, particularly in the face of low supply, would pull in the unsavory direction of the 1978 movie Coma . (And, as a general rule, we should eschew life coming to resemble movies based on Michael Crichton novels.)
(3) Exhibiting corpses in public, stripped of their skin and in poses reminiscent of human life, does not treat them with human dignity. As Elizabeth Marquardt reminds us, we wouldn’t want our grandmothers exhibited suchly. As Jordan puts it, "Rather than seeing each body as a person , with a name and a family and a story, we are encouraged to see them as specimens. "
(4) Exhibiting corpses in public, stripped of their skin and in poses reminiscent of human life encourages us , the viewers, not to view human life correctly. It takes away our proper horror of death as something powerful and awe-inspiring. As Jordan nicely puts it, it diminishes our "belief in the sacredness of human life."
Reply to objections:
(1 and 2) Agreed. The, uh, murkiness behind the Bodies exhibition’s acquisition of its "specimens" deserves our opprobrium. The answer to question 10 of the Bodies FAQ¯"Where do the specimens come from?"¯should alone give us pause. After naming its plastination source in the People’s Republic of Chine and assuring us of its legality, the response continues: "Currently, human specimens in medical schools in China, the United States and other countries around the world are mainly made available via donated or unidentified bodies." The specter of "unidentified" bodies should already give us pause¯adding the hedge of "mainly" makes the problem egregious. Tuesday’s New York Times article "China Turns Out Mummified Bodies for Displays" nicely details the existence of and potential problems with the already-significant cadaver industry in China.
While these concerns are weighty enough that they would probably have precluded my attending the Bodies exhibition had I known about them before I went, the objections to Bodies coming from First Things staffers and readers seem to run deeper. Indeed, I suspect that the vast majority of those connected with First Things would argue against the Bodies exhibition even if all its specimens came from middle-class Americans who had unquestionably decided to donate their bodies to science for the anatomical education of the masses. Rather, I would guess that they, like Jordan, feel uncomfortable about very concept of the exhibit for a variety of reasons that could fall under my above objections (3) and (4).
(3) In a sense, this objection, too, must be true¯in letter if not in spirit. That is, Bodies: The Exhibition unquestionably does not treat its bodies as bearers of human dignity. However, seeing as bodies aren’t human beings, that attitude seems, frankly, wholly appropriate. A body, strictly speaking, is not a person¯and you don’t have to be the sort of mind/body dualist who thinks the soul is a homunculus driving the body to see that. Indeed, according to Aristotle, who formulated the theory of hylomorphism¯the theory whereby the soul is the form of the body, the polar opposite of mind/body dualism¯body and soul are so closely intertwined that they cannot be understood without one another. For that reason, he goes so far as to claim that a body without its soul is not really a body at all "except homonymously" ( De Anima II.1.412b18-27). Just as an eye that cannot see (where sight is the "form" of the eye) is like a statue or an image of an eye more than like an eye, so a body without a soul is something that looks like a body (like a statue of a body) but isn’t one in fact. It has no organizing principle and¯barring plastination¯quickly loses even its resemblance to what Aristotle sees as more properly a body.
Would the resurrection of the body invalidate his theory? I think not. Indeed, Aristotle’s formulation was taken up by the Catholic Church ("the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body" proclaims the Catechism at §365) as part of its official teaching on the relation between the soul and the body. (Although, to be fair, the Catechism doesn’t go so far as to say the unensouled body isn’t a body at all, yet it does make the distinction between an unensouled "body of matter" and an ensouled "living, human body.") How can that notion be reconciled with the resurrection of the body? While I don’t propose to settle one of the great questions of philosophy today, I will gesture in the direction of a potential solution stemming from an objection that more intelligent critics of Christianity (the ones who have gotten over Galileo and the Crusades) sometimes make.
Would the resurrection of the body invalidate Aristotle’s theory? I think not. Indeed, Aristotle’s formulation was taken up by the Catholic Church "the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body” proclaims the Catechism at 365) as part of its official teaching on the relation between the soul and the body. (Although, to be fair, the Catechism doesn’t go so far as to say the unensouled body isn’t a body at all; it does, however, make the distinction between an unensouled “body of matter” and an ensouled “living, human body.”) How can that notion be reconciled with the resurrection of the body?
Perhaps by noting that, throughout the course of our lives, every molecule in our body will be replaced by another molecule (six times, in fact). This does not mean that our body does not persist, but simply that its matter changes while its form is preserved. The matter of our body is not its essence: Its essence is either its form or the combination of its form and its matter. (On this point, I suggest chapter 1 of Leon Kass’ marvelous book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature, especially his criticism of the saying “You are what you eat.” As a caveat, Kass would almost certainly not agree with my larger argument.)
This is a roundabout way of defending why one could believe in the resurrection of the body and not be troubled by Bodies : The bodies you see at the exhibition aren’t bodies in any meaningful sense. They’re the matter that rather recently made up some people’s bodies and that now still (by means of chemical preservatives) resemble people’s bodies, the way a statue of a person’s body would resemble his real body.
But what about Elizabeth Marquardt’s grandmother? Would we want our loved ones on display at Bodies ? This may not be a sufficient answer, but although I love Michelangelo’s nudes, I’m really glad that there isn’t one of my grandmother in her youth. That doesn’t (I think) say much about the objective morality or respectfulness of nude sculptures and paintings, but it says a lot about the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.
When we bury our dead, we do it not out of respect for their bodies (although, all burial customs originate in theistic beliefs involving a role for the body in the afterlife), but out of respect for the people they used to be (and perhaps still are). That’s why we can countenance medical dissections and even cremations without thinking that such processes invariably compromise the dignity of the individual whose body is being either dissected or cremated.
(4) This objection smacks to me of the kind of allergy that a people habituated to thinking of science as hostile to its principles can manifest even to legitimate advances. Plenty of people have moral reservations about bioengineering techniques that attempt either to change human nature or to destroy human life. They shouldn’t let that make them hostile to the kind of science that is actually about scientia , about knowledge, rather than about the manipulation of human life. Bodies is unquestionably about scientia¯ it doesn’t fiddle with what humanity means and it doesn’t take life (leaving Chinese political prisoners to the side). And because the human skin normally hides from view an utterly amazing complexity and beauty, the scientia that Bodies promotes is the kind that is more likely to strengthen than diminish our belief in the sacredness of human life.
Indeed, in my experience, visiting the Bodies exhibit was much more like reading the scientific writings of a J. Henri Fabre or an Erwin Straus (in short, of scientists who reveal beauty, order, and meaning in the natural world) than like reading a clinical biology textbook. The exhibit room was filled with the very hush of which Jordan speaks, and both my companion and I came away from the exhibition with the same thought that the fact that the human body manages to function so often and so well is little short of miraculous. My (nontheistic) companion went even further, musing aloud that "it really is hard to think that all of that came to be by accident."
No exhibition that seems invariably to produce awe, respect, and humility in appreciation for the gift of the human body can be all bad.