Lesley Sharp’s Transplant Imaginary

The supply of donor organs is in constant peril. But researchers around the world are working to develop spare human parts out of both machines and animals. Professor Lesley Sharp’s new book, The Transplant Imaginary, is a vivid look at how experts in “highly experimental sciences” navigate the moral world of their work—and how they think about its implications. Along with students in my course, “Healing Animals,” I recently spoke with Sharp about her new book.

The Transplant Imaginary is essential reading for anyone interested in law, ethics, and medical research. Sharp takes a look at things people cannot see and yet which factor crucially in scientific work. She recognizes that science is morally laden work, and her book helps to explain choices in a world of limited resources—and asks whether these are the only choices we have.

The Transplant Imaginary starts with a simple premise. Science and ethics are not separate spheres, but inseparable parts of scientists’ practical, everyday lived experience. This premise is controversial among some philosophers, but Sharp is an anthropologist (and, as it happens, she has written previously, and to great acclaim, on organ transplantation and donation, among other topics).

The focus of The Transplant Imaginary is on what Sharp calls “moral thinking in science.” She hones in on experts from two fields of “highly experimental sciences”—xeno-transplantation and bioengineering. One group puts animal organs in people; the other puts mechanical organs in people. The book condenses an impressive number of interviews and observations of working scientists in both fields in five countries: USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Ultimately, Sharp is interested in how scientists collectively think about work that is shot through with moral choices. No doubt, there is plenty of posturing about the moral neutrality of scientific work, but Sharp takes such assertions as rhetorical tools. She focuses, instead, on what she calls “moral moments,” which are little episodes in which scientists show ambivalence about the social worth and the scientific value of their work (53). She uses these moments to consider experts’ sensibilities about human-animal “proximity”—in other words, what it means to be human when we become part animal or part machine.

Try as they might, scientists cannot settle these questions once and for all. This ambiguity matters: Sharp finds that scientists’ shifting moral commitments determine the projects they choose and the activities they take up at any given moment. The Transplant Imaginary is an invitation to consider how scientists arrange their work in light of their views about our debt to and dependence on things that are non-human.

Some of the most stunning analysis in The Transplant Imaginary considers how experts in highly experimental sciences organize their workaday lives given that they have to bank on specific payoffs in the future. “[E]xperimental science involves significant temporal gymnastics,” Sharp finds, “as researchers imagine the futuristic promises of their efforts” (147-8). Sharp shows precisely how scientists’ efforts to imagine the future guide their everyday experimental practices, as well as the financial decisions they make in a world fueled by venture capital. The xeno-transplant experts were prophetic: they saw their work as good by definition because of its (presumed) benefits in the future. By contrast, biotech engineers saw their work as constantly producing insufficient technologies. Transplant Imaginary opens important questions about how experimental scientists manage the imperatives to limit risks (and costs!) when outcomes are uncertain in the extreme.

One thing that readers won’t know, but ought to: Sharp is a generous scholar, as well as a first-rate researcher, which was apparent in her willingness to talk with my students about the book. On its own merits, The Transplant Imaginary is well worth reading for scholars of law and medicine. I hope you have time to check it out.

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