Robots, Empathy, and Entrails

I gave into temptation and ordered my genetic profile from AncestryDNA. What’s more, I downloaded the raw data and ran it through Promethease, a website that will analyze your genome and then give you pages and pages of your genetic traits and mutations matched to current and generally reliable medical evidence on certain health risks and disease susceptibility of the individual findings, good and bad. I was absolutely ready to take my results with a grain of salt, as I am not specialized enough by even the kindest of estimates to interpret much of the individual findings, and their relationship to each other. I know individually each gene is just an indicator on a path of a million other variables.  Still, one result gave me pause.


What the hell does that mean?

I have been told by people who don’t know me well that I can seem aloof, but I don’t see myself that way. I don’t want to crush my opponents in the dirt, and generally, seek harmony in my relationships. I would go so far as to say I even care about the well being of others. In fact, one of my worst qualities is a tendency to gush when I am nervous, and sometimes I have to fight an instinct to give someone a hug or otherwise attempt to put them at ease.  When I do regrettably give into those awkward instincts, I sometimes have an out-of-body experience, rolling my eyes back at myself. “Quit it,” I tell myself, “you look like an idiot.” But what if I have it wrong, and what I think I am fighting is not actually empathy at all, just a mishmash of fear, embarrassment, and overall social inhibition without any real underlying altruism?

It is with this basis that I began researching the historic markers of June 6th., and came across this especially unsettling tale. Today in 1822, a man named Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the abdomen, and tended to by an army surgeon named Dr. William Beaumont, and was not at all expected to survive the injury.  Surprisingly, he did, and so began a decade of scrutiny and experimentation on this very lucky or very unlucky patient. Dr. Beaumont noticed early on that when St. Martin ate, sometimes food would ooze out of his open surgical wound. Immediately recognizing an opportunity, the opening was accidentally-on-purpose kept open to heal into a permanent fistula or small opening directly from his skin into his stomach.  It appears the good doctor then signed the bankrupt and illiterate 19-year-old into what sounds like indentured servitude and took advantage of the close proximity to attempt more hands-on research on him.

To understand more about the process of digestion, the physician would tie little pieces of food to string and insert them into St. Martin’s stomach. He would periodically pull them out to witness digestion in action, as well as extract gastric juice into cups to watch food breakdown. All while having the bonus as of St. Martin doubling as a handyman, to chop firewood and what not. Sounds almost like Prometheus or some other punishment out of a Greek tragedy.

Dr. Beaumont published of his research in the 1833 volume entitled  Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion. Recognized as the founder of physiologic research on digestion, at least nine institutions are named in his honor.  For St. Martin’s contribution, when he died in 1880, his family delayed his burial, allowing his body to decompose longer than usual, in hot weather, for fear that the physicians whose autopsy requests had been refused, would dig him up.  They also made the grave eight feet deep just in case curiosity got the better of any member of the very interested medical community. Doesn’t sound like the actions of an exploited family to me.

MM7 answers the phone for his master. IMAGE: KEYSTONE FEATURES/GETTY IMAGES

So, I am wondering if I could do what Dr. Beaumont did.  Would I be able to pursue an answer to a question at the expense of another’s pain, or at least extreme discomfort? I want to say 100% no, but I am going to have to sleep on it to make sure. I am surely not that curious about gastroenterology, but is there a question I want to be answered badly enough? Maybe, if what I have considered empathy in myself is completely wrong, and I am only motivated to manipulate emotions I am uncomfortable with? Surely if robots are being programmed to fake empathy, so could also make a good approximation without actually having any.

While I examine this new question of inherent identity (with or without bits of food on a string) I am going to outsource further insight or advice on your day.

🤖chat with a robot

Also published on Medium.

Published by Guinevere Han Derpants

Writer. Not waving but drowning. Don't worry, help is probably on the way.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: