by Kenneth Lyen
I studied biology at school and dissected frogs, dogfish, earthworms, rats and cockroaches. The ethics of dissecting a life never entered my mind. This is a controversial area, and will continue to be debated well into the future.
When the computer programme for dissecting a virtual frog became available, I tried it out, but realised that it was a totally different experience from dissecting the real thing.
Computer simulation programmes are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and reality is being recreated more accurately. For example, Microsofts Flight Simulator is a popular programme that gives you the feel of flying a small aircraft. I've tried it, but unfortunately my plane always crashed, which is probably why I did not choose to be an airline pilot. However, flight training schools use an advanced flight simulation programme to teach their pilots to fly. Go to any arcade and you can drive a racing car or a motorcycle, and even play virtual tennis. The regular army uses war games to battle it out with virtual enemies. There are stocks and shares programmes that allow you to use real data from the bourses. There is even a medical programme called ER, about handling patients in the emergency room, and luckily I fared a bit better with this, compared to flight simulation.
Recently, in Virginia USA, a seventh grade student objected to dissecting a preserved frog. Her teacher allowed her to dissect a virtual frog on the computer. This year, the Singapore Medical School has discontinued the age-old practice of dissecting human cadavers. Instead, all medical students have to dissect a virtual body on a computer.
The advantages of dissecting a virtual frog or a human are obvious. There is no need to obtain the real thing. It is cleaner, and if you make a mistake in your dissection, you can do it again. Furthermore, it is far easier to dissect on the computer than in real life.
The problem with dissecting the real thing is that the preservative alters the colour and textures, so that it is not really the "real thing" anyway. On the other hand, the three-dimensional topology of the real thing is something that a computer cannot simulate.
The fundamental question is whether or not you will become a better biologist or doctor if you have handled real materials. Probably not. However it can be argued that practitioners should be closer to their materials so as to gain a better feel for it. There is a sense of unreality when doing a virtual dissection.
Which technique is better for training?
In the case of medicine, dissection is probably best carried out on a living patient during a surgical operation. There is no substitute for this. I would not like to be operated by a surgeon whose only training is on a computer simulation programme. Come to think of it, I would not like to be operated by a student who is doing his or her very first case!