Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 3 October 2012


The Wellcome Collection's offering for the summer of the Olympics has been the "Superhuman" exhibition, on the science and engineering of "human enhancement", its medical applications and artistic responses to it.

It starts with Icarus, and moves swiftly through glasses, false teeth, and false noses for syphilitics. It soon expands through the kind of prosthetic developments we're familiar with nowadays, to ever more mind-boggling possibilities (although there's an artwork connecting different sorts of life support machines to act together like a body to point out how difficult much of this work is).

What may be technically possible, in all forms of biotechnology, raises difficult questions. Among them (perhaps the organisers could not have foreseen how much the response to the Paralympics would bring it into general discussion) is: what is "normal"?

Who defines (and how) the "normality" that prosthetics are supposed to restore in those perceived to be impaired? What defines the exceptional human (rather than technology-assisted) performance we celebrate in competitions (and will we come to value "performance" in general rather than trying to focus on the specifically human quality of it? Who pays for, and what do we do about unequal access to, all these new technologies? Where are the boundaries beyond which enhancements make us "abnormal"?

And if you think there should be a limit, one of the exhibition's video contributors points out that, eventually, if life as we value it is to survive in the universe, our successors will have to enhance themselves enough to find or build another planet to live on, before the sun's collapse envelops the entire solar system. Don't worry, we've a few million years left: climate change and new diseases are far more likely to get us, in a much nearer future.

On which cheery thought, time for another cup of tea, I think.

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