Saturday, 30 May 2009

Too Fat to Live, Too Rare to Die




A short and entirely un-scholarly look at the future of human evolution

On Monday 01 June 2009 ITV1 will broadcast a documentary entitled Supersize Teens: Can't Stop Eating, a documentary on tennage obesity. A Radio Times billing for the programme summarises the show's content thusly:

"We follow two morbidly obese teenagers as they risk everything - including their lives - in a bid to lose weight. Laura is a 24 stone 13-year-old, and is one of the youngest patients ever to have the high-risk gastric bypass operation, while Victoria is 14 and is paying 25,000 dollars for a reversible gastric band."

These are shocking cases of morbid obesity in two very young children, but more remarkable still is the fact that, in this day and age, such stories are commonplace. 2009 alone has seen the likes of Georgia's Story: 33 Stone at 15, Gok Wan: Too Fat, Too Young and Extraordinary People: The World's Heaviest Man grace mainstream, prime-time UK television. The digital channels, particularly those aimed at women or themed around 'health' abound with endless weight-loss comptitions of freak-show documentaries about whale-like Americans. Indeed, to mention our cousins across the Atlantic isn't to score cheap laughs, it's to highlight the extent of the problem. The Radio Time continues about "the situation in America, where more than 200,000 children a year undergo weight loss surgery."

This is staggering! Why has this occurred? We, the human race, have mastered this planet. We've tamed the beasts of the wild, we've explored and documented each and every nook and cranny of the lands of this planet (and a good deal of the waters too), we can predict the weather, communicate golbally, we have knowledge of physics, biology, mathematics... In short, we understand this working of this planet and have carved it to suit our needs. Why, then, have our very bodies failed us? Why have they, to paraphrase an episode of Transformers, become weakened and totally useless?

Think of any technological development you like and ask yourself what purpose it serves. All technology is designed to overcome the shortcomings of our physical or mental abilities. The chair, something we all take for granted, overcomes the cumbersome nature of our physical form, overcomes fatigue and serves as the best possible means to rest a body 'in neutral', as it were. The roof over your head prevents hypothermia. The car you drive propells you to your destination far faster than your legs or horse ever could. I could ramble on; the point to bear in mind is that everything we have developed from the knife and fork to the microprocessor is in some way intrinsically connected with our biological needs.

However, nature has been developing technology for far longer than we have. Think of your body, comprised as it is of limbs, a torso, a skeleton, a myriad of senseory receptors, an internal communication and electrical system in the form of the nervous system and so on. Each part of your body serves specific funtions. Think of the arm and the hand. These are your body's primary tools. Consider the versatility, sensitivity and ingenuity of the human hand and contemplate the many functions the hands perform. These are tools carved by evolutionary need.

But sadly evolution, being a crude process of trial-and-error, has not made us perfect. We can marvel at the human eye and ponder the wonders of its workings but we know, categorically, that our visual spectrum is very limited. One only has to blow a dog whistle and watch the reations of any nearby canines to know that we perceieve but a fraction of the audio signals around us. Our sense of smell is nothing compared to that of a dog. And these shortcomings are nothing compared to those that instinct forces upon us: hunger, thirst, sexual desire and more abstractly chemical moods like anger, misery, despair and so on. Schopenhauer was correct in proclaiming that we are all slaves to insatiable desire and will always remain so.

Since we have taken our evolution into our own hands, as previously stated, we have developed an alarming array of technological solutions to our various biological shortcomings, and herein lies the problem. We have been too ingenious too quickly. Our minds, natures, technologies and so on are of 2009 but our bodies might as well exist in the Stone Age. And it is for this reason that we are stagnating and in danger of degenerating.

Our young are fat because food is no longer a challenge. They do not have to pick it or hunt for it, they no longer slog it home or exist in states of perpetual feast-and-famine. It's not their fault; it is perfectly sensible to streamline the production and availability of something as biologically essential as food, but the abundance of food, and often refined and alien produce at that, has unwittingly caused a problem. Our prisons are perpetually full to bursting with rapists and drug abusers, all of whom are merely retreading crimes perpetuated since the dawn of man, but crimes borne of their own chemistry rather than conscious malice. We no longer have to move now that we have the car, and so on, and so on...

Humankind is at a crossroads: we can either face up to the fact that our very natures (i.e. taking the path of least resistence in all situations) are incompatible with our physical forms in the world in which we now live and seek to use our technological developments in order to evolve, or slide into a state of increasing physical weakness and frailty.

Radical biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is currently seeking a means of prolonging human life through prevention of "the set of accumulated side effects from metabolism that eventually kills us", and compares his view of 'repairing' human beings to the notion of a mechnaic replacing parts on a car. This is all very well in its way, but we have already proven that, by using technology, we have become capable of superhuman feats. With the telescope we can stare deeply into the heavens at any time we desire; with the motor car we can travel at huge speeds, we have learned how to fly, we have developed machines capable of great physical strength and versatility, as well as things such as calculators, communication technologies and the means to artifically maintain the health of bodily organs.

In my view, the next stage in humanity's development will be the widespread physical replacement of biological limbs and organs with technological equivalents. Indeed, think of the pacemaker, the prosthetic limb, the hearing aid and so on - such technologies are already in common use. Such a situation poses no end of philosophical problems: is identity something local to merely the brain, is it an illusion, what does it mean to be 'human', and so on but, in my view, if we are to finally overcome our biological and chemical dilemmas, we must now put into practice on ourselves the same technological mastery that we have wrought on the world.

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