The Olden Mean

When the posthuman future meets our pre-posthuman selves 

The newspaper headline heralded a breakthrough: "ANCIENT CHILD-RAISING TECHNIQUES ARE REBORN." The story, on a front page of a section of The Boston Globe, concerned a group of cutting-edge young mothers who are resolved to throw conventional wisdom to the winds and raise their infants in the most enlightened way possible. Just how revolutionary is this new approach, which is called "attachment parenting"? Among other things, it calls for breast-feeding your child. Wearing your infant in a sling. Being responsive to your baby's cries. Avoiding long separations.

Scoff as you may, these women might be on to something. Indeed, some of the suggested behaviors seem to have been taken up by billions of mothers worldwide, with hardly a conscious thought. The Globe invoked one mother from a maternally advanced suburb.

[Ms. Brown] said she just naturally practiced attachment parenting without knowing her decisions had a name. "To find out there were other parents who did those kinds of things and it was called something, I thought it was great," she said.

It should come as no surprise that the instinctive responses of Suburban Mom and Cro-Magnon Mom fall into a roughly similar pattern. The human organism—the corporeal thing itself, its needs and wants, its likes and dislikes, its limitations, its shape—is the most conservative force in human society.

This fact is so obvious that it virtually recedes into oblivion. A few years ago archaeologists succeeded in dating a cache of ancient shoes found in a cave overlooking the Missouri River. The shoes went back to as early as 6,000 B.C., and came in a variety of styles—some looked like Mexican huaraches, some resembled a woman's sling-backs, some were sandals, some were slip-ons. Newspaper accounts of the discovery marveled that this ancient footwear, fashioned eight millennia before Gucci and Rockport, would not look out of place on modern feet. Why, you could wear it now! But of course you could—feet are feet. For similar reasons, a pharaoh's glove and The Gloved One's glove look surprisingly alike; a condottiere's helmet and Darth Vader's helmet derive from the same functional principle. Rings and combs, trousers and condoms—they hold their shape over time. Leafing recently through a book about Roman Britain, I came across a photograph of an ancient bikini, unearthed during an excavation in central London. The triangular patch was exactly where you would expect; the anterior thong was aligned with the familiar gluteal groove.

Over the ages and across countless cultures our beds have looked like beds, our chairs like chairs, our houses like houses. Our active lives are defined by the body's thresholds of heat and cold, pain and pleasure, energy and fatigue. Our eyesight is fixed within a specified range (better than that of bats, inferior to that of eagles), and so is our hearing. The sheer physical demands of hauling the body to work seem to be influenced by some inherent governor: a famous study of commuting, for instance, suggested that although distances have changed with technological advances, people in all eras and cultures have budgeted about the same amount of time for daily travel (on average, about half an hour one way).

The built-in conservatism of the body has its analogue in the brain. Certain images and proportions are naturally pleasing to human sight; one is the golden mean, known as phi, which shows up everywhere from nautilus spirals to classical architecture. Evolutionary psychology is replete with examples of behavior that appear to be hard-wired. The rudimentary fact that our ancestors were once hunted for food by other species may have left a mark in various ways. We clump together socially—a defensive mechanism. Experiments show that children learn about predators faster than they do about far more prevalent threats—an atavistic phenomenon that one anthropologist calls Jurassic Park syndrome. The notion of ourselves as potential objects of predation surfaces from time to time even among the urbane. Recall Noël Coward's purported remark during the parade at Elizabeth II's coronation. As the massive Queen of Tonga came into view, someone pointed to the thin little man beside her and asked if that was her husband. Coward replied, "No, that's her lunch."

On balance, is the conservatism of the human body a force for good? It certainly serves as a kind of ballast—and as a brake. Entrepreneurs can extol the glories of having 500 cable channels, but luckily we still have only one set of eyes. The Internet has made the totality of human knowledge accessible to everyone, but the individual cerebral cortex presents the same bottleneck it always did. Everyone finds the limitations on human memory severe and annoying, but researchers remind us how useful the act of forgetting can be. Remembering too much, they note, is powerfully at odds with abstraction and creativity.

And yet we chafe under this regime, and continually press against it. Two new books take up the subject in various ways. One of them, Our Own Devices, by Edward Tenner, looks at how everyday technology, from shoelaces to eyeglasses to keyboards, affects the way we use our bodies. It concludes with a chapter on the coming age of augmented humanity, an age of "technological symbiosis," when a wide range of enabling devices will be not just portable but implantable. Tenner points out that if such things as pacemakers and cochlear implants are included, one American in ten has already received some sort of mechanized upgrade.

Many of these things, of course, are simply making up for the usual human deficiencies; they fall into the Precambrian era of our sensibility, compared with what's to come. The philosopher Carl Elliott's Better Than Well looks at a more recent stage: "enhancement technologies" as they apply to everything from aging to body height to motivation to happiness. Pharmaceuticals and the knife between them address a multitude of issues; genetic enhancement will address even more.

It is not clear that we will know when to stop. A newspaper report the other day brought word of the dawning age of face transplants. To be sure, the medical pioneers contend that the purpose is purely therapeutic—for burn victims and the like. But we all know that it's only a matter of time before satisfied recipients start emerging from Swiss clinics after the mystifying "disappearances" of people like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez.

Tqhere is an almost infinite number of possible technical ways to transform humanity," the novelist and apocalyptic visionary Bruce Sterling has observed.

We can start from our firm kinship with the microscopic and work upward through every scale. Genetic ways. Mitochondrial ways. Tissue. Bone. Nerves. Guts. Through blood, lymph, and hormone. Through our senses, through our neurons. We are large, physical, multi-cellular entities; every aspect of our being offers up a scientific, technical, and industrial carnival.

The prospect of revolutionary change—the much anticipated "posthuman future"—is at once exciting and terrifying. And yet I retain considerable faith in the staying power of our pre-posthuman selves. Enhancement arrives with the audacity of Napoleon; the body responds with the inertial resistance of those two great Russian generals, January and February.

Besides, the most effective steps toward enhancement usually turn out to be the small ones. In that spirit, consider a study published this year by psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin. The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that people who use a diverse array of pronouns have stronger immune systems, lower levels of stress, and less need to see the doctor than people who say "I" "I" "I" all the time. The study speculated that the willingness to perceive the world from many angles is a healthier outlook than solipsism. Can preposition therapy be far away? You, me, us, them: this is a form of enhancement we can all embrace.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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