Superhuman?

Human enhancement comes under the microscope at the Wellcome Trust's current collection, 'Superhuman'.

Now the fevered flag-waving has finally wound down, let’s put the Olympics into perspective - my cat could outrun Mo Farah. This isn't the delirium of a besotted owner. No, the brutal truth of the matter is that, however many medals we humans award ourselves, in terms of pure physiology the naked ape pales beside our animal brethren. In spite of this, cats don't rule the world and this is because where we do win gold is our use of tools, which we have been successfully incorporating into the schema of our ineloquent neotenized bodies since before antiquity. Indeed, philosopher Andy Clark argues that homo sapiens are “natural-born cyborgs, factory tweaked and primed so as to be ready to grow into extended cognitive and computational architectures: ones whose systemic boundaries far exceed those of skin and skull.”

Superhuman, the new collection by the Wellcome Trust, is a shrine to such self-augmentation. Its glass cases are crammed with the strange and familiar - a false nose for syphilis suffers that looks like something out a Christmas cracker, dentures made of real teeth, glasses, early dildos, high heels, a leg prosthesis, pills, and many other cunning and bizarre contraptions, which together act as an effective wake-up call to how extensively "enhancements" permeate human existence. Accompanying these artifacts are art, films and academic interviews, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of enhancements and raise some crucial questions about how we should react to the approaching acceleration of augmentation.

At times, there is a little too much of this unstructured questioning. A talk by Clinical Neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, though otherwise insightful, soon dissolves into a slightly condescending barrage of ‘what do you think’? And by the end of exhibit being called upon so regularly for your opinion starts to appear less like open-mindedness and more like perspirative desperation at a lack of substantive answers.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the absence of interiority. Contemporary philosophers of embodiment tend to distinguish between the body as an object (this being the body of externality and organs as studied by medicine) and the lived body (that forms the locus of an individual’s experiences, existence and selfhood). Though enhancements can be directed towards the body as an object, for instance cosmetic surgery (though this does, of course, modulate an individual’s affect towards their own selfhood), it’s the impact upon the lived body, on an individual's abilities and experiences, that is surely the most appealing facet of human augmentation. After all, comic fans fantasise about being superheroes not for, say, the interesting molecular structure of the Hulk's muscles, but for the experience and power that having these muscles would entail.

Despite this, the lived body is a silent witness to the exhibit. There was one touching interview with boy with thalidomide impairments, but, as a child of merely five years old, his reflections were incredibly naive. One has to ask why they couldn’t have shown an interview with an insightful and articulate disabled adult like artist Alison Lapper? Unless, of course, you’re averse to giving the differently embodied an equal voice. Perhaps accusations of disablism are too harsh, but there is an awkwardness to a museum collection about body enhancement which invites us to address the topic through objects rather than subjective experiences.

If these omissions are shaming, the talk by philosopher Julian Savulescu is actively terrifying. Savulescu works from the sound speculation that our moral shortcomings could lead to our extinction, and proposes that we use our knowledge of neuroscience and psychology for the "moral enhancement" of humanity. Never mind trying to define the specifics of morality, it’s surely wishful thinking to believe that a society so self-serving that it risks its own existence can be trusted with invasively altering humanity's in-built morality in a way that's truly altruistic.

This sort of obstinate blindness to the real dangers of human augmentation pervades Superhuman. For though it goes some way towards addressing the ethics of individuals choosing to enhance, and successfully tackles irrational fears of technology subjugating humanity, no mention was made of how enhancements could be used by humans to subjugate each other. I shivered on reading the exhibit's projected timeline, which flings out predictions: by 2020 “people from all backgrounds and of all ranges of ability will acquire valuable new knowledge and skills more reliably and quickly”, while by 2030 “the ability to control the genetics of humans, animals and agricultural plants will greatly benefit human welfare; widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process”. Surely it isn't merely cynicism that calls this over-optimism? Foucault argues that the body is the primary target for societal control and considered through the prism of history it almost certain that the more radical augmentations on the horizon will only be available to the rich, and occasionally used for oppressive means. As an exhibit organized and funded by a scientific body, Superhuman aims to quash public fears that could dissuade research grants, yet such rose-tinted predictions are at best naive and at worst reprehensible, for blithely ignoring the dangers only increases the likelihood of their coming to being.

It's this unwillingness to address these darker, deeper and more radical aspects of enhancement that impairs Superhuman. As a collection of curios it can’t be faulted, but as an in-depth exploration of human enhancement, for all its blue-skies talk, it fails to soar to the heights.

Prosthetic legs are exhibited at the Wellcome Trust's new exhibition 'Superhuman' (Image: Getty)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit