The ideas corner: A plastic people future

Are we witnessing the birth of a cosmetic underclass? ask

H G Wells, in his classic 1895 novel The Time Machine, told the story of an inventor who teleported himself far into the distant future and was taken aback to discover that the human race had by then split into two different species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The nice-but-dim Eloi lived a carefree life above ground, their only worry being the bestial, lumpen Morlocks who toiled all day long underground to keep them in the style to which they had become accustomed.

Wells's novel was a poisoned arrow aimed at the leisure class of unproductive toffs which he saw emerging in Edwardian England. Not for the first time, however, science fiction has subsequently been resurrected as scientific fact. Several weeks ago, an evolutionary theorist called Oliver Curry predicted that it was only a matter of time - 100,000 years in this case - before the human race split up into two differ- ent species; one genetic upper class and another course, ugly-looking underclass. The upper clas-ses would be tall, healthy and intelligent, while the lower orders would all be ugly, goblin-like creatures - nasty, brutish, and rather short.

Academics nowadays - especially those at the LSE, where Dr Curry toils - are almost contractually obliged to seek out 15 minutes of fame for their research, so we can forgive him for a pitch which sounds like it came straight from The Lord of the Rings. Stories like his, however, which imagine a future rift between cosmetic haves and have-nots, are beginning to seem eerily plausible. Almost 700,000 cosmetic operations, after all, will be performed in Britain this year at a cost of £539m; by 2009, market analyst Mintel predicts, they are expected to top one million, at a cost of almost £1bn. Many more are taking place abroad, with Spain becoming the cosmetic surgery centre of Europe. Large numbers of Brits, ostensibly on holiday there, are coming home with a new set of breasts and a wide-eyed pout which wouldn't look out of place on Desperate Housewives.

But are we really witnessing the birth of what some futurologists are calling a "cosmetic underclass" - a class of people who will, in the future, not be able to afford genetic surgery and will be forced to look their age as a result? It's an arresting idea, but there are reasons to be sceptical. Remember all that talk at the end of the Nineties about an underclass of technology know-nothings whose inability to cross the chasm of the "digital divide" was bound to hobble civil society for decades to come. It turns out that the so-called "digital underclass" could well afford a computer and internet connection, but they didn't much see the point. The best argument against the emergence of a class of marauding uglies is that cosmetic surgery, a bit like computers and the net, is getting cheaper all the time. Very soon anyone will be able to afford it and - as a consequence - it might become as unfashionable as a fake tan.