A vision of the ‘perfect’ woman
OUR world is changing faster than we are. So what would the ideal modern human look like? What challenges does evolution need to address? One biologist has given the idea a go …
Have we reached peak human?
Evolutionary biologist and science communicator Professor Alice Roberts doesn't think so.
In fact, we have probably fallen behind in the evolutionary race for perfection.
After millions of years of adapting everything about us to a life of hunting and gathering, the past 200 years have turned everything on its head.
Many of the quirks and shortcuts that proved so useful to our stone-age ancestors are now causing real problems.
Put simply: Evolution hasn't done all that great a job in adapting our ancient apelike frame for a technological future.
Back pain. Troubled child birth. Sunburn. Failing eyesight and hearing.
All are vestiges of a heritage that no longer applies to our daily lives.
Our feet have all the bones needed to grasp tree branches. We just don't need them any more, and we're prone to unnecessary sprains and breaks.
Our S-shaped spines, while flexible, are not all that useful for carrying heavy loads.
And we've gradually been getting smarter, Professor Roberts says. Not only are we changing the world around us, our heads have been getting bigger.
Hope you enjoyed @theAliceRoberts on @BBCFOUR— StormHD (@StormHDtv) June 14, 2018
'Can Science Make Me Perfect?'
Full finishing post production completed here at #stormhd!
An amazing and interesting show, we have loved being a part of it! pic.twitter.com/6kNJy1L63a
And this is happening at the same time evolution is pushing women towards having smaller pelvises. The outcome? Painful - and dangerous - childbirth.
Right now, our brain size is at about the limit a woman's hips can handle. For us to get smarter, babies will need to find another way out …
Professor Roberts says there are answers.
And we even have the technology to change our bodies into more appropriate forms.
So she redesigned herself as Alice 2.0.
The outcome may not fit the stereotypical concept of a super human …
Large eyes remove blind spots and are all the better for seeing our small screens. Enhanced ears make us better at picking up the queues around us.
Our future selves should have a dog's heart, Professor Roberts says, and the "graceful lungs of a swan". Our lower backs have the strength of a chimpanzee. Our legs are built for stability - like an emu. Breasts are redundant.
And then there's the pouch.
"On reflection, I don't like the look of the birdlike legs," she said of her evolved-human concept. " But having given birth to two children, I'm a big fan of having the kangaroo's pouch."
In a new BBC documentary, Can Science Make Me Perfect?, Professor Roberts has looked at what could solve many of our day-to-day and health issues. Combining her understanding of human anatomy with the skills of London Science Museum sculptors and artists, Professor Roberts has created what she argues is a human 'superbeing'.
"The starting point was me: my forty four year old body, a little rough-around-the-edges and far less than perfect. I subjected myself to a scan knowing that the virtual 'me' would be transformed, perhaps beyond all recognition," she wrote.
"I traded agility for speed when I altered my legs and replaced my feet - and that means my chances of climbing a mountain are zero. But I think it's worth it - even though I screamed when I saw the final 3D model of my creation," she explained.
Here's a summary of Professor Roberts' human modifications, and why:
EYES: Our eyes have evolved with 'blind spots' that our brain fills with interpretations. "But how about we wire up the eye sensibly and avoid the blind spot in the first place. Octopuses do just that - so let's steal their anatomy for the eye."
EARS: Our ears lose sensitivity to higher frequencies as we age. "To tackle this, we could either opt for regenerating hair cells - or we could look at amplifying the sound coming into the ears in the first place. And I think large, feline ears would look amazing."
BREATHING: Our air passages are prone to choking as it shares part of the 'pipe' between the head and neck. Food can be breathed. Air can be swallowed. "How ridiculous. Let's separate the airway completely from the passageway for food, and avoid choking."
LUNGS: Birds have a better system of breathing, improving the rate at which oxygen is absorbed into the blood and carbon dioxide expelled. "I'd like to steal this secret for the new 'me'," Professor Roberts writes.
HEART: Our hearts use a pair of coronary arteries to deliver oxygenated blood. But they share very few links. So if even one coronary artery becomes blocked, large parts of the heart can die. "Other animals, including dogs and guinea pigs, have plenty of links between the arteries, so that areas of heart muscle are supplied by both vessels. If there's a blockage in one, the other artery can take over. "
SPINE: Our long, flexible spines are great for running and climbing. But the lumbar vertebrae are always under great strain. As we age, their ligaments holding discs in place dry out - leading to back pain. "As a sufferer of a slipped disc, I'd like to opt for a 'chimpanzee fix' here - reducing the lumbar spine from five to four vertebrae … I'm sacrificing my waist here, but I think the biomechanical advantages are worth it."
CHILDBIRTH: The large heads of human children make childbirth tricky. The answer, however, seems a little … drastic: adapting ourselves to become marsupials, and raising our young in a pouch. "I think this is a great idea, but I'm slightly nervous about what it will look like."
LEGS: Our knees and feet are complex. Both are prone to damage, and failure. But there are more efficient ways of doing things. "If we focused on one thing, we could streamline the design. I've taken my inspiration from ostriches - which are bipedal, like us, but extremely good at running."
SKIN: Melanoma is a growing problem. While it mostly afflicts pale skinned people, that same paleness promotes vitamin D production. So the ability to switch colour tones to suit the season would be ideal. "Some cephalopods can achieve this trick with skin pigment, so I'm borrowing their trick."