The wax binding his aviation-aiding attachments melted, and he plunged earthwards, his new abilities rescinded with a cruel emphasis. Icarus’s tale, as highlighted at the start of the Wellcome Gallery’s exhibition Superhuman, epitomises the potential and the peril inherent in human enhancement as we constantly, and sometimes ill-advisedly, strive for more.

“Superhuman looks critically at our interactions with some technologies, how they are used to normalise our appearance or our function,” exhibition curator Emily Sargent says.

“The most advanced prosthetic hand available today taps into our love affair with technology. People who have lost function in their natural hand are electing to have it taken off and this bionic hand fitted instead.”

There’s more than 100 artefacts at the Olympic- and Paralympic-inspired showcase. Artificial limbs sit alongside wheelchairs and one of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius’ running blades; while spectacles, the contraceptive pill and even extreme high-heeled shoes illustrate that our bodies, abilities and appearances are altered every day, in ways we don’t even notice.

 There are considerations, too, of where bio and nano-technology might take us – and where it’s been. Body modification may sound very much like a modern-day concept but, Sargent says, it’s nothing of the sort.

“The idea of human advancement is something we have integrated in to our lives as long as history can remember,” she explains, pointing out a (used) ancient Eygptian artificial toe and the use of prostethetics for thalidomide victims of the Fifties and Sixties.

“[Thalidomide] was the first time that the government invested in technology to compensate for the loss of the limbs, but it was done in an ill-advised way – rather than prioritising function they prioritised form.

Children were slotted in to them, but they enabled their movement little.”

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That drive for form over function illustrated our discomfort with disability, but the switched emphasis highlights our growing understanding and, currently, increased ambition for faster, stronger and better.

Consider sports. It has always been shaped by the pursuit of greater physical achievement, and not always through training and practice.

Whether it has been isotonic energy drinks, the Seventies Nike waffle sole trainer, or the use of anabolic steroids, humans have always sought to improve in whatever way they can, the interesting aspect being the extent to which some methods are seen as acceptable or not.

Indeed, Pistorius faced a slog to be accepted to compete against able-bodied competitors, requiring a multitide of tests to ensure he was receiving no advantage.

But University of the West of Scotland Creative Futures Research Centre director Andy Miah says we should not always fear such advances.

“A lot of people worry about a technological future, as if using biotechnology, or technological artefacts within our lives, could corrupt our humanity,” he says.

“It seems within elite sports, we see the opposite: technologies have enriched those sports. When we think about the Olympics or Paralympics 50 years on, there may not be that division. We may just have one form of performance that reveals how capable we are at using our bodies in combination with technology.

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“In that world, enhancement technologies will be so common that the need for anti-doping, and the value attached to preventing it, will be much less great.  What will matter is using technology to demonstrate the best of our humanity.”

Looking forward, however, there’s no doubt moral questions will be raised about distinguishing between what is human and what is enhanced.

In 1998, Professor Kevin Warwick from Reading University declared himself the world’s first cyborg. His work on the interface between information technology and the human nervous system led him first to insert a chip in his arm, allowing him to do such things as turn lights on and off by clicking his fingers, and in 2002 to implant electrodes that connected directly with his nervous system.

This work has been undoubtedly controversial. Warwick the man may not be threatening, but his research was considered scientific heresy. “People with pacemakers and cochlear implants are getting a benefit from technology,” he challenged The Guardian in 2001. “What’s wrong with adding something that gives you extra capabilities?”

Let’s face it: mankind is constantly changing, and as our understanding has shifted from restoring natural function to embellishing it, our increasing acceptance of technological advancements is becoming subtle yet widespread and defined.

If you believe the experts, it might not be as long as 50 years before the Olympics is cyborg-inclusive. Let’s just hope that as our technology accelerates, we remember Icarus, and don’t fly too close to the sun.

Superhuman. Until Oct 16. Free. 
Wellcome Collection,
NW1 2BE 
Tube | Euston Square 

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Olympic doping scandal the way it used to be

In 1988, Canadian Ben Johnson set a new 9.79s 100m world record and snatched the Seoul Olympic gold from Carl Lewis, only to be disqualified for taking steroids.

Today, we loathe dopers like Johnson and Dwain Chambers, but at the turn of the 20th century, taking drugs and chemical enhancements to aid performance was all part and parcel of competition.

Tom Hicks (above) won the 1904 Olympics marathon with a mid-race sip of brandy and strychnine to aid his endurance. His collapse hours later forced the medal ceremony to be postponed.

Strychnine and similar ‘aids’ were subsequently banned. Suspicions were raised in London, 1908, however, when the marathon winner entered the Olympic stadium’s final lap, delirious, and then proceeded to run the wrong way round the track.

Photos: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images; Wellcome

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