In The Matrix (1999), one of the machines’ sharp-suited kung-fu enforcers, Agent Jones, is standing over Neo on a rooftop, about to kill him. Jones looks down and sneers: ‘Only human.’ Arguably it is something like this contempt for the merely human — or a kind of embarrassment at it — that has driven actual humans over the millennia to seek to enhance themselves. For a long time now, indeed, few of us have been ‘only human’ in the sense of getting by solely on what biology has given us. Spectacles, contact lenses, dental crowns and implants, pacemakers, running shoes — all are technological improvements to the capacities of a human body. Even clothes (adopted, according to the Book of Genesis, after a moment of shame at what is ‘only human’) are enhancements, enabling us to live in hostile climates. Today, improvements in cognitive pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and high-tech prostheses inspire some to dream of a future of accelerating species enhancement, reaching a point where we will have become — what? Übermenschen? Cyborgs? Post-humans? Or just better versions of ourselves?
In Emily Sargent’s artfully curated exhibition, Superhuman, at the Wellcome Trust in London this summer, sci-fi visions of future improvements were presented side-by-side with artifacts from the history of human enhancement. Here was a wooden big toe: an ancient Egyptian prosthesis, from around 600 BCE. At first it was thought that such appendages were only for dead pharaohs, so that the passage to the afterlife could be made by a body that was complete; more recently, researchers have found that such prosthetics might have been used by the living as well. The exhibition also displayed an 18th-century ‘ivory dildo complete with contrivance for simulating ejaculation’. The 19th century even saw a brisk trade in false noses attached to spectacle frames, thanks to the prevalence of syphilis.
One section of the exhibition was devoted to athletic enhancement; and many of the central arguments over human enhancement are played out today in the crucible of professional sport. The cyclist Lance Armstrong’s alleged use of cortisone, testosterone, the hormone EPO and blood transfusions has led him to be stripped of his Tour de France titles. Disappointed commentators have claimed that he simply didn’t want to work hard, even that he was ‘lazy’. But no one seriously thinks that Armstrong just sprawled around on his couch popping magic sports pills and drinking daiquiris. Indeed, if — as is alleged — the majority of professional cyclists were using such biochemical helpers at the time, then Armstrong’s victories proved he was better than anyone else at exploiting their effects through hard practice. In that sense, he deserved to win. The only objection to such a judgment is the existence of some riders who were not doping, and for whom it was therefore a rigged contest — even if they would not have won anyway. So while one solution is to ban drugs, another would be to compel — or at least allow — everyone to take them.
There are many chemical enhancements available to modern athletes that no one complains about: vitamins, highly tuned dietary science, even mineral-replenishing sports drinks. To allow these but not other chemical aids is to draw an arbitrary line merely because some such line, it is felt, must be drawn. People who want to eliminate doping in sport sometimes say that this is the only way sporting contests will be ‘fair’. But no sporting contest is ever fair. Some people are just born with the genes to make them faster, bigger or stronger than others. And some people are born into countries with better training programmes and more high-tech equipment than others. But this does not always guarantee success — witness the heartening victories of Usain Bolt and his Jamaican colleagues in sprinting. Still, we should not kid ourselves that undrugged athletes are ever competing on a level playing field. We watch sport in order to enjoy the results of an interplay between hard work and a genetic lottery.
Arguably, it would be fairer if athletes were allowed to exploit the whole modern pharmacopoeia to make up for their hard-wired disadvantages. True, previous anything-goes eras did not always result in triumphs of perfect dignity. Thomas Hicks staggered delirious over the finishing line of the 1904 Olympic marathon having received doses of strychnine and egg white washed down with brandy along the way. But one has also to contend with an argument made by the French writer Marc Perelman, in his witty polemic Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (2012). Rampant and ubiquitous doping, he says, is indispensable to the spectacle of modern industrialised athletics, which depends on the frequent breaking of records. Other writers argue that research into sports drugs should be encouraged because it would inevitably produce spin-off therapies for the wider population. And Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland, argues in the Superhuman exhibition’s catalogue that, as chemical enhancements become widely used in society in the future, it will no longer make any sense to deny athletes the use of them as well.
The cat-and-mouse history of sports doping intersects with the story of mechanical enhancement through prosthetics in the peculiar shape of the 1980s Whizzinator, a device consisting of underpants, tubes, and a false penis, engineered to help athletes give false urine samples to drug inspectors. (It is now marketed as a sex toy, which just goes to show that there exists a monetisable fetish for just about anything.) Controversy arose this summer over the legitimacy of certain mechanical aids to athletic achievement. Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who runs on prosthetic ‘blades’, competed in both the Olympics and the Paralympics this year. After his defeat in the Paralympic 200m final, he suggested that the winner, Alan Oliveira from Brazil, was using blades that were too long, giving him an unwarranted advantage. It was subsequently confirmed that Oliveira’s blades were within regulations, but how those regulations are themselves determined must be a subtle matter.
In any case, a similar advantage might have been had in the late 19th century by a runner using a newfangled set of spiked shoes, or by an athlete in the 1970s who was quick to adopt Nike’s waffle-soled trainer, or by the first tennis players to use metal-framed racquets. In swimming, the full-body LZR Racer swimsuit worn by many competitors in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was subsequently banned for being too fast, although it is difficult to see why, since all racers had the opportunity to wear one. A Marc Perelman-inspired cynic might suggest that, while records must constantly be broken to preserve the profitable spectacle of industrial sporting events, you should take care that they are not smashed by too great a margin too quickly. That, after all, will slow the pace of future telegenic record-breaking.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/the-drive-for-a-winning-edge-never-changes-but-we-do