Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Intelligent design?

A friend of mine called and made a plan to meet as soon as his knee is better. He’s a strapping fellow who, for all I know, could have busted it in a skydiving landing, or while plunging through the jungle on the trail of a tiger, so I asked how it had happened. “I bent down, and then straightened up,” he said grimly. We performed the telephone equivalent of going ‘Ah’ while rocking on the balls of our feet with arms crossed and head respectfully bowed to avoid embarrassing eye contact.

This moment of empathy about the serial humiliations of ageing put me in mind of other avoidable indignities of the flesh. I think the human body is a marvel, but there are things about it that could have been designed better—in some cases, a lot better.

The greatest design flaw is, of course, inevitable death. Even if you grudgingly concede immortality, however, the business of decay seems cruel. Why not just design a body with a certain life span that simply shuts off when time is up? Why not just go from bursting with youth and beauty to fallen down dead as a doorknob in a second, without screwing around with the psychological and physical torture of sagging flesh, melting joints, blunted senses, incontinence and dementia?

(We wouldn’t make the mistake of the Cumaean Sybil, who asked Apollo for immortality but forgot to ask for youth; she lived, but her body shrivelled away until she had to be kept in a jar, and finally there was nothing left but her voice. At the end of it all, her deepest desire was, “I want to die.”)

Even if you sulkily concede lifelong health and beauty, the search for which continues, there are other things that make no sense.

For example, childbirth. Female reproductive biology is, in many ways, an awesome thing. The process of pregnancy does all kinds of incredible hormone-driven things to prep the body for birth, for instance by softening pelvic joints to cushion the strain of delivery. But you have to ask: who or what came up with the idea of a birth canal that is stretchy, but not quite stretchy enough to avoid pain that, on a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 is death, has been described as 9.5? That seems like bad design.

Better design might be the kind plagiarised from the python’s jaw, which actually unhinges itself to allow its mouth to open wide enough to swallow a deer. Or a hormone secreted on the appointed day that turns your pelvic girdle to elastic. I can think of a few women who might welcome a painless three-minute delivery.

Another example: evacuation. I’ve known people who had colostomy and ileostomy bags after intestinal surgery, and I assure you that a couple of spare sphincters would not be out of place on the human body. The colon should come with one or two alternative exits that can kick in should the regular one fail. Placing these extra sphincters is a matter of aesthetics, of course (you don’t necessarily want one in your armpit), and maybe they could appear around the same time as most colostomies and ileostomies become necessary.

There are other things. Who really needs miles and miles of intestines when you could have a short, nutritionally super-absorbent length of pipe? Why couldn’t we have fat deposit itself daily in one small lump on, say, the sole of the foot, instead of in one’s arteries and belly, said lump to be shed at night? There, plop, it would just fall off while you slept.

Evolution, or intelligent design, whichever your poison, has a long way to go.


Ajai said...

I think you've missed out on the most important evolutionary gap. It's in the knees.

What we all kneed is a double facing knee joint, which would allow humans to run equally fast backwards as well as forward. It would improve the standard of most sports and be extremely useful for soldiers, particularly the Italian Army.

Just think of what it would do for dance. I'm told Black folks already have a semi-flexing, semi-dual-use knee joint, which accounts for their performance on the dance floor and sports fields. And when did you last hear of an all-conquering black army?

dipali said...

'Kneedless' to say, I love your design ideas!