Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, February 26, 2010

“The Visible Mark of Earthly Imperfection”

Pucker up
A while back, Boing Boing featured photographer Philip Toledano’s portraits of “extreme” plastic surgery, “A New Kind of Beauty.” After posing some stock questions about the nature of beauty in his introduction to his portraits, Mr. Toledano asks, “Perhaps we are creating a new kind of beauty. An amalgam of surgery, art, and popular culture? And if so, are the results the vanguard of human induced evolution?”

A look at the portraits suggests that if the answer to this last question is “yes,” women will evolve in the direction of having very large, perhaps in some cases enormous, breasts and very poofy lips. Men will evolve to have poofy lips, elfin looks, and/or enormous pecs. If Toledano is indeed portraying a “vanguard,” his photos are just one more reason to wonder what transhumanism’s promise to liberate us all to be just what we want to be will really mean. As a group, his subjects portray but a tiny fraction of the multiplicity of forms of human beauty that the so-called “natural lottery” already produces on a daily basis. On the other hand, maybe the extraordinary lack of imagination, diversity, and creativity shown by those Toledano has chosen to portray is really the fault of mainstream plastic surgeons, who are just too hidebound to try anything really interesting. We await the Giacometti or Brâncuşi of the human body.

But taken as a whole, the portfolio brings to mind a point made many times on this blog and well summarized by despair.com’s classic “Conformity” demotivational poster picturing a herd of zebras with this caption: “When people are free to do as they please, they generally imitate each other.”


  1. Pretty disturbing, I must admit! I would think that as both our tastes and technology get more subtle in the sort of interventions we can perform, we'll end up with much better than this. There is a reason why Angelina Jolie's lips look better than these plastic surgery people -- they're (at least mostly!) natural.

    Since people doing what they please just imitate each other, then what you are arguing is that it is best to prevent people from doing what they please?

    Charles, I agree with many of your concerns about what people will do once they have unlimited freedom to reprogram their bodies. Yet, I see them as arguments for "let's do transhumanism carefully", not "let's not do transhumanism at all".

    Culturally, are you a very mainstream person? Do you condone radical cultural variety? If not, then it's not a surprise that you would fear an extension of that variety.

  2. I hate sounding like a bitchy naysayer, but...

    These look less like "Beauty Images" and more like "Best Of" entries from a botched plastic surgery blog. I hope they're a wake up call and not an attempt to praise the miracles of modern plastic surgery. *shudder*

  3. Mr. Anissimov - You write that "our tastes and technology" will "get more subtle." Don't assume that the two are linked. There are many areas where the reverse is true. Take food, for example: the truest defenders of subtlety and nonconformity tend to be those food purveyors (farmers, chefs, restaurateurs) who take the lowest-tech approaches.

    You also ask whether Professor Rubin is arguing "that it is best to prevent people from doing what they please." As I mentioned to you a few days ago in another thread, our aim, on this blog and in the pages of The New Atlantis, is to encourage deeper reflection on and a richer understanding of what it means to be human. That isn't necessarily a matter of stopping people from doing what they want; it is usually a matter of helping people want different things.

    As for your other strange questions to Professor Rubin, your bizarre implication that he, and perhaps Ari and I, "fear" transhumanism because we personally aren't sufficiently tolerant of diversity is the kind of sloppy ad hominem that you claim you dislike.

    Mr. Cheshire - You're right; the pictures really do look a lot like what's sadly on display here, for instance.


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