Higher Human Forms: Cut my Arms into Wings

Can surgery give us wings? Eryk Fitkau/Getty

When it comes to transformation, winged flight remains the ultimate higher human form.

For untold ages, we've gazed up from our earthly prison at soaring birds and longed for that sort of freedom. In our myth-making, we've portrayed supernatural beings as winged humanoids and envisioned our very soul as a fluttering bird. Even today, in an age of wingsuits and ubiquitous powered flight, our best approximations of biological flight ring hollow.

But can we modify the human form into a winged organism? Will we one day ascend into the sky on transhuman wings?

Dr. Joseph Rosen thinks so. The Dartmouth plastic surgeon focuses a great deal of his energy on facial reconstructions and wounded warrior programs, but he's also a post-humanist dreamer. In speaking to Harper Magazine in 2001, he summed up his stance rather perfectly:

"Plastic surgery is the intersection' of art and science. It's the intersection of the surgeon's imagination with human flesh. And human flesh is infinitely malleable. People say cosmetic surgery is frivolous -- boobs and noses. But it's so much more than that! The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

That quote really gets to the heart of body modification itself, and Rosen certainly advocates the use of plastic surgery as a means to modify the human body beyond mere restoration and cosmetic enhancement. We don't think twice about restoring a lost nipple or preparing a damaged one, but what about the creation of blue, star-shaped nipples? Why does this cross a line for us? Why should we stop?

Indeed, why shouldn't we create human wings? According to Lauren Slater's excellent Dr. Daedalus piece in Harper's, Rosen thinks it's not only possible, but inevitable:

"He has shown me blueprints, sketches of the scalpel scissoring into skin, stretching flaps of torso fat to fashion gliders piped with rib bone. When the arm stretches, the gliders unfold, and human floats on currents of air."

And he argues that, given a winged body, we'd easily develop a winged mind -- a statement that matches up well with our understanding of body schema and the manner by which our brains incorporate tools or even an extra limb into its understanding of self.

(Image via ASU)

But could it be done? We're not privy to Rosen's blueprints, but Dr. Samuel O. Poore of the University of Wisconsin Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery weighed in on the possibilities in his 2007 paper "The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition."

Poore saw the primitive wing of the archaeopteryx as the perfect model for human transformation. After all, the plastic surgeon would essentially bridge the evolutionary chasm between arm and wing, so a crude wing would require a shorter bridge. The archaeopteryx's less-complex wrist and shoulder structure, for instance, is closer to that of the human arm than a contemporary bird.

What would it take? Poore goes into extensive detail, but here are his basic steps required to transform an arm into a non-functional wing:

  1. Fuse the small finger, ring finger and index finger into a single bone. The thumb should remain free.
  2. The hand and elbow should be fixed to prevent too broad a range of movement. But the elbow still needs to move, so the fixation there would involve existing soft tissue rather that calcification.
  3. Redirect the bicep and its tendon of insertion into a more distal location, with tissue expansion techniques utilized to cover all of it
(Jessica Neuwerth Photography)

Bat-like webbing and artificial feathers would require additional alterations. If you wanted functional flapping, that would involve high-velocity rotation in the shoulder, so you'd have to completely reconstruct the shoulder as well.

Flight would likely remain an impossibility in Earth gravity, however, as wing loading ratio would demand larger wings than could be achieved through reconstructive surgery alone.

And yet, conceivably, it could be done. We could grow the extra tissue and even create custom, biological components. In his paper, Poore argued that "humans should remain humans," and I think Rosen would agree. He just sees the humanity as a far more fluid reality.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.