Can science give us the wings we've always envied in birds? Can plastic surgery elevate us to a higher human form? In this second part of this series, Robert and Julie continue exploring of posthuman philosophy and the possibility of winged humans.
Unknown Female: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind From Howstuffworks.com.
Robert: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.
Julie: And I'm Julie Douglas.
Robert: And we are picking up with where we left off in the last episode. This is Surgical Wings Part 2. Highly recommend that you go back and listen to Surgical Wings Part 1 before you continue with this one.
Sometimes we'll have a Part 1 and a Part 2 where you can really take them in any order. But this is definitely a case where you want to go Part 1 and then Part 2, so you'll know exactly why we're talking about taking a human arm, doing a whole bunch of plastic surgery on it and turning it into a bird's wing.
Julie: Indeed. Okay, so we've discussed in the past about how we have augmented ourselves before. Like I believe there was someone who had an ear grafted onto his skin.
Julie: Or rather the tissue was grown for it.
Robert: Yeah, that was in our performance art, that said.
Julie: Yeah. And you know we've talked about people who have taken out ribs before to have like, you know a 12-inch waist. We have certainly manipulated and bodily modified ourselves to the extent where it's a little bit shocking. But you get to surgical wings or the idea of it and is it that shocking?
Robert: Yeah. That is the question we're going to talk about in the second half.
First of all I do want to say just a quick thing about plastic surgery again. I know when I was growing up and I would hear the term plastic surgery almost exclusively in reference to people who had new noses and/or new chest augmentations. I kind of had it in my mind that it was plastic, like it was actual literally plastic. Like oh, they have a plastic nose. It was like Humpty Hump or something, you know? Where it's just, you know set right up there on their face.
Or that obviously breast implants, I was kind of like well, it's kind of like plastic I guess. I would see them in like Newsweek magazine that my grandparents had. And so I'm like oh, that's plastic surgery; it's putting plastic in or on the body and making things new.
Julie: You thought there were water balloons in there?
Robert: Yeah. I thought they were water balloons. But just for a quick primer, plastic in plastic surgery means plasticity. So essentially what we're talking about is flesh sculpting. And the idea goes back a long time. For instance skin grafts may have taken place as early as 800 BC, which is crazy to think about that. Just the idea that we were already figuring out ways to sculpt the flesh of the human body even in 800 BC - the Egyptians.
Julie: See we just - I mean humans just can't help but tinker with themselves, right?
Robert: Yeah. Yeah. And certainly if there's a medical advantage, you know if you're trying to help somebody, you know improve their quality of life, I mean that - and/or appeal to their vanity, that's what you need to learn more about it and to get the research done to achieve the already lofty heights of plastic surgery we have today.
Julie: Yeah. And of course, I was about to say, you know the technology is commensurate with the procedures. So what you have in place is what is going to determine what happens with your body or how you decide to manipulate it.
Robert: So, as we were discussing earlier Rosen proposed that, yeah, he thinks you could give people wings. Now what would this consist of? How would this possibly work? Because when we're talking about plastic surgery we're talking about sculpting the body. So in most interpretations we're not talking about making some wings and cooking them up in a lab and then just stitching them on the body. We have to essentially look to nature and see how nature flies, right?
Julie: Well, we have to look at nature, but we also have to look at the mind because this is an important -
Robert: Oh, yes.
Julie: - part of the process, right? We've talked about how the mind also has its own type of plasticity and can certainly conform to whatever is going on with the body. And you've used the wonderful analogy of the horse and rider before.
Julie: That it's not - you know the two things aren't necessarily separate when you're talking about the mind and body.
Robert: Yeah, it's not the mind is the rider and the body is the horse, but it's both or one. Or essentially a centaur instead.
Julie: Yeah. So you know this brain plasticity gives us the ability to make physical changes that are then incorporated by the brain. This is from the Dr. Daedalus article. Rosen explains that when - quote, "When we lose a limb the brain absorbs its map or rewires it to some other center. Similarly when we gain a limb the brain almost immediately senses it and goes about hooking it up via neural representation."
He said "If I were to attach a sonographically powered arm to your body, your brain would map it. If I were to attach a third thumb, your brain would map this as well. Our bodies change our brains and our brains are infinitely moldable. If I were to give you wings, you would develop, literally, a winged brain. If I were to give you an echolocation device, you would develop in part a bat-brain."
I mean there's some truth to this, right?
Robert: Yeah. Yeah, totally. And it's important to think in terms of brain mapping and neural adaptation to these features. Because you can talk all day about sewing bits onto your body, but if you can't - if they are not actually a part of you, if they are not part of that centaur that is the mind-body connection, then it's really not a part of you or your body.
Julie: So, in a sense whatever you dream up, your brain can hang with.
Julie: But it comes down to a matter of where really the rubber meets the road and the actual surgical bits that are put onto it. And in order to really look at that you have to look at a professor in plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Samuel Poore, who took on the idea of surgical wings.
Robert: Yeah, from the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Wisconsin. And he actually published an article about this idea - about the actual possible details of transforming normal humans into winged humans. And he did this after Rosen had made lots of waves with his discussions. So it was a response to Rosen's work where he says, okay, well let's - assuming that this is something we want to do and actually there's someone out there who wants it, what would this consist of? How would we go about it?
Robert: As a thought experiment and as a plastic surgeon, what can I do? What could I do to the human body to give that body wings?
Julie: And I love this because he really did respond to it, not just in the philosophical sense, but like really what are the nuts and bolts to make this happen if you're gonna take this thought experiment one step further. Because Rosen's ideas are amazing and it's great to sort of get caught up in them, but -
Robert: A lot of times he's kind of spit balling though. I mean maybe not in his own mind -
Robert: - but in terms of just how he's commenting to other people. He's not necessarily laying out a - you know a five-step plan to make it happen. Not outside of his own mind anyway.
Julie: Right. Well he knows all the - you know he's pretty well informed about all the different fields -
Robert: Yeah. Yeah.
Julie: - that it would take to make this happen. But you're right, he's not gonna sit there and say here's step one.
Robert: Yeah. Although I pretty much have no doubt that he has it in his mind -
Robert: - that he's already [inaudible].
Julie: If he sat down to say like how would you actually do this.
Julie: But that's what I think is so interesting that Samuel Poore took this on because it does give you a sense of what the limitations are and what the possibilities are as well.
Robert: Yeah. So in this article he asked okay, well, all right if we're gonna have wings, what are the aspects of a bird wing that we would want. And in this article he does deal exclusively with bird wings. I don't know why he didn't think that much about bat wings; we'll talk about that a little more.
Robert: But he's talking about bird wings. So evidently he - as far as art goes he is into the idea of an angelic figure with the big lofty feathery wings, which is beautiful. I'm totally into that as well.
Julie: This is like Archangel from X-Men?
Robert: Yeah, like that character from X-Men or any, you know painting you've seen of an angel. But then of course the other side is we have plenty of images of fallen angels and their kin, creatures with bat-like wings, which some might find hideous, some might find kind of appealing if the pictures I had in my wallet in high school had anything, you know to do with that. But certainly he decides to focus just on wings with feathers.
Julie: Sure. And why not? Because I mean this is really the example from nature that we draw from the most.
Robert: Yeah. So, what does a bird wing have? First of all it has those feathers for lift and insulation. It has that highly derived shoulder and a distinct thorax, okay?
Robert: So what else do we have to take into account here? Then we have to look at the human body, what do we have? Well, we have these arms, right?
Robert: And you look at a bird. What does a - does a bird have arms? No, a bird has wings. So obviously we're getting to the point here where you have to realize if you're going to use plastic surgery to make what we have into something similar to what birds have, it's not going to be a matter of strapping wings on, on the back and turning us into six-limbed creatures. We're going to remain four-limbed creatures, but we're going to have to transform our arms into wings, which is something you don't see as often in our fantastic visions of winged humans.
Robert: We tend to imagine that we still get to keep our arms and that we just have wings springing out of our backs. But the plastic surgeons of the world are here to say actually guys, if you really want those wings you're going to have to part with the arms.
Julie: Yeah. And they're not going to be big fluffy white feathers; it's probably gonna be more like a turkey vulture.
Julie: Well, I say that but Professor Samuel Poore does say that in order for us to really get the right structure, we can't necessarily look at modern birds as the example. We would be better off to look at something called the Archaeopteryx and this is a bird that existed 150 million years ago.
Robert: Yeah. Because the Archaeopteryx has a very primitive wing structure. It's a very early model. Okay? Versus birds - modern birds, which have a very highly evolved - very advanced model of the wing. So if you're going to - using the plastic surgery techniques that we have today, if you were going to transform our arms into wings, you really want to go after something a lot simpler. Because that's going to be something that we can actually achieve potentially - arguably - as opposed to a really advanced structure.
It's kind of like if you're adding onto your house, right? You have to take into account the existing architecture, the existing structure. What is going to work structurally as a part of the new house? What is going to work stylistically as part of the new house? And it's just not always in the cards to take say a medieval castle and then build a highly modern structure on top of it. I mean it's just you have to take into account the original form.
So our arms are great arms, but they're really crappy wings. Like the crappiest wing possible because they don't do anything, you know. So to actually change them into wings is essentially having to backtrack on evolution and think back to how wings really began to evolve and take form in organisms.
Julie: Which makes sense, right? Because you do, as you say have to go back to the more primitive version if you're trying to make this, you know from soup to nuts -
Julie: - on a human being. It's a little bit ironic though that you'd have to go back 150 million years in order to get some sort of futuristic structure for human wings.
Robert: Yeah. Because the Archaeopteryx, it was feathered, it was flying, but it had a far less complex wrist and shoulder, which is key. Because this is what really places it within surgical reach for us. Okay? So in this article, Poore lays out some possible steps to transform the arm into a wing. He talks about forming a distal row of carpal bones and metacarpals in our existing arm into a carpometacarpus, which is essentially a buffalo wing.
Robert: Yeah. And a single fused bone between the wrist and knuckle. So if you look - if you look at a picture of a human arm and you see a picture of the wing of a bird, or in this case a flying dinosaur, then you see that all right, we have the humerus, the upper bone in the arm - we both have that. But then when you're looking at the lower portion of the arm, the lower bones, that's where you're talking about needing to fuse things together. Because do you ever see a bird using like a Smartphone or typing on a keyboard? No. They don't need the digits.
Julie: Right. And the wrist knuckles all being one piece makes sense too right?
Julie: Because they're not sort of waving their hands back and forth. You'd also have to fuse the small finger, the ring finger and the index finger although your thumb would remain free.
Julie: That's good news.
Robert: Yeah. So some video games are still possible. The hand and elbow would have to be fixed to prevent too broad a range of movement. But there's not any need for boney fixation in the elbow - you need movement. So you make use of existing muscle and skin there. You redirect the bicep and tendon of insertion. You use tissue expansion techniques to cover all of this because you need skin over -
Julie: Skin - yeah, right.
Robert: - all this.
Julie: And then for nonfunctional cosmetic wings, this is a really good stopping point, right?
Julie: Because this is what you need in order just to sport them around town, right?
Robert: Yeah. And we're not even talking about the possibility of sticking feathers in these things. That would be a whole separate thing to worry about because what are you going to try and grow feathers? Or are you going to try to manipulate the body to produce feathers? That's a whole kettle of fish in and of itself. But just to transform your fleshy arms into fleshy bat wings that you could parade around town in, yeah, this is where you would stop.
Julie: And we know we can grow tissue, right? So in order to actually grow the skin, that's not a problem. Right?
Julie: You know of course we're talking about pretty advanced technologies here so I don't really see, you know 2020 just going into your local clinic and getting your wings all done up. But again in this idea of 20 to 50 years out, let's say you can get these wings constructed for you and you really want to take flight.
Robert: Well you're going to need to flap them. You're gonna need to flap those wings in order to even try to fly, and if you wanna do that you're gonna need high velocity rotation in the shoulder. So you're gonna need some pretty extensive shoulder reconstruction to make that possible.
Julie: And of course you are gonna need feathers.
Julie: Now, this is particularly problematic because feathers are so specific to the species - the subspecies, it's something that has evolved for, you know billions of years and it's not an easy thing to just say aw, here, let's stick some turkey feathers in and you'll be fine.
Robert: Yeah. Feathers are a very complex and really amazing adaptation of flying organisms. Now some critics of Poore's article - and I don't want to say critics, let's just say people having a lively discussion with him about this. They point out well bats don't have feathers, so why should we feel limited on this whole feather argument, why would that be a sticking point?
Julie: Yeah. And we can talk more about bats, but for sure this is a good model to go after.
Julie: I think it's not just birds because I really actually feel like bats have more potential in this arena.
Julie: And it would be so cool to wrap yourself up in bat wings and hang upside down.
All right. We're gonna take a quick break and when we come back, more about surgical wings.
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Julie: All right. And we're back.
Robert: So I'm kind of already imagining like super rich individuals in the future surrounding themselves with beautiful men and women that they have had surgically adapted into winged creatures. So they're just kind of like - they're not flying, but they're just walking around the dinner party like with - well, they couldn't really hold a tray of drinks. I don't know what they're doing. I guess they're just walking around looking pretty and birdlike.
Julie: Well see, and why not keep your own arms and then just do a separate wing structure too?
Robert: Yeah. Well that would just - that would be even - that would be higher hanging fruit for sure.
Julie: All right. Well, let's get back to the flight issue because it's not just the feathers and the ability to actually figure out in your dermis how to grow the feathers that you need or to genetically game your body into doing it. It's also the wing loading ratio. We would need really, really large wings to support say a 170-pound body.
Robert: Yeah. And I mean look at the size of flying animals and the size of their wings. Look at the albatross, the albatross is a pretty large creature and kind of a clumsy bird as well. You know flight is not the most graceful thing for this creature. But its wings have to be pretty big.
And so, you know when you're looking at the wing ratio in an organism, and you're looking at the possibility of creating wings on a human from that human's existing flesh, sculpting their existing body into this. Because again, you have a lump of clay and you're gonna sculpt that lump of clay into a vase, that vase better have equivalent mass to that lump of clay. That's just the basic limits of what you're working with.
So if you're going to try and build wings big enough for a human to fly, there's not enough material to go around. I don't care how much like butt flesh and extra bones you have, you're not going to build proper flyable wings.
Julie: Now Poore did say that for a 170-pound body you would need about 20 feet of wingspan.
Julie: Which, you know then becomes sort of impractical especially if you're taking mass transit.
Julie: Can you imagine trying to get on MARTA with those?
Robert: I mean I guess you could get like donor flesh. That would be about the only way you could really start looking at that. But then you're having to like scrap - you could get, you know flesh from a corpse I guess and use that in the process. I mean, you know it's not impossible.
Julie: There you go.
Robert: But it's certainly something to think about that you can't completely just reshape the existing form into the flying form. There are a lot of other considerations to make.
Julie: The blog Human Enhancement and Biopolitics takes on some of these issues. And in that blog they are talking about the larger problem, which is muscle, because birds, bats and pterosaurs have really large pec muscles.
Julie: And they're so large that they actually take up about 30 to 35% of their body mass. So that would mean that humans would then have to grow these bionic pec muscles that somehow were, you know maybe nano materials were used - somehow lighter than actual muscles in order to really power yourself. So again, that's an issue of actually trying to take flight because we're pretty underdeveloped in our chest areas.
Julie: Because obviously we don't fly and we don't need those muscles.
Robert: Yeah. I mean you get into a situation where the classic idea of just sort of the art idea of, you know angels with wings on their backs, that kind of thing. It's just more complicated than that. You can't just - you can't just add something of another species to this animal and expect it to be a seamless transition. There are a lot of complex questions that come with that.
Well, if you're gonna have those wings, again you're gonna need the pecs, the power, and where are you gonna put those? Because if you're doing the model where the wings are on the back, then where are the muscles supporting the wings?
Julie: Right. Right.
Robert: I mean it's sort of like in that article that we discussed in the centaur episode where you had a German surgeon who was looking at the centaur as a mythological creature and saying how that actually worked. And when you get down into the theoretical biology of that, there are all these different complications you wouldn't even possibly think of unless you were [inaudible].
Julie: Of course the thing I remember was, where do you put the penis?
Julie: The front or the back?
Robert: The front or the back.
Julie: I mean, you know in some ways it's the same thing with wings, although obviously there's no penis. But you have some of the same engineering problems. Of course Poore did say that in microgravity, zero gravity, it could be helpful to have wings. Those are situations -
Robert: Which - yeah, which brings us back to the werewolf principle and the idea that should and can we adapt the human body to make it better suited to life on say a long space flight to somewhere? To life in orbit? To life on another world? If one ended up making the argument that yes, small wings would be highly effective in navigating this environment, then maybe that's something we have to consider.
Julie: Well - and again, go back to bats, right?
Julie: Because as we've discussed before in our podcasts or episodes about bats, they are governed - their wing structure by a rouge finger gene. So if you look at the structure of a bat wing it's really just a modified mammalian arm and it's got these - I shouldn't call them fingers, they don't actually call them fingers. But if you think about their wings as sort of these fingers like on the spokes of an umbrella, that's how they get the structure.
Julie: So why not tinker with our own genetics to game our, you know genes in the arm bud that begin to produce this sort of hand that we have and have it spread out. And you can take flight much easier because as we know with bats, they get their lift by basically freefalling -
Julie: - from an upside down position and then catching the wind with their wings.
Robert: Yeah. Not every flying creature obviously is a hummingbird, capable of just amazing quick-spirited flight, you know. They can go from zero to a hundred, can take off vertically without any problems. I mean some of these larger animals, they have to fall off of something to achieve flight.
Julie: Yeah. Plus it would be kind of cool to take flight that way I think.
Julie: Just freefall upside down. Of course now, Poore, in his paper did say look, this is just sort of - well, he didn't say hey, look, this is just an idea. But he did conclude by saying despite advances in surgical techniques that could theoretically lead to the ability to construct wings from arms, it is evident that humans should remain human, staying on the ground. Pondering and studying the intricacies of flight while letting birds be birds and angels be angels.
Robert: He had me until the let angels be angels. Then he was just really crossing -
Now obviously Rosen would strongly disagree with this man's - he would probably see Poore as someone with a limited vision for humanity. Whereas Poore is certainly staying more in the cautious realism side of the issue.
Julie: Well, Poore also doesn't really address genetic tinkering as well.
Julie: He's just sort of saying well what do we do right now with the materials that we have. So some of his discussion is limited by that. But there is this idea that is in the article - Dr. Daedalus, and it is an idea put forth by Mary Douglas. She wrote in her anthropological study, purity and danger that human beings have a natural aversion to crossing categories. And that when we do we transgress - when we do transgress it, we see it as deeply dirty.
Julie: So that there's this idea of like well this is not human, it's separate from us, there's a danger in it.
Robert: Yeah. Which I think it comes back to the wing thing or even the centaur thing. It's one thing to have like oh, the top is a topless lady and the bottom is a fish. Like that doesn't - is maybe okay at least to a certain extent because there's this firm line, there's a distinction between the part that is animal and the part that is human.
And when you get into - you know we've talked before about monsters. The idea of any kind of a monster is that it embodies an idea. Especially any kind of monster that is half-human, half-beast. It's ultimately about the competing higher and lower natures of our being. The part of us that thinks that we're above being an animal, and the part of us that is inevitably an animal. But we like seeing that division even in our monstrous imagined creations.
But when there is crossover - more crossover than we anticipated, that's where you get in that polluted area. When you get into models of a centaur that has the penis in the front and/or in the back. When you get into examples of oh, this person has wings, but it also means they have to have grotesque pectoral muscles to power it. Then the line becomes smudged and we begin to go eh a little.
Julie: I was thinking about this in the context of biogerontology and our bearded friend, Aubrey de Grey and his quest to tinker with people to a cellular level in order to have them live upwards to 500 years - a thousand years old. And I was thinking well, how does that - how does all of this sort of jive with posthumanism. Because surely that will be the thing to do when you reach 200 years old.
Like you just get bored and you say why don't I go ahead and get those surgical wings I've always wanted. You know what does that world look like? You know do we have this possibility of, you know very elderly people zooming around with their new wings with sort of angel faces to match?
Robert: Yeah. But you just - ultimately you're, you know talking about completely just casting aside any expectations about what a human is or should be on a physical level. And then to draw from Rosen's idea of plastic surgery, it also means that there are no constraints on the soul, on who you are.
Julie: This is one of those things that I really wish I could flash forward - this is one of those things that I really wish that I could flash forward with 200 years from now and see if this is an antiquated conversation. Or if humans sort of, you know towed the line and continued to be as human as we are now.
Robert: Yeah. I don't know. And then it comes under the question, when you're talking about the long-term survival of the human race, is it just something we're gonna have to get over in order to achieve that? If we're going to eventually be a creature that lives elsewhere in the universe, are we gonna have to get past our arguably limited idea of what we are?
Julie: Well, I think with wings though it becomes an easy sell.
Robert: All right. So there you go. Surgical wings and the people who make them, dream about them. Fascinating topic that I've been meaning to get to for a while.
So let's call the robot over here and just do a little bit of Mr. Mail real quick.
All right, this one comes to us from Peter. Peter's a regular listener and also interacts with us on the Facebook account. He also is involved in a number of cool projects. He has the King Deluxe record label out of Canada, and associated with that the 2999 project, which is really cool. It's about finding musicians and finding artists and having them both create an imaginative take on what the year 2999 might consist of.
Julie: Yeah. Peter's very much a part of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind think tank.
Robert: Yeah. So Peter writes in and says - and he's responding to our multitasking edition and he says aha, I was definitely doing other things while listening to your podcast. As usual I pause one or the other when there's something I need to think about in details. But I agree for the most part that it's best if one can use full concentration. However, this has me thinking about harmony. I mean being really focused on one task is actually a multitude of highly organized brain functions that harmonize to a beautiful degree.
What I propose is that while doing separate tasks is counterproductive, sometimes they lift each other up, as with listening to Autechre while writing - which is an example I've used before, and I imagine Peter does the same exact combination. They now become the same task. As long as they're not like both visual or something as you guys mentioned. But I believe the reason I have become good at research is because I can multitask certain types of differing activities and use one to inspire new lines of thought in the other. And I try to become better at refocusing more attention as required.
That said, these were good episodes to consider ways in which I'm not properly closing loops, wasting energy and so on. One other thing that I was wondering about though, is if it's really that much easier to focus in the evenings. I can definitely see that in my own life. I do sometimes have less distractions in those hours. However decision fatigue makes it so my attention to my single task is limited. In the mornings I may have more to do, but if organized well, then I can do it at breakneck speed in comparison.
Julie: All right. Some interesting thoughts on complementary multitasking I guess you'd call it.
Robert: Because I think that's the ultimate take home from those episodes on multitasking is that it's not that we shouldn't do it, or shouldn't try and shouldn't juggle tasks. Because we're going to do it. But the more we're aware of how we're doing it, the limits of doing it, then we can really plan our days and tackle our responsibilities in a more thoughtful manner.
Julie: Yeah. How to multitask the right way I suppose.
Robert: Yeah. All right. Well we would love to hear from everyone. If you have anything to add about multitasking that would be great. But more importantly and centric to this episode, let us know if you have thoughts on surgical wings. What do you think about some of the mechanics of actually changing the human form to have wings? And more importantly, what do you think about the idea?
Should we be limited to the sort of store-bought vision of humanity, or should we be willing to tinker? Should we have this do-it-yourself mentality? Should we ultimately adapt the human form to survive beyond the planet and beyond the age of the homo sapiens?
We love to hear from you. You can find us on Facebook, you can find us on Twitter and you can find us on Tumbler. We are Stuff to Blow Your Mind on Tumbler and Facebook and we are Blow the Mind on Twitter.
Julie: And you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unknown Female: For more on this and thousands of other topics visit howstuffworks.com.
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Duration: 32 minutes