Physically perfect and mentally perfect. This is no longer restricted to the few. Everybody can afford to become perfect. But does this lead to happiness? The modern human being creates itself, in its own image! "It is a good painting; it only lacks a small mistake to make it totally perfect," to quote Edward Munch. There's always some anthropology or cultural ideal behind 'the perfect'. The illusion about the perfect that never can become anything but an illusion; an expression of the dominant values of the time.
By Birthe Linddal Hansen
The hunt for the one I want to be. The hunt for the people desired by society. The hunt for those we want others to be. Put succinctly, it is about the hunt for an ideal typical of the time. The demand for the perfect human being lies latently in time and can be considered the path to the good life. Is it possible to have a good and dignified life if you are sickly, unintelligent, or just an unskilled labourer?
The cultivation of the perfect human being isn't just something the individual does. In these years, senior citizen residences for the wealthy are built all over with a single purpose: To make the perfect people, "the good taxpayers", come and live in the particular municipality. "Dear perfect people. You are very welcome in the municipality of Happiness Grove. P.S.: If you are coloured, handicapped, unemployed, or have hyperactive children, please go somewhere else." It is a hunt supported by the system!
We have become more wealthy, and some would say also more free. It is no longer just a matter of staying alive. Now it has become a matter of actualising ourselves. It is a matter of making the most of what we have; and if what we have isn't good enough, it must and can be improved on. We have been freed from community's narrow bonds and have taken destiny into our own hands. But precisely for this reason, far greater demands are made of the individual than before. This has been happening for a long time, but really got going in the yuppie era up through the 1980s. It was no longer about being social; now it was about cultivating yourself and getting ahead in the world. People started to reflect themselves in a narcissistic circus of metropolitan cafés and American-style fitness clubs where you couldn't escape your mirror image, your success or your superfluous pounds. Today everybody has the opportunity. Bigger breasts are no longer restricted to the few and the rich.
However, the problem with the increased focus on the perfect human being is that it is highly inner-controlled; i.e., narcissistic and somewhat antisocial. It is mostly about people's own interests and their personal optimisation. It isn't about anything bigger than yourself. It is primarily controlled by what you can see and what you can exhibit, whether the purely physical - i.e., the body - or the measurable intellect, meaning the car and the luxury brand handbag. Clichés like "looks don't matter" or "money and prestige don't make you happy" are completely outdated, bordering on the ludicrous. After all, everybody knows that the smarter and more beautiful you are, and the more material power you radiate, the more accepted you are in the community.
The hunt for the perfect human being and the perfect life can have extremely big consequences if it is done without reflection. Purely biotechnologically, there are a lot of thing scientists don't know yet, even though they've already begun to manipulate. There is a lot of scientific evidence on how things can go wrong - really, really wrong. There are many traps and risks.
However, there are also many and great advantages in the hunt for the perfect human being. We all have bodies and abilities that we can work with - not just in order to become smarter or more beautiful, but also in order to become better people. At the same time, it is undoubtedly good for people to be healthy, well functioning, beautiful, and having decent self-worth. The technology of the future offers many solutions to the problems of the present. Solutions that will contribute a lot in making life more comfortable for the many; solutions that may contribute to provide the weak and suffering with more opportunities and thus offer them a different level, a different life, than what nature or social inheritance immediately is able to offer.
Modern technology can handle many of the problems and failings we formerly had to live with. An injection of DNA material can minimise pain and problems. At the present stage only temporarily, but in the future probably for life. In the future, genetic therapy can probably be used to make life more comfortable, make the body more beautiful, lessen diseases, and provide longevity. There remains a lot of uncertainty regarding the use of genetic manipulation and DNA material, but the future will undoubtedly hold many unimaginable possibilities. And if there are things genetic therapy can't do - or isn't allowed to do because of protests from ethical councils and other progress-fearing organisations - perhaps the solutions can be found in pharmacology?
Medically improved normality, it is called. Try to imagine how we managed before painkillers were invented. If your mood is bad or you have panic attacks, there is help to be found. Chemically, depressions and such often are matters of chemistry; i.e., too low levels of serotonin in the brain. The serotonin level can easily be stimulated and the grey days be crossed off the calendar. Prozac is the answer.
Even now there's a lot of drugs that can correct failings, cure diseases and minimise the effects of possible disorders. But in the future we are also going to use drugs in the hope of gaining abilities that will pave the road to success. One example of this is Ritalin, a drug developed for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In USA, it is no longer just ADHD kids that get Ritalin. In e.g. Boston, up to 40 percent of school kids get Ritalin to improve concentration during classes, and the consumption in USA has increased 700 percent in the last eight years. Without drugs and chemistry, things would have looked very different, and no matter what we may think about the increased use, pharmaceuticals generally contribute to improve the quality of life. But of course, there also is an ethical dilemma, for where do we draw the line for what and how much drug use we will allow? Drugs to treat baldness, too short legs, too much body hair, lack of energy, memory loss, lack of intelligence, etc.? After all, all drugs have side effects.
If we look at how contraceptive pills are used without reflection by most modern woman in order to make life more comfortable, there is no doubt that the drugs of the future in many cases will be welcomed with open arms. We are already there, well on the way to make ourselves more perfect, even through chemistry. It will be the same in the future. Do you know any overweight person who would refuse a pill that could make two pounds fall away every week? We all want that which will make us more perfect; that which gives us better opportunities than we already have. The world of sports and the entire doping aspect is an excellent example of how people neither can nor want to let well enough alone. You want to perform your best and then some. Some think doping can be outlawed - but isn't it utopian to think that people will say no to the perfect assistance?
It isn't just modern technology that has models of solution in the hunt for the perfect human being. Psychologists, kinesiologists, biopathologists, and not least plastic surgeons, all have more and more solutions to how you can become perfect both within and without. Plastic surgery is a growth industry. Belly skin is tightened, fat is suctioned, and pouches under eyes removed in hitherto unheard-of numbers around the globe. As yet only a small number of people undertake these operations, but by 2010, it will be a thing for the masses. The number of women that enlarge their breasts is growing fast, and this is a procedure that just ten years ago would have been unthinkable for normal people. Today, between two and three million women worldwide have had breast-enlarging surgery, and more are going to get it in the future. In just a few years, plastic surgery will be perfectly acceptable, just as we today find it fully acceptable to give children teeth braces. If we look ten years ahead, no 'normal' people will walk around with tiny breasts or eye pouches - for everybody knows this can be changed for a modest sum. However, in the future plastic surgery won't stop at the immediately understandable procedures. In USA and Latin America, more extreme surgery is done today: muscle emphasising, vaginal tightening and toe straightening to name just a few.
It starts early, this ideal of the perfect human being. Pregnant women eat vegetables to ensure the best stimulants for the child. Technology ensures that parents can ascertain if the planned child is perfect; and if not, it can be removed. The selection and the ideal of the perfect continue in kindergarten and school. An increasing number of children are rejected because they don't fit in. They are odd, mentally slow, ADHD children, social misfits, and small ultra-spoiled narcissists that are shuffled aside and sent to special class or special schools. If the system can't handle this rejection, we do it ourselves. Children and parents reject because we live in an age where good morals, humanity, common responsibility, and the good of the community are superseded by individual requirements. Partners, private schools, expensive neighbourhoods, and branded clothes are chosen in the hope of creating the perfect from the start and close everything else out. In USA it is done quite explicitly and openly. They get ever-more gated communities - closed-off neighbourhoods where a wall keeps the outside dirt and scum out. The socially challenged, poor, and criminal as well as unwanted ethnic minorities aren't allowed inside.
The hunt for the perfect moves the limit for perfection, and perhaps this means that we cheat each other and ourselves. There's nothing wrong with becoming better and happier people, but to strive for an 'unnatural', unachievable, homogeneous, and artificial 'ideal', like we do now, is sick. It is an expression of a narrow mindset. In hunting for the perfect human being, we tend to forget the value of the unique and the status possessed by the unique. Many of the people from history that today have become role models, were unique personalities that hardly would have fit into the ideal of perfection. If Vincent van Gogh or William Burroughs had been on Prozac, would they ever have become artists, and would their masterpieces ever have seen the light of day? The question is whether perhaps happiness is found in that which is less than perfect.
Møldrup, Klaus. Den medicinerede normalitet. (1999) Gyldendal, Copenhagen.
Forbedring af mennesker og dyr, Report - The Danish Bioethical Council & The Council for Animal Ethics.
Lee Brown, Tiffany, Catalog of tomorrow, Body Modification. Fitness and exercise og fertility. 2002
Seifert, Mark F., People, People who make People.