As things stand, this happy group while away the hours speculating on the folly and fallibility of evolution and dreaming up a better alternative. The way they see it, Nature tackled the whole process of man’s ascent in a mistakenly piecemeal fashion, dealing with each problem as it arose.
Thus, when we came down from the trees and started walking upright, our backs grew straighter and our legs longer. And a fat lot of good that did us, what with slipped discs, back pain and, ultimately, worn-out joints.
Had Nature taken the trouble to pay a visit on Olshansky in Illinois, she would have seen things differently. And so for that matter would we all. For instead of the imperfect creature you behold reflected in the mirror, there would be a shorter version.
And that would not be all. A human built to last, says Olshansky, would be equipped with large pointed ears to assist hearing into old age; “rewired” eyes to reduce the danger of detached retinas; short stubby limbs to contain thicker, stronger bones; knee joints that bend backwards to reduce strain; extra ribs to protect internal organs; and more valves to prevent varicose veins forming.
The new human would walk with the upper torso tilted forward so as to relieve pressure on the vertebrae. This would in turn require a curved neck to counterbalance the tilt and enable the head to stay up and face forward. Finally, since accidents will happen, the new improved human would be fitted with large buttocks to cushion the impact of falls.
This then is the price of longevity. And who says we would not be prepared to pay it? In our secular age, when the greatest sin is death, we are prepared to go to prodigious lengths to prolong life. Hence the obsessive interest in diet, fitness and health, and the morbid fear of hidden dangers in everything from plastic bottles to supermarket trolleys.
Those who wish to live far beyond the span allotted by imperfect nature might well choose to trade in the body they were given, for the new, improved model devised by Olshansky. And who can doubt that such adjustments are within our reach? Now that science has tracked down every single gene in our make-up and will soon know precisely what each does, it would seem a fairly straightforward matter to isolate, say, the ear gene and, with a little tweaking, create the giant, pointed version suggested by the professor.
Nor need we stop there or confine ourselves to his prescription. Who would not wish to have fingers capable of opening a Tetra-Pak milk carton? Or tobacco-proof lungs or, while we are about it, alcohol-loving livers? A third arm (and hand) would aid safe driving while using a mobile phone. And eyes in the back of one’s head would cease to be a mere expression.
There is, however, a formidable drawback to all this, and that is that it would result in two distinct forms of our species. On the one hand, there would be the current version, which for all its imperfections, is cherished by advertisers and marketers who see in its shapely form the power to sell. On the other hand (or possibly other two) there would be Illinois Person, strolling around like Groucho Marx with a giant nappy under his trousers.
There would be bound to be friction. Jealousies would arise. When Natural Person laughed at Illinois Person’s big ears, such mockery would be put down to the envy of one doomed to die earlier. New addenda would be made to the canon of political correctness. Illinoist remarks would be forbidden, as would discrimination against those who favour vast buttocks as a matter of lifestyle choice.
It is difficult to see how the two could mix socially. It would, for example, present difficulties on the dance floor. Not only would a female person of the natural order find it awkward to hold on to a short, Illinois man with his listing fore and heavy-cargo aft, she would also be disadvantaged by the virtuosity of his double-jointed knees, particularly in the fox trot.
For advertising and marketing, the advent of Illinois Person would be a nightmare. It would take all the existing tensions between those on whom Nature has smiled, and who are therefore chosen as models, and those many others to whom the backs of buses are favourably compared, and magnify them a hundredfold.
Illinois Woman, bless her, not only looks like she has spent a lifetime walking into a hurricane, she has small breasts (since, given her almost horizontal gait, large ones would render her prey to gravity). Add short fat legs, stumpy arms, and ears that Mr Spock would find exaggerated, and you can see how difficult it would be for her to say “Hello boys” and carry any conviction. Nature may be cruel, but man is crueller.