“On the frontiers of the human”, an exhibition that questions our future

Only fragments of us remain. Like this work of art by Samuel Yal that welcomes visitors to the exhibition “On the frontiers of the human being” at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. So many suspended pieces, scattered like a puzzle to (re) compose, that question us how we, simple primates among others, have evolved to find ourselves repaired, enlarged and thus connected. “More than the disturbing question ‘where do we come from’, the field of exploration that interests us is rather ‘where are we going’ and under what conditions,” presents anthropologist Evelyne Heyer, professor at the National Museum of Natural History. (MNHN) and scientific curator of the exhibition that opens its doors on October 13?

An exceptional animal

To attempt an answer, we must first compare ourselves in order to better put ourselves in our shoes. Even if that means breaking certain beliefs: walking, painting, making tools, speaking, memorizing, experiencing emotions … so many abilities long reserved for the Homo genre. But that, finally, other animals also share or even develop talents that seem inaccessible to us. Therefore, we are not an exception by nature.

The second part of the exhibition does not focus on what distinguishes us, but on this, at least, the human capacity to adapt and improve ourselves. In this, this quest to constantly exceed our limits is characteristic of us. And it also undoubtedly explains why Homo Sapiens imposed itself on the surface of the Earth: “Unexpectedly, the body invents. Something like a creation appears (…). It breaks obstacles and jumps over the sheep, records, mountains and unanswered questions. ” , writes the philosopher Michel Serres (Homninescences, 2011). And what area is more emblematic than sport to illustrate this thirst for self-improvement? There is the factory of champions, recipes that science can put on paper: sculpting a silhouette, selecting morphologies, giving sportsmen techniques or playing in their minds, illustrated by champions like Zinédine Zidane (with his puppet des Guignols de l’Info) , a (imposing) hologram of Teddy Riner and his 2.04 meters or even, the grace of the gymnast Mélanie de Jesus Dos Santos. And when modern man seems to have reached his physical limits (Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds in the 100 meters has not been broken since 2009), he knows how to invent to progress again and again. Two outstanding examples during the course of this exhibition: the invention of Dick Fosbury in 1968 to jump higher than his opponents and that revolutionized his discipline; and John McEnroe’s inimitable serve that allowed him to reign supreme in tennis.

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Between mutant and cyborg

You have to admire our adaptations. There is also mistrust when our researchers want to increase our capacity for progress. Innovations that will be welcomed in the “I am a cyborg” part of the exhibition when it comes to alleviating a disability. Hence the amazing collection of designer prosthetics on display or even these examples of exoskeletons, here to restore mobility to the disabled; there to design super soldiers in the military field. In terms of foresight, this part has a fun historical and literary zoom to show that implants with a connected body, the boundaries between reality and science fiction are fine.

“But the field where progress is most dazzling is undoubtedly still that of medicine and more particularly the use of biotechnologies”, continues Evelyne Heyer, entering a space that evokes a somewhat worrying laboratory. By the subjects sometimes covered in a somewhat dense way: assisted procreation (ART), Surrogacy (Surrogacy), in vitro fertilization (IVF) and therefore also conservation, donation and purchase of gametes, prenatal diagnosis (PND) and preimplantation diagnosis (DPI) etc. Acronyms and concepts that resonate with the general public but that perhaps would have deserved more perspective than a succession of figures. Instead, the exhibition proposes an interactive game that will not cease to question or even shock the conscience: “My son a la carte”. Or how perhaps it will be possible to free yourself from the hazards of natural procreation to tailor your baby … It’s all in the “maybe”. Tools like CRISPR-Cas9, the famous molecular scissors, open up incredible possibilities to modify genes. But all of this remains highly hypothetical (especially collateral damage). The interest of this type of playful presentation is to show that the tools are indeed there – in this interactive game, an imaginary company called Perfect Baby company offers visitors the opportunity to manufacture human embryos that meet the expectations of their customers (sex , skin or eye color, etc.). But the ethical aspect is undoubtedly lacking in the space.

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A dream of immortality in a world that suffers.

These reflections, which delve into fields of research as diverse as anthropology, ethnology, biology, philosophy, medicine in general and the history of science, become relevant at the end of the exhibition when talking about ‘immortality ‘. Will science offer it to us? What are the transhumanists’ promises between life extension and downloading their brain to a computer? Another important issue: not us as individuals, but them, that is, the Earth and humanity. Our planet is in such bad shape that its future is uncertain. “Threats exist and we present them coldly, particularly through films that cut through great walls like certain natural disasters, but to encourage visitors to ask the right questions because all is not yet lost,” concludes Evelyne Heyer. This is the final and most optimistic message of this useful exhibition: to tell us realistically that modern man can still choose his destiny.

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Anne Rosencher is the managing editor of L'ExpressAnne rosencher


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