Wednesday, March 29, 2017

At the Limits of Rhino Punk

Today while reading fictional stories about the ethical implications of body modifications, I came across this passage about a man “being kept alive by the very technologies whose spiritual purpose he had so despised.”

How could his loved ones elect to replace a pulpy mess with the mere fleshy simulacrum of a nose, when rhinoplastic alternatives are available that will not only replace but upgrade the usual functioning of the sense organ?
-taken from The Modification of Eugene BerengerGregory Norminton/afterword Dr. Nihal Engin Vrana

I am all for speculative fiction. In fact, it was in part the imaginative meanderings stimulated by such fictions that led me to investigate the sense of smell in the first place, and mostly because its future is so unforeseeable.

This 2013 collection, titled Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research, even takes the extra step to have scientists and ethicists write forewords for each of the stories. But upon this particular idea, I must ask – How would we upgrade such an organ? How would we modify not the cosmetic aspect but the sensory function itself?

Being that we do not fully understand the way the olfactory bulb converts aromatic molecules into meaningful electric signals, such an upgrade sounds nice, but the details of its operation are currently quite nebulous.

The only thing I can think of is to replace the epithelium patch with a vastly larger and invaginated one, like that of a dog’s. But immediately, I recall the adage of sensory psychologist and smell expert Avery Gilbert: If humans still walked on all fours sniffing each other’s butts, then we wouldn’t find dogs to be such exceptional noses.

And then, on second thought I ask – Is this even an improvement?

The trajectory of human development seems to be one of losing our sense of smell, or at least not paying as much attention to it anymore. In that case, an upgrade would be the wrong word. “Liberation from the beastly reekings of your meatbody!” reads the sign outside the local body-mod shop.

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