Superhuman, Wellcome Collection, London

3.00

This vain and godless world is a warning to us all

A tiny bronze statue of Icarus is the first item in this show. It should also be the last. For the story of the boy who flew too close to the Sun is a handy reminder that, however far we advance, we should never forget our capacity to cock up.

Superhuman is an exploration of human enhancement over the ages. It starts with a prosthetic toe dating from 600BC, and ends with a timeline of the future, predicting that, in 2050, we will be exploiting Mars's resources. There's plenty of fun stuff in between: this is a romp through the ingenious ways humans have improved our lot. Exhibits range from the titillating, like the 18th-century ivory dildo, with its own pump-action system for simulating ejaculation; to the life-changing, like the 19th-century silver prosthetic nose worn like glasses, as owned by a woman who lost her own to syphilis.

These kooky little treasures are fascinating, and form a gentle introduction to darker themes ahead. They make us marvel at science's ability to overcome inconvenience. It's when we get on to the effects of thalidomide on unborn babies that we are reminded of the repercussions of tampering with nature. A News International photo, titled Philippa Verney Drinking Coffee with her Foot, is a moving reminder of this shameful episode in pharmaceutical history. It's also a timely reminder of News International's past greatness.

With further neat timing, there are exhibits relating to the Olympics and the Tour de France, which question the ethics of doping in sport. A reel of news footage shows the last moments of Tom Simpson, who until Bradley Wiggins was Britain's most successful Tour de France cyclist. He collapsed and died on Mont Ventoux in the 13th stage of the 1967 race. Initial reports blamed exhaustion, but he was later found to have taken a mixture of brandy and amphetamines.

So the question is: how far is too far? To what limits can we push ourselves, and should we? A screen of talking heads raises yet more questions about the morality of life-lengthening. Oxford professor of neuroethics Bennett Foddy reasons in favour of anti-ageing medicine by saying: "Really it's the project of medicine to extend human life, to enhance life and human youth and to defeat age and death." Hold on, that doesn't chime with the Hippocratic oath: "above all, I must not play at God".

God doesn't get a mention anywhere in this exhibition. The assumption appears to be that anyone still worrying their heads with religion has no place in the Wellcome Collection. Maybe. But to ignore the thinking of thousands of years suggests a disturbing arrogance. Spend too much time in here, watching Donald Rodney's self-propelling wheelchair, or staring at The Immortal, an installation of five inter-connecting life-support machines, and it feels like being trapped in Frankenstein's lab.

Superhuman raises complex ethical questions about how science can improve our lives, and couldn't come at a more apposite moment, as Oscar Pistorius becomes the first double amputee to compete in an Olympic Games. But the answers that this exhibition offers are unsettling. To anyone remotely sceptical of the scientist's assumption that science can solve any problem, the confident predictions of a bionic future seem wrong. "It is inevitable that we will either be enhanced or die out," says one boffin on a screen. No, it isn't. Just ask Icarus.

To 16 October (020-7611 2222)

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?