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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

We humans would look considerably different - both inside and out - if evolution had designed the human body to work better and last longer.

Dr S Jay Olshansky of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago and two other researchers recently speculated in Scientific American that a human "better designed for old age" might possess the following features:

  • Shorter stature would provide a lower center of gravity which would perhaps help to prevent falls that often plague the elderly.
  • More ribs could help prevent hernias and other problems of holding organs in place more effectively.
  • Thicker bones would protect against breakage during falls.
  • Knees able to bend backwards would make the bones less likely to grind and deteriorate.
  • A forward-tilting upper torso would relieve pressure on the vertebrae, thus lowering the risk of ruptured disks.
  • A curved neck with enlarged vertebrae would counterbalance the tilted torso and enable the head to stay up and forward.
  • Thicker disks would resist pressure on the back.
  • Extra muscles and fat would add weight on the bones, which would help counter the effects of osteoporosis (demineralisation of bones).
  • Leg veins with more "check valves" would combat the development of varicose veins.
  • Larger hamstrings and tendons would help support the leg and hip, thus reducing the need for knee and hip replacement surgery.
  • The optic nerve attached to the back of the retina might stabilise the retina's connection to the back of the eye, thus helping to prevent retinal detachment.
  • A raised trachea would better help food and drink bypass the windpipe and reduce choking.
  • An enlarged, mobile outer ear would better collect sound with greater efficiency to compensate for internal ear breakdowns.
  • More plentiful and durable hair cells in the ear would help preserve hearing late in life.

With all of these changes our bodies would be better constructed, but wouldn’t win any beauty contests.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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