If your ancestors could see you today, they might not recognize you as entirely human. Over the past century, medical and technological innovations have made us stronger, faster, smarter—often in ways we no longer notice. Artificial enhancement of the human body isn’t just for cyborgs; most of us have bodies that have already been enhanced beyond their natural potential. To us, these advantages are a routine part of modern existence. To our grandparents, they would have made us seem like Superman. Below are five of the top modern innovations that make us stronger, more fertile, able to shape-shift, and more—and that we take entirely for granted.
Plastic surgery was created by surgeons during World War I to reconstruct soldiers’ faces that had been brutally disfigured by the new weapons of warfare. Bombs, flamethrowers, and crash-prone airplanes scorched swathes of skin and shattered jaws, while trench warfare left soldiers’ heads and necks vulnerable to whizzing bullets. War doctors recognized that saving these men’s lives wasn’t quite enough; as one surgeon noted, “What is the use of life if [a soldier] is not in a condition to seek and to earn a livelihood?” Facial restoration was viewed as a necessity rather than a vain indulgence, and generals, hoping to raise troop morale, heartily endorsed the practice.
After the war, most French and British doctors quit plastic surgery and returned to normal practice. But American surgeons smelled a new market. They set their sights on civilians—particularly women. To legitimize the field and counter criticisms that they were serving only vanity, plastic surgeons cited the practice’s initial medical necessity. Plastic surgery procedures became public spectacles, performed in front of an audience to emphasize their ease and speed. In 1923, vaudeville actress Fanny Brice received a rhinoplasty from a traveling surgeon in her apartment at the New York Ritz in front of a crowd. (The surgeon’s license was later revoked, and Time labeled him “the King of Quacks.”) The procedures became safer and relatively routine, and Americans, particularly American women, were suddenly able to nip and tuck their way to an ethnically bland, generically pretty face.
These days, whatever stigma once surrounded plastic surgery has largely evaporated (in the United States, that is), and the practice remains hugely popular. In 2012, 14.6 million cosmetic procedures were performed, a 98 percent increase since 2000. More than 6 million people received Botox injections, a number greater than the population of Maryland. For several thousand dollars, you can now dramatically alter your body to look pretty much however you want it to. What began as a desperate measure for disfigured soldiers is now a routine procedure for anybody in want of a self-confidence pick-me-up. According to some scientists, that jump—in which a new technology evolves from life-saving to life-enhancing—may simply be inevitable.
Humans have long grasped the relationship between vaginal intercourse and reproduction. For about as long, we’ve been trying to sever it. Ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used balms and herbs to attempt to halt fertilization before anyone fully understood how the process worked. Beginning in the 1500s, condoms became increasingly popular around the world, including in China and Italy. But the prophylactics presented a problem for women: Condoms kept contraception under the control of men.
Contraception was a feminist issue from the start. Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League and first president of Planned Parenthood, popularized diaphragms, which helped resolve this disparity. But she and other women’s advocates long hoped for an oral contraceptive for women. The solution would be doubly useful: It separated contraception and sex—with no pause to put on a condom or insert a diaphragm—and it placed women squarely in control of their own bodies. In the early 1950s, scientists developed synthetic progesterone in pill form. The hormone works in three ways: It hinders sperm from reaching the egg, keeps any fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, and prevents ovulation. In trials, patients were placed on a now-familiar four-week schedule: three weeks on the pill, one week on placebo. This allowed women to continue menstruating once a month, a scheme designed to make the pill seem “natural,” analogous to the rhythm method and thus perhaps acceptable to the Catholic church.
The church didn’t buy it—but American women did. In 1960, the drug company G. D. Searle secured FDA approval to market synthetic progesterone as an oral contraceptive, and by 1963, 2.3 million women were on the pill. In 1965, the Supreme Court overturned bans on birth control for married couples, finding a right to privacy in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights. The right to use birth control was extended to unmarried couples in 1972, by which point nearly 10 million women were on the pill. More than 80 percent of women in the United States have used the pill, a proportion that has remained largely steady for the past several decades. And while the pill is not without controversy, it remains a widely used and generally accepted method of contraception. After a multi-millennia quest that has involved solutions as creative as honey and crocodile dung, humans can now separate sex and reproduction with a single pill.