Maybe “girls can do anything” – this bloke can’t

I applaud the sentiment behind the much-quoted phrase, “girls can do anything” but I am startled when I come across people who think it is literally true. Girls cannot do anything, and neither can boys. Our biological nature ensures that great and all as our human potential might be, there are limits to what is possible. We may be able to “re-invent” ourselves – re-creating ourselves is a different matter

It seems that, as a result of our growing understanding of the unrealized potential we possess, there is a perception that human beings are infinitely plastic and that we can mold ourselves into any form we choose. This attitude the latest manifestation of an age-old human tendency to overweening pride – hubris; we think we can become as God is. It is the contemporary version of the story of Adam and Eve.

I am no Usain Bolt; no matter how much I tried, even in my younger days, I could never have covered 100 metres in less than ten seconds unassisted on a horizontal surface, even if I was being pursued by a fierce mountain lion. The only way I could manage such a feat would be by being rolled on my side down a very steep hill, or jumping from an airplane.

I am neither a materialist nor a duelist – (I hope). I do not think I am just a body.  My visible being is just the surface of an unknowable multi-faceted mystery. But I am a body, and because I am a body, a particular, unique body, there are some things I cannot do.

Who I am and what I can become does depend a lot on my attitude to life, but there are limits. These limits are set my genetic inheritance – the 46 chromosomes that ensure I am a human being and not a fruit fly, and the particular arrangement of genes lined up on those chromosomes that ensure a I am white, short, balding, male human being. These possessions gave me the potential, should I have had the passion earlier in life, of aspiring at least, to being an All Black front rower but never a twinkle-toed ballerina.

There are some things I cannot do. I cannot fly…. never been able to. I cannot be nourished by the sun, like plants can. And although cloning is now a possibility, I cannot, as some primitive animals can, split down the middle and become two people. Imagine if we could! Because I am a man I cannot give birth to a baby. Because I am not as young as I was, I cannot climb the stairs five at a time.

I wonder if some people are uncomfortable about being animals. Animals are such messy, smelly, unpredictable, swishy things aren’t they? We burp – and worse! We wear out with use; we start to sag wrinkle and stretch. Hair stops growing where is should and starts growing where it shouldn’t. The mind plays Russian roulette with our memories. We get hungry, tired and weary. We die.

But I like being an animal, with all its limitations. Being an animal is what makes living such fun. It would be so boring to be an angel or a pure spirit of any kind. I love the heat of the sun on my body earth under my feet. The taste of food, the coolness of water, the wild untamed instincts that may my body fizz and bubble… even if some of them seem longer very useful and can sometimes get me into trouble.

The human species is evolving of course, and it is possible that one day we will be genderless beings giving birth by parthenogenesis. Maybe, as described in Aldous Huxley’s  “A Brave New World”,  human beings will be brewed in batches of 88 identical beings all colour coded depending on their designated task in life, and spontaneous baby making will be criminalised. If this happens it will take a lot of the fun out of life but everything will be much tidier.

We may in centuries to come be able to fly, to absorb energy directly from the sun and to pass instantaneously from one place to another. But for the time being we would do well to just accept our limitations and enjoy our animal pleasures and endure the limitations.

Denis O’Hagan is a Marist priest, the editor of CathNews New Zealand, and among many other things, a former teacher of biology.

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