TV review: Can Science Make Me Perfect? With Alice Roberts, and The Many Primes of Muriel Spark

29 June 2018

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ALICE ROBERTS can do better than God. Broadcast a couple of weeks ago now, Can Science Make Me Perfect? With Alice Roberts (BBC4, 13 June) raises such interesting theological questions as to deserve a mention, however delayed.

Here, Dr Roberts focused on her own body. Unlike those who believe that we are made directly by God and must, ergo, be perfect, her profession and lived experience tells her that the truth is quite the opposite. The millennia of evolution which have resulted in the current version of Homo sapiens mean that we carry around with us all sorts of organs and characteristics that were of immense value to our ancestors, but which make contemporary life quite a struggle — especially as we all live so much longer.

The Science Museum challenged her to see how she could improve on the human frame, and she set to remaking herself with replacement parts from elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Lower back pain? Let’s lose a few vertebrae and have a sturdier trunk. Knees unstable? Why not have have limbs more like an emu’s?

The blood supply to the heart is curiously limited; dog-like coronary arteries would be a huge improvement. The epiglottis is dangerously inefficient, using the same narrow tract for eating, drinking, and breathing, a recipe for disaster. Why not separate the two pathways? The eye is nothing like as good as that of many other species, and it is the same for our ears.

Most strikingly, why must women suffer such painful and potentially unsafe childbirth? Dr Roberts decided to copy the marsupials, give birth henceforth to jelly-bean-sized babies, and nurture them in a kangaroo-style pouch. A splendid life-sized model has been made of this new improved version for all to see, at the Museum.

This was not an exercise in hubris: her tongue still remains in her cheek, and she constantly acknowledged that each change would have unforeseen consequences and problems. But, for anyone taking the doctrine of the incarnation seriously, it was a fascinating focus of what our flesh is actually like, for good and ill.

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We heard that the subject of The Many Primes of Muriel Spark (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) “tried to become an Anglican, but I couldn’t believe a word of it”. In what was not in itself a unique response, she then, after reading Cardinal Newman, became a Roman Catholic.

What a shame that the gentle interviewer was unwilling to press her on why one set of dogma was more palatable than the other. But, then, a key thread running through this excellent portrait by Kirsty Wark, celebrating the centenary of Spark’s birth, was the element of surprise and personal re-invention throughout Spark’s life: a refusal to be pinned down as one thing or another.

God is a constant presence in much of her fiction, as she explores the gap between faith and truth. We saw how her humour is so often dark, cruel, and punitive, especially in her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie — at once seductive and attractive, yet also destructive and self-deluding. Spark herself, perhaps?

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