The line of beauty and the age of the chair

Our backs hurt, our feet are flat and our teeth don’t fit. It’s all because industrial revolution happens faster than human evolution. Our bodies are trying to adapt to modern life and they can’t keep up, says Vybarr Cregan-Reid.

Primate Change examines the impact of this rapid ascent of man. We’re not chomping, lifting or pacing the way we used to. Fingers clock up more kilometres on the keyboard in an hour than our feet do in a day. We’ve seen a 1,000% drop in movement in the past two centuries and our spines are suffering. By the age of 40, says Vybarr, most of us in sedentary work are unable to stand up correctly, and our backs are now closer to a z-shape than the glorious serpentine s-shape that William Hogarth named the line of beauty.

Taking in anthropology, biomechanics and archaeology, this book forages widely across millions of years of human history but its principal quest is to find out why we are the way we are today.

Healthcare has never been better, but modern afflictions are all around us: depression, asthma, backache. It’s because our bodies are in shock, says Vybarr: “[they] do not know what century they were born into and they are defending and deforming themselves in response.”

As in Footnotes, his excursion into the reasons and philosophy for running, Vybarr uses fascinating facts and fictional references as engaging touchpoints. So while observing that for centuries chairs were used only to enthrone the high and mighty, and estimating that there are perhaps now 50 billion seats in the world, he also notes that there are no chairs in the bible, or Hamlet, but firm school pews aplenty in Dickens’s Hard Times. Amid detailed explanations of epigenetics and hip flexor function, he adds references to Lady Gaga, quotes from Kurt Cobain, and a sobering reminder of what happens when Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver finds himself in the land of the ancient Struldbruggs, who are like normal human beings except they cannot die. Vybarr ponders if this is what living longer means – “uselessness, with the added twist of pain, discomfort and morbid diseases?”

The book works because it is personal, too. As we learn about the author’s search to ease his own backache and asthma, there are some findings for everyone; about the limitations of gym and Pilates versus a 15-hour sitting day; about how it feels to run in the invisible smog of nitrogen oxide and about what a thunderstorm can do to the pollen particles that reach your lungs.

Vybarr teaches English and Environmental Humanities at the University of Kent and has been voted the university's Best Teacher. He was a popular speaker at ChipLitFest in 2017 and we know his contribution to our discussion on Modern Life will be fascinating.

He’s joined by Marina Benjamin, who has turned her own experience of another modern affliction, insomnia, into an inspirational and poetic memoir, and Mary-Ann Ochota, the broadcaster and writer who specialises in anthropology, archaeology and social history.

Modern Life Saturday 27 April14:00 – 15:00 The Methodist Church