"Reversal of fortune? No way. Reversal of skill." -Uffish Thought
Question #91244 posted on 05/21/2018 11:02 p.m.
Q:

Dear Sheebs,

How would the world and society be different if all humans had wings (like angels)? How would your life be different if you were the only one with wings?

-Rainbow connection

A:

Dear person,

I should have clarified - I really like outlandish science hypotheticals. As such, I interpreted your question as a science hypothetical. I also recruited yayfulness to help because he understands a lot about geography and urban design. 

To figure out how the world and society would be different if humans had wings like angels, I decided I needed to understand the aerodynamics of angel wings. To my credit, I did suspect that angel wings would not work very well if implemented in reality. But I don't have a great understanding of aerodynamics, so I used google and found that thankfully other people tackled this for me here and here

Basically, angel wings as depicted in most art would be useless. If humans with literal angel wings jumped off a cliff and tried to fly, they would die. Many anatomical changes would need to be made in order for flight to be possible. Among other anatomical tweaks (i.e., hollow bones, stronger sternum, REMOVAL OF ARMS), winged humans would need a 30 foot plus wingspan, which would result in difficulty folding the wings to walk around, so they'd drag on the ground. They'd also be really heavy. Very inconvenient, especially as the human wouldn't have arms. 

There would also be significant metabolic problems. The energy cost of flying would be enormous. I can't quite figure it out exactly because I don't know how to factor everything in (and I'm not sure I would know to factor everything in), but humans would need to eat somewhere between 12,000 and 90,000 calories a day, or between 6 and 45 times as many calories as most humans eat roughly on average. And I'm not sure if that amount takes into account the loss of heat due to the increased surface area of the wings. There would definitely be increased competition for food, so it might make for a more violent society overall. 

So, at this point, I can answer this question about how my life would be different if I was the only one with wings. First of all, if I was born with wings I assume they would have been surgically removed shortly after my birth. I imagine doctors would have seen them as undesirable growths. But let's say, so we can take this question as far as possible, that my wings were not removed. If the wings were functional, it would mean that I would have no arms. This would impact my life significantly. Once I learned how to fly I would have become very famous. However, at places like school, I'd probably get made fun of for being different and because my wings would drag on the ground. I probably would have avoided school, which would have been easy because I could fly and I assume the police would eventually get sick of dispatching helicopters, especially if I was not getting injured. I probably never would have even read the 100 Hour Board because it would have been more difficult to go on the internet.

I'd need to eat a lot of food which would have placed a financial burden on my family growing up, and would be even more expensive for me as an adult. So I'd need a really good job. I think I would probably start a courier company or became a specialized postal worker. Maybe I would also do shows to demonstrate my abilities to the public. I would probably need to work a lot of hours in order to feed myself, especially if I ended up needing something like 80,000 calories a day. Maybe I would join a sports team. Maybe I'd play professional basketball, I'd probably be really good at that because at the very least I could block all of the opposing team's shots. If I could make a decent salary that way so I could survive.

Yayfulness had many more ideas about how the world and society would be different if humans had wings, assuming that they have arms. He said:

People would still use vehicles. We have these things called "legs" that we can use to go just about anywhere, but we still get in cars and drive. So airplanes would still exist, cars would still exist, if anything I'd expect we would probably have flying cars by now, because land use patterns would also be different. Right now, pretty much every house comes with some sort of street access. It has to, because otherwise you're trapped inside. If people could fly? Then that wouldn't be necessary. Instead, you'd expect just about every residence to come with some sort of air access, but it might be completely surrounded on the ground. This would impact apartments too. You'd probably expect them to always come with a balcony. (The details of that depend on all sorts of stuff that I'm not even qualified to speculate on, like whether you have to get a running start to take off, whether you can hover, etc.).
 
You might see a lot of construction of buildings on stilts to keep away from ground-based predators, if you live in a place and time where those are common. But usually the biggest threat to human safety comes from other humans. So historic castles and modern fortifications would look totally different. Walls without a ceiling would be a complete waste of time. But you also don't want to use the sort of ceiling where someone can actually land on it. So I'm going to speculate that castles would be in the form of totally enclosed steeply peaked roofs.
 
In a more modern context, our conceptions of privacy and private vs. public space would be pretty different. Right now, if you go outside into a fenced back yard, you can assume that people won't be able to see you. If people can fly, back yards are suddenly as easily visible as front yards. Right now, we typically think of property rights in two dimensions, meaning that you also own the sky above your land and the ground below it. That's changed a bit in the last century with the advent of things like skyscrapers and airplanes, but it would be dramatically different if you could expect potentially heavy traffic above your property as well as around it. There would have to be some way of defining how close you can get to someone's house before it's the flying equivalent of walking through the yard. Or, more likely (in my opinion), outdoor space would just all be considered public space.
 
As for national borders... I'd guess they wouldn't change all that much. Countries would still want to control access to resources. The considerations I mentioned for individual homes are measured in dozens of feet. National territory is measured in thousands of miles. I'm assuming people couldn't cover much more ground in one day by flying than by walking. But I'm really not sure. That hinges on a lot of assumptions that I probably don't realize I'm making.
 
[Supposing that people could fly at least at 50 mph, m]y first guess is that borders would be a lot more porous. Right now countries just have to monitor the ground-level border. This would mean that border patrols would have to monitor huge swaths of sky too, and at high speed. I'd guess that there would be fewer small countries and more larger countries. If there's an armed border between two countries (think North/South Korea), the demilitarized zone or no-man's-land along the border would be HUGE.
 
I've got another hypothesis, but that has more to do with broad societal trends. More mobility means higher odds of meeting more people. I suspect that human populations would have been much less fragmented throughout history, meaning fewer languages and cultures would have developed and, in the modern era, fewer countries overall.
 
If you want to know what life would be like if humans had wings but not arms, that's out of the scope of this question.
 
-Sheebs and yayfulness