We’ve come along way looks-wise from our homo sapien ancestors. Between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago, for instance, rapid changes in Earth climate coincided with a tripling in the size of the human brain and skull, leading to a flattening of the face. But how might the physiological features of human beings change in the future, especially as new, wearable technology like Google Glass change the way we use our bodies and faces? Artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm has partnered with a computational geneticist to research and illustrate what we might look like 20,000 years in the future, as well as 60,000 years and 100,000 years out. His full, eye-popping illustrations are at the bottom of this post.
Lamm says this is “one possible timeline,” where, thanks to zygotic genome engineering technology, our future selves would have the ability to control human biology and human evolution in much the same way we control electrons to power our world today. (For a critique of the scientific proposals behind Lamm’s hypothesis, see this post by Forbes reporter Matthew Herper.)
Lamm speaks of “wresting control” of the human form from natural evolution and bending human biology to suit our needs. The illustrations were inspired by conversations with Dr. Alan Kwan, who holds a PhD in computational genomics from Washington University, UPDATE: Lamm’s project was also sponsored by the website MyVoucherCodes.co.uk, where he has a blog.
Kwan based his predictions on what living environments might look like in the future, climate and technological advancements. One of the big changes will be a larger forehead, Kwan predicts – a feature that has already expanding since the 14th and 16th centuries. Scientists writing in the British Dental Journal have suggested that skull-measurement comparisons from that time show modern-day people have less prominent facial features but higher foreheads, and Kwan expects the human head to trend larger to accommodate a larger brain.
Kwan stresses that 60,000 years from now, our ability to control the human genome will also make the effect of evolution on our facial features moot. As genetic engineering becomes the norm, “the fate of the human face will be increasingly determined by human tastes,” he says in a research document. Eyes will meanwhile get larger, as attempts to colonize Earth’s solar system and beyond see people living in the dimmer environments of colonies further away from the Sun than Earth. Similarly, skin will become more pigmented to lessen the damage from harmful UV radiation outside of the Earth’s protective ozone. Kwan expects people to have thicker eyelids and a more pronounced superciliary arch (the smooth, frontal bone of the skull under the brow), to deal with the disruptive effects already observed by present-day astronauts of cosmic rays outside Earth’s atmosphere.
The remaining 40,000 years, or 100,000 years from now, Kwan believes the human face will reflect “total mastery over human morphological genetics. This human face will be heavily biased towards features that humans find fundamentally appealing: strong, regal lines, straight nose, intense eyes, and placement of facial features that adhere to the golden ratio and left/right perfect symmetry,” he says.
Eyes will seem “unnervingly large” — as least from our viewpoint today — and may feature eye-shine enhance low-light vision and even a sideways blink from re-constituted plica semilunaris to further protect human eyes from the disruptive effect of cosmic rays.
There will be other functional necessities: larger nostrils for easier breathing in off-planet environments, denser hair to contain heat loss from a larger head — features which people may have to weigh up against their tastes for what’s genetically trendy at the time. Instead of just debating what to name a child as new parents do today, they might also have to decide if they want their children to carry the most natural expression of a couple’s DNA, such as their eye-color, teeth and other features they can genetically alter.
Excessive Borg-like technological implants would start to become untrendy, though, as people start to increasingly value that which makes us look naturally human. That “will be ever more important to us in an age where we have the ability to determine any feature,” Kwan says.
Wearable technology will still be around, but in far more subtle forms. Instead of Google Glass and iWatch, people will seek discrete implants that preserve the natural human look – think communication lenses (a technologically souped up version of today’s contacts) and miniature bone-conduction devices implanted above the ear. These might have imbedded nano-chips that communicate to another separate device to chat with others or for entertainment.
The bird’s eye view of human beings in 100,000 years will be people who want to be wirelessly plugged in, Kwan says, but with minimal disruption to what may then be perceived as the “perfect” human face.
See Nickolay Lamm’s illustrations below:
In 20,000 years: Humans have a larger head with a forehead that is subtly too large. A future “communications lens” is represented by the yellow ring around their eyes. These lenses will be the ‘Google Glass’ of the future. Image credit: Nickolay Lamm
In 60,000 years: Human beings have even larger heads, larger eyes and pigmented skin. A pronounced superciliary arch makes for a darker area below eyebrows. Miniature bone-conduction devices may be implanted above the ear now to work with communications lenses. Image credit: Nickolay Lamm
In 100,000 years: The human face is proportioned to the ‘golden ratio,’ though it features unnervingly large eyes. There is green “eye shine” from the tapetum lucidum, and a more pronounced superciliary arch. A sideways blink of the reintroduced plica semilunaris seen in the light gray areas of the eyes, while miniature bone-conduction devices implanted above the ear work with the communications lenses on the eyes. Image credit: Nickolay Lamm