What WON’T humans look like in 100,000 years?

(Getting evolution wrong, once again)

Recently the Mother Nature Network (not to be interpreted as the Mother of the Nature scientific publications, as far as I can tell) posted an article by Michael Graham Richard entitled “What will humans look like in 100,000 years?” (You can find it here.) The result is another case of an interesting question that gets convoluted by some rather strange assumptions about how evolution works.

The image that is presented represents the work of “artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm … with help from Dr. Alan Kwan,” a PhD in computational genomics. Richard’s article doesn’t state whether the piece is based on an actual scientific publication or not. I couldn’t find either name on PubMed, which means that the paper on the topic hasn’t been published yet, or has been rejected many times, or is in some nebulous state in between. Maybe they’ll have a better chance of finding a journal in 100,000 years, when their hypothesis can finally be tested.

I was immediately alarmed by the fact that the man and woman in the picture are Caucasians. If current demographic trends continue, I doubt there will be many “Caucasians” left in 100,000 years, if there are any at all. Lamm gets around this with the statement, “we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that the man and woman are Caucasian because those were just the best models he could find.” All right, we’ll give him a pass on that one.

The head of the man of the future is a bit more triangular than that of most people nowadays. This is explained by the “Heads are a bit bigger to accommodate larger brains,” the article explains. Well, to me, the shape of the man’s head has changed, but the woman’s hasn’t really. Will only men have larger brains? Will they be born that way? Will women need larger hips to bear them?

It’s true that that the female model they used to begin with has an unusual face to begin with: her eyes are set higher than normal in the face, if you go by classical rules of drawing that tell you to place them equidistant from the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. So it may look like her forehead has stretched upwards – maybe, though, her eyes have just migrated down to a more normal position in the face.

And is it true that we will really need larger brains? Won’t I have an iPhone able to store petabytes of data, or some kind of chip located at the base of my brain that can immediately access Wikipedia and Facebook (everyone will be friends with everyone in 100,000 years, all 100 billion of us)? Not to mention direct, on-line streaming. These gadgets would allow us to “outsource” most of the information we currently have to store in our brains. So a good argument can be made that our brains might shrink – it’s already happening, to judge from a lot of daily experiences I have with other humans.

The biggest difference in Lamm’s humans of the distant future is the size of the eyes, which have grown to make people look like cartoon characters. “Manga-style eyes,” to quote the article. It states, “Lamm speculates that this would be a result of human colonization of the solar system, with people living father away from the sun where there is less light.” He goes on to say that these conditions might promote the development of a sideways blink (that would be cool) and thicker eyelids to offer protection from cosmic rays on the fringes of our solar system.

To insinuate these features into the population at large and influence its evolution, the original mutants would have to live on Neptune or Pluto or wherever for a loooong time, probably thousands of generations, and have oodles of very fertile kids who would then come back and mate (very successfully) with the founder population on Earth. Of course, other people might be living on Venus, or Mercury, where there’s a lot MORE light, so presumably they’d have smaller eyes. Or maybe their eyes will develop built-in sunglasses, where our lenses get darker when exposed to bright sources of light. Sort of like the eyeglasses we wore back in the 70’s, which were supposed to turn grey in the light. At some point they usually got stuck in “grey mode,” which meant that all of our family pictures look like Mafia reunions.

Lamm even adds yellow rings to the eyes, “special lenses that act kind of like Google Glass does today, but in a much more powerful way.” Constant access to the Internet (right there on your eyeballs) will reduce the amount of information we need to access in our brains; we won’t need to store anything that’s instantly available on-line. This is another argument for the smaller-brain trend.

Of course, evolutionary innovations in eyeballs will pose some social challenges: it will be hard, for example, to keep people from cheating during tests. And you’ll be able to watch movies on your contact lenses while doing other things, such as driving, unless society has solved the problem of automobiles. Maybe you’ll have to remove the lenses during these activities, or switch them off, but that will probably be illegal. The business lobby will be tracking the motion of your eyeballs and people will be recording what you’re seeing for marketing research, and they’ll have a huge lobby to pass profitable laws.

I was in Oslo recently, which experiences long periods of decreased daylight in the winter months. That’s the kind of place where you’d expect to see the birth of huge eyes, if they arise by chance and somehow lead their owners to have a lot more kids. I didn’t notice any of these cartoon people walking around. But maybe it was just too dark to really notice. Next time I’ll keep my eyes open.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

3 thoughts on “What WON’T humans look like in 100,000 years?”

    1. Hi Dieter,
      If you click on the word “article” in the first paragraph, it will lead you to the link. I can’t repost the photos (copyright issues). But thanks for the tip; I’ll make the link more explicit.

  1. Very funny histories indeed , it’s this kind of things that you hardly forget, because it is surrounded by peals of laughter. T least, it is funnier than the tipical opinion regarding our future as humans, since the sense of evolution is to transmit everyone’s genes to the progeny and “brilliant thinkers” have few time to so, our future may get a little dark and silly unless a massive extension happens. Happily other forces may play a role to avoid such future.

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