Some futurists caution that humans could become extinct sooner than later in the face of a technological Armageddon. You might call it an evolutionary phase transition, when intelligent machines, nanobots or some other creation of man gone amok wipes us all out.
Alternately, the seemingly inevitable marriage between man and machine may go down less Draconian pathways, branching into an infinity of possibilities. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s “3001: The Final Odyssey” (1997) humans all shave their heads so that they can wear a computer-interface BrainCap, er, iCap? And then there’s Star Trek’s infamous Borg — a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in an interstellar hive.
While the future of mankind is unknowable, illustrator Nickolay Lamm has produced a set of imaginative evolutionary changes to the human face over the next 100,000 years.
This far-future look was inspired by conversations Lamm had with Dr. Alan Kwan, an expert in computational genomics from Washington University, St Louis, Mo. Kwan bases his speculation on phylogenomics, which determines the evolutionary relationships of life forms by comparing large datasets of gene sequences.
Kwan’s musings on the future course of humanity takes into account evolution on space colonies and man-machine interfaces, including future Google Glass-like technology (a wearable computer with a head-mounted display) that intimately marries computer data to human vision.
Through genome engineering, Kwan predicts that we will inevitably control human biology and human evolution the way we “control electrons today.”
“Evolution is the phenomenon by which the genetics of a species interacts with the environment of that species over long periods of time. While a lot is known about genes and a lot is known about human facial physiology, the causal relationships between these two phenomena are poorly understood today,” says Kwan.
The morphology of the head and face is largely dictated by skull shape. This in turn is primarily determined by the six face bones and the eight cranial bones that house the brain. Studies in paleoanthropology show that no one part can evolve or change independently of any other part. This is an invariant rule of viable human biology, says Kwan.
The impact of evolution on the human face can be seen as far back as 200,000 years ago to as recently as 650 years ago. Between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago, during a rapid, sustained period of fluctuation in the Earth’s climate, the human brain tripled in size. The accommodation of a larger brain drove changes not just of the skull but to facial bone structure. This set our distant ancestors on the path towards our relatively flat faces today.
“Hypothesizing what the average human face would look like in 100,000 years is no easy task and I make many — hopefully realistic — assumptions,” says Lamm. “I make an educated guess regarding the pace of technological and scientific advancement based not on fantasy but on my own experience and observation in biological and computational sciences.”
What’s halting about Lamm’s 100,000 year projection is that the humans have an uncanny resemblance to descriptions of alleged space aliens visiting Earth. UFO enthusiasts might find Lamm’s illustrations suggestive of convergent evolution among galactic species, or perhaps alien panspermia, where Earth was seeded by advanced extraterrestrials to evolve humanoids.
To me, the illustrations are reminiscent the kitschy paintings of the Big Eye Kids created by Walter and Margaret Keane in the 1960s. Gee, maybe the Keens were time travelers who wanted to give us a vision of our destiny.
So will our distant progeny resemble the Borg or Bratz dolls? Humanity’s far future reality will no doubt be stranger than we can barely extrapolate — but it’s fun to try imagining.
Image credit: Nickolay Lamm