The Nature of Things

How people may change in the future, from having longer legs to fewer toes

We're not there yet: Humans are still evolving and adapting in the face of cultural and technological changes.

Humans are still evolving and adapting in the face of cultural and technological changes

In the future, our faces might become more attractive. French biologist Alex Courtiol speculates that as more and more of us use dating apps to find love, people will evolve to have more appealing faces. (CBC/The New Human)

For many of us, the day starts the same way. We wake up in a bed that's just over six feet long, brush our teeth (including our wisdom teeth) and put shoes on our feet — feet with a total of 10 toes.  

In the future, all that could change. 

The New Human, a documentary from The Nature of Things, looks at some of the ways humans may physically transform in response to the world around us — and how technology is already impacting how we live and look.

While there's no way to know exactly how humans will evolve and adapt in the generations to come, experts are making predictions based on a wealth of human genetic data, the potential of startling new technologies and observations of our changing lifestyles.

Many of us will get taller (but not all of us)

That six-foot-long bed might not accommodate most of us in the future. According to The New Human, people around the world are getting taller and taller.

Dutch economic historian Jan Willem Drukker believes our increasing stature is related to our standard of living. Genetics and mate choices also play a part. "Ninety per cent of your final height is determined … by the heights of your parents," he says in the documentary.

Today, Dutch people are the tallest on Earth. According to The New Human, people around the world are getting taller and taller. (CBC/The New Human)

Today, Dutch people are the tallest on Earth. The Guardian recently reported that the average 19-year-old Dutch man measured just over six feet tall in 2020, while the average Dutch woman of the same age measured five feet six inches. 

But while people in many wealthy nations are still getting taller, the documentary speculates that the Dutch may have reached the maximum height our bones and circulatory system can support. 

The Guardian also cited recent surveys that suggest the Dutch have actually gotten a little bit shorter over time: Dutch men born in 2001 are, on average, 1 cm shorter than men born in 1980. For women, the difference is 1.4 cm. 

There are a number of potential explanations for this: increased immigration of shorter new population groups to the Netherlands, the impact of the economic crash in 2007 (did children grow up in poorer economic conditions?) and the increased consumption of unhealthy fast food.     

The documentary points to a similar trend in the U.S., suggesting Americans have been shrinking for a number of years. 

This graph from The New Human shows how Americans have been shrinking as the Dutch grow taller. (CBC/The New Human )

Drukker wonders if this may be because of the U.S. health-care system. "[Maybe] leaving … the social medical care more to the market … has isolated the poorest groups of the population out of social medical care," he says

"The height of the new human will depend on the system that she creates around her. And if the system is geared towards better social medical care, healthy food, a healthy lifestyle, everyone will become taller."

Goodbye pinky toes

The way we use our feet is changing. These days, we spend far more time sitting than running. 

François Allart, the co-founder of Canada's first school of podiatric medicine, hypothesizes that if our culture becomes even more sedentary, the human foot will become weaker and flatter. We might even lose a toe.

Bye bye, pinky toes! | The New Human

2 months ago
Duration 2:20
Francois Allart, the co-founder of Canada’s first school of podiatric medicine, envisions a new human with feet that don’t have pinky toes and perhaps, no arches. 2:20

According to Allart, our big toe is still the most important. It's unlikely to disappear for a long time, because it's responsible for the foot's ability to bend and propel us forward. The other toes are important too, he says, at least for now.  

"The pinky toe is the [least] important of all and probably will disappear with time," Allart says in the documentary. "The pinky toe has not a lot of purpose in our equilibrium and our running and walking."

Attractive faces could be the norm

Sitting and staring at our screens might not just affect our feet — it could affect our faces, too. 

French biologist Alex Courtiol speculates that as more and more of us use dating apps to find love, people will evolve to have more appealing faces. 

Dating apps often feature photos of a person's head and shoulders as the main attraction point. Pre-Tinder, our eyes would take in our potential date's whole body. Now, as more of us pair up based on that initial attraction to faces, it's likely that the children of those matches will have more appealing faces too.

"The face has always attracted a lot of attention when it comes to mate choice," Courtiol says in the documentary. "It's possible that facial attractiveness exerts a much more pronounced effect than it ever has done in the past." 

Better health through technology

The New Human not only explores the ongoing story of our evolution but the impact of rapidly evolving medical technologies. 

Doctors like Canadian surgeon Ivan Wong are using 3D printing to aid in joint repairs that can help prevent major operations down the road. 

Watch: How Dr. Ivan Wong uses 3D-printed models to help in surgery

3D-printed organs could redesign humans faster than evolution can | The New Human

2 months ago
Duration 1:40
We are merging with technology more than ever before: our bodies may now have implanted chips, smart limbs, exoskeletons and 3D-printed organs 1:40

"We can actually change the natural history of patients, so patients may not get arthritis if we are able to catch this early enough," says Wong.

As we add and implant more technology in our bodies, the human of the future is being reshaped by the hands of humans today.

Watch The New Human on The Nature of Things.