Unlike what many prefer to believe, human evolution hasn’t ended. In fact, it’s speeding up. And by the end of this century, we may see new forms of humans walking around that may look entirely alien to us. And a large part of that process has to do with our current and future perception of human physical beauty.
‘Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.' This is what we've all heard in different ways throughout our life, especially from our parents during our awkward grade school years. And it's true: Beauty is purely subjective. But it's also very much influenced by the world around us, as you're about to see. To explain, let's start with the industry most intimately associated with physical beauty.
Cosmetic Tech Makes 80 the New 40
From an evolutionary perspective, we can loosely define physical beauty as a collection of physical traits that signal the health, strength and wealth of a person—in other words, traits that subconsciously signal whether a person is worthwhile for procreation. Today, very little has changed, even though we'd like to believe our intellects have overcome these primitive concepts. Physical beauty remains a large factor in attracting potential mates, and being physically fit remains an unspoken indicator of an individual with the drive and self-discipline to stay in shape, as well as the wealth needed to eat healthy.
That’s why when people believe they lack physical beauty, they turn to exercise and diets, cosmetics, and finally, cosmetic surgery. Let’s take a quick look at some of the advancements we’ll see in these fields:
Exercise. These days, if you're motivated enough to follow a system, then there are a range of exercise and diet programs currently available to help reshape your body. But for those suffering from mobility issues due to obesity, diabetes, or old age, most of these programs aren't very useful.
Luckily, new pharmaceutical drugs are now being tested and marketed as 'exercise in a pill.' Far more powerful than your standard weight loss pill, these drugs stimulate the enzymes charged with regulating metabolism and endurance, encouraging a rapid burning of stored fat and overall cardiovascular conditioning. Once approved for wide-scale human use, this pill could help millions lose weight and achieve improved overall health. (Yes, that includes the too-lazy-to-exercise crowd.)
Meanwhile, when it comes to dieting, common wisdom today tells us that all foods should affect us in the same way, good foods should make us feel better and bad foods should make us feel bad or bloated. But as you might have noticed from that one friend you can eat 10 donuts without gaining a pound, that simple black and white way of thinking doesn't hold salt.
Recent findings are beginning to reveal that the composition and health of your microbiome (gut bacteria) noticeably affects how your body processes foods, converts it to energy or stores it as fat. By analyzing your microbiome, future dieticians will tailor a diet plan that better fits your unique DNA and metabolism.
Cosmetics. Aside from the use of new, skin friendly materials, the traditional cosmetic makeup you’ll use tomorrow will change very little from the cosmetics of today. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any innovation in the field.
In 10 years, 3D printers that let you print out basic makeup at home will be commonplace, giving users far more flexibility in terms of the colour range they have access to. Niche makeup brands will also begin using a range of smart materials with unusual abilities—think nail polish that changes colour instantly with a command from your makeup app or foundation that hardens to better protect you from the sun, then becomes invisible indoors. And for Halloween, you can even combine makeup with future holographic tech to make you look like anyone or anything (see below).
Cosmetic surgery. For the next 20 years, the biggest advances in physical beauty will come out of the cosmetic surgery industry. Treatments will become so safe and advanced that the cost and taboo around them will drop considerably, to a point where scheduling a cosmetic surgery appointment will be akin to booking a hair colouring session at a salon.
This probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Already, between 2012 and 2013, there were over 23 million procedures performed worldwide, a rise from half a million in 1992. That represents a massive growth industry that will only continue to grow as wealthy boomers look to ease into their lengthening retirement years by looking and feeling as beautiful as possible.
Overall, these cosmetic advances can largely be broken down into three buckets: surgical, non-invasive therapies, and gene therapy.
Cosmetic surgeries involve any procedure where you need to be anesthetized or cut open to have biological tissue cut out, added in, or remolded. Aside from minor innovations to make these surgeries safer, with a faster recovery time, the cosmetic surgeries done today won't change too much in the near future.
Meanwhile, non-invasive therapies is where most of today's R&D money is being invested in. Being that they are generally same-day operations that are less expensive, with far shorter recovery times, these therapies are increasingly the cosmetic option of choice for the casual consumer.
Today, the therapies having the fastest worldwide adoption are procedures like light therapy and laser facials meant to tighten up skin, erase blemishes and remove wrinkles, as well as cryotherapy to freeze off stubborn areas of fat. But by the early 2020s, we'll see the return of needle-based therapy options that will erase wrinkles with collagen injections or shrink/dissolve fat cells with targeted injections of future drugs (no more double-chins!).
Finally, the third advance—gene therapy (gene editing)—will make both cosmetic surgeries and non-invasive therapies largely obsolete by the late 2050s. But this, we'll explore in our next chapter when we discuss genetically engineering designer babies.
In all, the next two decades will see the end of superficial issues like wrinkles, hair loss, and stubborn fat.
And yet the question remains, even with all these advances, what will we consider beautiful over the coming decades?
Environment Affects Beauty Norms
From an evolutionary perspective, our environment played a huge role in our collective evolution. As humans started spreading out of East Africa to the Middle East, then to Europe and Asia, then into North and South America, those with the genes best adapted to the changing climates of their surroundings were more likely to be viewed as beautiful (i.e. seen as better partners for procreation, thereby passing on their genes to the next generation).
That's why those with darker skin tones were favoured within desert or tropical climates, as darker skin tones better protected against the sun's harsh UV rays. Alternatively, those with lighter skin tones were favoured in colder climates to better absorb the smaller amounts of vitamin D (sun) available at higher latitudes. This feature is even more pronounced in the Inuit and Eskimo peoples of the North Arctic.
A more recent example (just about 7,500 years ago, so not that long) is the ability to drink milk. Most adults in China and Africa are unable to digest fresh milk, whereas adults from Sweden and Denmark retain the milk-digesting gene. Again, those humans who were better able to feed of the animals or livestock in their environment were more likely to be found attractive and pass on their genes.
Given this context, it shouldn't be too controversial to say that the impact future climate change will have on our collective environment will become a factor in the future evolution of humans globally. How big a factor, however, depends on how out of control we allow our climate to become.
Population Affects Beauty Norms
The size and composition of our population also plays a huge role in our perception of beauty, as well as our evolutionary path.
Some studies have shown that you're naturally attracted to beauty norms that you were exposed to more often as you were a child. For example, if you grew up with white parents, in a predominantly white neighborhood, then you're more likely to be attracted to individuals with lighter skin tones well into your adulthood. Alternatively, if you grew up in a mixed home, in a more multicultural neighborhood, then the beauty norms you favour will be more varied. And this doesn't just apply to skin colour, but to other physical characteristics like height, hair colour, accents, etc.
And with the rates of interracial marriages steadily increasing in Western nations, the overall norms around beauty that relate to race will begin to blur and become less pronounced as we enter the latter half of the 21st century.
On an evolutionary note, our growing population—seven billion today, nine billion by 2040—also means that the rate of evolutionary change will increase even faster.
Remember, evolution works when a species reproduces enough times that a random mutation occurs, and should that mutation be seen as attractive or beneficial, the species member with that mutation is more likely to procreate and spread that mutation to future generations. Sounds crazy? Well, if you're reading this with blue eyes, then you can thank a single ancestor who lived 6-10,000 years ago for that unique trait.
Chances are with an extra two billion humans entering the world by 2040, we’re likely to see someone born with the next ‘killer app’ for human beauty—maybe that’s someone born with the ability to see new colours, someone who’s immune to heart disease, or someone with unbreakable bones … actually, these people have already been born.
Religion and Tribes Affect Beauty Norms
Humans are a herd animal. That’s why another big factor that affects what we perceive as beautiful is what we’re told is beautiful from the collective.
An early example was the beauty norms promoted by religions. Conservative interpretations of the leading monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have tended to promote modesty of dress and overall appearance, especially for women. This is regularly explained as a method to emphasise the individual's inner character and devotion to God.
However, Judaism and Islam are also known for promoting a particular form of physical modification: circumcision. While originally performed as an act of kinship to a religion, these days the procedure is so common that parents in many parts of the world have it performed on their sons for aesthetic reasons.
Of course, physical modifications to submit to a particular beauty norm aren't limited to religions. We see unique manifestations in tribes around the world, like the elongated necks exhibited by the women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe in Myanmar; scarification tattoos found in West Africa; and the tā moko tribal tattoos of the Māori peoples of New Zealand.
And it’s not just the religions or tribes you are born into that impact beauty norms, but the subcultures we freely join as well. Modern subcultures like the goth or hipster have distinct forms of dress and physical appearance that is promoted and fetishized.
But as yesterday's religions and tribes begin to wane in their influence over the coming decades, it will fall to tomorrow's techno-religions and subcultures to dictate our future beauty norms at the regional level. Especially given the advances happening today in computing and healthcare, we'll begin to see a whole new era of culturally influenced fashions and body modifications—think glow in the dark and bioluminescent tattoos, computer implants inside your brain to connect your mind to the web, or gene therapy that gives you naturally purple hair.
Mass Media Affects Beauty Norms
And then we come to the invention of mass media. Compared to the regional reach that religions and tribes enjoy, visual forms of mass media such as print, television, the Internet, and social media can affect beauty norms on a global scale. This is unprecedented in human history.
Through mass media, content producers can heavily influence beauty norms by producing and promoting works of art that depict actors and models with purposefully chosen or crafted physiques, grooming, fashion, and personality. This is how the fashion industry works: The more a particular style of fashion is globally promoted to be ‘in vogue' by leading influencers, the more said fashion sells in retail. This is also how the star system works: The more a celebrity is globally promoted, the more they are seen as sex symbols to be wanted and emulated.
However, over the next decade, we will see three large factors disrupting the global effectiveness and overly standardized nature of mass media:
Population growth and diversity. As birth rates fall throughout the developed world, immigrants are actively being encouraged to fill the population growth gap. Day-to-day, we see this most clearly within our largest cities, where the proportion of skin colour and ethnicity is becoming far denser than in rural regions.
As this minority population grows and becomes more affluent, the incentive for marketers and media producers to appeal to this demographic will grow, leading to a sharp increase in niche content production that features minorities, as opposed to the mass market, white-washed content popularized in earlier decades. As more minorities are featured in the media, beauty norms will evolve to place a greater acceptance and value on different races and ethnicities.
Internet reaches the poorest billion. The Internet will play a massive role in accelerating the beauty norm evolution trend described above. As explained in our Future of the Internet series, of the world's 7.3 billion people (2015), 4.4 billion still don't have Internet access. But by 2025, a range of global initiatives will pull everyone on Earth online.
That means over half the world will gain access to a dynamic form of mass media. And guess what all those people will look for from this new found access? New ideas, information, and entertainment that not only exposes them to foreign cultures, but also reflects their own regional or local culture. Again, this will be irresistible to marketers and media producers who will become even more incentivized to produce niche content that they can sell to this massive, soon-to-be-accessible audience.
Democratized Hollywood. And, finally, to dump even more gasoline onto this beauty norm evolution trend, we have the democratization of media production.
The tools needed to produce a film these days are smaller, cheaper, and better than at any point in history—and they are only becoming more so every passing year. Over time, many of these filmmaking tools—specifically high-resolution cameras and editing software/apps—will become available to even at the smallest budgets Third World consumers can afford.
This will unleash a torrent of creativity within these developing nations, as the initial lack of online media content reflecting local media consumers will encourage an entire generation of novice filmmakers (Third World YouTubers) to produce content that reflects their local culture, stories, and beauty norms.
Alternatively, a top-to-bottom trend will also grow, as developing governments begin spending more to develop (and control) their domestic arts and media industries. For example, China is heavily funding its media industry to not only control its local art scene and promote the Communist Party domestically, but also to counter the overwhelming hegemony America wields internationally through Hollywood.
Overall, these trends will work together to break the West’s dominance over the global mass media network. They will promote a multipolar media landscape where innovative content and breakout stars can capture global obsession from any part of the world. And through this process, global perceptions around beauty norms will begin to mature or evolve faster.
Eventually, this process will lead to a time when most of the world’s population will experience frequent media exposure to different races and ethnicities. This increased exposure will lead to a general increase in comfort with different races and ethnicities, while also decreasing their importance as defining attributes we place value upon. In this environment, other attributes, such as physical fitness, talent, and uniqueness, will become emphasized, fetishized, and promoted.
Molding Beauty Norms Through Genetic Engineering
Starting a discussion about human evolution by discussing the future of physical beauty norms may have seemed odd at first, but hopefully you can now appreciate how it all ties together.
You see, by 2040, we’ll enter an age where biology no longer holds absolute control over human evolution. Instead, through the advances we’re making in genomics and genetic engineering (explored fully in our Future of Healthcare series), humans will finally have a hand in how we collectively evolve.
That’s why beauty norms matter. What we find attractive will inform our choices when it becomes possible to genetically engineer our children (and even re-engineer ourselves). What physical qualities will you emphasise over others? Will your child be a certain colour? Race? Or gender? Will they have super strength? A towering intellect? Will you breed aggression out of their natural personality?
Read on to the next chapter of our Future of Human Evolution series, as we'll cover all these questions and more.