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Biology 06 Jun 2018

Taller, longer-living, and chubbier: how humans are evolving

Anthropological theories about the transformation of our species have multiplied since Darwin first began positing new ideas about the origin of mankind with his theory of evolution. To become the 'Homo sapiens' of today, human beings have had to undergo a process of change that has occurred over millions of years and has resulted in physical, cultural, and linguistic variations.

Changes that continue to occur even today. Evolution hasn’t stopped and factors such as health care, lifestyle, and genetics have had an impact on traits such as height, longevity, and body mass.


Two centuries ago Dutch men were among the shortest in Europe. Two centuries later, their average height has reached just over 6 foot (1.84 meters), making them the tallest men in the world.

Genetics has a large influence on height, but  research undertaken for the project 'Giants of the Modern World' demonstrates that nutrition, illness, work, and stress also play a part. “It is not just about race or genes, but also because socioeconomic levels have greatly improved. And, of course, it’s not only happening in the Netherlands. It is a universal process that we are trying to understand better through this project,” explained Jan Kok, Professor of Economic, Social and Demographic History at Radboud University (the Netherlands) and leader of the research project.

"It is not just about race or genes, but also because socioeconomic levels have greatly improved"

Kok, who presented his study in the BBVA Foundation's  conference series, Demography Today, undertook his research with the knowledge of personal features of 80,000 people born between 1812 and 1922, as well as the historical events they lived through.


Human beings haven’t just grown taller, they’re also wider. Since 1975 obesity has tripled globally, according to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2016, 39% of adults were overweight, and 13% were obese.

Excess fat has become an epidemic with serious health consequences. It increases the risk of heart attacks, liver problems, diabetes, and can even trigger certain kinds of cancers.

According to the experts, the principal causes for the increase in obesity are a high calorie diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, a result of new forms of work and transportation that minimize activity and exercise.

Still, other factors such as epigenetics, which is explained by the professors at the University of Navarra, Adriana Moleres Villares and Amelia Marti del Mora,l to be those hereditary changes that modify DNA without changing its sequence, may also play a role. In their article, 'The Environmental and Dietary Influence on the Epigenetic Programming of Obesity'  these researchers claim that there is evidence to prove that genes can transmit effects related to dietary and lifestyle changes that entail a predisposition to obesity.


Live expectancy is another factor that has increased during the last century. According to the  Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we live longer than ever: 77 years on average for men and 83 years on average for women. In all OECD member countries, life expectancy stands at close to 80 years old, representing an increase of more than a decade since 1960.


María Blasco, author of the book 'Dying Young at 140', claims that we’ll reach our 70s with as much vitality as we had in our 40s.

The OECD relates increased longevity with the growth of investment in health and education, better quality and easier access, activities targeting environmental protection, and lifestyle changes.

María Blasco, head of Spain's National Center of Oncological Research (CNIO) and author of the book 'Dying Young at 140', explains that from an evolutionary perspective, there is nothing that requires us to age. In her most recent research, focused on understanding molecular aging and how to slow it down, they reached the conclusion that it’s possible to stay young and healthy for much longer.

In her book she claims that we’ll reach our 70s with as much vitality as we had in our 40s, and that children who are born today will live to be more than 100 years old. Molecular aging is tied to diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, and if we manage to treat these diseases, we’ll also manage to live longer.

The transformation undergone by the human race over the course of millions of years has involved the loss of body hair and jaw strength, and a bigger brain. Just as time plods on, human evolution does not come to an end. So, it seems people will grow older, taller, and fatter, but who can predict which of our features is next in line to change?