Ugh. Evolution doesn’t work this way.

When I was growing up, it was quite common for pop-science to illustrate the evolutionary future of humanity: it was all big bulbous heads and spindly limbs and skinny little bodies. It was the kind of thing that probably played a role in shaping the conventional image of what extraterrestrials would look like, since obviously they would be more ‘advanced’ than humans.

It was all nonsense, of course, but that kind of thing is tough to shake off — almost as tough as ‘great chain of being’ fantasies, which seem to resonate with our naturally selfish idea of a biological destiny.

Now these pop-sci delusions have gotten moderately more sophisticated. Meet Project Graham, an awful, but very slickly produced, demo of the future of humanity if we were selected for car-crash survival.


So he’s got this massive double-walled cranium with a small brain suspended by rubbery ligaments inside it, air-bag cushions built into his ribs, a face thickly padded with fat, and knees that can bend side to side. Apparently, we’re going to have a kind of Mad Max future where the human race is going to be intensely culled by a lives of near constant collisions.

I detest this sort of thing. I can sort of see that the point is to educate people about the damage inflicted by car crashes, but it’s doing it badly — I’m not going to be terrified into driving more cautiously by the thought that my many-times-great-grandchildren will be uglified — and it’s doing it by inserting more misconceptions about how evolution works into the general public.

Also, if the selection pressure from driving were that severe, I know what the future of humankind would look like: a population of pedestrians, and people sensible enough to stay out of those death-traps on the road.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    the “Darwin Awards” would obviously fail, as most killed by car crashes have already reproduced. only a few late teens get into fatalities.
    even my sarcasm is failing me to mock this Graham nonsense.
    otherwise illustrates how to abuse science to try to make a point while failing in the process

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apparently all the darker-skinned humans will go extinct due to collisions with police.

  3. says

    But, but… I thought the problem was that we’re allowing those who should have been killed off by natural selection to live long enough to reproduce, thus causing the next generation to be less fit. Which is it, Project Graham?

  4. svendersar says

    I’m an engineer who works/researches in car crash safety.

    The best that can come from this Graham project is to direct people here:

    Please skip past the Graham crap, everything else on that page is excellent and informative (and compelling!).

    It’s a pity the deliberately grotesque Graham is needed to grab eyeballs. It’s even more of a pity that the soundbites about “design” and “evolution” get repeated enough to kinda make it the main message. They’re totally not necessary – the same visual impact could be had without invoking misleading ideas.

  5. komarov says

    Huh, the BBC article about this merely billed it as a sculpture where the artist’s viewpoint was informed by a trauma surgeon. Which seemed fair enough.

    But I see for all the ‘improvements’ the knee-joint is as crappy as ever, it’ll just be that much harder to operate on when it inevitably wears out. And anyone with a skull like is bound to get the mother of all sinus infections.

  6. vaiyt says

    Yeah, it’s more likely that the selection pressure from car crashes would just select for people who don’t get into cars in the first place.

  7. Richard Smith says

    Looks like one of the grotesqueries from Man After Man, itself a paragon of evolutionary theory… (but still an interesting read, at least for a teenager).

  8. Vivec says

    I was definitely getting a Man After Man vibe from that, too. Kinda silly from a science standpoint, but a really fun Sci-Fi book imo.

  9. kevinkirkpatrick says

    If I followed PZ here:

    Airbag Man is junk science, pure and simple.

    Good evolutionary science involves speculating on the psychological adaptive traits humans may one day evolve in response to quirky life-or-death hazards. They’re pretty weak in terms of selective forces; hardly responsible for an infinitesimal fraction of overall human death. And even that piddly impact will factor into the specie’s mortality rates for 5, maybe 10 generations. I presume it’s the sheer inventive creativity required for such hypotheses [does “theories” work better here?] as “I think people will evolve a psychological instinct to avoid car-like things” that drives this endeavor into the realm of scientific rigor.


  10. barbaz says

    But is this about evolution? I read it as “this is how we would *design* humans to survive car crashes”, so quite the opposite actually…

  11. Muz says

    Like barbaz says, I didn’t find them referring to evolution much. I suppose it is implied to some extent and the key point would be briefly suggesting framing some evolution discussions around Graham in the educational material. But nobody reads that stuff! Well, ok, maybe they do (and perhaps exactly the wrong people to be taking things that way).
    Still, the character is mainly described as “designed” on the site, which perhaps has its own troublesome implications. But as a thought experiment made …latex it’s mostly in the clear I thought.
    If they said he was genetically engineered would that be better? (I guess the geneticists would be all Morbo about that too)

    Someone fashion some copy for Graham that makes everyone happy, would they? I think it’d be enlightening reading.

  12. bachfiend says

    I thought it was quite a clever campaign to enforce the fact that humans aren’t adapted to survive high speed motor vehicle crashes – in contrast to the fiction presented in films with their spectacular crashes leaving participants unscratched.

    Of course, motor vehicles will become increasingly safe due to technological advances, such as self-drive cars, removing humans from the decision process.

    It’s just a short term campaign, to be dropped when people tire of it.

  13. evodevo says

    Individuals like that in the pic have ALREADY “evolved” … they’re obese and living in their parents’ basement, sitting on the couch playing Duke Nuke ’em or some such and eating a diet of Cheetos and pop LOL

  14. Lofty says

    Fortunately humans have evolved to the point where they can make safer transport solutions if they put their collective minds on to the problem. Designing a human with the inertia of a small tank isn’t an answer to crash risk.

  15. echidna says

    No evolution implied, I thought. From the website:

    A catalyst for conversation and ultimately an educational tool, Graham shows us what we might look like if we were built to survive on our roads. He’s a reminder of just how vulnerable our bodies really are when speed and impact forces as low as 30km/h are at play.

    It’s a shift from the normal ads focusing on the consequences of speeding and distraction, to keep the topic fresh.

  16. F.O. says

    The official site does not mention “evolution” or “future” or “selection pressure”.
    It doesn’t.
    I had to come to Pharyngula to get the idea that Graham is sold as “our future self” or has anything to do with evolution.

    It’s just “Hey look this is what your body would look like if it was made to withstand a car accident. You don’t look like that.”
    No misconceptions about evolution anywhere.

  17. chrislawson says

    I can’t agree with you here, PZ. The website refers to “what we might look like if we were built to survive on our roads.” Admittedly I didn’t click on all of the videos so it’s possible that some of the contributors made uninformed comments, but what I saw was not referring to evolution or evolutionary forces.

    The artist is Patricia Piccinini and I strongly recommend that readers drop in if ever they’re near a gallery or museum hosting her sculptures — even if you just check it out online, you can see it’s powerful stuff about the what it means to be human. A lot of her work implies future evolution — but it’s pretty clear to me that it refers to engineered evolution rather than natural.

  18. unclefrogy says

    I am also coming to the conclusion that if things like technology continue into the future that evolution from here will probably fall along the lines of bio-engineering and genetic modification. Not just in correcting “defects” but in actively making enhancements possible and cheap.
    Bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, tougher, prettier, the allure is too great. The aliens we will meet in the future will be us.
    uncle frogy

  19. Ed Seedhouse says

    The simplest way to “evolve” to not die in automobile crashes is surely to “evolve” the intelligence to stay out of automobiles, and far away from them.

  20. jrkrideau says

    massive double-walled cranium with a small brain
    As a cyclistm I had always thought that evolution had reached this stage for car drivers at least half a century or more. Perhaps I was over-interpreting H.G. Wells.

  21. unclefrogy says

    we would have to have the selecting pressure of automobile crashes operating for many many generations before we would see any effect in the population and there is nothing to make automobiles transportation so important over time in fact it is so inefficient in the use of space and materials that I would bet that they are in fact ephemeral and will be gone or at least rare in another 100ys. which is not enough time for any kind of evolution they would foster to take place.
    uncle frogy

  22. ck, the Irate Lump says

    komarov wrote:

    But I see for all the ‘improvements’ the knee-joint is as crappy as ever, it’ll just be that much harder to operate on when it inevitably wears out.

    Could those knees even support such a massive bipedal frame without falling apart? Seems like such a creature would likely fall to the side and rip tendons in the knees if it tried to stand or walk on two legs without outside support.

  23. komarov says

    That’s a good point, ck. Perhaps it would be simpler to adopt the spindly limbs and bulbous head and wrap it all up in an armoured, fusion-powered exoskeleton with unimaginable firepower.

    Just a thought.

  24. Ichthyic says

    It’s just “Hey look this is what your body would look like if it was made to withstand a car accident. You don’t look like that.”
    No misconceptions about evolution anywhere.

    Gotta side completely with FO here. The entire mission of this is very well described in the video on the site as “what you body would have to look like if you were to have any decent chance of surviving a high speed crash given current automobile design”

    this has nothing to do with evolution, but is an interesting way of looking at how to design CARS to be safer.

    Where did you get the idea this was about evolution PZ?

    just curious.

  25. says

    Gonna add my voice to the counter-argument here: in the original campaign material there’s no mention of evolution being involved at all, as far as I can tell. The videos clearly show Graham being designed by an artist, but the only rationale for this is the message (presumably to counter some memes local to the campaign) that human beings aren’t built/designed/created/whatever to survive the crashes that result when we mishandle our gasoline-drinking, steel and rubber servants.

    You aren’t built like a tank, it seems to say to me, so don’t go acting like you are. Old geezers like us should know this, but there’s always a new generation that needs things spelled out.