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'Typical face' is Chinese ... for now

Based on the world's demographics, the typical human is a 28-year-old Chinese man — but humanity's most common face could be radically different in just 20 years' time.

The "typical face" of our species was unveiled this week in the National Geographic video below, and it's featured as well in a poster supplement in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. The typicality project is part of a special report on global human population, which is expected to hit 7 billion by the end of this year.

So how do you judge typical, and why does the "typical human" look the way he does? For National Geographic, the yardsticks have to do with averages and pluralities.

For example, the world population's average age is 28, which is factored into the face's look. There are slightly more men than women on Earth, which is why the "typical" human is male. And the world's largest ethnic group is Han Chinese, making up an estimated 1.1 billion of the global population, which is why the magazine's editors went with an Asian look.

As for the specific look of that face, that's based on an visual averaging process conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which can draw upon tens of thousands of face photographs collected for a variety of databases over the past decade. One of these databases is part of a long-range study on face-recognition software for Asian ethnic groups. (Which sounds slightly scary.)

The fuzzy, averaged-out image was passed along to digital artist Joe Lertola of Bryan Christie Design, who re-created the face photo for National Geographic's poster using 7,000 computer-generated human figures. An interactive graphic on National Geographic's website provides more detail about the creation of the face and lets you zoom in on the composite image.

Here are a few more factoids about the typical human:

  • He's right-handed, because more people are righties than lefties.
  • He makes less than $12,000 a year, in line with the world's average income.
  • He doesn't have a bank account, but he does have a cell phone. 

Because National Geographic defines its typical ethnic group as the biggest plurality in the world population, that ethnicity could change over time — and in fact, the population of India is projected to surpass the Chinese population by 2030. At that time, India is expected to have more than 1.53 billion people, while China is expected to reach its peak population of 1.46 billion and begin a slow decline. By 2030, the total tally of the world's population will be well on its way to a projected peak of 9 billion or more.

If current trends hold true, the generic face of humanity will eventually be Indian, not Chinese. And there may be more changes in store as global population shifts. Isn't that just typical?

Update for 12:30 a.m. ET March 5: A lot of the commenters are wondering whether it's really fair to use an all-Chinese face as a symbol for the world's entire population — and John Tomanio, senior graphics editor for National Geographic magazine, agreed that the concept is open to debate.

"There are many ways to define 'typical,' that's true," he told me in a follow-up phone call. The decision to go with an average Chinese face was based on the idea that the world's "largest ethnic group was Han Chinese."

"We didn't mean it to be provocative," Tomanio said. "But afterward we realized, 'OK, people might want to talk about this.'" Which is fine with him. So feel free to talk about this in the comment section below, but please take the high road rather than the low road in your discussion. The Cosmic Log community has a reputation to uphold.  ;-)

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