Exponential population growth and other unkillable science myths

Well, what if we went full Gene Splicing Gataga, and engineered our kids to be all superhumans?

Then we wouldn’t have to use Random Human Generator statistics to produce the needed Geniuses. We could improve the odds and reduce the population.

Or just had society over to the coming Google AI to figure everything out, and we can relax and become the Eloi.

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It wasn’t a stupid assumption a couple of generations ago, but anyone who maintains that theory now hasn’t been paying much attention to population trends.

This, on the other hand, is assuming that technological progress is paramount and should therefore come even at the expense of remaining fundamentally human.

Eh. Human is overrated.
Give me a clearer head, lower blood sugar and less arthritis, and I’ll happily take a bit of genetic engineering.


Achy bones too. edit totally didn’t parse arthritis… okay crappy eyesight then.


Who needs bones?


Well I will not.

So this will most likely result in a split.

There are a lot of unkillable myths out there. Freakonimics podcast’s “This Idea Must Die” had some good ones, like the myth that people are either left-brained or right-brained.

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Population is already too high. The right for a piece of land to build a house already costs a large chunk of our working life production.

In an utopia you would have space enough for free to be hunting/gathering like our caveman ancestrals did.

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If an extra billion humans lives at $1/year above subsistence on average then the general point still holds, though I doubt it would be that bad

You can still get land fairly cheap if you want to live like a caveman. It only gets really expensive if you want to live within walking distance of all those trappings of modern human society, like roads.


Maybe, maybe not. The first wave of fear-mongers was aimed at working class brits, because the rich, white people were scared of them. As you note, the “wrong people having babies” has generally been at the roots of these scares. It was at the root of the eugenics movement, and we see where that has gotten us in the 20th century. Mass murder became an elitist past time.

Part of the problem was almost always related to access to resources, and who gets them. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that various 19th century “famines” were pretty much just down to colonial policy (see Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocaust, where he lays out this claim pretty convincingly, as well as much of the scholarship on the Irish famine of the 1840s, where the British were moving food OUT of Ireland, while the western peasantry starved).

I think that depends on what we do to prepare for it, instead of running around worrying about illegal immigrants, national borders, and making sure everyone is “pure” enough to exist. Until we let go of this insane need to dominate resources via a capitalist economy, and instead use what we’ve learned from the capitalist period to make sure we all have enough, we’re sunk.

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That has nothing to do with population, and everything to do with greed, actually.


Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth? The artificial decline in birthrate in the inset in the 1970s is a giveaway, as is the suspiciously smooth curve for “Resources”. Computer modelling has moved on a lot since the 1970s, is the kindest thing to say about their projections. Not to mention that we have another forty years of data since then.

Those graphs come not from the 1972 model runs but from revisiting the models on the 40th year anniversary. Sadly it’s paywalled but they accompany this article in New Scientist.

LtoG is just one attempt at modelling the future that is a bit more comprehensive than the sound bites about exponential growth in TFA. Would you like to suggest some other one? How about this, the UN’s 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/

What bothers me is the anti-pattern of green washing displayed here with successive layers of simplification. Cory summarizes a post in Nature found via a blog. The post in Nature tries to summarise a couple of research papers. The research papers turn out to be post-doctorate meta-analysis of some UN analysis. That turns out to be some real statistics with lots of error bars and describes several possible future scenarios. So what might have been some interesting descriptions of possible futures gets turned into “Doom cancelled. Population growth not exponential. Say scientists”. Well that’s all right then. We can all go back to business as usual. Oh Look, there’s a banana. Just look at it.

Mankind is so fucked. Unfortunately that means you and me as well as them.


If you don’t pay attention to the bananas (and other trivial subjects), then you’ll undergo a very personal extinction event sooner rather than later. Where bananas come from, where they go to and what happens to them inbetween may be beneath your contempt, but it’s actually, literally vital. For you to have the luxury to ignore them requires some people — a lot of people — to dedicate their whole working lives to them. So don’t knock trivia, oh reader of trivial blogs. If we all dedicated our lives to understanding — or for many of us, not understanding — original research papers on population dynamics, there’d be no-one available to put food on your table. Or even a table to put food on.

As massive a brain as I have for a member of a great-brained family of creatures, I can’t read those original research papers. I have difficulty reading Nature. New Scientist used to be my level in my voracious youth, but lately I find even that a struggle. Pop-science blogging is where I’m comfortable at the moment, and at that level, there is a distressing amount of “We’re all doomed” that is every bit as misleading as your summary of Cory’s summary of… etc. So, yeah, at that level it is useful to point out one of the more pernicious memes going about, dating back to the 1970s at least, that population growth is exponential, is just plain wrong.

As far as I can tell, the revisiting of the models used by the Club of Rome didn’t seem to revise them in any way; they just replugged the latest figures into the old models and ran them again, coming out with unsurprisingly similar results. Their assumptions are still as questionable as they were back when I read The Limits to Growth in the late 70s, as are their conclusions. The best lesson that you can draw from their models is the one learned by climate scientists a while ago, to not draw conclusions based on only one model, or one set of models built with the same assumptions.

Yes, there are many possible futures. Our future may yet resemble one of the Club of Rome models. Maybe their assumptions will cancel out and approach reality that way. Or maybe they won’t. To label one view of the future as “greenwashed” because it conflicts with something you think you’ve learned from the Limits to Growth seems every bit as potentially fallacious as whatever you think you’re railing against.

In case you missed the reference.

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Then twice as many geniuses would be worse why?

And yes I’m partly playing devil’s advocate here. Feel free to ignore me.

Every time someone has said, “This group of people is better, if only we just had this groups of people” they’ve been wrong (whether they were dividing on tribe, religion, skin colour, whatever). I just don’t buy “We only need smart people.” Who is going to decide what smart is? Some smart person? And then it’s a quick downward spiral to “We only need people who agree with me” which is what every such program eventually becomes.

We don’t know what superhuman looks like, and I think we have every reason to believe that we are better off maximizing diversity rather than trying to guess what strength is.


Free or nearly-free land is everywhere.

In the US, go to Marquette, Kansas for a totally free lot. In Detroit, 200 bucks will get you a 4,800 square foot lot. $1000 will get you a 3485 square foot lot in West Virginia. $2000 will buy you 2.35 acres in Arizona.

Elsewhere? I doubt you would have much trouble buying huge swaths of land in much of the world — Siberia, the Congo — for pittance.

Space is not a problem. In terms of square feet, the world can fit a heck of a lot more people.

Expensive houses in big cities has nothing at all to do with over-population.