September 27, 2014
Will Human 2.0 Designs Prevent Return To Malthusian Trap?

Some people think we've left the Malthusian Trap permanently in our past. Now, some parts of the world have yet to do so. But the optimists think a permanent shift to low total fertility rates and industrialization in the entire world is in the cards as free markets spread everywhere.

I am not with the optimists because I expect natural selection, both on the genetic level and on the social-religious level, will cause a reversion to higher fertility rates and population explosion until natural resources cause very painful limits to population size. Natural selection is relentless and seems very hard for conscious human minds to defeat it.

But could genetic engineering of offspring enable us to escape selective pressures for higher fertility? We are certainly going to get enough genetic information to be able to identify all the alleles that influence fertility For example, president of Illumina says 288,000 human genomes will be sequenced in 2014 and every 12 months the number of genomes sequenced doubles. If this doubling rate holds then in 2024 about 290 million full human genomes will be sequenced. This wealth of data will let scientists discover the meaning of many genetic variations that contribute to differences in cognition and fertility.

If people choose to use the wealth of genetic knowledge in offspring genetic engineering to make offspring that are much smarter then one would expect, all else equal, for these offspring to have fewer children than would otherwise have been the case. Why? One reason is that people smart enough to easily go through college and grad school delay making babies and have fewer babies than those who only make it as far as high school. So we might expect lower fertility as people genetically engineer their offspring to be smarter.

But there's a problem: If even a very small fraction of the population choose genetic variations that make their kids want to have lots of kids then the human population will explode. Extreme love of having offspring will produce offspring with the same preference and this preference will be passed to a succession of increasingly larger cohorts. A return to the Malthusian Trap, at least in some parts of the world, then becomes inevitable.

Now, we could get wiped out by hostile artificial intelligences long before a return to the Malthusian Trap. Or a world government could enact strict laws controlling reproduction similar to what the Chinese government did. So I can't say that a return to the Malthusian Trap is fated. But if we avoid authoritarian world government and avoid our destruction by AI then it seems likely.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 September 27 07:58 PM 

bob sykes said at September 28, 2014 4:42 AM:

I vehemently disagree that anyone anywhere has escaped the Malthusian Trap. The world's human population is always at the carrying capacity. We have merely been able to increase the carrying capacity via technology.

Phil said at September 28, 2014 5:34 AM:

@bob sykes:

We have merely been able to temporarily increase the carrying capacity.

As William R. Catton Jr, has repeatedly reminded us.

Wolf-Dog said at September 28, 2014 10:11 AM:

Especially in non-industrialized countries the population dramatically increased during the last century, precisely because of the western scientific and technological innovation that increased agricultural efficiency ten-fold as well as better medical care that reduced child mortality in these countries. On the other hand, the greenhouse effect is also threatening the agricultural integrity of many poorer countries. For this reason, any serious political event that disrupts the world trade and economy, can devastate the poorer countries and their high populations would starve dramatically more than ever.

2,000 years ago, Egypt was the bread basket of the Roman Empire, but currently it imports at least 50 % of its food, and it can do so only thanks for foreign financial help, precisely because the population has increased. On the other hand, the greenhouse effect is making agriculture even more vulnerable now.

Even if religion by itself may not cause a total war between Europe and the Middle East, the greenhouse might actually cause such a war by making the population desperate to relocate to Europe: the rising poverty and starvation would also make a lot more people to choose religious extremism, which might explain the rising popularity of ISIS.

Brett Bellmore said at September 29, 2014 4:21 PM:

Sub-groups face a carrying capacity which isn't determined only by the natural environment, but the people around them, too. All things being equal, groups which concentrate on reproduction won't be as productive, and so will suffer immediate and large reductions in their living standards relative to those who don't. They may even, (As is the case in the US.) require the outright assistance of those who are reproducing less, to support themselves.

Suppose the rest of us refuse to support them?

Wolf-Dog said at September 29, 2014 9:43 PM:

One unstable factor is the possibility that the greenhouse effect will create a dramatic avalanche of droughts that will make especially the third world more desperate.

This article says that a lot of scientists recently became convinced that the Australian heat waves are due to the greenhouse effect:

If the California drought continues, this will also have dire consequences in the United States.

But on the other hand, the Middle East is even more vulnerable to drought, which can cause more wars.

JoeKing said at October 2, 2014 9:29 AM:

I must have stumbled upon the Neo-Malthus society. Having survived the Ehrlichs, the Paddocks, peak oilers & the Global warming misanthropes, I had hoped the simple truth that none of their predictions even remotely coming to fruition might reduce their appeal..but here we go again.

There must be something in the human psychee that won't allow us to bask in the knowledge that humanity's lot is improving & we are not doomed to the effects of the 4 Horseman. We continually are drawn into following the false profits of death.

The failing of all these beliefs is in their fundamental idea that humankind is stagnant & unadaptable like other mammels, that today's technology will be tomorrow's. It has NEVER been so, & the pace of tecnological advance is increasing. The Paddocks expected grain production to remain constant..WHY? At the time they predicted (1975) famine the US was experiencing the fastest increase in corn productivity in it's history?

I had to laugh at the "Greenhouse effect" is going to harm agriculture. Don't we use greenhouses to grow stuff? Isn't CO2 plant food? Aren't there millions of hectares of fertile land in Canada that await warmer temperatures to unleash their bounty?

Randall says..."If even a very small fraction of the population choose genetic variations that make their kids want to have lots of kids then the human population will explode".

WHAT???? Who would even think that in the post-apocolyptic world that he obviously invisions, a parent would burden his offspring with such a genetic-predisposition & said offspring couldn't "decide" NOT to have many progeny, since there will be mass starvation from the effects of CAGW?

Due yourselve's a favor people...chill & read Julian Simon.

Abelard Lindsey said at October 2, 2014 10:32 AM:

There must be something in the human psychee that won't allow us to bask in the knowledge that humanity's lot is improving & we are not doomed to the effects of the 4 Horseman. We continually are drawn into following the false profits of death.

Machiavelli talks about this tendency in the "Discourses".

as said at October 4, 2014 7:01 AM:

Even in a post-singularity future, there will be no escape from the malthusian trap for the simple reason that things that have a tendency to reproduce prodigiously produce things that are likewise fecund. No matter if it's a machine intelligence or a religious sect.

Brrrr said at October 26, 2014 8:03 AM:

If we simply make peace with natural selection we will not need to worry about the malthusian trap. Learn to work with natural selection instead of working against it.

Uptown Resident said at December 14, 2014 1:47 PM:

As Gregory Clark has pointed out, a demographic shift followed Industrialization in the West. Westerners stopped using their increased wealth to have more children, but instead spent it on more consumer goods, while increasingly opting for fewer children.

He has also pointed out that, in the pre-Industrial West, the Malthusian Trap was avoided, or "prudentially checked," through restricting marriage (not everyone got to reproduce--many when to convents/monasteries, or were spinsters/bachelors) and through delaying marriage (average age of marriage in early modern England was in the late 20s, contrary to population assumptions).

He has ALSO pointed out that while Industrialized Westerners have fewer children, the developing world, while benefiting from developed world's medicine and food production techniques, has not imitated Westerners' low fertility. Africans now have greater fertility rates than they did before 1800. This is insane and evil, if you consider all the harm it does to not only Africans, but the nonhuman animals living in Africa. Our children may very well live in a world with no elephants, etc.

Given all this, it seems that the best possibly foreign policy would be to have a moratorium on emigration to the first world, and to make food/medical aid to third world contingent on population control programs (sex education, birth control, 1-child policy, etc.) Better yet (and politically impossible), only allow the smartest 10% to reproduce. That would not only solve the population problem, it was also narrow the various achievement gaps between developed and developing worlds.

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