Maggie A's Meanderings




November 6, 2011

As Dumb as Deer

The world population hit the seven billion mark on Halloween, October, 31 2011 --- making for possibly the scariest Halloween ever. (See population clock.) So it seems an appropriate time for this piece..............................

Years ago I was standing in the break room talking with a co-worker. He was a hunter and had brought in a pot of slow-cooked deer meat. I was already on my mammal-free diet, so I wasn't going to be eating any of it. We were talking about the necessity of hunting, but that's not the topic of this piece. However, the last sentences we spoke are the topic of the piece.

Him: "If we didn't hunt the deer, they'd starve."
Me:   "So feed the deer."
Him:  "If we feed the deer, they'll just make more deer."

Drop me in the bell tower of Notre Dame and toll the bells. Draw a light bulb brighter than the sun above my head. Because at that precise moment I had an epiphany and this is it:


That's it! That's the explanation!

All my life I'd been told that we were going to cure hunger. There would be no more starving people. And here I was a full-grown adult and and there was always some famine going on somewhere. If one had just finished, another one would be starting shortly. See this list of famines.

I did not understand why. But now I did. It was that whole "dumb as deer" thing. If the world still had the population it had when I was born, less than 3.5 billion, there wouldn't be anyone starving. We would have solved the hunger problem just like they said we would all my life. And we did make great strides in the 20th century on growing more food from a better understanding of the land and how to farm it, pesticides, fertilizers, even developing different plants. Borlaug's development of semi-dwarf wheat was a major breakthrough in being able to supply more food. 

But, with more food for people, we just made more people. Just like the deer do.

Now, I wasn't the first person to figure this out. The British economist Thomas Malthus is popularly credited as originating the idea that human population grows faster than the food supply. But even he wasn't the first. This was written in early 3rd century Rome by Tertullian, "What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance."

And I doubt even Tertullian was the first. If I had the epiphany in casual conversation in front of a pot of deer meat, I'm sure plenty of other people have had it in their own ways throughout history.

As to why we're as dumb as deer, I believe it's embedded in how we evolved. An absolute way to look at this is r/K selection. Among species that offer parental care, this comes out in two general strategies for reproduction. Anyone reading this will recognize both of them:
  1. Have only as many offspring as you're sure you can care for and provide a high level of parental care to each.
  2. Have more offspring, maybe one or two extra, in a litter or clutch or a lifetime than you could expect to care for. If conditions are good, the extras will survive. If conditions are bad, the extras will die.
"The decision to produce a runt or an extra egg is not, of course, a conscious one. Rather, those parent, mammals or birds, that make this gamble have tended to leave slightly more progeny than those that have played it completely safe. Whether they be the bluebirds that lay six eggs instead of the customary five or four, or the sheep that produce triplets instead of twins or single lambs, these parents are not so successful that the larger clutch or litter size becomes the norm but successful enough so that the gene or genes for producing these small gambles remain in the population."1

And it's no news to anyone that right now the world population is being driven by people practicing reproductive strategy #2. Though I've never tried to verify this, my guess is that back when there was a lot less food, the population was more balanced between the two strategies. Now with the possibility of more food, the strategy seems to have tipped toward trying to have those extra children --- and more of those extra children are surviving and grow up carrying the genes to try to have more extra children.

Add to those two basic reproductive strategies this 
corollary: If your offspring die, then have more offspring. It's why lions kill the existing cubs when they take over a pride, because then the lionesses will breed again. It even explains why a mother bear will sometimes kill a sole remaining bear cub; because, reproductively it's a better use of her resources to breed again and have multiple cubs rather than expend so many resources raising the lone cub. And it explains why human parents whose children have died from malnutrition keep having children even though they don't have the resources to care for the new children either.

It's natural selection. And for all our vaunted intelligence, for all our language development and tool use, even for all our a species we cannot overcome these instincts -- any more than the deer can.

You'd like to think we could. You'd like to think we're not at the same level as deer. It would seem, unlike deer, we're intelligent enough and self-aware enough that we could, but I just don't think we can. 

For those who think I'm being too pessimistic, show me the proof that as a species we can. Because I can show you world population charts that prove we never have. For most of human history our population was well under one billion. We finally hit the one billion mark in the 19th century. We didn't hit the two billion mark until around 1930. From 1930 to the end of the 20th century when we really increased our food production through improved agriculture, we jumped from 2 billion to 6 billion.......a three-fold increase. And now 11 years into the new century we're at 7 billion with the U.N. projecting a population at the end of the century to be 10 billion, though I've seen estimates as high as 12 billion.

I think, and history backs me up on this, the human race is as dumb as deer. As a species we have no better self-control over our population than deer in the woods.

However, honesty compels me to admit that I suppose I'm not a total pessimist or else International Planned Parenthood wouldn't be so prominently mentioned in my will. But that's my hopeful side which my personal history has shown is always wrong when compared to my realistic side. But I keep hoping anyway.

So in this case, I hope, though I don't think it will happen, that we will manage to get our population growth under control. Because I love the wild places in this world. And I love the biodiversity. And I don't care how much land people try to put aside for conservation, when the population pressure gets great enough, the wild places and their biodiversity are going to get steamrolled by us. (And, no, it's not the amount of physical space one human takes --- that's not much. It's the amount of resources that one human takes --- especially as standards of living improve and countries industrialize.)

As we cross that 7 billion mark, I bleakly think on what's going to happen. And I think our "dumb as deer" mentality is going to continue and bite us in the ass. Because nature balances. Nature always balances. Just like deer or lemmings (which do not commit suicide by throwing themselves off a cliff), when a population becomes 
unsustainable, then that population crashes. That first century Roman quote from Tertullian about being unable to feed a growing's the next part, "In very deed, pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race."

So, one way or the other, the human population is going to be pruned. It could even happen before our numbers become unsustainable, by an event completely out of our control --- like another supervolcano (which is theorized to have happened before in the Toba Catastrophe). But if doesn't happen by then, when the human population does become unsustainable --- and what that final number is, I don't know --- I guarantee something will happen then to prune the population. At that point, it will probably be something we had a hand in. It might be the result of our own actions in making the Earth unlivable for us whether through slow environmental damage or through the rapid changes of nuclear winter. Or it might be that overcrowding provides a prime vector for disease (natural or man-made). It might be any number of things and is likely to be a combination of things. Take your pick. In one form or another, the four horsemen have always been with us and will always be with us.

And our population growth and its eventual crash are all part of the cycle of life.

World Population through History

1 Susan Allport,
A Natural History of Parenting. (New York: Harmony Books, 1997) p. 83

Addendum 2011-Nov-9:
I was reading yesterday and came across an interesting fact. If you have any doubts that the human population is getting out of balance with the rest of nature, this ought to clarify the situation:

"Humans are now the most abundant large vertebrate on earth, by far," he continued. "Once you take out cattle and sheep, which come in roughly second and third, since we raise them, the next most abundant large vertebrate may be the crabeater seal in the Antarctic, which numbers somewhere between ten and fifty million. The worldwide wolf population, to put it in context, numbers only about 150,000. Brown bears are maybe half of that." A quote from Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm --- Juliet Eilperin, Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011) p.50

However, I will say that Boris Worm forgot about the dog. In the United States alone there are 78 million pet dogs. If wolves count as large vertebrates, then so should dogs even if some of them are tiny. (In case you're wondering there are 86.4 million pet cats in the U.S. Dog and cat numbers from the 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association.) But the point remains, that humans and the species we raise are, by far, the most abundant large vertebrates on earth.

For more about the level of human intelligence, read "Why "Birthers" Are Idiots."  
You also might enjoy "The Black Hole That (Didn't) Devour the Galaxy."
Or you can check out many other topics in
the Archive.



Home                     Archive                    Email Me