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« How is the Economy Like a Bubble Bath? | Main | Net Energy and the Economy Biophysical Economics Meeting, 2011 »

April 23, 2011


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very speculative but most interesting! Would like to sure article with friend who has studied the human overpopulation issue.

So Very Doomed


A standing ovation is in order, not just for your thoughts but also for creating a space where a reasoned and civilised conversation can occur on such an emotive issues.

Perhaps sapience is rare because it is composed of the extreme right hand portions of various normally distributed traits such as g, honesty, courage, Meta comprehension etc. As Shockley evinced this would produce a Lotka curve that could explain the low incidence of sapience (Shockley, W. On the Statistics of Individual Variations of Productivity in Research Laboratories, Proceedings – Institute of Radio Engineers, 1957 Vol 45 P425-440).

For what its worth it has occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, what our species is lacking is not sapience but “sanity”.

My definition of “sanity” is “the ability to comprehend AND accept objective reality” this could be a precondition of sapience or just another normally distributed trait loaded into the Lotka mix.

Maybe we need to factor in “sanity” when selecting our breeding cohort.

John D

George, you are to be commended for your intellectual honesty. Given the task of finding a means of ensuring mankind's survival you have come up with a potential option where there are no good ones. Twenty five years ago I married and decided not to have more than two children out of respect for overpopulation. Right now I am wrestling with how to discuss this issue with my children in hopes that they would decide to go childless.


I’ve been wondering whether there is already a plan afoot for intentional population reduction, and post-bottleneck survival.

The terminator gene + Monsanto-US Government strong-arm tactics to assure global spread of Monsanto genetic traits in major food crops + Svalbard global seed vault. Is UG99 natural?

OTOH, I’m beginning to think that meltdowns of nuclear power plants will lead to extermination of all higher life forms planet-wide, because there will be no contingencies for perpetual function of cooling systems as the electrical grid itself degrades, fossil-fuel powered generator systems stop running, or spare parts become unavailable.

glenn scriven

Doomed - Defining sanity may be as difficult as defining sapience. Survivability might be the key factor as society disintegrates. History suggests that the most physically aggressive are the ones to survive. It doesn't require much intelligence or sanity to kill someone in order to take their food and shelter. Once the population density declines to the point that its harder to kill each other, then cognitive abilities would come into play, trying to find sustenance in a devastated world. Just some gloomy thoughts.
George, thanks for the excellent article.


I think I would place my bets on the survival of those that behave more instinctively than those who understand their own impulses and existence. The prime evolved impulse is to grab the energy and outlast your opponents. “Sapience” will only survive by its own merits and I doubt eliminating the breeding capacity of the more instinctual crowd would be welcomed. Societal solutions will not survive the dissolution of societies. Perhaps “poisoning the well” will eventually be seen as the most humanitarian option when there is nothing left to eat and nothing left to steal.


George, the 1970s film (not a very good one but novel for its topic), "Z.P.G." (Zero Population Growth), at the links above was a predecessor of "The Children of Men", the recent film to which you refer.

And there was another 1970s film, "Logan's Run", depicting a world of unchecked pleasure . . . until age 30.

Today's version is at the link above.

Recall "Soylent Green"? Sol's famous (infamous) "going home" scene is a classic.

I commend you for your courage to address this topic (the "last taboo").

And, yes, there is an inescapable link to eugenics, racism, and racial (genetic?) superiority.

But we are naive to think that racial self-selection is somehow "unnatural", as this tendency is very likely hardwired in the human ape brain, even though a (remarkably) modest degree of genetic diversity is prevalent for various traits for the human ape species.

Might one imagining that "sapience" will self-select be an Oil Age intellectual artifact?

I tend to agree with Glenn and Dopamine that instinct, including aggression, will overcome "sanity" and "sapience", especially if we face a dystopian, Mad Max-like, post-Oil Age collapse scenario.

Tribalism, warlordism, slavery, low value of human life, organized violence to secure vital resources will likely self-select.

Steven Leblanc's "Constant Battles: Why We Fight" is highly instructive (link above).

Physical strength, loyalty, honor, rewards of spoils and females, and swift justice (retribution) against enemies and perceived offenses tend to be "warrior" traits, and these self-selected traits emerge during periods of resource constraints and social breakdown.

Thus, in order to anticipate collapse and mitigate the worst effects over time, one might assume that "sapience" would (1) dictate eliminating the resource, genetic, and cultural determinants of mass population growth and violence; or (2) allow such traits in the masses to progress naturally in order to create increasing scale of conflict, resource scarcity, and violence to affect mass die-off.

The trick for the "remnant" human apes possessing the self-perpetuating sapience is to ensure a social, political, financial, and economic system in which all of the resources of value need to survive are distributed to the remnant few; that is, the top 0.1-1% with a sufficient number of lesser loyal surrogates to facilitate the concentration of resources and power by whichever means works.

Of course, we have this condition today, with the top 1-10% of US households by net wealth and income receiving ~25-50% of income, owning 85% of financial wealth, and paying 75% of US income taxes. (We have "no representation without taxation" for the bottom 80-90% of households.)

At this point, it would not require a big leap for the top 1% to give the word to slash or eliminate gov't social programs; declare a permanent state of national emergency; ration gasoline, food, medical services, and other public infrastructure spending; confiscate precious metals, guns, and personal and real property; institution capital controls and restrict travel; and suspend the US Constitution and "elections".

For those who enjoy such concentrated ownership of assets and income, they have the most to lose from a systemic collapse; therefore, they would be expected to exert a similarly disproportionate amount of power and authority to preserve their wealth and power.

In effect, they don't need half or more of the US population to sustain their wealth, power, and authority. One can make the case that they need no more than 1-2 out of 5 to sustain their relative status; and the fewer the people, the fewer resources are required to sustain a largely unproductive mass of human apes, which in turn means relatively more security and waste the top 0.1-1% can enjoy.

Thus, one can infer that there is no benefit to the top 0.1-1% rentier oligarchs for the US economy and gov't to grow in real per capita terms. What is required, however, is securing to the greatest extent possible the available resources for the future security of the top 0.1-1%.

The rest of us are thus utterly expendable at a minimum, and are an increasingly grave threat to the power and security of the rentier oligarch caste.

If one were given the choice to fight against the rentier rule, go about BAU, or happily concede our uselessness to the rentiers as "worthless bread gobblers" and "go home" like Sol in "Soylent Green", what would one do?


An extremely difficult post, Kudos for your brave thoughts on the conundrum.

Nemesis makes some realistic volleys.

I think the weakest part of your thesis is that we will be able to correlate sapience with a structure via morphology, that we will be able to test for sapience reasonably accurately, and that we will find alleles in our population that code for the more robust sapience all within a time frame that is liable to be short or too short. This project could take many years due to minimal funding or research may be prevented.

Perhaps a quick and dirty marker could be found with say a .5 correlation in a decade or less? The wise would still most likely have to be protected by a warrior class for at least some time. Perhaps a stronger case could be made for an even less desireable process towards a caste system with the genetic eusapians as the Brahmin class?
thanks for your efforts on the difficult subject of the "4 horsemen"
Perhaps you could convince Spielberg to do movie on this "sci fi" subject? The coming bottleneck would have to be portrayed reasonably accurately and a team of scientists and moral authorities could group think answers to the dilemma. I do know a Hollywood producer if you get a rough script...


As an aside, I just obtained a used copies of Third Chimpanzee by Diamond, The Mating Mind by Miller, and Moral Minds by Hauser. I have previously read The Blank Slate by Pinker and The Moral Animal by Wright which are all books tangential to the bottleneck subject.

(I was blessed to be able to spend some time in used bookstores in Harvard Square recently!!)


There is the obvious question of whether the hypothetical genetic markers could produce sapience without cultural/ecological consideration. The criteria for qualifying sapience could either be too generic or too dependent on the qualifiers' own personal wisdom. Then the question will become "Who qualifies the qualifiers?". It's hard not to point out the irony that the basis of this "solution" is to minimize suffering, one of the most "limbic" biological nature. It seems to me it is perfectly rational and at times percieved "sapient" to accept suffering as it is, as echoed in various eastern philosophies.

Fortunatus Nimium

So. The cat is out of the bag. If I may jump in here out of nowhere, so to speak, I'll rephase a response I made to your original post, presuming that you didn't reply to it because you were swamped, and not because you dismissed my observations out of hand.

As you have demonstrated very convincingly, there are fundamental limits to our ability to supply ourselves with energy. What remains to be asked is: Where are the fundamental limits to our ability to conserve energy? Starving people can last longer by reducing their activity level - that is not controversial. A bit farther out, there are accounts of yogis an other such ascetics surviving for long periods on practically nothing, of people spontaneously falling into hibernation-like states. At the extreme of that continuum is the science-fictional idea of suspended animation. So where is the realistic limit? Does anyone know? You suggest we have, with luck, 50 to 100 years before the real crunch hits. That's time for quite a bit of R&D. One could imagine people escaping the coming disaster by, as it were, migration to the distant future. Do we know how to do that? Of course we don't - yet - but your own proposal rests just a much on a hypothetical future technology. A virus that can remaing undetected while it spreads through the entire human popluation and then causes infertility, but nothing else, in all but a a few immunized individuals? Sounds like a tall order.

On another note, since science fiction has already been mentioned in other responses here, have you read "The Gate to Women's Country" by Sheri Tepper? Writing from a feminist perspective, she assumes that the fatal flaw in humanity is male aggression, not lack of sapience, but the moral stance of her protagonists, the "damned few" is quite similar to the one you suggest.

George Mobus


Share away.


Sanity. My suspicion is that without sapience to put things into proper perspective the outcome of our modern predicament has to be a form of insanity. After all, isn't denial a form of insanity?

John D.,

I have the same conundrum with my kids. Fortunately they are starting to form their own kind of caution as they see the events in the world unfolding uncertainty. But no guarantees that they will make good choices, unfortunately.


From the reports of wildlife studies near Chernobyl it appears that higher life forms go on in spite of radiation!! The Earth will abide, I think.

glenn scriven,

Your observation is not to be taken lightly. But it is also the most prominent meme re: post-apocalyptic scenarios. What I see in higher sapience suggests that the concept of danger from super-competitors has already been factored in. In other words, maybe the wise already know how to avoid falling victim to the overtly aggressive! Who knows?


See comment to glenn above. Perhaps the truly wise are wise enough to have figured that out!

The Mad Max vision is quite common in the popular imagination re: post-apocalypse. On the other hand look at David Brin's "Postman". In his world, super-cooperators beat the super-competitors. Why not?


One needs to think very far outside the box on this one. As others have pointed out, we can easily (too easily) imagine a world in which the current power elite find ways to retain their advantage. But what I see is a world that is so different from the one we have thus far experienced that even these elite have no reference point. They will be as vulnerable as any. Perhaps, in fact, more so.

To all, let your imaginations break out of the mold. What would a truly wise person do in light of the coming constrictions of energy flow in the whole world (not just a region)? Might they see something entirely different than our collective imagination has thus far seen? Mad Max, et al, is an easy to have vision. But might there be much more to see than the obvious?


You are correct that there are weaknesses here that fall out from rates of change vs. rates of orderly investigation. Believe me, I have no beliefs that this "solution" is any more achievable than any other. My main objective is to alert those who can pick up the inference that there is a completely alternative way to see this problem and its solution.

In truth, my expectation is that the higher sapients in our population will already be making preparations! If this isn't the case then we simply say goodbye to Homo.

Proceed with caution on Hauser. He has been accused of scientific dishonesty recently and I have ceased using his work directly, though the references he provides are still on target, I think.

AFA a movie: Would it do any good????


I doubt that Buddha ever had in mind what is about to be unleashed on humanity in the scale that I suspect. Enduring the pain of arthritis is one thing (I know). Enduring watching your children starve to death is probably quite a different thing.


Sorry if I missed your prior response. I have been swamped of late.

What I am suggesting here is indeed a "tall order". I do not take it seriously myself. But only in the sense that I remain convinced that we, as a species, simply haven't the intestinal fortitude to even work toward it. It is a deep flaw in our moral sense. We would rather accept horrendous suffering rather than take steps to mitigate. This is my point. We are not really very sapient.

I have not read Tepper, but I would argue that male aggression is every bit a result of low sapience, so I doubt that we are disagreeing.


Robin Datta

It is morally the right thing to do if our objective is to minimize total suffering

All human endeavour beyond satisfying physiological needs stems from moral impulses, even when clothed in rational plans and agendas.

It would seem that Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s lacked the technology that would make them appear less barbaric.

Any virus programmed to induce changes that would reduce its hosts on such a large scale would be ripe for mutations that would achieve the opposite.


Well you are talking about eugenics, literally. No use in waffling around that.

And it should be remembered that eugenics originally got in vogue amongst the scientific crowd not out of a hatred thing but an ideal "if only we can select for the best people we could have a near utopia." Of course their ideas about what was beneficial and not (even non race based) had no grounding in reality.

On that I am extremely skeptical that this would have any grounding in reality too. Yes IQ has a genetic correlation, but the secret is that it is mean reverting over a few generations. Plus, it tags into my pet concern about "genetic correlation" which is that by definition it is a product of the environment of the populace. For instance, did you know that there is a strong genetic correlation about whether you'll get fat or not? It's true, when they look at lifestyles and outcomes then genetics outweighs environment.

Of course what does that really mean? It is absurd to think that it doesn't matter what you eat or how much you exercise, but that's what a naive interpretation would suggest. Instead it is far more likely that as a population we eat far too much and exercise far too little (as well as being exposed to myriads of chemicals) and in that fiercely non-ideal state, the difference comes down to genetics. But if you had a different social lifestyle for the populace then that difference would disappear.

I think it is strongly likely that intelligence and even more so "wisdom" are the exact same. We live in an immensely unhealthy state psychologically and intellectually: is that the cause or effect? Could not Maslow and his ilk be the ones that are correct when they say the problem is that social structures prevent self actualization and if you could get a critical mass of self actualized people to influence those structures then sapience would be the norm? I find this far more likely than any genetic explanation, both from personal experience and plausible mechanism.

Perhaps it'd be a better use of time if all the sapient people actually took the risk and broke free from society and lived together in a supportive way. Then that way they could have an alternative template.


I have thoroughly enjoy reading your blog over the last few months. It is very dense reading but very thought provoking.

Though I don't have statistical training, it seems instinctively to me that if the population of the target highly sapient population were as low as suggested and widely distributed then the probability of sufficient sapient-sapient mating events to maintain survivable population levels would be too low to ensure species survival. Only by pre-selecting and gathering those individuals somewhere could you ensure a potential new highly sapient population base.

A disturbing thought occurred with respect to the distribution of a genetic virus. If someone were sufficiently concerned about overpopulation issues and had the resources available to the top one percent, they could conceivably obtain the means to distribute a lethal virus rather than fertility suppressing virus. That scenario is scary, however, I believe that one likely result of population overshoot will be a naturally occurring lethal virus that will reduce the population significantly.

George Mobus


Agree that the virus vector needs some careful thought. As for comparisons with Germany circa 1930s - low blow!


Re: your last paragraph. That would be my hope as well.

As for the arguments, if I am interpreting you correctly you seem to be imagining an either/or kind of situation. I don't think along those lines. I prefer to test causal models rather than leave it at correlation. That is what is so exciting, to me, about EvoDevo and the discovery of the developmental control programs that operate en utero. While the environment of the embryo and fetus plays some role, it is highly buffered from exigencies unless the mother gets into really bad stuff. Thus we can see a stronger influence of genetics in the development of the architecture of the brain during this phase. All of my thesis re: sapience is based on this and not particularly subject to later development and learning. You can always screw the development program up but you can't make something be that isn't in the program in the first place.


Well the point of artificial selection is that the sub-population wouldn't be dispersed. So your last sentence in the first paragraph describes what would be operative.

As for your second point, that option exists anyway. Someone with the means and the motive could do that now, though the universality of its lethality is questionable.

Yes plagues will no doubt be a part of the bottleneck scenario.



George; This has to be one of your most impressive and courageous blog postings.
I spent over an hour carefully reading through your recap and looked at all the links.
The relentless logic and sober emotive judgements disarm and charm in equal measure. You are wise not to put any firm timescale on your predictions... the megamechine edifice seems more resilient to collapse than we supposed. I have the shrewd feeoling that Capitalism will find more cunning ways to convert all remaining natural and social capital into money for the plutocratic elite until it is completly exhausted. The only compensation for this scenario is that it can never be rebuilt- low tech will be the only tech possible.

George Mobus


Thanks for your continued interest and support.

Capitalism and its variant forms will do their worst, because we can only follow our individual mandates and capitalism coupled with extraordinary energy flows allows us the instrumentation to fulfill those mandates in extremis.



I think that you are making a grave error in your process. First, I think one can't really remove emotion from this issue because human beings are in part, emotional creatures. Logic itself can not overwhelm the fact that we as a species use our emotions in how we relate to one another and even how we come to solutions.

Second, who will make the decision for who will be sterilized? You yourself probably think you possess this sapience, but perhaps you don't. Consider for a moment how you would then respond to this position you take.

Third, this sapience may exist in individuals who are diametrically opposed to your position on ZPG. There are a great many religious leaders who have a lot of wisdom, yet would find your 'solution' abhorrent. What then? Do they not count because they disagree?

In short, I find a lot of holes in this thesis, including that of the virus you suggest, and think perhaps it is conceived without really fleshing out the possible unintended consequences.

George Mobus


Did you imagine that I haven't heard or even thought of these objections? The third objection strikes me as highly speculative. How do you end up equating high sapience and religious leadership, for example.

The second objection demonstrates the problem one has in communication via this medium. I thought I had developed an argument that excluded any individual, myself included, from 'making the decision.' Either I wasn't sufficiently clear or you simply missed that (it might also help if you were to take some time to study the work on sapience before making assumptions).

The fact is that you have inadvertently (most likely)provided the underscore to my actual thesis rather than tear holes in what you assumed was my thesis. Once more I will try to make it clear, I am not saying this is what we should do. I'm saying this is what we would NEED to do to solve the principle problem, which is to minimize the pain from population crash. If anything I am painfully aware that, because most people, like yourself, have knee-jerk emotional reactions to anything that smacks of the popular conception of eugenics, that no such solution will be tried. Thus humanity IS condemned to suffer the consequences.

I suggest you read my other population articles as well as the sapience working papers before jumping to conclusions. Then read this one again and see if you can understand it better.

Or, better yet, you supply a 'workable' alternative solution. If it is workable I will support it.


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