In 1968, John B. Calhoun ran an experiment with mice related to population growth and density. He introduced 4 pairs of mice into a mouse Utopia. They had all the food and water they could want, plenty of nesting boxes and materials, no predators, etc. The only limit was the size (9×9 feet) of their “universe”. The mice did what mice couples do and the population grew rapidly. In about 10 months, the “universe” had a few more than 600 mice. Shortly thereafter, Calhoun witnessed a breakdown in their social structure … including increased aggression in some, increased passivity in others, lack of care for young, and a complete cessation of reproduction. These behavior changes were permanent. In a utopian universe, the mouse colony died. Calhoun concluded that “when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population.” He saw the fate of his mice as a potential fate for us.
Can We Feed the World?
The mice who lived in Calhoun’s “utopia” had as much food as they needed. Had their food been limited, some would have died from malnutrition and diseases related to starvation. They might not have exceeded the space available. If we cannot feed all the people on our planet, nature will run its course. We could reach a point where so many of us die that population growth slows dramatically. We may see “a total breakdown in complex social behaviors” for a different reason than lack of space.
Can we feed the world? We certainly can now. Global hunger isn’t a function of scarcity; it’s a function of distribution and cost. When, in a few more decades, the population grows to 10 billion, we’ll be taxing … perhaps exceeding … the limits of modern farming technology and its tendency to destroy the environment. Will we see increased starvation and/or environmental devastation? Are we reproducing our way to Armageddon? Are we creating the end of the world?
The answer to the last question is easy. No, we are not creating the end of the world. Even if we destroy ourselves, the world will go on. In spite of anything we do, Life on earth will probably continue too. Our planet has experienced 5 mass extinctions. So far, it has always recovered. Even if we were to destroy ourselves and most other life, some being, in some far-distant future, would be telling his readers about the past 6 mass extinctions.
Whether we can end world hunger and protect the environment from destructive farming is more difficult to answer. I believe that we can, if we will. We must be willing to find smarter ways of farming. There is evidence that the Amazon rainforest once supported populations considerably larger and at a higher level of civilization than those of the current indigenous populations. Those populations used non-exploitive science to support their agriculture.
Can we return to agriculture that doesn’t exploit and destroy the planet? Must we return to “simpler times” in order to feed ourselves? Can science find alternatives or will it destroy us like the “hero” of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel? Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) part of the solution or yet another problem.
Latter day Luddites have attacked GMOs with name-calling (like “frankenfood”) and fear-mongering. In one sense, they are correct because humans are inherently lazy. We have a tendency to take the path of least resistance. During most of our history, avoiding the difficult path was probably beneficial. It kept us and our families and communities alive.
When it comes to implementing scientific advances, we need to be cautious of unanticipated consequences such as:
- Thalidomide was sold as an over-the-counter sedative that helped reduce anxiety and insomnia. It helped reduce nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women, BUT it produced 10,000 babies (worldwide) who had malformed limbs and worse. (Half of these babies did not survive.) Today, thalidomide is still in use for some Cancers, HIV/AIDS, and other chronic diseases … under the strict supervision of medical professionals.
- Heroin was originally marketed as a non-addictive substitute for morphine (and as a cough suppressant). Most of us know how well THAT worked out.
- DDT did an impressive job of killing insects that we disliked … and insects we liked … and birds … and who knows what else. Scientists credit the ban on DDT for bringing the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon back from the edge of extinction in the United States.
- Using fossil fuels have played a major role in creating our modern world BUT, if you don’t think using them has unpleasant side effects, try breathing carbon monoxide for a while.
There have been several studies indicating that GMOs are harmful that are simply alarmist bad science. Few (if any) serious studies show any serious problems. That doesn’t prove none exist … one cannot prove a negative … but it’s a good start. As with hybrids, careless and inherent human “laziness” can produce unwanted results. If you create a GMO (or hybrid) food plant that resists weed killer … then drastically increase the use of weed killer … questionable chemicals may enter the ecosystem. If, instead, you create a new food plant that grows better than the weeds do, you increase production AND can reduce the use of harmful chemicals.
Let’s assume that we CAN feed the World … if we choose to do so. Similar arguments can be made for Housing the World, eradicating treatable diseases, etc. If we can get to the Moon and back … several times … with less than a decade of focused effort, we can solve each of these other problems given a decade or two (or more) each … if we choose to do so. Like Calhoun did for his mice, we can take care of our physical needs.
Of Mice and Humans
Will we “breed ourselves into extinction” like Calhoun’s mice? Will we find our lives so lacking in purpose that we languish in depression and apathy? Will those who cannot find mates give up on life?
The last of these questions is easy to answer … with a resounding “No”. Among mice, procreation is the only purpose for sexual activity. For humans, procreation is only part of the picture. For humans, sex is an expression of love, a type of entertainment, an expression of creativity, etc. , etc. , etc. Unlike mice, humans direct the procreative drive and energy into the creation of ideas, inventions, meaningful work, and knowledge; not just more humans.
Humans don’t need to have purpose because we create purpose. When the time comes … as I believe it will one way or another … that we no longer need to “work to live”, we will apply the energy to “living to work”. Of course, what we do will be “work” only in the way physics defines the word. We’ll call it learning, playing, exploring, and any number of words that are counter to what so many of us call “work”. (As I write this, I’m expending energy, but I don’t feel like I’m “working”.)
We are acting as if the types of antisocial behavior that Calhoun saw in his mice is manifesting in us. It doesn’t have to be this way. The mice had little more than their instincts. The cognitive abilities they did have were totally consumed for survival of themselves and their species. Eons ago, we were in survival mode too, but we had enough cognitive ability to make our survival activities more efficient. Today, we reap the benefits of all that came before. Unfortunately, we reap the obstructions as well.
Eons of struggle have bred distrust, fear, hatred, and conflict. We confuse pragmatism with righteousness. We become so convinced that our “good” way is the “only” way that we try to impose our methods and culture on everyone, everywhere. Since the Renaissance, the Western European nations and their American offspring nations have been particularly guilty of this “sin”. Some other cultures have adopted Western Culture. Some other cultures have adapted parts of Western Culture and merged it with their own. Some other cultures are pushing back … with all the hate, rage, and viciousness that is our shared human heritage. That we are surprised shows how blindly and arrogantly we have bought into the “Our Way = Best Way” equation. Of course, our enemies have bought into the same equation. Only the definition of “Our” is different.
As if trying to impose our cultures on each other weren’t bad enough, we attack each other (emotionally, intellectually, and even physically) over the right way to worship. Do you think the “All That Is” is so petty and insecure as to want us to abuse and kill each other over worship techniques. The truth is that we’re the ones who are petty and insecure. If you need to attack others to prove to yourself that you’re right, you’re probably wrong. Worst of all, so many of us let ourselves be led by those who use religious, cultural, national, etc. arguments to build up their own weak egos.
As our population grows, we need to use our intellects to solve our problems; not our instincts. We need to give reign to our higher emotions; not our baser ones. If we want to avoid the fate of Calhoun’s mice, it’s to stop being afraid. (It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?)