Rapid population growth: past benefits, present dangers,
By Dick Pelletier
A team led by University of Wisconsin
anthropologist John Hawks recently discovered that Earth's rapid
population growth played a key role in human development by
supercharging our evolutionary progress.
The group identified DNA changes made since the Stone Age,
and found that more than 1,800 new genes had been added, an
unusually large amount for such a brief period. The new genes,
many that protect us from disease, emerged as these ancient
ancestors were evolving into today's civilized world.
Hawks credits some of the new genes to rapid population
growth. Charles Darwin suggested the idea when he wrote that
‘herd size' is important for successful evolution of a species.
Those that multiply their numbers faster, develop a stronger
variety of genetic improvements, which increases the survival
This theory applies to all animals, but the parallel to
humans is clear. Homo sapiens' numbers have increased
exponentially; from about ten million 10,000 years ago, to two
hundred million by A.D. 0, six hundred million by 1700, one
billion by 1804, two billion by 1927, and a whopping seven
Although past population growth was beneficial in
strengthening our DNA, experts now warn that an overcrowded
world places terrible burdens on resources and the environment.
Food prices have already reached unaffordable levels for many;
and global warming, caused by a polluted atmosphere, could make
life unsustainable on Earth. Some experts even blame this
environmental peril for today's bad weather.
The World Bank estimated that from 06/2010 to
01/2011, rising food prices pushed 44 million people into
poverty. Americans spend less than one-tenth of their income on
food, so higher food prices are not too critical in the U.S.
However, for the world's poorest 2 billion people, food
represents 50-to-70 percent of their income. For many in
developing countries, this could mean going from two meals a day
Recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya can be traced,
not only to demands for better jobs, more personal freedoms, and
a general distrust of their dictator; but also because far too
often, families cannot put enough food on the table. Food is
fast becoming the unseen driver of world politics.
Global population has doubled in the past 40 years, and some
predict it will reach 8-to-10 billion by 2050. In addition, 3
billion people hope to climb up the food chain and consume more
meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China, India and other
countries enter middle class, they expect to eat better.
The State of the Future Report,
highlights a number of issues facing society. Climate change,
soil erosion, and agriculture mismanagement could reduce much of
the world's food production. And in the next 25-to-50 years,
researchers predict advances in biotech and nanotech will
improve health and extend life, which will result in net
So what's the answer; can technologies rescue us? The SOF
Report offers these solutions: we must 1) learn to grow meat
without using live animals, 2) convince society to accept
genetically-modified foods, and 3) expand nutrition research to
curb obesity and gain better insight to the body's food
An animal rights group recently offered $1 million to the
first producers of commercially viable in-vitro chicken by
mid-2012. Biomedical engineer Mark Post at Maastricht
University in the Netherlands predicts that using stem
cells and genetic engineering techniques to grow meat, fish, and
vegetables in the lab, instead of harvesting these products from
live plants and animals, would eliminate world food shortages.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,
livestock take up 70 percent of all agricultural land, and
generate 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all
the vehicles on Earth. Since animals are responsible for these
gases, lowering their numbers would greatly reduce global
Focusing on energy solutions – forward thinking future
watchers believe that by mid-century or so, breakthroughs in
solar-produced electricity, hydrogen storage, and other
innovative power ideas, could eliminate much of humanity's needs
for burning fossil fuels, which would further reduce global
Finally, here's an opposing viewpoint on runaway population
growth. The late economist and populace researcher Julian Simon
discarded the notion that humanity will run out of resources and
space. Simon believed that additional people would provide
creativity and innovation to break through any natural barriers
to human population growth. Developing technologies would always
keep us ahead of the curve.
Again, we ask; will technologies come to the rescue and save
our planet? This writer believes they will.
This article appeared in various print publications and on-line blogs. Comments