Would the world be better off without 50% of the people in it?

by MoreOn3 min read14th Dec 201011 comments


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I made a stupid mistake of posting a conclusion before I had the whole analysis typed up or had looked up my references. I knew I would be called on it. I’ll appreciate any help with the <ref>'s. Also: I'm under Crocker's Rules, and criticism is welcome. So here goes nothi....

There's a theory out there that states that new inventions are combinations of old inventions <ref>. So if your hunter-gatherer tribe has knife-like rocks and sticks, just about the only thing you can invent is a spear. Fire + clay = pots. Little bones with holes + animal sinews + skins = needle => clothes. But if you were modern day's best chemist transported into the past, with all your knowledge intact, you'd be unlikely to make any  aspirin. Why? Because the tools you need haven't been invented.

Instead of looking at what's projected to happen, consider what has been happening happened. With the increase in world population, the level technology and average standard of living have been going up.

I argue that more population => better technology => easier life => more population.

In the modern day, consider: US population, US Patents per year.

So what about the “unproductive” people? Those who “don't pull their own weight?” Those “living off of welfare, charity donations, etc?” Those who just barely survive off of subsistence living? They put a drain on world resources without adding anything back. Wouldn't the world be better off without them?

Suppose Omega made a backup copy of the Solar system. It created a perfect copy of everything else, but it only replicated 50% of humanity. Pick your favorite selection criterion for who will be copied. You will go to the copied world, and other you will live on as a zombie.

Suppose the people who work in sweatshops get copied. But subsistence farmers from the same regions don't. Then it's reasonable to predict that some people from sweatshops would quit their jobs and fill up the niche you left available. Fewer people would be supporting the developed world.

Historically, people used technology to solve population problems only when those problems became bad enough. Farming wasn't invented until there were too many hunter-gatherers. Industry was not invented until there were too many farmers. Sewers were not invented until there was a problem with urban pollution.

I'll skip the statistical argument1. If truly brilliant people (the likes of whom had invented the wheel, the steam engine and the computer) are 1 in a billion, then having more billions means having more of those people.

Why do people have no confidence that we can invent ourselves out of the immense pressure we're putting on the environment? Technology is already there to supply humanity with renewable energy.

If you could choose whether your consciousness would go to Omega's backup world or stay on the original Earth, where would you choose? And if you chose the copied world, what selection criterion would you use to pick who would go with you?


Footnote1 : Statistics pop quiz (read: check my numbers, please). The world population is (~6,887,656,866). Let’s guess that “inventiveness” is distributed normally.I wouldn't be surprised if it were strongly correlated with IQ. How many people would you expect to find 6 standard deviations above the mean? IQ 190 for comparison. (upside down answer: 6.8). What about when the world population was 1 billion around 1800? (no calculators! just 1). We need to multiply 113 times to produce a person more than 7 standard deviations above the mean (IQ 205). The tail ends aren't necessarily this well-behaved, but then, given any distribution over the infinite competence axis, increasing the number of people would increase the number of people at each competence level.

EDIT: I rewrote this article. If you had managed to wade through the blabber I had before, my point stayed the same.


11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:33 AM
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I prefer futures in which we don't return to subsistence living, even if all the lives are worth living (robin hanson has posted extensively on this topic). I prefer fewer people with higher standards of living. Preferably standard of living continues to outpace population indefinitely. That said, we're no where near out pacing our increase in living standards currently, pro-natalism is fine for a good long while.

From the post, I got the sense that pro-natalism increases the chances of producing a supergenius who can drastically improve standards of living across the board. Needs math that it would actually be net positive, but the theory seems sound.

What's the rush? Why burn the limited resources we have as fast as possible on subsistence when we could make better use of them living more efficiently over a longer time period?

So you have a “conscious decision,” whether you become the replica in Omega’s new Solar system far far away, and your original Earth self becomes a zombie, or you stay on the original Earth and everything continues as before. Which do you choose?

Hang on... Omega is creating a replica Earth? I like the idea of a backup irrespective of population considerations.

I'm under Crocker's Rules, and criticism is welcome.

Meh, tl;dr. I'm on LW because the essays are entertaining. In this post, I barely got through the introductory paragraph before my eyes glazed over. (Though that might just be fatigue.)at might just be fatigue.)

Ah, I just scrolled back up before posting and ended up reading most of it. You made your point about halfway through; the rest of it comes off like trying to convince yourself that, yes, the world really is benevolent and beautiful after all. It doesn't matter what conclusion you're arguing, apologism is ew.

Upvoted, but only because I precommited. Your main argument seems to be that:

  1. higher population -> faster tech growth.

  2. more advanced technology -> better quality of life

  3. therefore higher population -> better quality of life (this doesn't follow, due to the increase in population also having negative effects which you've ignored)

1 and 2 are both reasonable, but 3 is a flawed conclusion. You have looked at one positive impact of increased population, but you have not shown that it is larger than the negative impacts. ie. we're currently needing lots of non-renewable resources to maintain our civilisation. With a lower population we could have transitioned to primarily renewables, while maintaining the same, or better, standard of living.

This would leave more time for people to engage in science and technology, and less time doing subsistence labour, which means that a world with our tech level, and 1/6th our population, would have >1/6 of our rate of technological development.

It was difficult for me to follow your point due to your writing style. You use too many rhetorical questions and too many parentheses. Stay on topic. Don't make an aside unless it's interesting and consider using footnotes. In general, cut down on words and sentences you don't need. I really think your point can be made in 3-4 paragraphs.

I rewrote with respect to your criticism. It's not perfect but hopefully better than before.

What are these numbers for? Certainly not to show my ignorance about the dangers of inferences at the tails of distributions (the tails are much less well-behaved than the middle, or so the story goes). My point (technically not my point; need a but I heard this in class without a )

What is this I don't even

Echoing the other comments: the writing here could use a few more revisions. The basic idea also runs into problems- ok, if we have a normal distribution we need lots more people to push out to the tail. But what if intelligence was an exponential distribution? If we had a policy of killing the dumbest 50% every generation, we might end up with something like that instead of a normal. And the tails of an exponential distribution are way taller (since it's e^-x instead of e^-x^2) than the tails of a normal.

(I'm well aware of the central limit theorem, but in the scenario I'm constructing the makeup of intelligence isn't independent, meaning we could actually have an exponential distribution, or something like it.)

think there were a couple setbacks in the form of ice ages along the way somewhere, but what we’d observed as a general trend throughout the homo sapiens’ time on Earth is more population => better technology => easier life => more population.

I don't know if the ice-ages contributed that much to serious reductions in technology. But the Black Death did cause a substantial drop in total population.

Not convinced? US population US Patents per year I know correlation does not imply causation, but come on.

Well, there are more complicating factors here as well, such as what is being patented. There are a lot more things now where minor improvements can still occur. But how many of those patents are in the category of things like the wheel that as you observe are large game changers? Pretty few.

Also keep in mind that as we learn more it takes more to improve on existing ideas because one needs to start with more understanding. Moreover, discoveries and inventions naturally have much of the low-hanging fruit picked first (that's not always true. The Diffie-Hellman algorithm and RSA are both ideas that could have been constructed in the late 18th century but the supporting technologies and motivation didn't exist.) and so the level of intelligence and background knowledge it takes to pluck the lowest remaining fruit may steadily go up.

I don't know if the ice-ages contributed that much to serious reductions in technology. But the Black Death did cause a substantial drop in total population.

You're right. I meant they reduced population. Need to fix that.

Well, there are more complicating factors here as well, such as what is being patented. There are a lot more things now where minor improvements can still occur. But how many of those patents are in the category of things like the wheel that as you observe are large game changers? Pretty few.

Computers, cell phones and the ballpoint pen come to mind over the last century.

Besides, figuring out that you could attach buttons to childrens' coats as well as adults' wasn't a big HG invention.

Overall, I agree with your post. If I ever get seriously interested in this problem, I will have to look up quantitative "values" for the quality of patents, and worldwide patents and inventions rather than just the US.

As for low-hanging fruit, Moore's Law comes to mind. But again, I would have to actually study it further if I am to speak intelligently on the matter. And besides, that's why the world needs more people many standard deviations up from the mean, because those are the people who move progress forward.

Nick Szabo has had some interesting posts on this, and I believe Robin Hanson also explored related ideas. By contrast, this just seems to be a bunch of ungrounded speculation and hand-waving with little effort to figure out prior art, current academic consensus, etc.