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 researcher identified 1,800 gene changes that were made in ancient times when we shared our world with the Neanderthals, which was an unusually large amount for such a brief period. The new genes, many that protect us from disease, emerged as our ancestors evolved into today's humans.
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 faster, develop a stronger variety of genetic improvements, which increases their chance for survival.
This theory applies to all animals, but the parallel to humans is clear. Our numbers are increasing 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 pushing seven and a half billion today.
Though past population growth was beneficial in strengthening our DNA, experts now warn that an overcrowded world places terrible burdens on resources. Food prices have reached unaffordable levels for many; and global warming, caused by a polluted atmosphere, could make future life unsustainable.
The World Bank estimated that rising food prices pushed 44 million people into poverty. Most of us in developed countries spend less than one-tenth of our income on food, so higher food prices are not too critical. However, for the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, food represents about two-thirds of their income. For many poor families, this means going from two meals a day to one.
Recent upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria, and N. Korea can be traced, not only to demands for better jobs, more personal freedoms, and a 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 unrest.
Global population has doubled in the past 40 years, and some predict it will grow another 2-to-3 billion in just 37 years. In addition, 3 billion people hope to climb the food chain and consume more meat, milk and eggs. As more families in China, India and other nations enter middle class, they expect to eat better.
The 2012 State of the Future Report addresses many of our overpopulation issues, such as climate change, soil erosion, agriculture mismanagement and more. The report also predicts that by mid-century, medical advances will improve health and extend lifespans, resulting in net population growth. While we view longer lives as positive, increasing our numbers places more pressure on Earth's resources.
What are the solutions to overpopulation? The SOF Report offers the following: 1) improve rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management; 2) encourage vegetarianism and acceptance of genetically-modified foods; 3) speed development of molecular nanotechnology; 4) expand telemedicine efforts; 5) create new medical therapies to curb obesity; and 6) produce lab-grown meat without growing animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently offered $1 million to the first producers of viable in-vitro chicken; and billionaire Peter Thiel's Breakout Labs funneled $350,000 into Modern Meadow, a startup company that uses 3D printers to manufacture food. The process is explained in this video.
Currently, genetically -created or –modified foods are too expensive, but using Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns," experts predict that in the near future, lab-produced, nutrient-enriched meat will be priced competitively, and accepted by mainstream society as a healthier alternative to animal-grown food.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock take up 70 percent of all agricultural land, and generate 18 percent of greenhouse gases, more than all the vehicles on the planet. Fewer animals will reduce global warming, and as a plus; make more land available for human housing.
The late Julian Simon discarded the notion that too many people will cause us to run out of resources and space. Simon believed that adding more people would provide creativity and innovation to solve our overpopulation problems, forever keeping us ahead of the curve.
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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