I’ve said many times that reading The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch changed my life. I just today finished Dan Brown’s book Inferno and I’m once again glad I read The Beginning of Infinity first.
If you plan on reading Inferno, go do it now, because I’m likely to reveal something in what follows that you wouldn’t want revealed.
OK, see you later.
Wow, back already! You’re a fast reader!
First off, Inferno is a fun if silly book. I know very little about art, and so it was fun for me to hear all the place names, all the cathedrals, all the history of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul (yes, the one in the song). I wanted something light to read over vacation, and Inferno gave me pretty much what I wanted. And who am I to thumb my nose at an author who sells more books in a day than I, well, than I’ll sell. Ever. By a lot. A whole lot.
Anyhow, there’s one facet of Inferno that I have to write about, because it’s an issue of science, and it’s something that not one single character in the book ever questions.
And yet it’s dead wrong.
I wouldn’t have thought so before reading The Beginning of Infinity. Like lots of other smarty-pants people, I thought all our human problems could be traced back to the fact that we keep having all these damn babies. Too many people, too many resources used up, too much of a stress on our environment, beyond the carrying capacity, all that.
Then I read David Deutsch, and everything changed. In Chapter 9 (“Optimism”), Deutsch discusses Thomas Malthus and his predictions of imminent starvation in the late 1700s. Malthus’ predictions didn’t come true because he underestimated the human capacity to create new knowledge. Humans found ways to produce far more food than ever before, and so even though the population increased as Malthus predicted, starvation was not the result.
Again in Chapter 17 (“Unsustainable”), Deutsch tells the story of a lecture by Paul Ehrlich and his very similar predictions of environmental collapse and attendant human suffering. Here’s what Deutsch says:
I can remember when I stopped worrying. At the end of the lecture a girl asked Ehrlich a question. I have forgotten the details, but it had the form ‘What if we solve [one of the problems that Ehrlich had described] within the next few years? Wouldn’t that affect your conclusion?’ Ehrlich’s reply was brisk. How could we possibly solve it? (She did not know.) And even if we did, how could that do more than briefly delay the catastrophe? And what would we do then?
What a relief! Once I realized that Ehrlich’s prophesies amounted to saying, ‘If we stop solving problems, we are doomed,’ I no longer found them shocking, for how could it be otherwise? Quite possibly that girl went on to solve the very problem she asked about, and the one after it. At any rate, someone must have, because the catastrophe scheduled for 1991 has still not materialized.
The reason both Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong is that they forgot something so obvious it almost seems silly to type: we cannot know what we have not yet discovered. People are knowledge creators. Knowledge creation is inherently unpredictable. The reason neither Malthus’ nor Ehrlich’s disasters materialized is that people created knowledge that solved the problems Malthus and Ehrlich posed.
So what does all this have to do with Dan Brown and Inferno? In the book, the villain states that humanity has become too numerous, and that our fecundity will lead to our extinction. His solution? A genetically engineered virus that will randomly sterilize one-third of humanity (OK, now I gave away the ending: sorry, but I did warn you.) All right, so the fictional villain of a summer beach read thriller is a crazy geneticist. Big deal.
But everyone in the book, including the Director of the World Health Organization and also the book’s 208-IQ heroine, agree with the villain! They all think there are too many people. They all think we’re on the path to extinction because of our overpopulation. They all think that sterilizing billions is not so bad.
Not only is this deeply immoral, it is also wrong.
Don’t get me wrong; I think planning your reproduction is a grand thing. Children should be cherished and treasured, and the ability to plan when and where to have them is a crucial human right that everyone deserves. But that choice must be an individual one, not one that’s made by some guy in Florence with a gene sequencer.
The way to reduce population growth is proven. It’s well-known. It works everywhere it is tried. Empower women. Everywhere women are educated, employed, and given basic human rights, the birth rate drops and the quality of each child’s life goes up. We don’t need to sterilize women. We need to teach them to read.
Dan Brown has fallen into the pessimists’ trap. Here’s Deutch again, on
. . . two different conceptions of what people are. In the pessimistic conception, they are wasters: they take precious resources and madly convert them into useless (gadgets) . . . In the optimistic conception – the one that was unforeseeably vindicated by events – people are problem-solvers: creators of the unsustainable solution and hence also of the next problem. In the pessimistic conception, that distinctive ability is a disease for which sustainability is the cure. In the optimistic one, sustainability is the disease and people are the cure.
If I’d read Dan Brown before (or without) reading David Deutsch, I likely would have agreed with the villian (and everyone else) that people are a disease. Now I know better. The only sustainable future is continual progress. Go people!