More Earthlings, more problems?
On NBA teams, Socrates, and why you can be optimistic about sharing the planet with 7,999,999,999 other people.
The United Nations says we have just crossed the threshold of a global population of eight billion people. The US Census Bureau thinks we're still at 7,934,000,000, but what's a discrepancy of a mere 66,000,000 people between friends? There have always been plenty of voices urging that there are too many people, but consider a few of the realities in perspective.
■ Albert Einstein was born in 1879, at which time Earth's population was probably 1.42 billion. Even if you assume that Einstein was a singularly brilliant figure for his time -- the solitary most brilliant person on the planet, even -- then the odds should have it that we have at least five or six people roaming the planet today who are equals to Einstein.
■ The numbers are even more striking the farther back we look. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 to a world of no more than 500 million. Odds are, the planet is populated by 16 equivalent "da Vincis" today -- enough to fill the roster of an NBA team.
■ Socrates (born in 469 BCE) was probably only one in 200 million, meaning there could be 40 Socratic equals among us today -- enough to fill a small regional passenger jet.
■ Before anyone scoffs at the comparisons or dismisses the figures as too remote, consider what has gotten better since the births of any of those great minds. Our food supply is vastly greater. Infant and child mortality has plunged. We have gained antibiotics and worked to purge lead from paint.
■ Books are cheaper and many are freely available in digital format. Great museums offer virtual tours and the Internet Archive is working to digitize practically everything. The Internet itself is an ever-pulsing source of expert opinions and instantaneous news.
■ But more importantly, while there remain many substantial challenges to be overcome, there is more human freedom and more fundamental equality than in any era of the past. For most of human history, only men were broadly free to pursue their maximum self-actualization -- and even then, that freedom was only open to some men.
■ There remains much work to be done, but the odds have never been higher that a truly gifted person could do the most possible with their endowments. And, assuming that talent has been fairly equally distributed throughout history, the odds are extremely high that we have more great geniuses living among us than at any time in history.
■ Eight billion is a lot of people. And big crowds can beget big problems. But the numbers -- and the conditions -- should give us hope that the very best days for the world remain ahead.