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Laureate urges next generation to address population control as central issue

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Christian de Duve in LindauLINDAU, Germany—A 93-year-old Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine received a standing ovation from hundreds of scientists on June 30 at the end of a speech in which he urged the world’s young people to take measures to control runaway population growth in order to resolve related ills that have resulted from humans’ remarkable evolutionary success as a species.

Christian de Duve received the Nobel Prize in 1974 for discovering two cellular organelles, lysosomes and peroxisomes. In a speech here at the 61st annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, he outlined the population growth that has occurred in the past 8 million years, with the well-known dramatic acceleration that has occurred in the past 100 years predicted to bring us to a world population of 9 billion or so in 2050.

"We’ve come to use all the resources that are available for our use on the planet," the Belgian-born biologist said. "We have become tremendously successful but this success has a price."

He ticked off a list of socio-economic and political troubles that have made big and recurring news in the past few decades: exhaustion of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and desertification, climate change, energy crises, overcrowding, wars and pollution.

Rather than blaming humanity for all this, he pointed the finger at natural selection, saying that this principle which drives us to reproduce and advance our genes operates "on the here and now level" and pays no heed to imminent food, energy and resource crises. Our ancestors in the Central African forests and savannahs evolved to embrace intra-group selfishness and inter-group hostility as a matter of survival, he said. Today, however, these tendencies do more harm than good.

Humans are the only species that have the ability to act against natural selection, he said, and that is now what must be undertaken.

De Duve articulated and then discarded several more fleshed-out solutions as outlined in his latest book The Genetics of Original Sin (Yale University Press, 2010), including genetic engineering to make humans better adapted for a limited planet, protecting the environment, and advancing women’s position in society, as they tend to be less violent and more oriented toward advancing life.

Education is a possible solution too, he said, especially in the hands of religious institutions. But he thinks the world’s religions have failed in this endeavor, focusing more on sustaining their ideologies, hierarchies and doctrines than on sustaining humanity. This comment, not made for the first time by the scientist but one that initially took courage to state publicly for a long-time faculty member at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, drew strong applause from the audience. The applause was notable as attendees at the week-long conference were drawn from a wide variety of nations and cultures, including Argentina, Azerbaijan, China, Ghana, India, Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore and Zambia (although most came from Germany, the U.S., India and China, in that order). A total of 23 laureates also attended the gathering.

Population control is the best and only viable solution, de Duve concluded, adding that all of the world’s problems todaySteve Mirsky and Christian De Duve with Kindle copy of his 2010 book derive from "too many human beings" on Earth. The planet has become too small for all of us, he contended, and "we have to do something about population control, if possible, by birth control."

He then summed up his answer to the world’s problems by reading this passage from his book:

"All is not lost, but the writing is on the wall. If we don’t act soon to overcome our genetic tendency to intra-group selfishness and inter-group hostility, the future of humanity and of much of life on Earth will be gravely endangered, possibly leading to total extinction under conditions that can only be visualized as apocalyptic."

De Duve then directly addressed the college and graduate students and early career scientists in the audience, saying he will return to the annual meeting as long as he is physically able.

"My generation, our generation, has made a mess of things," he said. "It’s up to you to do better. The future is in your hands. Good luck." With that, nearly every person in the auditorium at the conference’s venue, Inselhalle, stood up and applauded enthusiastically.

De Duve was not the only laureate here to speak of his concerns about the big problems facing humanity world-wide. In a June 30 interview with Scientific American, Avram Hershko, who won the Prize in chemistry in 2004 for discovering the mechanisms involved in protein degradation, discussed his wish for greater peace in the world, including between Israel and its neighbors, as he articulated in his speech in Stockholm at the ceremony to award his medal.

The 76-year-old native of Hungary noted the world’s economic, agricultural and other crises, but added that "all those are nothing compared to the animosity that exists between different nations, different countries. All that is beyond my control, but I’m trying to join different efforts to promote peace."

Images: Christian de Duve at Lindau; Scientific American editor Steve Mirsky with de Duve and a Kindle copy of de Duve’s latest book; images by Robin Lloyd

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  1. 1. jrc1234 7:44 pm 06/30/2011

    I’ve always wondered why it is so difficult for humanity to see the relationship between too many people and all of the problems we are facing. Thank you for standing up and saying something! We are going to have to control our population one way or another. Personally I prefer birth control over genocide, or war.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 8:08 pm 06/30/2011

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m giving Christian de Duve and Scientific American a standing ovation of my own for finally mentioning the most crucial challenge to the continued survival of humanity! HOORAY!!!

    I’m not old enough to propose genetic engineering as the solution (ant farms scare the hell out of me!), but some very effective solution must be implemented soon.

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  3. 3. adamsmith36 8:48 pm 06/30/2011

    I too am happy to hear this idea voiced. Many of our problems are linked to overgrowth of human population. Paul R. Ehrlich said it in his book the Population Bomb in 1968. Paul MacCready said it very clearly in his "TED Talk" in 2007
    But is anyone listening? It seems we are continuing on a path that will extinguish many species and lead to much human suffering.

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  4. 4. oldvic 3:20 am 07/1/2011

    I’d only change a tiny but important detail: we shouldn’t leave it to the next generations to solve the problem.
    All of us, young and old, must become aware of the problem and do whatever is within our individual reach to help solve it. The sooner we start the better in terms of avoiding needless suffering.
    We might, for instance, laugh out of office the politicians who continue to advocate "more people" as a "solution" to short-term perceived problems that amount to short-sighted navel gazing.

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  5. 5. MonFlan 9:28 am 07/1/2011

    Christian de Duve is a great mind. On I have found his speech on the future of our species. I’ll quote just a small piece:

    "The future of life and the future of our planet is in our own hands, and our hands are governed by our own brains, and so it will depend on… very much on what we and our children, our grandchildren and future generations are going to do with the power that our generation… my generation has given the power to manipulate life"

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  6. 6. jgrosay 3:33 pm 07/1/2011

    People have been doing this for thousands of years. While in India, some discovered that the average size of a family was of 11 births, they concluded that the reason why was that this precise number was needed to obtain enough money to sustain parents when they become elderly; in the XIXth century Spain, the average size of family was 4-5 children. Will somebody teach us someday that breathing is necessary not to die, and that sex is pleasant ?. Stop bothering please !

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 6:22 pm 07/1/2011

    Regardless of any demographics, the population of the world has been the largest ever attained for more than 100 years. There is no historical precedence for a human population this large or the effects that it imparts to itself and our environment.

    The human population has nearly quadrupled since Christian de Duve was born 93 years ago. When I was born a mere 60 years ago the population was 2.5 billion. The U.S Census Bureau expects it to increase more than 30% from nearly 7 billion now to 9.5 billion by 2050.

    I can stop bothering you, but the consequences of inaction will eventually effect not only you but perhaps billions of your close friends and neighbors. No one can insulate themselves from the consequences of catastrophic global resource failures.

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  8. 8. laurenra7 7:56 pm 07/1/2011

    What a horrific idea. Population control has been a recurring fad for more than a century. It goes hand-in-hand with unfounded worry over mass starvation because of the supposed inability of the planet to support such a large population. The evidence of the last century shows that with modern agricultural technology the planet can easily support a significantly larger population than the current one. And there’s plenty of water too. The biggest factor in widespread famines isn’t dwindling resources, it’s oppressive, corrupt governments and central economic planning (communism) which limits access to resources.

    Shame on all of you who think discussing population control is a brave and enlightened–even sophisticated and modern–position. It is not. It is as depraved, moldy, and primeval as the tribal wars of ancient peoples vying to extinguish other humans in order to have exclusive access to shared resources. What you’re really suggesting is that you have the right to determine how many children other people have. In America, you absolutely do not have that right. Our unalienable rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Though the moral argument against it should be the most compelling one for mature peopld, there is also the fact that population studies show populations in decline for most developed countries. It seems a natural phenomenon that as societies become wealthy, they tend to not only consume resources more efficiently, they have fewer babies. Eventually the countries with fast population growth will, if allowed to grow wealthy, also reach a point that their populations decline.

    So much for fairy tale problems. Now for a real one: those countries like Japan with rapidly declining populations are going to experience monumental economic problems. Let’s start figuring out ahead of time how best to ease the future crisis here when our population begins to decline.

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  9. 9. Bill Crofut 8:59 pm 07/1/2011


    Congratulations on your courageous though politically incorrect stand.

    Prof. Ehrlich followed up his 1968 bomb with a sequel in which he lamented the fact that no one was paying any attention to his warning. That, of course, is nonsense; birth control became rampant after his raving. Additionally, if even 1% of his predictions had been correct, Earth would now be decimated.

    My own views have been posted on another web page:

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  10. 10. Carburn 11:21 pm 07/1/2011

    I’m doing my part. I am committed to not reproducing. In my own fantasy, no one would be allowed to make another person until the ones that already exist are taken care of.

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  11. 11. scientific earthling 11:28 pm 07/1/2011

    Laurenra7: You are either living in the 15th century or in isolation far from the wriggling mass of sweaty Homo sapiens, most of who are ignorant, vicious breeding machines, worse than mice. They have killed off thousands of other species that shared the biosphere and maintained its stability for thousands of years. There is a price to pay – extinction.

    This situation arose, because a few developed intelligence, a bad thing for natural selection. The rest of humanity jumped on board and claims the medical, food generating and other benefits that result from the intelligent activities of the few. Now the UN is seeking to make food and water a human right, irrespective of the number of people that exist in the biosphere, and how fast they breed. They conveniently neglect to acknowledge any rights for the other creatures that sustain our biosphere, most importantly a right to habitat.

    From a scientific point of view, (something you could never understand, based on your idiotic statement about communism – China is a communist nation and feeds its population fine, as well as funds the US budget deficit) the current growth of human population is unsustainable, as expressed by other commentators from scientific backgrounds.

    Your second comment "Shame on you" is the domain of the religious nut cases who abound in the current world population. Of course this means you do not have the capacity to understand science, how it works and believe when scientists use the word "theory" that it is the same as postulate. Theory in science means a proved fact, a law of nature that’s never been disproved, but one day might be. A theorem is fact that will never be disproved.

    The population of developed countries is declined because developed countries have a higher ratio of intelligent people, many of who, like me see no hope for the future and do not procreate. You appeal to the mature; well I bet at 65 I am more mature than you.

    Talking of fairy tales, the stories in the so called holy books of all religions are the fairy tales, based on total untruths. I did not have to fight these lies imposed on children when they are most vulnerable, since atheism goes way back to my grandfathers in my family, who were all educated and mature when they died, as was my father, every one of these people had small families.

    In a democracy you outnumber us. Not to worry, natural selection will correct the problems facing the biosphere. Meddlesome intelligence has no place in any biosphere, that is why we have never encountered aliens.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 12:15 am 07/2/2011

    You seem to be very concerned about any proposal that would result in any form of population control. Perhaps you have some undeclared special interest?

    The suggestion that wealthy peoples will be suffering from dangerous population reductions doesn’t seem to apply to the U.S., since the Census Bureau projects that our population will increase more than 35% by 2050, from 311 million to 423 million. That rate of population growth exceeds the expected global rate.

    A projected 20 million reduction in Japan’s population in 2050 will do little to offset an expected nearly 500 million increase in India’s population, from 1.19 billion to 1.66 billion people.

    Frankly, I think your suggestion of allowing growing population to become wealthy is an unrealistic solution, especially for the two largest geopolitical population groups in the world, China and India.

    I’m more concerned that the burgeoning economic development of the restricted growth Chinese population will soon be out bidding us for our own agricultural production and the increasingly privatized potable water resources.

    Moreover, the increasing global population must be expected to increase the consumption of oil, water and all sources of nutrients, including the nearly depleted large sea fish that feeds so much of the world’s population.

    As for dismissing concerns about the projected 30% increase in global population by 2050, from less than 7 billion to more than 9.5 billion as nonsense, I can only recall that in my 60 years the population of the U.S. has doubled. I see the enormous effects and consequences everywhere I look.

    This largest human population that has ever existed has not existed long enough to experience even normal 500 year droughts or floods much less the projected global warming. I must insist that however it is achieved, the world’s human population will be significantly diminished – perhaps by billions. I can only hope that it is achieved with a minimum of human suffering.

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  13. 13. BernardC 4:56 pm 07/3/2011

    The birth rate is not the problem, it’s the insanity of not allowing anyone to die that is the real problem.
    Nature, or god, had an effective way of controlling the population of every species …… until humans decided to block the drain with scientific advances.
    Passing the buck and blame to the next generation is selfishness, shut the hospitals and let everyone live a natural life or die of their own consequences.
    The population has risen from 2 bn to 7 bn in my lifetime of 71 years, that mirrors the advancement of medicine creating `solutions’ that stop people from dying.
    I am not religious, but I am not an atheist either, the only `bible’ I read is nature, and that tells me god is going to be right pissed off with the idiots who have screwed up his population control processes, and we have not long to wait to find that out.

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  14. 14. oldvic 3:35 am 07/4/2011

    To those who speak of rigths, I’d like to remind you that we all have the right to live according to the laws of physics. Every other "right" we speak of is something that our society is willing and able to grant us.

    If we are sensible enough to reach a collective agreement that is sustainable, we’ll survive and suffer little; otherwise, we’ll just give up control to the forces of Nature, an entity that cares very little about our social "rights".

    And let’s not forget that right now, in our world, there are people suffering and dying from the consequences of unsustainable living. I fail to see how adding more humans to the multitude will help solve the problem.

    The argument about the current social security systems or the classical economic growth model, both of which need constant supplies of young people to work, falls flat once we realize that at some point stabilization is inevitable (the world is finite). The sustainable, stable model will inevitably be different from the past and current expansionist one, but that’s what our adaptability is for.

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  15. 15. topshelf 5:45 pm 07/7/2011

    You mention an "unfounded worry over mass starvation because of the supposed inability of the planet to support such a large population."

    Modern agriculture has allowed this uncontrolled growth. Perhaps we have enough fresh water (but not likely). But you’ve left out one HUGE detail that makes the rest of your rant moot. Peak Oil.

    The only reason modern agriculture is even possible is petrochemicals. Fertilizers, transport chain, preservation (which requires energy) all rely on petrochemicals. As the world supplies of oil dwindle, so will our ability to sustain the mass production of food. Each calorie we consume requires something like 7 calories from petroleum to produce.

    So do you still think there will be mass starvation without food? Unless you’re an organic subsistence farmer, you may want to re-think your position.

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  16. 16. laodaprivate 9:17 pm 07/7/2011

    Every family in the world should follow a One-Child policy, maybe — including those who recently abandoned it.

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  17. 17. Dauphin Ermite 9:46 pm 07/7/2011

    I am a pessimist when it comes to project how we should deal with the looming Malthusian crisis. I do not believe one second that nations will be able to do anything constructive about overpopulation, Only major crises will succeed in creating conditions which might influence Sapiens Sapiens to realise Earth cannot maintain 9 billion people.

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  18. 18. Dr. Strangelove 10:17 pm 07/10/2011

    More than food, water and energy crises, our bigger problem is economic and political. There is enough arable land in the world to feed 100 billion people. The world is over 70% water. There is more than enough water for everybody. Nevada alone receives more solar energy than the power consumption of the whole world.

    Of course it is too costly to build roads and irrigation system to all the arable land, to desalinate seawater, to put photovoltaic cells all over Nevada. The world produces enough wealth to keep everybody out of poverty yet 1 billion people are poor and hungry. These are economic and political problems.

    That said, people are over consuming. They can have more babies as long as they keep their consumption low.

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