Population Growth: A Genius Machine?

More

Pope Benedict XVI restates the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial contraception as well as abortion in his new book, but one of his arguments, as reported in the Washington Post, is based on social utility rather than natural law:

How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?

(Why is Mozart brought into so many more controversies than Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Bach, or Tolstoy? A whole book might be written on this subject, so I won't start now.)

It's an intriguing idea, getting out of our environmental and technological dilemmas, caused in part by population growth, by increasing the number of people and thus the cadre of (secular) miracle-working geniuses. And to my knowledge it didn't start in theology or moral philosophy. It was the great economist Simon Kuznets who proposed such a link between population increase and creativity as a conjecture here, subject to empirical testing. Like other intriguing hypotheses, the Kuznets effect has taken on a life of its own after the originator's death.  But we will have a very elementary understanding of why clusters of great achievement, musical or scientific, appear when and where they do. For example, there are more extremely competent chess players than ever, thanks to technology as well as to sheer numbers of potential recruits around the world. But there has been no new charismatic grandmaster like Bobby Fischer.

I wonder whether Kuznets himself, if he returned to see what had happened to the uses of economics and financial technology, would agree with the implications of the Pope's statement and still hold the view he expressed fifty years ago:

 [I]t does seem to me that in the competition between geniuses and incompetents, the triumph of the former, in adding to the stock of useful (vs. worthless) knowledge, is clearly manifest.

But perhaps he would instead conclude, from the record of some of our financial and government leaders, that genius and incompetence have become ever more likely to coincide--an idea that Renaissance religious thinkers like Erasmus of Rotterdam would have appreciated.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In