Population Growth: A Genius Machine?

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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.

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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.

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