December 18, 2010

Ahmed Zewail
Dear Ahned Zewail:

I appreciated you article (Curiouser and Curiouser: Managing Discovery Making NATURE vol. 468 no. 7322 November 18, 2010 page 347).  You draw a careful distinction between research that is directed and research that arises out of curiosity.  I think any right thinking person would have to agree that curiosity driven research is the more valuable.  With all deference let me suggest a third and rather problematic source.  It follows the old gag, “Life is what happens while you are thinking about something else.”  There is research that yields results that were not intended at all. 

My own work in the last several years has been driven purely by curiosity.  I no longer have an academic appointment.  In the process I have found others’ results that were of enormous importance but which have caused little commotion.  Here are the article to which I refer. 

  1. On the Regulation of Populations of Mammals, Birds, Fish, and Insects, Richard M. Sibly et al. SCIENCE vol. 309 no. 5734  JULY 22, 2005 page 607 – 610
  2. An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples, Agnar Helgason et al. SCIENCE vol. 329 no. 5864 February 8, 2008 page 813 – 816
  3. Human Fertility Increases with Marital Radius, Rodrigo Labouriau et al. GENETICS vol. 178 no. 1 January 2008 page 601 – 603
  4. Comment on “An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples,” Rodrigo Labouriau et al. SCIENCE vol. 322 no. 5908 12 December 2008 page 1634 – 1635


Taken together they make the case beyond reasonable doubt that marriage choice in humans determines fertility.  For 99% of history 99% of people married cousins.  Whatever else you might believe about this strategy, there is one thing that is clear.  It worked.  We have now, pretty much as a planet, abandoned that course.  The result has been a population boom that threatens the environment and the welfare of us all but is now becoming a population bust that bodes even worse.

The articles merely put this phenomenon on a formal and quantitative base. 

The problem is that so far as I can tell, none of these results were expected or desired.  The numbers just dropped out of routine work that presumably sought simply to support the belief (now a superstition since it is no longer consistent with science) that the bigger the gene pool the better. 

Looking at historical data I had already concluded that something like this must be true, so of course the studies struck me as illuminating and helpful.  But the authors, again so far as I can tell, are themselves less than enthusiastic.  Nor is there a bureaucracy in place that wants to exploit the discovery.

But this is very important.  This offers humans the chance for the first time ever to put their mating choices on a rational footing, or at least to avoid the trap of ignorance.  I have endeavored for years to bring attention to the facts, but with little success.  Any ideas you have would be most welcome.

Thank you.


M. Linton Herbert

I plan to put this letter with others on my web log

There have been 8,403 visitors so far.

Home page.