May 13, 2016


Michael Shermer

Thank you for turning your keen prose against excessive attachment to the teachings of Malthus.  Here are some disorganized notes in support of you; I hope you find something you like.

  1. Malthus asserts that population will rise exponentially, bar mortality of some sort.  This is only true if you limit your observations to a small population and for a brief time.  Cities can exist only because people move in; none grew to such size by natural increase, nor can any in fact sustain their size without immigration.  Nicholson once (Nicholson, A. J. The Self-Adjustment of Populations to Change 1957 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology Cold Spring Harbor, NY, USA, 1957) blessed us with an entire page of proof that Malthus was right, but it was all Bandar-log logic: we all say it so it must be true.  If you were to, as I did, watch a fairly large population of fruit flies for a fairly long time (M. L. Herbert, M. G. Lewis, Fluctuation of fertility with number in a real insect population and a virtual population. African Entomology 21, 119-126 (2013).) you might well notice that roughly exponential growth soon gives way to a damped oscillation.  My females are treated with exemplary equality and know no hunger, but they aren’t real educated, and that’s a fact. 
  2. Malthus asserts that food grows only arithmetically.  Where did that even come from?  More people can raise more food and experience should make us expect, as we do find, economies of scale. 
  3. So the logic of Malthus struggles forward with both legs broken clean in two. 
  4. I think the man’s name was Allen, who walked the hills of Appalachia looking at family trees.  He found support for the notion that genes in humans follow Mendelian rules.  We were shown some of his original notes at Harvard Medical School.  I noticed that there were a lot of cousin marriages and a lot of really big families.  You can get positive growth with enough cousin marriages and negative growth with urban life, so there has to be a magic number.  A stable population requires only that communities of a certain size (I suspect it would be the number such that all the men could fit into the Court of the Israelites on one side in the Temple) exclude all outsiders.  The population will be stable and will automatically correct any small disturbance. 
  5. Allen made it his business to try to improve the average intelligence by sterilizing those who were mentally challenged.  Well in that time and place the prevalence of Rh negative people was probably about 20% or more.  Call it 25%.  The overwhelming majority of the mentally challenged were victims of Rh incompatibility; they had an Rh negative mother, from whom perforce they got one negative allele, and an Rh positive father, from whom they got the Rh positive allele which caused their mother’s immune system to attack fetal and newborn red blood cells, poisoning the brain with free hemoglobin.  The first baby was probably all right, but as baby followed baby the disease got steadily worse, anemia caused edema which ultimately resulted (remember those big families) in a fetus getting stuck in the birth canal, dying, rotting with an appalling stench and killing the young mother with sepsis.  I knew a woman it happened to; fortunately modern surgery saved her life although think everybody involved got a bit of PTSD.  Now think; the surviving brain damaged children each carried a allele of each sort.  The number of alleles in the population was about equal positive and negative.  Removing one of each had no effect on the overall incidence at all; much less did it improve intelligence.    

So at the end of the day eugenics was even more ill-founded than most people suspect.  Thank you again for your challenge to it. 
M. Linton Herbert MD

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