August 23, 2014

Nick Bostrom
Faculty of Philosophy and Oxford Martin School
Director of Future of Humanity Institute
Director of Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology
University of Oxford

Dear Professor:
I know you’re busy.  You’re fighting a number of threats to humanity’s very existence.  Time was when existential angst was an excuse for doing nothing at all.  My, how things have changed.

At risk of distracting you from your noble work, I’d like to describe another danger out there.  The short version is that in olden times we all married cousins, and there were plenty of babies.  Now we hardly ever marry cousins (third and forth or what we southerners call kissing cousins) and there are not enough babies.  That’s not a coincidence.  It is an iron law of nature.  If you want to see what evidence I have compiled, here is your link:
If you are actually going to read it, I am preparing an updated summary for the first of next year.  I’d be happy to send you a draft.

For a shorter introduction, you could look at a paper two of us published in African Entomology, which I attach. 

So here’s the pitch.  If we never marry kin our birth rate will never recover.  But if our civilization survives we ought to be able to survive a long time, even if our birth rate falls to 1.2 per woman, like Singapore.  But civilizations have a bad way of folding within 300 years.  If you take the 1700’s as the beginning of globalization and general urbanization in Europe, you see the problem.  Apparently, as the paper mentions, human birth rates can collapse abruptly.  The last middle class European woman who will ever have a baby with a middle class man may already be a girl among us.

There’s another issue.  If you arrange people on a scale of their tolerance for outsiders, those at the xenophilous end will not marry kin and those at the xenophobic end will.  Since you know who will be having the babies, you know how this turns out.  You can glance at the papers and see whether Longfellow’s words hold that “Hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good will toward men.” 

I heard of you because of your work on the threat of AI.  At least the machines will not, as we are, be honed to hate strangers. 

There’s hope.  Africa has dealt with this a long time.  Suppose you have to face, along with a group of young men armed with sticks and stones you can cobble together in an afternoon, a giant ground sloth and a dire wolf and a saber tooth tiger on one hand or an elephant, a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros on the other.  You’ll go for the ancient mega fauna.  The modern mega fauna evolved along with humans; they’re ready for you.  Humans have lived with the threat of population collapse in Africa since they first picked up a rock and sharpened it.  Their society will probably survive.  Who knows?  They might be better off without us.  India and the Middle East are also points of hope.

But if we find ourselves with nine billion people and suddenly no high tech civilization things might get unpleasant.

I know there’s nothing you can do.  But if the word of this ever gets around at least now you won’t be totally blindsided.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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