Population and major innovations Seth’s Blog

It’s tempting to embrace the meme that the best way for humans to solve the big problems before us is to grow the population, perhaps dramatically. The thinking goes that people can solve problems and more people gives us more problem solvers.

It doesn’t hold up to a reductive ad absurdum analysis: obviously, a population of 10 people isn’t as good at solving problems as a population of a billion, but at the same time, if there were a trillion people on Earth, it wouldn’t last long. There must be a number that’s optimal, but it’s probably not the biggest number we can make.

And reviewing the data on Nobel Prizes per capita, or patents per capita, we find that there is no correlation between population density and productive breakthrough inventions. It seems that innovations are likely the result of a civilized society, sufficient resources, sufficient productivity to enable spending on R&D, and a culture of research and engineering.

We also see geographic hotbeds of innovation over time (physics in Germany a hundred years ago, or network innovation in Silicon Valley a decade ago) that are the result of information exchange and cultural expectations, not population density.

We don’t get these results by stretching the carrying capacity of our one and only planet. We can’t shrink our way to potential, but we can’t possibly get there by exponential expansion.

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