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Everyday Philosophy: Thanos and an economist debate overpopulation

Is there a force keeping humanity in check?
A depiction of a muscular figure wearing armor and an illuminated gauntlet beside a stylized world map, marked by red circles and black intersecting lines, highlighting the battle against overpopulation.
Alamy / Big Think / Ben Gibson
Key Takeaways
  • Welcome to Everyday Philosophy, the column where I use insights from the history of philosophy to help you navigate the daily dilemmas of modern life.
  • This week, we look at overpopulation and ask whether there’s a mysterious force at work.
  • To answer the question, we look at Thanos’ motivations and see how they stack up against the economist Julian Simon.

I’ve always wondered if we are controlled by an unknown force, not discovered or recognized, that prevents the overpopulation of the earth and performs this feat by causing us to war with each other?

– Alexander Kelly, California, USA

One of the most common motifs in mythology is the epic flood. If you dip into almost any tradition in world history, you will find a story about a great flood or an apocalyptic deluge. One of the earliest recorded examples is the Akkadian myth of Atra-Hasis, from around 1700 B.C. Atra-Hasis has the gods flood the earth not because of any sinfulness on humanity’s part (as the Genesis story has it) but rather as a conscious act of population control. Atra-Hasis tells us that “the land was bellowing like a bull” under the stress of an overpopulated world. The epic ends with the argument that stillbirth and natural disasters were all part of a cosmic order to balance the numbers on land.

This idea — that there’s some unknown, mystical force controlling the human population — is interesting in a theological sense. It’s curious how many religions present their deities as dipping in now and then to cull the population, like celestial gardeners cutting back the weeds. But what philosophy is there to the matter? Rather than God or gods, could there be some other kind of law or force explaining this “natural” limit to human population? And, perhaps more importantly, should there be?

To unpack and dissect Alexander’s question, we’re going to call upon two unlikely panelists: the economist, Julian Simon, and the Eternal-Deviant snapper, Thanos. [Note: There will be spoilers from the pre-2018 Marvel movies!]

Thanos: An infinity gauntlet is just as good as a flood

Even if you’ve made a conscious effort to entirely ignore the happenings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you probably know who Thanos is. Thanos was a baddie who made it his life mission to be the most insanely overpowered supervillain in the Universe, but not for nothing. Thanos wanted to control the population.

Thanos argued that life was growing at such an exponential speed that it would eventually lead to a miserable dystopia. Thanos’ starting point is that the Universe’s resources are finite, and so if we reproduce unchecked, there won’t be enough to go around. The poor and weak will starve. And the strong and rich will go to war over what’s left. It’ll be a future of mushroom clouds, sunless gloom, and skeletal remnants scavenging to last another day. So, Thanos evaporates half of the entire population. He does so entirely at random, showing no preference for who dies. With a click of his nearly omnipotent fingers, he halves the Universe’s lifeforms.

In some ways, Thanos’ reasoning is similar to that of the famous “Malthusian model,” named after the English economist Thomas Malthus, who argued, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” For Malthus, at least, there was some “force” governing overpopulation, but it wasn’t unknown. It was simply the force of supply vs. demand or provision vs. consumption. Malthus argued that the decline of humanity would be grisly, but gradual. There would be famine, war, and great human misery. But humanity would survive. There would be centuries of death, but we’d come out on the other side. A “force” controls the population.

The difference between Thanos and Malthus is that Thanos decided to cut out the centuries of death and make the hard decision in a single generation. He became the force. Thanos didn’t want to wait.

Simon: Life will find a way

In the days after Marvel revealed Thanos’ logic, fans spotted an infinity-stone-sized problem: Why not just use all that power to double the resources? Why not create potatoes with double the calories or double all of the metal deposits? It’s a good point, and this is where we have to leave Thanos and come crashing back to the real world. We can’t double our resources. We’re stuck with what we have. Or are we?

In 1981, Simon wrote a book called The Ultimate Resource, where he argued we should never underestimate human ingenuity. Time and again, we’ve shown that we can invent and innovate our way out of hardship. Whenever we encounter scarcity, we increase supply, improve efficiency, or develop a substitute. The Haber-Bosch process led to a huge increase in agricultural output; electricity allowed us to mass produce things; and artificial sweeteners are around 500 times as sweet as sugar. No one knows how far AI will change the world. The point Simon was making is that when humans find themselves in a corner, they don’t wilt. They bash through a wall. In 2018, the CATO Institute released a study arguing that despite huge increases in population — a 145% increase between 1960 and 2016 — the real average annual per capita income in the world rose by 183%.

Outliving the dinosaurs

So, what can we say about Alexander’s question? Is there a force controlling overpopulation? At the risk of being tedious and limp (again), the answer is probably “yes and no.” No, there is not a force controlling overpopulation in and of itself. Malthus, at best, got his calculations wrong. At worst, he was completely wrong. Likewise, Thanos was wrong to engineer the world to match his own expectations. Humans often find a way, and to write them off based on existing resources is to underestimate what we can do.

But there is a force governing the population more generally — both overpopulation and underpopulation (and, its been convincingly argued that the latter might even be a bigger problem). There is a force governing life more generally, and that’s evolution. The theory of evolution argues that, over hundreds of thousands of years, a species will adapt and maybe thrive in a certain environment. Those who don’t survive, let alone thrive, will simply die off, and their inadequate genes will die with them. Occasionally, as with the dinosaurs, the environment will change so drastically and suddenly that the species doesn’t have a chance to evolve. Is that going to happen to humanity? Are we dinosaurs staring at the meteorite of overpopulation? If we believe Simon, then no. The biggest difference between dinosaurs and us is our intelligence. Our “ultimate resource” is our ability to mold the environment and invent our way out of a sticky situation.

So, yes, there is a force governing population sizes in inhospitable environments, and it’s known as evolution. But humans have evolved a brain that lets us adapt to or change a huge range of inhospitable environments, so, hopefully, we’ll carry on doing so.

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