Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book review: The Wizard and the Prophet

I just recently finished The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann.  He'd previously written a book about the Columbian exchange I'd really liked, 1493, so I was ready to like this book too.

It concerns the dueling ideals of two men regarding man's relationship with the environment.  The prophet of the title, William Vogt, believed that the world has a finite carrying capacity that humans had to respect and that we had to limit ourselves to what the Earth could sustain.  The wizard, Norman Borlaug, worked tirelessly to increase the yields of the crops that man depends on and allowed large new generations of people to grow up without the famine that had plagued their parents.

Going through the book Mann seems to do an admirable job of looking at the lives of each; their successes and failures and the events that led them to be the people they were.  And the books makes a valiant effort to portray both fairly though, as you might expect, I end up sympathizing with the wizards more than the prophets.

I do worry, though, that it's the third position Mann introduces that is the correct one.  Vogt believes that mankind must constrain its reproduction and stop consuming as much.  Borlaug believes that mankind must learn to better use the environment to support ever more people.  Lynn Margulis believes that it would be unprecedented for mankind to do either of these so we should expect overpopulation and dieoff in the future.

My first reaction was "Wait, is this the same same Lynn Margulis who..." and yes it was.  She had argued that symbiosis rather than competition was the primary force in the evolution of our cells.  It was entirely true that mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independent bacteria who came to live inside eukaryotic cells.  It was untrue that the flagellum or the other orgenelles of the cell had also originated as symbiotes. 

We are lucky that affluence has reduced our desire to have many children.  Yet, there are those who desire many children even in affluence and there's no reason to think that this desire isn't at least partially heritable.  We may stem this, for a time, with violence but the will to violence fades .  We may race ahead of necessity in terms of our civilization's ability to provide sustenance.  Yet, the sun only puts out so much energy.  There are limits to the computation cycles that can be extracted from a unit of energy.  And expanding at the speed of light resources grow as the cube of time but demand grows exponentially and an exponent must always beet a polynomial in the end.

I'm closer to an average than a sum utilitarian so I can swallow this repugnant conclusion, even if I don't want to.

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