Population Control — Human and Animal

Do populations in nature self-regulate? I believe so, and have adduced evidence from field studies and from computer simulations. Indigenous human societies, too, effectively kept our numbers in check for our first million years during which people were part of nature. Now people have moved on from nature, and we’ve lost the intuitions that helped us to regulate our numbers. Do we need a global government that surveils our bedrooms and mandates selective abortions? No — this is a cure worse than the disease. What we need is a return to the attitudes and sensitivities that enables us to live in harmony with Gaia.


In the 21st century, I have written that ecosystems are self-regulating— not via some invisible hand that creates homeostasis out of selfishness, but by evolved individual behaviors that dampen population explosions and prevent population crashes.

Sixty years ago, a British naturalist with far more cred than I’ll ever have said the same thing, and he was canceled by an academic establishment that brooks no dissent. They theorize that selfish genes are the be-all and end-all of evolution, and they ruled the province of evolutionary science with an iron fist through the second half of the 20th century. From their perspective, fitness consists in leaving more offspring than your neighbors. The idea that natural selection could lead to voluntary limits on reproduction is (for them) a non-starter.

And yet, population control is an essential feature of ecology. The truth is that birth control and “death control” in the form of lifespans limited by aging are crucial to the very survival of ecosystems. (The origin of aging as a mechanism of population stabilization has been the subject of my principal contribution to the literature of evolutionary ecology. My book)

The mechanisms of population control in animal species are widely studied and discussed — though it is taboo to point out that they obviously violate the “selfish gene” paradigm. The most common mechanism is territoriality. A bird family or a pack of wolves will hold its territory and prevent others from encroaching, thus preserving a generous food supply for itself and its kin, while keeping out the competition.

It is easy for Darwinian fundamentalists to understand the motivation of the selfish, hoarding behavior. What they can’t explain is why other birds or wolves go along with it. Why aren’t there more fights to the death, considering that 100% of a challenger’s Darwinian fitness hangs in the balance?

But birds and even tigers seldom fight. There is a legendary study by Stewart and Aldrich [1951], who found that for every mating pair of songbirds in a nest, there are a dozen or more birds cruising the periphery, waiting in the wings, so to speak, for a vacancy so they can build a nest. Somehow, the birds have all agreed to keep the breeding population constant, generation after generation, even as the non-breeding population waxes and wanes and even crashes. It’s a marvelously effective system for ecosystem homeostasis, but the mystery is how and why the birds agree to be bound by the rules. In particular, the majority of birds submit without protest to a convention that has zeroed out their Darwinian fitness.

Lori Stevens [1989] described beetles that cannibalizing their young under conditions of overcrowding.

In a famous experiment with Mouse Utopia, John Calhoun provided everything that his rats (later mice) needed to live — plenty of water and food, exercise wheels and playgrounds, in an environment free of disease and predators. Only living space was limited. Time after time, he watched the population expand exponentially, until these highly social animals became highly anti-social. They fought, bit and scratched, failed to protect their young, and eventually the entire colony collapsed to zero — all while the experimenters continued to provide an abundance of food for everyone.

Animals understand ecology

Back in 1968, just before it became taboo to write such a paper, Stonybrook ecologist Larry Slobodkin wrote “How to be a Predator”. The title was ironic, because his conclusion — backed by both mathematical models and common sense — is that the most important thing for a predator is to keep the population of prey near its maximum. It is tempting for any individual to take more than his share of prey, to use the extra energy to create more offspring, and thus to advance the interest of his “selfish genes”. But what if he succeeds? Then his offspring increase exponentially, and they come to dominate the predator population in just a few short generations. Then they find themselves competing with their own greedy cousins for a dwindling prey population. Mass starvation is unavoidable.

Can we be surprised that evolution learned this lesson early and often? Any population of animals that shares a common food source is forced to cooperate in order to keep their numbers under control. Failure to obey is punished by extinction, and extinction is the ne plus ultra of natural selection. This is a language that even neo-Darwinist dogmatists should understand. But many of them consider every evolved altruistic behavior to be a deep mystery.

Early humans

Curiously, the means by which human groups maintained population homeostasis for our first million years on the planet are less well understood. If you ask an anthropologist how indigenous cultures kept their populations in check, he will probably answer, “war”. No doubt, there is plenty of carnage in human history as we know it, but the history we know is less than 1% of man’s tenure on the planet. We know precious little about earlier human cultures, and in the absence of specific knowledge my guess would be that humans, like animals, had instincts that told them when reproduction would be counterproductive for the community. Various tribal cultures all had unwritten rules about who could reproduce, when, and how much. Human groups are imaginative beyond our imaginings, and it is likely (IMHO) that each tribe had its unique traditions and covenants that contributed to population stability without excessive violence.

I’m personally attracted to the idea that before Columbus, indigenous Americans had learned to be stewards of nature, to manage prolific ecosystems that provided their needs without the monoculture and livestock technologies that predominated in Eurasia. [Charles C. Mann]

Whatever it was that enabled tribal populations to thrive in harmonious relationship to diverse ecosystems, this knowledge has been lost, along with the motivation and the will to maintain harmony with nature as a condition of human existence. Human population is out of control these last several hundred years. Combined with an exploitative mentality and industrial means of destruction, exponential population growth is an existential threat to humanity. But there is no way out of this dilemma that does not violate our deeply held convictions about human rights and autonomy over our own bodies. Or so it seemed…

Eugenics

In Britain and America in the early 20th century, liberal intellectuals all received Darwin’s memo about the necessary pruning of the weak, and they realized that that was no longer morally acceptable to our civilized sensibilities. How then to preserve and even improve the human gene pool? Eugenics was part of the credo of the time: the state must take control, and apply meritocratic principles to determine who is allowed to have children. Then Hitler came along and gave eugenics a bad name.

In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome warned us of an impending “population bomb”, timed to destroy humanity via starvation before the century was out. Population control again became thinkable. Then Mao tried it, with results that were wildly unpopular, even in the context of a docile Chinese culture that was conditioned to obey central authority. China is living today with the legacy of the one child policy. There are not enough women for the men who wish to marry, and it is projected that there will be not enough working people to support the generation coming to retirement age. But the results of the one-child experiment were not all bad. A generation of Chinese had excess income, in part because they did not have large families to support, and this contributed to an unparalleled wave of prosperity that lifted a billion people out of poverty. Freed from having to grow rice for a burgeoning population, peasants migrated to the cities to build an industrial powerhouse.

Some of us trust government more than others, but almost everyone is horrified at the prospect of a technocratic committee deciding who is allowed to have children, and when, and how many.

I like to tell the story of Sir Ronald Fisher (1890-1962). He was a brilliant man who integrated Mendel’s genetics with Darwin’s selection to create a mathematical theory of evolution that stands to this day. And along the way, he contributed most of the statistical methodology that is widely used in biology today, and also in medicine, astronomy, paleontology, etc.

What motivated Fisher more than anything was a passion for eugenics. He was convinced that his own peers of the British aristocracy were not having enough children, while the hoi-polloi were having too many, and that British culture would not survive the dilution of the gene pool. He fathered eight children. Fisher wrote just one book; the first half has served as text for a quantitative theory of evolution, and the second half is an embarrassing, racist screed.

Fisher’s evolutionary theory was the selfish gene. The term was not coined until Richard Dawkins wrote a popular book 40 years later, but the ideas were all Fisher’s. Fisher’s evolution is sometimes called “population genetics” or “neo-Darwinism”. It is a paradigm that turned evolution into a testable, quantitative theory; but it also became a rigid dogma that still holds the field back today. The Chinese translation of my book is called 无私的基因, The Unselfish Gene.

Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968, ecology professor Garrett Hardin captured the spirit of his time in a Science Magazine essay called The Tragedy of the Commons. In a mythic village where everyone’s sheep graze together on an ample acreage of lush grass, each farmer is motivated to increase his own herd size. And when the grass becomes thin and the sheep grow leaner, the motivation to increase each farmer’s individual share only grows stronger. The situation quickly escalates to the point where all the sheep starve.

Therefore (Hardin concluded), all it takes is for everyone to be pursuing his own enlightened self-interest in an enlightened and peaceful manner, and the human experiment will proceed to a suicidal end.

How many people can the Earth support?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, and I’m suspicious of anyone who tries to calculate a number. I have written about the possibility that transformative energy technologies are already known to some subset of the human population. Even without free energy, we might cram our apartment buildings ever higher and denser and grow hydroponic soy protein in our photovoltaic deserts. You might agree with me that this isn’t the world we want to bequeath our grandchildren.

Laws restricting abortion have inflamed some of the most divisive passions in American politics. Can you imagine if the Federal government tried to mandate abortion? You would have the entire Woke establishment and a feminist army lining up alongside the Pope and the Christian Right to say NO!

But we live on a finite planet.

Optimism

With clear, logical reasoning, it’s easy to convince ourselves that overpopulation is a hopeless problem. So, let me offer some fuzzy, illogical reasoning…

Urgency — It’s long past time to prevent damage to global ecosystems — we must begin ASAP to pick up our garbage and allow them to recover. We can do this much more quickly than we can reduce the world’s population. For example, Amory Lovins has showed us how to do this in the energy sector. We need to rein in the excesses of capitalism in externalizing the costs of doing business. The principal obstacle is the extent to which “democratic” governments have been captured by corporate influence. Our failure to prevent toxic waste and wasteful consumption is a failure of democracy, not a problem of overpopulation.

The Malthusian death spiral — 200 years after Malthus, world population has grown eightfold, but we are better able to feed the world than we were in 1800. We have inexcusable starvation in large regions of the world, but this is a tragic result of inequitable distribution and imperial exploitation, not a technical problem of food production. Counting just the grains that are stored in mega-silos and sold on world markets, we produce almost twice as many calories as 8 billion people need.

There is a myth that the “green revolution” has saved humanity from starvation. But mechanized agriculture, chemical pesticides, and factory farms are efficient only when accounted in dollars. Agribusiness has optimized for yield per man-hour, not yield per acre. Small farmers using traditional and sustainable methods could further increase yields. [Vandana Shiva]

The win-win path to population control — In Russia, Japan, and Italy, fertility is below replacement, and that is concerning to people who cherish the rich cultural traditions of these nations. Some of the reason is despair for the future. But the most promising reason for declining fertility is that people feel secure in their future and fulfilled in their lives outside the family.

Fertility explodes in controlled, exploited populations. Fertility declines when people have a social safety net to care for them in their old age. Fertility declines in stable, prosperous economies. Fertility declines when women have fulfilling careers outside the home. Bill Ryerson has devoted his career to slowing population growth by educating and empowering women.

Let’s continue to work toward more livable communities, especially for women, and the “population problem” just might take care of itself.

Subtleties of Vaccine Science

Vaccines are all designed to immunize against a specific disease. But vaccines also have important non-specific effects. Danish epidemiologist Christine Stabell Benn, MD has devoted her career to studying these effects.

Link to TED talk

Last week, Dr Stabell Benn was interviewed for DrJay Bhattacharya’s podcast.

Everything below (except where signed by my initials) is sourced from this interview.

Innate and adaptive immune system

The innate immune system works via inflammation in response to invasion, and also uses natural killer cells and phagocytes that engulf and dissolve invading organisms.

The adaptive immune system works by producing memory B cells that respond to a specific protein from a specific pathogen. These cells stick around for decades and are ready to multiply exponentially when a new exposure is detected. T cells then come along to attack the pathogens previously tagged by B cells.

Invertebrates have only innate immune systems. Vertebrates (fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians) all adaptive immune systems in addition.

Vaccines have been designed and tested based on their effect on the adaptive immune system because the adaptive immune system has antibodies that we can measure.

We used to think that the innate immune system was dumb and primitive, while the adaptive immune system was called “adaptive” precisely because it can learn from early exposures to better combat a later exposure to the same disease.

But we now know that the innate immune system is more important and smarter than the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system is capable of learning from exposure, but the “lessons” it learns are less literal, less specific. The innate immune system can learn from one disease to become smarter about fending off other, very different diseases.

Dead and live vaccines

Vaccines based on live, attenuated (artificially weakened) pathogens tend to make the innate immune system smarter and more capable. Their “side effects” tend to be positive, and people inoculated with live, attenuated pathogens are healthier overall, including lower all-cause mortality.

The opposite is true of vaccines based on dead pathogens or based on a single protein from a pathogen (called the “epitope”). They are designed to produce a response in the adaptive immune system, but they teach the innate immune system the wrong lesson. They teach that this invading protein is not associated with a disease, so don’t waste your efforts attacking it. Hence dead virus vaccines tend to make the innate immune system less vigilant.

Live vaccines have a public health benefit. They protect against transmission of the disease. By and large, dead vaccines increase transmission, even if they reduce the risk that a vaccinated person develops symptomatic disease.

Order of vaccines turns out to be important in ways that no one but Dr Stabell Benn noticed. If your most recent vaccine is a live virus vaccine, you are far less susceptible to disease generally than if your most recent vaccine was a dead or protein-epitope vaccine. This has life-saving implications for the childhood vaccine schedule.

Male and female

Girls have different immune systems from boys because they are prepared, someday, to carry a baby with a different genotype from their own. The immune system has to be able to tolerate the presence of a “foreign body” in the womb, and so girls’ immune systems are optimized more for learning, less for a broad, immediate response.

The differential effects of live and dead vaccines are stronger in girls than in boys. For girls, it matters much more that they should receive only live, attenuated vaccines. For boys, this is also a good idea, but less crucial.

Girls have more auto-immune diseases. Boys have more respiratory infections. These differences begin in childhood and persist throughout our lives. [90% of lupus patients are female. — JJM]

COVID is a special case

The mRNA COVID vaccines have been in a class by themselves, producing roughly 100 times more side effects, including death, than the worst vaccines in the past. The mRNA vaccines are not only far more dangerous but also far less effective than vaccines in the past at preventing the illness they were designed to prevent. The vaccines’ protection against COVID fades after just two months, and by 5 months the effectiveness becomes negative, in the sense that vaccinated people are more likely to get the disease than unvaccinated.

As for preventing transmission, the COVID vaccines were never designed to do this, nor were they tested for their effect on transmission before they were mandated for employment, school, military service, etc based on “public health” considerations. One study by me and one study from Harvard School of Public Health have found that vaccination is associated with a higher rate of spread of COVID. — JJM

The reliance on new vaccine technologies as the sole defense against COVID violated everything that we knew about public health. It was a mistake on every front. Repurposed drugs, proven safe in the past, were suppressed while waiting for a vaccine. Then vaccine testing was insufficient and hasty, and was conducted by companies with a financial interest in the outcome. Scientific debate was censored during a time when we needed it most urgently. Natural immunity was ignored, when we know that natural immunity is always superior to vaccine immunity. In fact, the definition of “herd immunity” was changed to exclude immunity of people who had recovered from the disease itself — despite the fact that this had been the basis of herd immunity for hundreds of years of history. Not only did the mRNA vaccines contain no live viruses, they were based on a technology that had previously been shown to be too dangerous for human use. Risk was not stratified by age or sex, even for pregnant women. Vaccines were promoted and even mandated for billions of people at a time when the limited evidence was that they actually increased risk of mortality from any cause. Public health authorities previously had high esteem and a high level of trust, and they have thrown away public trust by their behavior.

Using data published by Pfizer and Moderna from their own studies of the mRNA vaccines, Dr Stabell Benn concluded early that more people were dying in the vaccinated group compared to the unvaccinated group. Taking all effects of the vaccines into account — not just effect on COVID antibodies — the net result of mRNA vaccination was to increase all-cause mortality. (The effect was not large enough to be statistically significant in the trials, where only a handful of people died, but now that billions of people have received the mRNA shots and we have several years’ data in which to look for all-cause mortality, there is no doubt that mRNA vaccines are increasing all-cause mortality. — JJM)

For the adenovirus vaccines developed by J&J and Astra-Zeneca, she found the opposite. All-cause mortality was lower among the vaccinated.  (These were not traditional live attenuated virus vaccines, but they were genetically engineered live viruses, with an artificially-inserted spike protein from the COVID virus. These adenovirus vaccines have been pulled from circulation and are no longer available.)

In another study of the mRNA vaccines, Dr Stabell Benn followed up vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and found that vaccinated children were three times more likely to get colds and flus compared to unvaccinated. Vaccinated children were also more likely to get RSV — a rare disease which is now the object of a new childhood vaccination campaign.

DTaP

The WHO was notified by Stabell Benn of problems with studies affirming the safety of DTaP vaccines (Diphtheria, Tetanus, acellular Pertussis). Ten years ago, WHO commissioned a study to correct these errors, and ten years later no report has yet been issued. Meanwhile, Dr Stabell Benn estimates that hundreds of thousands of girls have died from side effects of DTaP vaccination in Africa alone. (Where is Black Lives Matter when we need them? — JJM)

Personal cost of doing honest studies of costs and benefits

Dr Stabell Benn has had trouble getting her studies published. Sometimes a journal will refuse to send out her studies for peer review, saying only “this study should never have been undertaken.”

She has been the target of attacks, because her findings threaten a very profitable industry. On the other hand, her findings point the way to better, more effective (also more expensive) vaccine programs. “I’ve been attacked equally from both sides. I’m the only person who has been called ‘anti-vaxxer’ and ‘pharma bitch’.”

I became aware during COVID that analysis of vaccine trials was rigged by counting people who died promptly after vaccination as “unvaccinated deaths”, because they had not had the full 6-week interval which their immune systems needed to build immunity. Dr Stabell Benn reported that this is an old trick and it had been used by pharma companies for decades to cook the books on safety of vaccines long before COVID. — JJM

Polio vaccine

What does she think of polio vaccines? The oral polio vaccine is a live attenuated virus, and it has had broad knock-on effects improving public health generally. However, a small percentage of children get polio and are paralyzed after vaccination. This is a trade-off that should be studied so that public health officials can make general recommendations, and doctors can help parents to decide in specific cases whether the risks outweigh the benefits for an individual child.

Which other vaccines are based on live, attenuated viruses?

In addition to the oral polio vaccine, MMR, chickenpox, flu vaccines derive from live attenuated viruses.

Hepatitis B, shingles, HPV, pneumonia, and DTaP vaccines are based on single epitopes, with no live component. — JJM

Of course, generalizations are no substitute for full, independent trials of safety and efficacy for each separate vaccine. Inert placebos are appropriate for efficacy trials, but no placebo should be used in safety trials. Placebos in safety trials are a scam.

The field is full of surprises, and the current trend toward FDA approval of new mRNA vaccines with no human testing, based only on the record of past mRNA vaccines, is criminal. — JJM

“I’m against mandates in any form. Let the data speak. People are smart enough to take a vaccine that is highly protective, and there will be no need to coerce them.” — CSB