Poor, or poor thinking?

Biblical thinking

The Bible talks of poverty like this: "There will always be poor people in the land," and this: "Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:11). I doubt that religious-types interpret this stuff as meaning that poverty is a state of nature that is mandated by God herself. Rather, I suspect they see poverty as a human failing, perhaps a lack of generosity... But let's not all burst into a fit of self-flagellation just yet. Instead, let's put aside devine authority, for a just moment, and try a little empiricism.

The great success story

Today, there are about 3 billion people living on less than $2 a day. So that's 3 billion poor people after about 60 years of Green Revolution. Of course, there were plenty of poor people before the Green Revolution --- just not so many of them as today. After all, the global population was a mere 2 billion back in the "old days" before the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution has been a remarkable success. Now we have about 4 billion people who are better off than dirt poor. Before the Green Revolution, we had an Industrial Revolution and the story was the same --- with smaller numbers.

Too many questions

Was it generosity that took us from half a billion to 4 billion well-off souls? Or was it human ingenuity and organization that did the trick? Who, or what, is responsible for all the poor souls? Before trying to address such weighty questions, it is helpful to take a look outside of ourselves.

A tale of crows and people

We have a few crows around our neighbourhood. I don't understand how those crows scratch out a living, but they do. A pair of American Crows might produce 3-6 offspring each spring for 4-6 years. So why isn't the neighbourhood crowded with crows? Why are there only 31 million crows in America and more than ten times that many humans? Ecologists think about these things and they've come up with a pretty sensible answer. Every crow needs a way to make a living. So, for every crow, we know there is a "living space". Now crows can reproduce quickly, so we can be sure that all their living spaces are pretty much filled. Every year, a few old crows die but a host of baby crows are produced. The number of living spaces for crows does not change much, so most of the young die. Why do the young die? Because it's not easy for a crow to make a living --- only the experienced and lucky survive.

Humans differ from crows in a bunch of minor ways that add up to one fundamentally important way. Crows are smart but humans are smarter. Crows organize and cooperate as family groups but humans have the United Nations. (OK, perhaps the UN is a bad example... but you know what I mean.) These small differences add up to a huge difference in kind. You see, the American Crow has never really done anything much to increase his/her living space. People, on the other hand, vastly increased their living space when some of them made a transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. Then they had an Industrial Revolution and a Green Revolution and the of living space for humans grew and grew.

Billions of dollaraires

OK, so what's that got to do with poor people? A lot. You see, each living space for a crow is pretty much the same --- it has to be because Crow genes are tailored to make a living within a crow living space. Is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to distinguish a rich crow from a poor crow? It was probably the same for people when we were hunters and gatherers. But our ability to live in our new human living spaces is not determined by a genetic adaptation --- we are still the same-old big-brained hunter-gatherers but we are doing different things with that big brain. (Or at least some of us are.) Obviously, human living spaces come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are big living spaces for important people, like media moguls. And there are dollar-a-day living spaces. There can't be too many really big living spaces because they take a lot of resources. But we can have billions of tiny living spaces because each one only requires a small package of resources.

So, why on earth do we have so many poor people? Agriculture, science, technology, good will, and clever organization have carved out hugely more living space since we were hunter gatherers. Should we blame scientists and technologists for making so many of those tiny living spaces? Of course not, they created living space --- they didn't mandate that the space be divided into so many small packages. The reason we have so many tiny living spaces is because, in one crucial regard, people are a bit like crows. Remember how each pair of crows would try to reproduce themselves many times over each year. Well, we say that that was a pretty crude breeding strategy because most of the breeding effort was wasted producing dead baby crows. Humans are far smarter than crows and, unsurprisingly, we have a most effective breeding strategy. (We need to have an excellent breeding strategy because it's incredibly difficult to raise a human child.) The strategy can be stated simply, "Each breeding pair will produce as many children as they think that they can afford". You can cram more offspring into tiny living spaces... so being poor is less of a barrier to producing a large number of offspring than being rich. That is why there are so many tiny living spaces that are filled with poor people.

Charitable organizations have been around for as long as there have been poor. I would not hold my breath waiting for a charitable solution to the poverty trap. What about other solutions, like globalization? A moments reflection is all it takes to see that globalization does no more to address the root problem than charity. The thing that needs to change is the human breeding strategy. There can be plenty of decent-sized living spaces for a population of a couple of billion.

Smart, but not smart enough

The human brain is big enough to do an end-run around the limitations of a genetic adaptation to living space. But the human brain seems not to be big enough to figure out a solution to excessive breeding. Poverty results from the failure, of most people, to comprehend its root cause.

Look, smarter people than me have said it better. Check out "The Fates of Nations, a biological theory of history" written by Paul Colinvaux --- way back in 1980.