This article was last modified on April 26, 2006.

Underpopulation and Anti-Specialization

I was thinking about this at work … I wrote an essay a while back about the effects of overpopulation. If you’re curious, you can find the article on this website (and let me know how the essay is… hasn’t been updated in over a year). But overpopulation might not be the real problem. Some people who should know what they’re talking about predict that we’ll reach the plateau of population around 2050 or some other foreseeable time. And then, population might start to go down. Why? Because as society progresses, couples more often have 1 or 2 children rather than 3 or 4 or more. You do the math. We are already seeing these trends in some European countries and Japan (what we would call “industrialized countries”).

One observation can be made that overpopulation (or any population increase) leads to occupation specialization. 100 years ago a doctor was a doctor. Now we have foot doctors, brain doctors, etc. And even among them, we have doctors who know more about certain things than others. I am not aware of doctors who do some foot treatments but not others, yet we have reached a point where this would not surprise me. This specialization isn’t just in the field of doctors, the expansion is in every field. With more people, individuals have the ability to focus more on one thing and become an expert in that one thing, saving themselves the time of learning other things because they know other people will be available when that information becomes necessary. You know, like when you ask a friend who is knowledgeable in a certain field for advice – you take their word for it rather than bother to relearn the information yourself.

I will use my own field, philosophy, for an example. Let’s say I continue my education and focus on the philosophy of language. I can specialize in that or even be more specific and focus on purely synthetic and artificial languages (such as computer AI). As a modern philosopher (unlike those 100 years ago) I would not need to know anything of political philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, virtue theory, Platonism, etc etc etc. because other philosophers are available if I have questions. I do not have even the most basic understanding of Wittgenstein, but I may never need to.

But here is the twist: what happens when population decreases? There might be more fields available than people willing to fill them. Because even if people decrease, the amount of information accumulated on earth does not – potential knowledge always increases. So we have fewer people who must be versed in more things. Are they going to do double duty? Does this diminish their expert status (as the saying goes, a man cannot have two masters)? And what will this do to the pace of progress?

When I need eye surgery, I want to go to an eye surgeon. I do not want to go to an eye and throat surgeon. Because it is very likely the strictly eye surgeon knows more about eyes than another man who has to divide his time. Within my lifetime, eye specialists might decrease but not disappear (causing me to drive farther away but otherwise not affecting the quality). But without a stop to population decline, we might all be adversely affected. Will population stay level at some point? And if knowledge increases, is a leveling off of population only the lesser of two evils compared to decrease?

Not that this is important (yet)… just a thought experiment. What do you think about at work?

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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