All living things produce too many babies, and not all of them can survive; it’s the Law of Universal Superfecundity. Humans are not exempt.
Too Many Babies
Much of the European exploration in the New World can be traced to a single animal: the beaver. Because beavers are prized for their fur and for the high-quality felt made from it, in many parts of North American the animal was hunted to near-extinction. An attempt was made to reintroduce them to the Adirondacks, and between 1901 and 1906, about 20 beavers were released there. By 1915, the population had grown to an estimated 15,000. If we conservatively calculate that all 20 were released in 1901, each of the original beaver pairs produced 1,500 total descendants in 14 years, with an annualized growth rate of 120%. That’s too many babies.
The potential for expansion is large for all living things. For instance, a mature female cat can have three litters a year, with 4-6 kittens each; in 7 years, if unrestrained, a single female cat could produce 370,000 descendants. There are an estimated 75M house cats in the USA, most of which are not spayed or neutered. They produce too many babies. About 1.4M cats are euthanized in shelters so clearly, most of them are killed in other ways.
Malthus & Darwin
Biology wasn’t really a science until Malthus explained superfecundity, and Darwin explained what it meant for organic evolution.
Before Darwin, the ‘hard’ scientists pooh-poohed biology. With good reason: it was a gentleman’s hobby, a clerical pursuit of collecting and categorizing various specimens, most of them dead specimens at that. Although it was clear that some living things more closely resembled other living things — at the roughest level, consider plants and animals, or mammals and insects — there was no science, and there were no testable hypotheses. There were just squabbles about how closely related some two species might be; for the English, who were just dotty about their collections, these disputes eerily reflected their obsessions about how closely they were related to some monarch or notable person.
It was Thomas Malthus, an English cleric, who pointed out the problems of superfecundity: humans, like all animals, will overbreed, and outstrip their food supply. That was the first simple step to Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The next two were: some living things have an advantage in the struggle to survive the shortfall; and, many of those advantages could be passed to offspring.
It’s the problem of too many babies, of superfecundity. All living things will produce more offspring than can survive.
A lot more.
The Law of Universal Superfecundity
It’s not just a problem; it’s a law. Much as universal gravitation — and all universal forces — are central laws in in physics, universal superfecundity is the cornerstone of modern biology. And it’s inescapable: all living things exhibit superfecundity, they all produce too many babies. In so doing, they the majority of their offspring to failure and death.
Even those that survive will have a hard time of it. As I noted in the earlier post about death in the beauty of nature, almost no living things get to die of old age.
So the law of universal superfecundity means that the overwhelming majority of living things are doomed to a premature death. How they die is limited to a few possibilities: starvation; exposure to the elements; or predation. 1)Notice I did not include infectious disease. To the theoretical biologist, the sabre-tooth and the Shigella bacterium, as well as parasites, are still predators. Most of those that die will succumb in childhood, many within minutes of hatching or being born.
It is true of all living things. Until the past century or so, this grinding, suffering and early death were also true of humanity. Most people died prematurely, and children made up the majority of those who succumbed.
It is difficult today, with our extraordinary luxury, to grasp this concept. It is difficult, and unpleasant.
It is, however, absolutely essential that we understand it. If we do not find ways to control population growth, we will run out of food and other resources, and then we will return to the horrors of history. We just don’t realize how close we are to returning to those hard times, nor how easily and quickly we could be in a situation where only some will survive.
‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ picture courtesy of Hasbro.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Notice I did not include infectious disease. To the theoretical biologist, the sabre-tooth and the Shigella bacterium, as well as parasites, are still predators.|