Mosquitos kill millions of humans a year. They have killed more humans than all wars combined. No other animal on Earth comes close to their murdering prowess. Which is why serious efforts are underway to drive the worst offenders to extinction.
There are hundreds of species of mosquito, but only a handful that bear most of the diseases and do the majority of the damage. The method for driving these species extinct is more banal than you might expect. It doesn’t involve mosquito zapping lasers (though these do exist and are pretty cool), it doesn’t involve poisoning the environment with toxic chemicals. All it takes is introducing sterile male mosquitos into the wild.
Male mosquitos of the right species are genetically modified to make them unable to reproduce, and these males then occupy the time and attention of females, driving the population numbers in a downward spiral that they never recover from. It’s not science fiction. Plans are underway to do this in California and Florida.
Populations can crash just as easily as they explode. All we’ve known as humans are exploding populations, so we assume this is the natural and inevitable way. But population crash is right around the corner in most parts of the world. Even where population growth is still taking place (Northern India and Sub-Saharan Africa), the trends are already downward. In some places, the absence of growth is already apocalyptic (South Korea with .78 offspring per couple and Japan with 1.36).
Many factors are driving the decline. Education, access to birth control, greater gender equality, urbanization, lower child mortality (more kids surviving to adulthood causes families to have fewer to begin with). But the largest driver may be the simplest, which is the hedonic drop-off couples get from large families.
Having a child is a life-changing thrill (at least, that’s what my mom tells me). Having a second child often involves a serious discussion between parents, weighing the joy of giving your kid a sibling, the chance of having both a boy and a girl, and creating a larger family. A third child might be worth considering if you were really hoping for a boy or girl and have a matching pair thus far. The reasons for having a fourth, fifth, sixth child get more difficult. That’s the hedonic drop-off.
For every couple not having a child, another couple needs to have at least 4 for zero population decline. Think of how many couples you know who aren’t having kids. There are three siblings in my family and none of us have kids yet (we are all pushing 50). That’s three couples who need to have 4 kids to match pace (the actual number is 2.1 per couple, but we can ignore that for now. It just means my points are stronger than they appear).
Children were once a financial boon, providing farm labor. Now they are a financial cost, requiring cars, rent, and college degrees. This factors into having that third or fourth child. For many, it factors into not having the first one. Nature’s solution to these kinds of logic was to make sex so much fun that kids were going to happen whether you wanted them or not. Nature also made sure that once you have them, you’ll love them unconditionally and do anything for their survival. Hence population explosions.
Birth control changed all that. And birth control includes abstinence, which in most cultures means delaying having kids until our 20s, 30s, even 40s. Or not at all. Birth control is for humans what genetic alteration is for mosquitos: you can keep having sex without procreation. Kids become a choice rather than a consequence.
One of the things driving population decline in Japan and South Korea is an end to even the sex. Entire generations are deciding not to date. They socialize online. In chat rooms, video games, message boards, social media apps. The human need for connection and company are being met through other means. These are like the sterile male mosquitos out there taking up time and space that would otherwise be spent making more humans. It might sound abstract to hear it sounded out, but the results are shocking even the most pessimistic demographers.
Population numbers are trending toward apocalypse. We are watching it happen right now. It’s undeniable. Many, many countries are sounding the alarm and putting drastic measures in place to reverse these declines, and so far none show much more than a temporary slowing of the trend. Most don’t work at all (this includes things like never paying income tax after having your third child. Still no big help).
The one constant in all of this is that women, if given the choice, choose to have fewer children. It might seem counter-intuitive, but single women without children have been found to be the happiest of all demographics. Sorry, Mom! Paired with the rise of women choosing not to have kids is a violent and angry subset of men known as incels who can’t find partners. There are estimates that the incel population in the United States alone might be close to 100,000. That’s a bunch of sterile mosquitoes.
The ugly truth that few will mention when discussing declining populations is the role that force plays in procreation. In societies with low gender equality and few rights for women, marriage often amounted to slavery. For most of human history, women have been sold into arranged marriages, and at disgustingly young ages. Sex was little more than rape. Childbearing was not optional. It began early and persisted throughout life, often ending while giving birth to another child. It was barbaric, cruel, and is thankfully in great decline around the world. If it means our extinction, then so be it. It means we evolved with replication methods that are not to be admired. In fact, it may be that sufficiently advanced societies are all inevitably doomed because morality progresses to the point that it overcomes nature’s attempts to self-replicate.
AI, without a doubt, will only add gas to this fire. Napalm, in fact.
Incels will be mollified by AI-enhanced pornography. Women will find life partners who fulfill many of their coupling needs. Everyone will be distracted or occupied to some degree, just as if a billion sterile mosquitoes were let into the wild. You thought tamagotchis and pet rocks were a fad? Wait until we have AI children, pets and lifelike Pokemon. The innate need to nurture will be satisfied by other means.
This won’t mean that nobody has kids. That’s not what’s required at all. Go look at the mosquito experiments and studies. All it takes is a deflection of the reproductive rate. For humans, that rate is already a cliff that we are rapidly approaching. AI will just add to the effect.
Personally, I think this is a good thing! You might read all the above and think I have a negative outlook about the future, but nothing could be further from the truth. I think a reasonable and lovely outcome would be driving human population down under a billion, perhaps as low as half a billion. This population would consolidate into a handful of cities and leave much more of the world to re-wild.
The worst-case scenario still isn’t extinction, but rather a driving down of population until society collapses (which basically means the inability to maintain vital infrastructure like power, clean water, justice systems, law enforcement, etc). From the small tribes that remain, nature will kick back in and drive populations upward toward the billions. We could easily oscillate there until the sun goes nova and all life on Earth is boiled off completely.
What is definitely not going to happen is everything humanity has feared for centuries and science fiction hacks have postulated for my entire lifetime: We are not going to keep procreating and driving population into the tens of billions or trillions. There is zero evidence to suggest this is possible and mountains of evidence to show the opposite. Fearing overpopulation or preparing for it is like fearing a kraken or the flying spaghetti monster.
No, our fate is a lot more boring and simple than that. We are just going to marry later in life, use protection, abstain from sex and relationships a little more than ever before, and get pleasure from one or two kids, or being an aunt or uncle to our friends who have them. And before we know it, there will be a lot fewer of us around for the mosquitos to feed off of.
9 replies to “AI, Sexbots, and Mosquitoes”
I found this strangely heart-warming. Enjoyed the post.
We thought about having another child, but daycare costs the same as another house payment. We can barely afford one of those per month much less two. Now our guy is old enough to only pay aftercare costs (half a house payment), the sibling benefit wouldn’t be all that great. They would be living two different lives, one never tall enough for amusement park rides the other will most likely loose interest when the younger one is sufficient height. The books will be long discarded to one and new and fresh to the other. One will want to hang out with friends and the other mom and dad. The point is all the dungeons and dragons I played as a kid and fond memories of my siblings was only a two year difference. And it was literally daycare that was the factor (and no one can’t stay home and not work, we are the student loan generation, crippled by debt out of the gate). I just find it sad because with women’s rights being attacked in the US and daycare prohibitively expensive, student loan creeping to house payment levels, I don’t think it’s a choice to have kids for most people. While I do think population decline is a good thing, and yay sexbots (my hypothesis is that violence caused by incels goes down as a result). I also feel that reproduction shouldn’t be the choice of the affluent and wealthy. I’m not suggesting social programs to pay for daycare, closing the wealth gap between the rich and everyone else to 1950’s levels when a cashier at a grocery store could buy a house, car, have kids if they want. That way it is a choice.
Excellent points. Higher taxes on the very wealthy will become even more of a moral imperative when they are the only ones having more than two children. For a long time, it was trending the opposite way (the poor had large families and the wealthy had none to three). Now a newish normal is for the wealthy to go through a few marriages and have several kids with each.
Great post! The theory of a declining human population was – until recently – practically unthinkable. It is still a thought that is quite controversial in many circles.
But the evidence is growing that this might be the future for humankind.
Furthermore, it might take a much shorter period to reach the tipping point where the growth of the global population will level out and begin to reverse. I read the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline” (link below) a few years ago, and it’s pretty interesting.
Apart from your points, the authors conclude that access to education, media, and entertainment in poor and conservative countries over time will limit the will to build vast families. This will, in turn, benefit individual families and lessen the pressure exerted on ecosystems and shared resources.
A most compelling and thoughtful essay – perhaps the best I have ever read concering what we have been raised to fear: the “population time bomb”. I think another way nature controls overpopulation is through disease. I think we can expect an ever increasing rate of pandemics in our future.
I hate mosquitos. They leave huge whelps on me. If they became extinct I wouldn’t mind at all. But I’m not sure how the birds would feel.
Great post Mr Howey. Reminded me of the 70s and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, et al. Pretty sure the last 50 years have demonstrated that our futures have a tough time walking in straight lines. But you’ve got me worrying about the horrors a shrinking population is gonna wreak on corporate revenues. Imagine plunging sugary cereal sales and thus the huge crimp in obesity and type 2 diabetes treatments. Oh well, interesting times.
Lots of great points and mostly scientifically backed. I’m curious when you use ‘nature’ as a sentient being with creative purpose (making sex fun, creating love, etc.), is that just a replacement for ‘god’ from someone with either an agnostic or atheistic belief? If not, how do you define nature?
Did you ever think there is a reason why there are billions of other planets? Perhaps humankind will continue to procreate forever and will need other available sources of land to occupy.