Life is Violent

In the 30 years from 1980 to 2010, the population of Africa more than doubled. That is a natural rate of growth for a human population without environmental constraints. Actually, it is a low estimate, because there were famines, horrific wars, and deadly diseases in Africa during those years. Also, many people in Africa had access to modern birth control. Nevertheless, the population doubled in less than 30 years. So, doubling every 30 years is a very conservative estimate of a natural rate of human population growth without war, disease, famine and modern birth control. Many populations have grown faster than that.

Now consider how that rate of growth would increase a population over time.

  • In 30 years, the population would double.
  • In 300 years, the population would double 10 times, so it would multiply by 1024.
  • In 1000 years, the population would double roughly 33 times, so it would multiply by about 8.6 billion.
  • In 10,000 years, the population would double 333 times, which is equivalent to multiplying by 2333.

2333 is a very big number. It is bigger than a googol, which is 10100. The Eddington number, which is the number of protons in the observable universe, is estimated at 1080. A googol is a hundred billion billion times bigger than the Eddington number.

The human species has existed for a lot more than 10,000 years, but the human population today is between 7 and 8 billion. In 1800, it was roughly 1 billion. In 1960, it was only 3 billion. Something prevented the human population from growing very fast for thousands and thousands of years. What was it?

War, disease and famine.

There aren’t any other significant causes of premature death for human beings. Some people died from accidents, but that would have been a minor cause of death except in times of famine and war. People are pushed into dangerous activities when they are hungry or scared. Some women died in childbirth, but not a very high percentage. The ability to bear children is, for obvious reasons, very strongly selected for. Some died from predators, but humans have been apex predators for a long time, much longer than 10,000 years. When humans arrived in the Americas a little more than 10,000 years ago, they quickly wiped out almost all the large animal species, including mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, giant wolves, giant ground sloths, horses, and many others. Humans are very good at killing.

So, for at least the last 10,000 years, the human population has been limited mostly by war, disease and famine.

Death in old age or late middle age does not limit population growth. For most of human history, most people died in childhood or early adulthood. This is an obvious fact about nature, and it is true of every species. More offspring are produced than would be necessary to replace the population, and most die young.

Life is a struggle for limited resources. It doesn’t take long for a population to reach the carrying capacity of the environment. At that point, life becomes a zero-sum game. To add a new player to the game, you have to eliminate someone else.

Many people find it difficult to accept the essentially competitive nature of life, because it conflicts with their moral intuitions. Most people believe that altruism is good, and that most social problems can be solved with kindness. But nature doesn’t work that way, and humans are part of nature.

Life is a struggle, and that is why people have always killed one another, not because they were ignorant, superstitious or morally retarded. It is not religion or ideology that causes violence. It is the nature of life itself. People use religion or ideology to justify violence, and to organize into competing groups, but the ultimate cause of violence is the struggle for existence.

War is not an alternative to peace and prosperity. War is an alternative to famine and disease, and famine almost always leads to war. If you and your children are facing death by starvation, then you will kill other people to get food. So, unless disease kills most children before adulthood, population growth will eventually lead to war. That is why war is a human universal. Our ancestors fought to survive. We inherited the genes and memes of the winners, not the losers.

It is important to understand this, and not believe romantic myths about human history or human nature. Life is violent, and we are violent. Violence is built into life, because life is a competition for limited resources.

Can we transcend the violent nature of life?


Can we bring an end to war, disease and famine?



  1. To what extent do you think wars have been an issue of population control, historically speaking? Reading about certain wars from traditional sources, perhaps most of the time you find them resulting from specific issues. Austria and Prussia both want Silesia - War of the Austrian Succession breaks out. How does the factor of "meat to be grinded" enter the picture? Especially how many wars were waged by soldiers forcibly recruited from peasantry, already working their fields, presumably not starving. It should also be taken into consideration how one of the greatest achievements of 19th century politics is widely regarded to have been the creation of the concert of Europe, with which unnecessary military conflict was minimized to the favour of negotiated settlements. Meaning, the men in high castles themselves preferred avoiding the costly destruction brought by wars whenever possible.

    How do you make sense of all this?

    1. You make sense of it all by having theories at different levels of abstraction that are nested and internally consistent. Just saying "life is violent" doesn't explain all of history. It is consistent with the data of history in general, and it helps to explain a lot of things, but it's a general statement. It's a very important general statement, because it is part of the explanation of a lot of things, and it rules out a lot of things.

      To understand the world you need theories of physics, biology, psychology, culture, and society, and you could break those down further. Higher and lower theories are related by supervenience/emergence. Biology cannot be descriptively reduced to physics, but physical theory constrains biological theory. Ditto for biology and psychology. You create all of these theories in such a way that they fit together into a world-theory.

      As for explaining the history of modern Europe, that's not something I can fit into a comment :) I will say that the concert of Europe didn't last very long.

  2. How do you reconcile Malthus with Boserup?

    1. Did you read "Dysgenics, Overpopulation and Conventional Ignorance"?

      I've never read Malthus or Boserup. I claim that the Earth is finite and thus growth is limited. Are you claiming otherwise?


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