Population Control and Culture?

Neelakantan Prakash


Throughout the development of human culture, population control has been a serious issue. Some cultures have ignored the problem, to their demise, while others have embraced the solution to the problem of overpopulation. Population control in most of its forms is also a topic of great moral consequence. I will look at a few different instances of population control over time and examine their success as well as try to look at the future of population control.

The roots of population control can be traced back to the practices of early tribal people. Population control was a highly important aspect of human society in the time of hunter-gatherers; a nomadic population could only support so many members and the group could not afford for those members to be a liability. For this reason, some tribes, such as the tribes which resided in modern day Alaska, often committed infanticide to reduce the numbers of helpless members. In addition, older members of the tribe who could no longer pull their weight would be left behind to fend for their own. These two behaviors were aspects intrinsic to the culture, and while their emotional impact was probably just as great, they were probably considered not only acceptable but normal. This worked quite well for these tribes; their numbers were kept under reasonable limits to prevent excessive stress on their resources.

For a long time, however, overpopulation was not a problem. For a few centuries, populations in most of the cultural centers of the world were limited by two main causes: disease and war. Epidemics such as the Black Plague often wiped out large populations when they were getting too large. However, actually killing people as a means of population control was not totally gone from all cultures.

A specific instance of mass killings often referred to as a method of population control is the human sacrifices of the Aztec culture. It is thought that sacrifices took place on the scale of up to 1,000 people per day during some parts of the year. Whether it was a result or a cause of religion is unknown, but the fact remains that it was such an important part of the culture that in Aztec mythology, the god Quetzalcoatl was driven from the sacred city because he did not agree with the sacrifice of humans. The important fact is that in past times, death rates were higher than what they are now.

The drop of death rates in modern times is not a coincidence. Perhaps one of the most significant factors in the drop of death rates is the introduction of hygiene to culture. Not only has hygiene become common practice, it has become ingrained into our culture. It’s not just dirty to cover your nose when you sneeze; now it is considered rude to sneeze without something over the nose. Whether or not this was intentional, its effects have been dramatic. Death rates drop steeply every time a new hygienic development comes to the fore.

This reposes the old problem of dealing with a large population. This is where the confusion begins. With the advent of technology and developed societies has come a general moral standing regarding life and death. Death is seen as bad and life as good. Most people take it for granted nowadays, but the fact is that in past times, death was not seen as such a terrible thing. Since we so abhor and fear death, we believe that we should do everything we can to prevent someone from dying. Because of our moral standing on death, killing anyone or allowing them to die is seen as a marker of savagery and is seen with disgust in most cultures.

One of the more commonly known instances of modern population control is China’s one-child policy. Due to a population boom from the late 40’s to the early 70’s, China’s government implemented a law that restricted couples to having one child. The implementation of the law required measures such as forced abortions. This infringes on another right that we believe humans should have. Limiting the amount of children a couple can have is seriously limiting of their rights.

What we see is that with the development of culture comes an increased view of human rights. Because of the increase of human rights, we have less and less options for controlling population. The solution to the problem of overpopulation has begun with the use of contraceptives and better abortion techniques in the past few decades. These methods of birth control are effect, but they alone not enough. If we want to deal with the problem of too many people, the change needs to see the integration of such technologies into all cultures.

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last updated 2/5/06