Paul Ehrlich, the infamous overpopulation alarmist who bet economist Julian Simon that a growing population would lead to resource scarcity (and lost), is still fearmongering. Instead of overpopulation, his latest book project decries, bizarrely, what he considers to be the pathetic size of modern jawlines. Along with coauthor Sandra Kahn, an orthodontist, he argues that modern postindustrial lifestyles have led humans to develop smaller jaws with a higher likelihood for crooked teeth due to dental overcrowding.
Archaeologists have discovered fossil evidence of a caveman having eaten an entire rattlesnake, fangs and all. Even in these polarizing times, most people would agree that meals getting easier to swallow since the Stone Age represents a positive change. But not everyone.
Ehrlich may very well be right about changes in the size of human jawlines. But if he is — so what?
Because people no longer spend long periods of time having to chew tough, uncooked food that they personally scavenged and hunted, their jaws have not had to work as hard as their ancestors’ did. The ready availability of cheap, softer foods, the theory goes, has led jawlines to shrink. (It has also brought hunger to an all‐time low).
“We know from fossil evidence that hunter‐gatherers had big, well‐developed jaws,” Ehrlich told Stanford News. “I’ve never seen a hunter‐gatherer skull with crooked teeth,” he recalls a paleontologist colleague telling him. The Stanford University biologist criticizes baby food manufacturers for producing soft mushy foods that prevent infants from choking and suggests that parents instead feed their babies, from the moment they are weaned, tough foods that require intense chewing. This, he theorizes, would encourage stronger jaw development.
Fortunately, crooked teeth can be corrected with braces. Most people would likely agree that having to hunt and gather all of one’s meals and give up the comforts of the modern age in exchange for perfectly straight teeth would be a bad deal. “The stakes aren’t as high as with something like climate disruption, which could lead to billions of premature deaths,” claims Ehrlich to Stanford News. “But Jaws describes an epidemic that is causing a lot of expense — think braces — and misery.”
In his strange quest to bemoan ever more aspects of the modern life, Ehrlich seems to be once again over‐reaching with this one. Braces just aren’t that bad. But at least this project momentarily distracted Ehrlich from his far more harmful alarmism about overpopulation.
Ehrlich’s decades of overpopulation fearmongering have led to far more human misery than braces ever have. In the 1970s, Ehrlich helped bring Malthusian overpopulation hysteria back into vogue. His ideas helped to legitimize human rights abuses around the world, including millions of forced sterilizations in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India, as well as China’s cruel one‐child (now two‐child) policy.
Ehrlich still believes that population growth and the associated rise in consumption must lead to environmental collapse, exhaustion of natural resources, food shortages, and mass starvation. The data suggest otherwise. In fact, population growth actually goes hand in hand with increasing abundance.
The authors of The Simon Project calculate that the planet’s resources became 380% more abundant between 1980, the year of Simon and Ehrlich’s wager, and 2017, even as the world population grew dramatically. Over the past 37 years, every additional human born on the planet, regardless of the size of their jawlines, seems to have made resources proportionately more plentiful for the rest of humanity. The world is now experiencing “superabundance,” meaning that the cost of commodities is decreasing even faster than population is growing.
The data show that the modern age is actually pretty great — and that’s something to chew on.