Mythconception: There are more people alive today than have ever lived

21 March 2017

Interview with

Tim Revell, New Scientist

On the subject of reproduction, Tim Revell gets stuck into this week's mythconception...

Tim - Did you know that there are more people alive today than have ever lived before a myth pusher might ask? But there is only one response to this myth and it’s not a delicate one. No, I didn't know that because it’s wrong. You simply could not be further from the truth, and here’s why…

If you go back in history, the population of Earth was pretty tiny compared to today. There are over 7 billion people alive right now, but at the height of the Roman Empire in around 1 AD, there were only 300 million people on Earth in total. So there is, perhaps, some logic to this myth even if it is very wrong.

Counting everyone who has ever lived is really not an easy task. Modern day humans, or homosapiens, first started walking the Earth around 50,000 years ago. But, unfortunately, it took us supposedly wise creatures a long time to develop good book-keeping skills. So, for the majority of the time humans have been on Earth, we have no written records of how they lived or who was living. For cavemen and women, there were more pressing things to do than create and store birth certificates.

But despair not, we do have some approximations of the number of people that have ever lived. In 2015, the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, USA, did a detailed analysis of all the information we have about the number of humans roaming Earth over the last 50,000 years. This included archaeological evidence and modern day birth records, as well as extrapolating from the general trends, and they came up with a conservative estimate.

They reckon that, since the first Homo sapiens, there have been 108 billion humans on the planet. That’s around 15 dead people for every one of the 7 billion living people alive today. In fact, we passed 7 billion dead way back in 8000 BC. OK, OK, but worlds population is growing so maybe one day we will have more people alive than dead… a Myth-sapien might say.

Nope again. The population is rising, but not fast enough, and the rate is actually slowing.

Working out the maths, the United Nations say that it’s unlikely that the world’s population will double it’s current size, and they estimate that the population will stabilise at around 10 billion people sometime after the year 2200. This means that the living do not outnumber the dead and they will never outnumber the dead. So, hopefully, this mythconception will die out soon.

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