Readers sound off

Readers consider faculty members’ predictions for 2040, continue a discussion of population control, comment on the Magazine’s new publication schedule, and more. 

Malthus, Franklin, Trollope

Peter O. Clauss, AB’55, concluded his letter on population control (Letters, Fall/15) by saying he would be interested in other thoughts on the matter. Something historians and economics professors may know but that I did not until recently: the Reverend Thomas Malthus based the dire predictions in his “An Essay on the Principle of Population” on data from the colonies, of questionable reliability, provided by our own Benjamin Franklin, who had in fact preceded him in publishing a population theory. [In his 1751 essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc.”—Ed.]

On the general subject of population control, I wonder how many have read Anthony Trollope’s 1882 novel The Fixed Period, a dystopian tale of a small island colony that addresses Malthusian concerns by decreeing that all inhabitants be humanely euthanized at age 67. As expected, it all turns out badly when the mother country objects. The book, not surprisingly, was the only one of Trollope’s 47 novels that did not recover the publisher’s costs.

Thomas W. Evans, AM’53, MBA’70
Mundelein, Illinois

History of the future

In “Past and Present” (UChicago Journal, Fall/15), John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College, correctly highlights the importance of turning to original historical materials to answer questions about the future of the College.

In “Future Tense” (Fall/15) Boyer defends the Common Core general education program as promoting “interdisciplinary thought, rigorous meritocracy, and intellectual analysis.” However, as other campus experts speculate about their professions in the year 2040, the discussions about medicine and law don’t carry over the themes that make the University unique as educational tools to these professions.

Eugene B. Chang, MD’76, talks enthusiastically of the microbiome as a wave of the future. However, medicine is frequently swayed by the latest ideas, as shown in its adoption in the 1940s of streptomycin, which would lead to other antibiotics, and later in the 1950s of vaccines that would conquer disease. The antibiotics led to resistant bacteria and illnesses, making the hospital a dangerous place. However the trust funds allocated to help victims of the side effects of vaccines have been sparingly given, and malaria and HIV still await vaccines. One wonders if the pharmaceutical companies will genetically engineer the microbiome bacteria in order to patent and sell the drugs of the future and lead us to greater problems in a generation. Medicine does not utilize its historic past to limit its search for solutions and to appropriate research money. Inability to see the future through the lens of history leads us to potentially dangerous situations, a constantly repeated theme in medicine. Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, writing on law looks for American democracy, not the republic, to be saved by overturning Citizens United, in his mind one in a long line of wrongly decided cases.

The legal curriculum, while stressing the Bill of Rights, does not teach the body of the Constitution nor its historic documents. The optic to examine Citizens United begins perhaps with Magna Carta and its major interpreter, Sir Edward Coke. This is highlighted in the article on David M. Rubenstein’s (JD’73) philanthropic purchase of a historic Magna Carta for the National Archives in Washington, DC, in 2007 (“Chartered Philanthrophy,” Fall/15). But the law of Magna Carta itself traces back to 1100 when the Charter of Liberties of Henry I was promulgated and 1134–35 when the Charter of London was given by Henry I. Henry I stressed that the act of his father, William the Conqueror, in continuing the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tribal laws of Edward the Confessor, his predecessor, had allowed William I and later Henry I to rule England successfully. Law, like medicine, has narrow answers for the future without a study of history and original documents. They need practitioners with a core general education background to avoid future solutions that may have led to problems in the history of their professions.

The responses of Mark R. Nemec on higher education and Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer on knowledge represent the successful use of the past in reaching out to present and future advances in their fields.

Leonard R. Friedman, AB’56
Middleton, Massachusetts

An invitation

This year the PhD Program in Human Development turns 75. We invite the program’s alumni and friends to join us to celebrate our 75th anniversary this May on the UChicago Campus.

Save the date for an evening event to kick off the celebration on Friday, May 13, and academic and social programming all day on Saturday, May 14. This will include tours of campus (including our new Rosenwald Hall location), meetings with current students and faculty, and opportunities to catch up with old friends. This is a highly significant birthday for our internationally renowned interdisciplinary PhD program in human development. The program was originally founded in 1930 as the Committee on Child Development but did not offer a PhD degree. In 1940 it became a PhD program and was then renamed (and is known to many of you) as the Committee on Human Development. Since 2006 we have been the Department of Comparative Human Development. It’s a great time to party!

We are aware that our alumni lists may not be complete and that email addresses go out of date. So if you have not already received an official invitation and might be interested in attending the celebration, please contact Spencer Bonadeo at sbonadeo@uchicago.edu, and he will send you all the details.

We hope to see you there!

Rick Shweder
Chair, 75th Celebration Organizing Committee; Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Comparative Human Development

Function over form

Out of sight, out of mind. That’s my take on the prospective effect of the Magazine’s new quarterly frequency (“Back to the Future,” Editorʼs Notes, Fall/15). I think alums’ days on campus will be even more of a distant memory, to be recalled only when seasons change. Will there as a result be a lesser feeling of solidarity with the University and a drop in alumni financial support? Every marketer knows the value of frequency.

I remember when, years ago, the Magazine was humbler in format: no slick paper, no four-color printing, and no perfect binding. But it got the job done. If costs need to be cut, I’d prefer receiving a less glitzy publication more often.

John L. Gann Jr., AB’64
Madison, Wisconsin

Last words on population

Continuing correspondence (Letters, July–Aug/15 and Fall/15) on population appears to have touched a nerve among readers of the Magazine. Little wonder, given the intelligence and awareness of this readership, and the fact that at some imminent point in time, the earth will no longer support human existence—the direct result of overpopulation. To some, such a statement may sound like paranoid hyperbole, but to those who have paid close attention, this conclusion is effectively inescapable.

This alarm was first sounded nearly 50 years ago from the dais of academia with the 1968 publication of The Population Bomb by professor Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford University and Anne Ehrlich.

Accordingly, perhaps the Magazine could elicit the best minds of the University’s faculty who may have developed theses in their fields about the effects of human overpopulation on the sustainability of earth’s environment and the survival of humankind, and devote an article or even an issue to this subject.

Specifically, it would be informative if not enlightening to ascertain what the current effects of continuing human overpopulation are on the global demand for ocean and river fish; virgin timber; meat, oil, and gas; mineral ores; farmland; and so on.

It would be equally interesting to calculate the global effects of these demands on air quality, water quality and quantity, solid wastes, toxic and nuclear wastes, etc., and how these create conditions such as global warming and climate change.

But there are (arguably) two sides to every story. There are institutional forces today that promote the growth of human population. Their views should also be represented in such a debate. Among these are various faiths, churches, and denominations whose soteriologies demand numerous children of faithful parents. Also among these forces are the global manufacturing and retail enterprises, who need customers to support continued corporate growth and increased earnings.

As a race of humans, we are locked in a struggle between the forces who fear for the destruction of life on earth as we know it, and those who claim such fears are disingenuous or unfounded. Is there a more compelling subject to explore, anywhere, than this?

William W. Quinn, AM’78, PhD’81
Pacific Grove, California

I am dismayed by the lack of knowledge of basic facts in the two letters from H. Stuart Cunningham, AB’64, MBA’68, and Peter O. Clauss, AB’55 (Fall/15), in response to Jane R. Shoup, PhD’65, and Stefan P. Shoup, AM’64 (July–Aug/15).

I have lived and worked in Silicon Valley since 1968 and every day encounter the reality behind commercialization of technologies, so I do not share the hyperoptimistic view of the future that Cunningham projects, e.g., technology solves our problems and there are no negative effects from high population densities.

With respect to Cunningham’s letter, the current and future planetary population is based on some 600 ammonia synthesis plants using the Haber process. Without fertilizer providing nitrates for plant growth and protein synthesis, at least five billion people would not be here today, and these are vital “choke points” for future population increases. As we know, phosphorus is vital for all life on earth and drives the Krebs cycle, which provides our energy.

In our world the overuse of both nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers globally is resulting in the destruction of soils, oceans, and natural habitats. As a good reference I suggest Justus von Liebig’s “law of the minimum”: populations expand to the limits of the least available resource.

Population density is also responsible for various common ills that will over time bankrupt medical systems. We evolved in the natural world; people who live in forests and away from human noise and pollutants—as I do—live much healthier and longer lives than city dwellers.

Anyone who thinks that the United States has not enough people should look at the number who only survive on food stamps and food banks. In our hyper booming San Mateo County economy, 20 to 25 percent rely on these. We need to invest in health, education, and welfare so the some 60 percent of our current population that has no economic raison d’être can add value to the economy. Most routine jobs will be taken over by computerization, robots, and big data, including most white-collar jobs.

There is a range of obvious fixes to the global overpopulation problem, none I can think of commensurate with our relatively free, relatively open, still kind of democratic society.

But without major government investments, more and more of the US population will be poor. I cite the shift from 1970 to 2010 of 15 percent of the gross national product from the middle class to the top 1 percent, with another 15 percent in process by 2050. So in 80 years the middle class will go from controlling 70 percent of the GNP under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy to 40 percent—divided among a much larger population if Cunningham’s and Clauss’s thinking holds sway.

I work with many Chinese people, here and in China, and I assure you the one-child policy worked too well. The supply of low cost labor is now less than the demand. Here is a good summary for folks who like words rather than high-density data: http://bit.ly/ShrinkingChina. So China may become old before Chinese people become rich.

The US society is rich already; our demographic problem is too few own too much due to lower taxes on the rich and resultant lack of money for infrastructure, health, education, and welfare.

Bo Varga, AB’64, AM’67
La Honda, California


The credit for a photograph on page 69 of Peer Review, Fall/15, failed to credit the photographer. He is Adam Spiegel, AB’83. We regret the error.

The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space, clarity, and civility. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage letter writers to limit themselves to 300 words or fewer. Write: Editor, The University of Chicago Magazine, 5235 South Harper Court, Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60615. Or email: uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu.