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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug

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Posted by Derek

Norman Borlaug has died at the age of 95, and he's definitely worth remembering. His tireless work on improving agriculture saved hundreds of millions of people from being born to starvation. And it also kept the world from having to tear up even more natural habitats to plant food crops. Update: as pointed out in the comments, here's an excellent interview with Borlaug from 2000).

People tend to forget (or have never known) about the way the world has managed to escape the Malthusian trap over the last two or three hundred years. (A Farewell to Alms
is a book that makes this case at length, more here). And the way that birth rates drop once countries become more prosperous holds out the hope that we won't fall into an even greater version of the same thing. I think that once the Industrial Revolution happened, world population was going to explode eventually. Norman Borlaug was one of the key people who helped keep things together while that happened.

But what about natural, traditional means of growing crops, in harmony with the land and all that? It's easy to forget the agriculture is unnatural, and is a relatively recent invention. (In fact, perhaps it was that step, rather than the Industrial Revolution, that set the world on a path to an eventual population explosion. It just did so more slowly). Once we started clearing land and saving seed, we left the natural way of things behind. To put that another way, that's when the human race stop playing only the cards it had been dealt. And using the highest-yielding seed and the most well-thought-out ways of growing it will keep us from having to clear more of the land we have left.

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. RB Woodweird on September 14, 2009 7:57 AM writes...

On the other hand, perhaps he is responsible for the earth's ability to sustain more humans than it should, so that when the limit is reached and some sh*t we don't yet know about hits the fan we have not yet built, billions die rather than the millions who would have without his input?

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2. Joshua on September 14, 2009 8:55 AM writes...

RB, by that logic you would commit suicide now so that you wouldn't add to the number who die later or inadvertently help somebody else survive. IOW you are implicitly valuing human life not just at zero, but negative, regretting everyone who is born between now and some imagined future calamity.

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3. wcoenen on September 14, 2009 9:07 AM writes...

the world has managed to escape the Malthusian trap

It has only delayed the Malthusian catastrophe, unless you believe that exponential growth can continue forever in a finite world. I think this graph is absolutely scary:

There may not even be anything we can do about it: even if there was widespread use of birth control to limit population growth, then cultures that are against birth control would soon outnumber the rest. There is no way that this can end well.

Like the curse says, "may you live in interesting times".

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4. Katherine on September 14, 2009 9:17 AM writes...

Goodness. More than it "should." How godlike of you, to know the earth's intended capacity.

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5. Jonadab the Unsightly One on September 14, 2009 9:32 AM writes...

The earth is nowhere near capacity. The only places that have a problem (with overpopulation) are big cities (which constitute a *very* small percentage of the total land available) and parts of the "developing" world. In the former case the problem is that people deliberately choose (for complex socioeconomic reasons) to go to the most overpopulated place rather than spread out a little, and in the latter case the problems are again socioeconomic and cultural. The earth is easily capable of supporting a hundred billion people, if the available resources are used efficiently and effectively, which is exactly what Borlaug was trying to help people do. Granted, additional work will be needed.

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6. MarkySparky on September 14, 2009 9:39 AM writes...


I suggest that you take a trip to India, Pakistan, Mexico, or Africa and share your deep insights with the rural people who practically worship Dr. Borlaug. I'm sure that they will be thrilled to hear that they are just unnecessary carcasses in your eco-zealot death fantasy.

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7. Sili on September 14, 2009 12:25 PM writes...

A great man indeed. I'm embarrassed to admit that I only know him because of The West Wing.

I too think that we're headed for disaster in one form or another. Like vaccinations and antibiotics we have the cure before we have mastered the decease. But as long as people are born it's our duty to ensure they have the best lives possible. Let's just get to work an having a lot less people born. (Yes, I'm in favour of forced - randomised - sterilisations.)

Agriculture will save us yet, yes, but as is pointed out (listen for instance to the recent Are We Alone podcast) we only have about to breeding cycles left before the globe has heated so much that current breeds of wheat cannot grow any longer. It's high time we get to work selecting the best of the 400k varieties out there.

Of course we've lost some thirty years through denial. Now we're not only late in finding heat resistent cereals and other crops, but we're very likely too late to reverse or even alleviate the damage.

We'll be alright for now, but a lot of people are gonna suffer. I'm not very empathic, but I think I'm glad I won't have descendants.

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8. Dr. David Hill on September 14, 2009 2:39 PM writes...

Norman Borlaug was debatably the greatest change-master in the 'green' revolution, but where Norman would have been the first to have said that this is only just one of the pieces in the jigsaw of human survival. For the realisation of a world without starvation, great wars et al, we have to look elsewhere and fast, as time is simply running out.

In this respect the pace of economic recovery throughout the world should not be the prime consideration of industrialists (World Economic Forum, Dalian, China – 12th September 2009) or governments, but what the future holds for all who live and breathe on this planet. For the way that our politicians are working and addressing mounting global problems is like Nero fiddling whilst Rome burns. They are oblivious to the strains on humankind’s constant growth and are impotent in preventing global Agamemnon coming in this present century with their present thinking and mindsets. Whilst they try and fix the financial system through the people’s wealth, they impoverish tens of millions yearly. The system is a destructive force and where they are the conductors, forever adding fuel to the burning mass that goes on underneath. Over the next 20 years the world will increasingly witness a far more destabilised world, where emerging wars become a common event. By then there will be over 8 billion humans living on planet Earth (and that will be 2 billion less than peak population by 2075 at 10 billion humans according to the latest UN predictions), a significant number unable to sustain themselves. Indeed, the vast dwindling resources problem will create the base and start-line for global conflict, the size and ferocity never seen before. Therefore as Rome did indeed burn, so will humankind eventually with the present political mindsets. This is not pie-in-the-sky scare mongering, but sheer fact and is conditioned by common sense and what will eventually come to pass. That is why armaments throughout the world are increasing every year and where by 2030 through this vast expenditure by governments worldwide, could very well become the largest industry in the world turning over in excess of $5 trillion annually. Indeed in the case of the USA alone, the Friends Committee on National Legislation calculates for Fiscal Year 2009 that the majority of US tax payer’s money goes towards war – some 44.4% of all taxes. Therefore whilst our politicians continue to place their faith in that the strongest will prevail, they lose sight of any possibility of a peaceful future world. Indeed again, they fuel the whole process of human destruction and where their combined interests of relying upon weapons of mass destruction to protect themselves and the preservation of the capitalist system that supports such an unholy mechanism, is absolutely flawed. In time and when things are too late, politicians (and industrialists) will realise the folly of their mismanagement of the world order, for by then all that they once held so dear will have disappeared completely – and the rest of humankind with it.

For having the insight gained from the thinking of many of the world’s foremost scientists and engineers, technology will not come to the rescue this time, as there are not any significant breakthroughs on the horizon in science today. Indeed, if a scientific miracle were discovered tomorrow to solve just one of humankind's huge problems, it would take around 4 decades for this to have any significant global effect, as all other revolutionary technologies have shown us in the past – R&D development, technological prototypes, final technology product, mass manufacture, global distribution logistics etc, etc. Therefore any solution would come too late according to the dictates of common sense and where the resources necessary to support 8-10 billion humans, would not be there.

And where all the above future problems are determined by a vastly overpopulated world, unimaginable depletion of natural resources over the next 25-years that will not be able to support all human life (it only takes 15% of the global population to be affected to cause an irreversible situation), lack of energy and food, the destruction of arable land by continual erosion (both the hot climate effect and rise in sea levels) and the decimation of the oceans through industrial pollution and energy resources extraction on a momentous scale.

Dr. David Hill, DSc(Hon)
World Innovation Foundation Charity
Bern, Switzerland

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9. milkshake on September 14, 2009 3:29 PM writes...

awesome interview with Borlaug here:

He compares Greenpeace activists to Lysenko

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10. Harry on September 14, 2009 3:53 PM writes...

#8 looks like a direct cut and paste from "The Population Bomb" circa 1970. IIRC we should have had massive famine, foot riots, and societal collapse by now.

(That is, if the impending Ice Age hadn't frozen us all in the dark by now.) I expect this current round of prediction to fare about as well.

Prophets would do well to recall the consultant's rule: "Give 'em a number or give 'em a date, but never, ever give 'em both!"

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11. Dr David Hill on September 14, 2009 4:15 PM writes...


Unfortunately not this time as if you can use your head, global resources are running out and this did not happen before at the rate that they are. Indeed, eminent scientists have stated that several Elements will be totally deleted in a matter of two decades from now, something again that has never happened before. Also the National Intelligence Council, Washington (the world's foremost institution on global security - read well, 'The National Intelligence Council's 2025 Project: Global Trends 2025') stated for the first time ever in late 2008 that nuclear weapons would most probably be used to defend borders and to protect natural resources in this century. Get real and open your eyes and see that things are very different now than they have ever been before. Or are you going to eat grass (that stuff that grows in the ground eventually)?

I am sorry for those who are basically head in the ground people, for things for them will come as a very big shock indeed !

Dr David Hill

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12. molecular architect on September 14, 2009 4:21 PM writes...

Oh Boy Derek,

You really attracted a self-credentialed "expert" with this posting. "Dr." David Hill's degree is an honorary one from a truly prestigious institute. Read the Nature article about the World Innovation Foundation Charity.

Here is just a short exerpt: "The WIF, which has no full-time staff or offices, was founded by David Hill, who runs a construction consultancy in Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire, UK. He first registered the WIF as a series of private UK companies in the 1990s, and then in 2005, as a foundation in Bern, Switzerland. Hill, who holds an honorary doctorate from the National Academy of Kyrgyzstan, continues to operate the WIF from Huddersfield alongside his private business and says he spends half his time on the foundation free of charge."

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13. MTK on September 14, 2009 6:30 PM writes...

I love it! Someone who calls himself "Dr." based on an honorary degree. I'm actually laughing.

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14. Anonymous on September 14, 2009 7:03 PM writes...

We took a couple minutes to talk about his accomplishments in class today due to his connections with the U of MN. Apparently they named a building after him at the St. Paul campus.

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15. Harry on September 14, 2009 9:35 PM writes...

No 11.

I see- this time it's gonna be DIFFERENT!!!!

LOL- we shall see what we shall see.

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16. schinderhannes on September 15, 2009 5:05 AM writes...

talkin bout changes in agriculture to save mankind, there´s another on: this year is the 100th anniversary of the haber bosch ammonia process.....

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17. Dr Dre on September 15, 2009 6:44 AM writes...

Honorary doctorate from the National Academy of Kyrgyzstan. Come on #12 don't get jealous - doesn't get much better than that!

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18. Rappo on September 15, 2009 7:34 PM writes...

And yet there are those who cry that genetically engineered crops are evil, of course these are usually greeny zealots who add nothing but noise.
As for "Dr David Hill"... Mankind is tenacious and evolving, as some things become unavailable, we will find substitutes... though "Indeed, eminent scientists have stated that several Elements will be totally deleted in a matter of two decades from now"... Okay, first I guess you mean "depleted", not "deleted", second IANAS (I am not a scientist) but are we realy destroying base elements now??? I mean short of nuclear reactions, I though we built compounds, the elements still exist in a compound...
Correct me if I'm wrong.

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19. Vader on September 16, 2009 9:41 AM writes...

#7: "Yes, I'm in favour of forced - randomised - sterilisations."

Your intentions may be good, but I think your theology is unsound. You appear to believe there is a fourth Person in the Godhead.

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20. metaphysician on September 16, 2009 10:08 AM writes...

Honestly, I fail to see how random sterilization would do any good, unless you were willing to apply it involuntarily to third world nations. The first world nations aren't breeding enough to be at issue, so random sterilization in the US or Europe would do nothing at all.

And if your going to be ruthless enough to use that as your solution, why *not* go whole hog and embrace eugenics?

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21. Sili on September 16, 2009 11:03 AM writes...

Because eugenics is crap. It's bad science as has been aptly demonstrated. I fact I believe it was obvious from the population statistics and the Modern Synthesis, but of course the eugenics programme had nothing to do with science in the first place.

Secondly, sterilising a suitable percentage of the population at random makes the deal 'fair' in some sense of the word. Of course there's no way in hell that it can ever be implemented. Not least since surgery does carry risk of complications. The disproportionate discomfort and danger for women/girls removes the fairness element.

But yes, if there was a way to do it, I'd be in favour of forcing people to stop breeding. My annoyance with the Vatican is not just due to the Aids epidemic, but also the forced overpopulation. Giving people free access to contraception and abortion would be a good start. (Unfortunately, there's no way to deal with the Quiverful madmen.)

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22. metaphysician on September 16, 2009 4:06 PM writes...

Eugenics as practiced by the movement of the same name may be crap, but the underlying principle of "controlled breeding for improving the species" is valid, as proven by its efficacy in, say, every single domesticated animal and plant species. There's no particular reason why such techniques couldn't be applied to humans. . . aside from the fact that it would be monstrous.

If you are going to be engaging in random sterilizations of people, though, which is already inflicting permanent maiming for no individually justifiable reason, then you've already shown that ethics aren't an obstacle. So, if you're going to treat humanity as one giant animal populace, why *not* go whole hog? Why *not* sterilize only third world citizens, since they are statistically the source of most population growth? Why *not* give first 'preference' to those people with heritable genetic diseases?

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23. Sili on September 16, 2009 5:18 PM writes...

The two situations are obviously not equivalent to me.

But I'll readily admit to not having a fully formed ethical system. And - *gasp* - I may well be wrong. Which is why it's a good thing that these things are usually decided by commitee.

If we start talking heritable diseases it starts to make superficial sense, unlike the implementations of the twentieth century. Trouble is, it fast becomes a slippery slope - what's to be considered serious enough to sterilise for? (And how do you operate on haemophiliacs?) Randomisation has the benefit of being a knob to turn like any other.

But as I say, wholly unworkable. I'll be happy if we can provide cheap or free contraception and abortion to anyone who wants it worldwide for a start. Several hindering factors on that simple, humane solution, unfortunately - well, one factor really, but in at least three manifestations just off the top of my raging head.

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24. Eric Johnson on September 16, 2009 6:22 PM writes...

> Because eugenics is crap. It's bad science as has been aptly demonstrated.

False. William D Hamilton, one of the greatest five or ten 20th century evolutionary biologists, favorably reviewed Richard Lynn's "Dysgenics." The full text is free:

One has to be brave, thick-skinned, and very
persistent to swim against such popular antirealistic currents. Richard Lynn, discussing the large bank of evidence that still steadily accumulates on heritability of aptitudes and differentials of fertility, shows in this book that almost all of the worries of the early eugenicists were wellfounded in spite of the relative paucity of their evidence at the time. Correct both in their intuitions and in their assessment of the tentative data available, for most of the past hundred years Lynn shows that they have been unfairly derided.

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25. metaphysician on September 16, 2009 6:58 PM writes...

I suspect a lot of the derision is based on the idea that their theories resulted in evil, ergo they must have been crappy theories. That way, you can avoid having to make a genuine moral judgment, because you can instead make a scientific judgment.

Sadly, the scientific accuracy and the moral worth of a practice have no correlation. Which is a scary prospect for the casual utilitarian.

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26. Eric Johnson on September 16, 2009 8:27 PM writes...

Instead of sterilization, why not pay the well-endowed to breed more, and pay the less-endowed to breed less (but not necessarily abstain from breeding altogether).

Consider this. The human genome mutates at a certain rate per generation (probably one to three mutations in the exome). Most mutations are of course deleterious. Before the industrial revolution, probably about 50% of people died without breeding, among both agricultural and hunter-gatherer peoples.

If a greater burden of deleterious mutations was at all correlated with the chances of becoming one of those 50% who died without breeding - a very modest assumption to make - then said deaths constituted one of the outflows of deleterious mutations. This outflow is now probably reduced due to a reduction in the variance of reproductive success. Yet the inflow of mutations is still the same. What will the result of that be? This is one of the things that worried WD Hamilton.

It's difficult to actually model this. For one thing, many human fetuses spontaneously abort, and this too is correlated with the load of deleterious mutations, one would think. This reduces the magnitude of the probable effect I discussed above, but doesn't abolish it.

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27. Eric Johnson on September 16, 2009 8:31 PM writes...

Note that the above bad news about mutation may hold, or would hold (if it is true), even if the less-endowed *do not* outbreed the well-endowed.

If they *do*, it's worse.

Genotyping embryos made in vitro, and picking the ones that look best-endowed, is another possible way of coping with this, in the near future.

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28. DH on September 18, 2009 5:01 PM writes...

Would-be totalitarian sterilizer Sili writes: "But I'll readily admit to not having a fully formed ethical system."

Now *that* is the understatement of the day.

As for me, I do have a fully-formed ethical system, and I think we could use more Borlaugs and fewer Silis.

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29. Sili on September 21, 2009 4:20 PM writes...

I think we could use more Borlaugs and fewer Silis.
You'll find no argument with me on that count. Permalink to Comment

30. Luke Weston on September 30, 2009 1:31 PM writes...

It's pretty easy to slow down the rate of reproduction in the developing world.

In the developed world, the rate of reproduction isn't a problem. To address the problem in the developing world, you let them develop. As they develop, the birth rate issue resolves.

With agriculture technology giving better yields, better access to energy, and better standards of living in general, the population issue can be solved.

Access to contraceptives, family planning and education, and addressing the influence of Catholic fundamentalism in this regard, can be important, too.

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