The curse of a blessing

August 1st, 2011 — Wordman

According to Genesis 1:28, after God created humans, he did some version of the following:

  • And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (King James)
  • Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” (New Living Translation)
  • God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (New International Version)
  • benedixitque illis Deus et ait crescite et multiplicamini et replete terram et subicite eam et dominamini piscibus maris et volatilibus caeli et universis animantibus quae moventur super terram (Latin Vulgate)
  • כח  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. (JPS 1917 Edition)

Ignore, for the moment, that God is bestowing a blessing here, not issuing a command (that is, God is imbuing man with fertility). Also, ignore the multitude of translation problems something like this has.

Instead, assume for a second that this verse means what many in the modern world think it does: God commanding to humans to breed. You can even bring all the baggage you want with that, like the implication that, therefore, birth control is a sin, and so on. Pretend that the first instruction God issued man was to conquer the earth by having lots of babies. Hey, guess what?

Mission Accomplished

We did it! Humans have “filled the earth”!

Can we slow down now?

I don’t know much Hebrew or Latin, so I can’t be sure of the translation, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say “be fruitful and multiply, then keep multiplying to the point that you start killing yourself with your own waste”. It seems like self-extermination through overpopulation would seriously hamper the mission to “reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

Even if you think we are not choking on our own waste already, how long do you think it will be until we do? How will you know? Think about it this way:

Say you have a jar. In this jar, you will be breeding some sort of organism (yeast or bacteria or something). Let’s say these organisms breed really quickly, with the population doubling every minute. You start breeding at 11am. By noon, the jar is full. Given that the population doubles each minute, what time is it when the jar is half-full?

People who don’t understand the problem (or exponential growth) will naïvely say 11:30. This is wrong, of course. What is not as obvious is that the mathematically correct answer (11:59, one minute before noon) is also wrong. It’s wrong because the population would never actually fill the jar at all. In the real world, the waste products produced by the existing organisms would kill the whole population long before the jar got anywhere near to full.

Now, imagine you are one of the organisms in this jar. What time would it be when you started saying to yourself “man, it is getting really crowded and smelly in here?” And once you notice, is there anything you can do about it? Or is it already too late?

One last thought: suppose waste doesn’t interfere and the jar really does fill up. Then, right at noon, the population finds three more jars, identical to the one they are already in. Hurray! The population is saved! They can expand into the new jars! Well, at least for two more minutes, until 12:02, when these jars fill up as well.