Excessive Human Population Growth and Human Geneticists


by Wladimir Wertelecki, M. D.
President, Ibero-American Society of Human Genetics (1997 - 1998)

The annual meetings of our Society serve as an opportunity to honor colleagues for their scientific achievements and for their interest in Ibero-America.* Today we honor, Drs. James Neel and Francisco Salzano. In the following pages these distinguished scientists share with us their views regarding the implications associated with excessive growth of some human populations.

A review of the extensive scientific contributions of Drs. Neel and Salzano is beyond the scope of this introduction. It is sufficient to note that both authors are widely regarded as international authorities in human population genetics with an intimate understanding of populations of Ibero-America. Notably, both authors have an extensive personal experience with "unacculturated" Amazon tribal populations which adds to their scientific views a unique humanistic radiance.

The topic of over-population or in popular parlance "population explosion" is controversial in Ibero-America but probably not more so than in the United States. Some consider those advocating "population control" as opponents of "progress", while others see the expanding number of human beings as a significant cause of poverty, poor health and massive irreversible destruction of natural resources. Such concerns have generated vigorous public debates, where proponents of economic, religious and political dogmas play a prominent role. In contrast, the voices of those who are qualified to express "a genetic point of view" are rather muted. Our hope is that the views of Drs. Neel and Salzano, which to some degree illustrate diverse points of view, will induce other colleagues to formulate and share their views with their students, trainees and the public they serve.

In Ibero-America, "to have or to be" is a robust expression of an intense interest in ideas exploring relationships of well being with material welfare, personal freedoms and cultural distinctness. Gabriel Marcel, Balthasar Stalhelin and more recently Eric Fromm, explored this growing conundrum faced by developed and developing societies.(1) Many hold the hope that the "population problem" will be resolved by economic development. This point of view is skillfully illustrated by the analysis presented by Dr. Salzano. On the other hand, doubts are on the ascendance. The recognition that women have reproductive rights and freedoms or that thoughtless human "reproductive imperatives" are often a cost to be paid by future generations, is gaining momentum. Conventional economic arguments are increasingly unable to quell cultural and religious concerns regarding the irreversible depletion of natural resources, growing environmental damage and the "genocide" of countless species. When Erich Fromm explored the "to have or to be" conundrum, he concluded that "The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress" approach will no longer sustain the hopes of mankind as it has since the industrial revolution. Earlier, a pioneer of Human Genetics, Theodosius Dobzhansky, noted that, "Considered biologically, culture is, of course, a part of the environment ... it includes the interrelations which are established between individuals of one species and of other species living in the same habitat ...".(2) Now, it is Dr. Neel who offers compelling arguments regarding the imperative for humans to preserve the genetic integrity of all species. In fact, the companion article by Dr. Neel, is in my view, not only a synthesis but also an introduction to his elegant and tantalizing book "Physician to the Gene Pool".(3) In this classic work, Dr. Neel provides an overview of the genetic implications of "progress", from the era of Hiroshima and "Atoms for Peace" to the era of "designer genes" and "Frankenstein foods", so dubbed by a concerned public. The sense of hope and despair will influence social actions, as will realities imposed by nature.

Some of our colleagues may be awed by controversies and the political overtones often engendered by debates concerned with "population explosion". Perhaps, we should be reminded that Aristotle stressed that man is unique because humans have a political nature. I hope the contributions of Drs. Neel and Salzano, as members of free societies, will induce others to express their views as a positive contribution to the cultures we hold so dear.

August, 1999

  1. Fromm E (1975) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Faucet Books, Greenwich, CT
  2. Dobzhansky T (1958) The Biological Basis of Human Freedom, Columbia University Press, New York, NY
  3. Neel JV (1994) Physician to the Gene Pool, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY

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