Saturday, October 29, 2011

85 Billion Stories

Barring a global catastrophe, the world's human population will soon hit seven billion. According to this BBC application, when I was born the population was about half what it is now. That's a staggering amount of growth for my short 42-year lifespan, but what really puts the scale of human existence in perspective for me is the news that I'm merely the 78 billionth (rounding up) person to have lived since history began*.

For fun, I tried pretending that I'd been born in the year zero just to see what numbers that would produce, but unfortunately the earliest birth year you can choose is 1910, which would make you about the 1.7 billionth person alive on Earth at the time and the 72nd billionth to have ever lived. Children being born in the next few days will live at the tail end of over 83 billion souls.

Now think of how many people are remembered these days, out of 83 billion - all the generals, poets, painters, scientists, politicians, inventors, murderers, saints, athletes, singers, writers, philosophers, kings and queens. How many historical figures are remembered today, collectively? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Even if we remember a million of our ancestors, that represents a tiny, tiny fraction of everyone who's ever existed. Not long from now, there will have been 85 billion of us. 85 billion human stories! Imagine if we could somehow reach back in time and rediscover just a few of the billions of stories that have been lost in the mists of deep time. How much wisdom have we lost? How much art? How many scientific breakthroughs?

Some might pessimistically argue that the vast majority of these 85 billion stories were (or will be, for those extant today) short, brutal and unremarkable. But even if that were true (and I would argue that every person's story has inherent interest), even if 84 out of 85 billion stories weren't worth knowing - that still leaves nearly a billion new tales to add to the human canon! How I would love to read an eyewitness account of the construction of the Colossus, for example, or the story of a common labourer in ancient Mesopotamia, or an account of the humans who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia to North America.

Unless we invent some kind of time travel technology, most of those stories will remain lost. How bottomless is the pool of our collective ignorance!

*The BBC explains its methodology thusly:
Both numbers have been calculated using UN Population Division figures. The first is an estimate of how many people were alive on your date of birth. It is one possible value based on global population figures and estimates of growth rates over time. Data before 1950 is less accurate than figures after that date. The second number includes calculations based on the methodology of scholar Carl Haub, who estimated how many people had been alive since 50,000 B.C. His calculation has been amended by the UN to include additional points in time.


"The Jeff Sample" said...

I'm not sure about the figure, but I dimly recall that some biblical scholars estimate that there would have been 250-500 million people on Earth the day that Christ was born, which sets up your Year Zero situation.

Today, if you are considered one in a million, you can be assured that there are seven thousand individuals who are exactly like you. That would be roughly the number of doppelgangers required to populate Wassila, Alaska.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately a lot of those 85 billion stories would be about children starving to death. Life expectancy has increased dramatically over the years. Still interesting stories maybe, brutish and nasty though as well. Such are the joys of the natural world, makes one appreciate technology a bit more.

Mr. Pessimist