Jan 24, 2020

Body Count

Right now, at this very moment, all across the planet, there are 7.6 billion human beings eating, breathing, sleeping, brushing their teeth, walking their dogs, drinking coffee, walking down the street or running onto the subway or hopping in their car, maybe reading a summary of a podcast they’re about to hit play on … and the number is only going up. Everyday 386,000 babies are born (16,000 an hour). We’re adding a billion new people every 12 years.

So here’s a question you’ve probably never thought about: Are there more people alive right now than have ever lived on the planet in history? Do the living outnumber the dead? Robert got obsessed with this odd question, and in this episode we bring you the answer. Or, well, answers.

This episode was reported by Robert Krulwich and produced by Annie McEwen and Pat Walters, with help from Neel Dhanesha. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Music and mixing by Jeremy Bloom. Special thanks to Jeffrey Dobereiner.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Okay. Ready?




JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. as many of you know, Robert is retiring from the show at the end of the month.


ROBERT: [sighs] I know.


JAD: No, no. I don't wanna open this way. This is bad, this is bad. We don't wanna do this. Okay, let's -- let's back up.


ROBERT: Let's back up. Okay.


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. So as -- as many of you know, Robert is retiring from the show at the end of the month. This is our last month hosting the show together.


ROBERT: [whines]


JAD: I know.




JAD: I can't -- I can't think about that right now.


ROBERT: No, let's run quickly past it. Yes.


ROBERT: [sings Auld Lang Syne]


JAD: No, no, no.


ROBERT: That kind of thing in the background.


JAD: Something triumphant maybe?


ROBERT: [hums upbeat melody] Yeah, I could go either way.


JAD: That's better, actually. In any case, we wanted to play a -- a wide-ranging, very Robert-y in all its many flavors and forms and spirits conversation that we had, that I guess started with a question. Is that right?


ROBERT: It did. It started with a simple, peculiar question. The question is -- like, I was reading an essay by -- who was it? Annie Dillard.


JAD: Annie Dillard. Okay.


ROBERT: And in the middle of a sentence, she wonders out loud in this essay: hmm, there's so many people on the planet right now and more all the time. I wonder if there are more people alive right now than have ever been dead.


JAD: More people currently alive than have ever died in the history of humanity?


ROBERT: That's the question.


JAD: That's such a peculiar question.


ROBERT: Well, of course it is. But think of it this way. Let's make two piles, okay?


JAD: Uh-huh.


ROBERT: Let's make a pile of all the people who have ever died and all the people alive right now. Which pile is bigger?


JAD: All the people that have ever died versus all the people currently alive?


ROBERT: So yes.


JAD: Every single person who has died gets put onto a pile.


ROBERT: Right. And everyone who's ...


JAD: The pile gets bigger and bigger and bigger.


ROBERT: ... as far as we know, except for Jesus and maybe a few others, like, everybody's died.


JAD: Oh, except for Jesus because he -- he -- he came back ...


ROBERT: Well -- yeah.


JAD: That’s funny. Does he count?


ROBERT: He rolled out of -- no, I don’t think you could count him.


JAD: That’s an interesting question… [laughs]


ROBERT: It would be all the people who’ve ever been alive minus one.


JAD: Because then you have to subtract one.




JAD: That’s funny. But then he saved a whole bunch of people too. But they -- they kind of -- they’re still dead.


ROBERT: No, no. They’re dead.


JAD: Right? Okay. But I mean, we're talking about a lot of dead people here.


ROBERT: Well no, but it's actually a reasonable question when you consider just how many people are alive on this planet right now. I was born in 1947. There were roughly what, we'll say 2.5 billion people on Earth.


JAD: And what is it now? Like, 7.6?


ROBERT: It's 7.6 right now, but we're adding 386,000 babies on Earth every single day. 16,000 babies an hour. So in my lifetime, the population of the Earth will almost have tripled. That has never happened in human history.


JAD: So you're saying that ...


ROBERT: In just -- in my life.


JAD: You're saying that the acceleration of baby-making is such that we might be outracing all the people who have already died.


ROBERT: Well, at least it's a reasonable question I think to ask.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: Like, could it be?


JAD: How would you even ask the question?


ROBERT: Well, you have to count the dead.


JAD: Well, how would you do that?


ROBERT: Well, that turned out to be a little bit of a problem. [laughs] There's like no man on a corner said, "Dead today are X." I mean, there's no such per -- there is one person, though, who had done a study. He was a man living in Washington, DC. And I guess on one afternoon a long time ago, he did the quote "math" unquote and came up with the answer to Annie's question. So then I said to him like, "How did you do this? And when did you begin counting?"


JAD: So you called ...


ROBERT: I called him. And what he doesn't like is calls from reporters about this.


JAD: [laughs] Did he hang up on you?


ROBERT: Almost. Because he said, "I have done so much work in my life at the World Population Council, and I've gotten 750 calls from you stupid reporters asking about this one dumb thing which I just spent an afternoon doing."


JAD: [laughs] Oh that’s so funny.


ROBERT: And it's the only thing people want really -- " So he said, "I'll just do this one more time and don't ever call me again." So he quickly, and to me completely incomprehensibly, described what he'd done.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: And then I said to Latif, "I don't understand a word that man said. Also he's hostile and doesn't want to do it again." [laughs] So that's when I found Jeffrey Dobereiner.


JAD: I see.


ROBERT: Who’s sitting there through the glass there.


JAD: So how did you get roped into this madness?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So I went to one of your editorial meetings, which was delightful. We talked a lot about cephalopods. And I introduced myself. I'm a -- I'm a PhD archaeologist. So that's my ...


JAD: PhD archaeologist. There’s no math in archaeology is there?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Whoa, whoa. Them's fighting words.


ROBERT: He's insulting without even realizing.


JAD: Isn't archaeology being out in the dirt digging?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well, yeah. But then someone's gotta count all the things you dig up and then make broad statistical generalizations about them.


JAD: Really?




JAD: I didn't know that math and archaeology were buddies.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: It's pretty math-y. Also, carbon date stuff. Super -- super-duper math-y.


JAD: Oh yeah. Okay. Okay, sure.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So it's a lot of Excel, honestly. It's ...


JAD: So do you spend your time in front of a computer more than on your hands and knees in the -- in the dirt?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I would say there's about three days in front of the computer for every day in the field. I did my dissertation on the border between Mexico and Guatemala on the ancient Maya.


JAD: Oh, wow. Okay. Did you find any cool things?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Oh, yeah. I found a -- I found a lost city. That was good.


JAD: What? [laughs] Just by the way, found a lost city.


ROBERT: What? I didn't know that. You found a lost city?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: It was embargoed. The -- the article just came out.


JAD: Wow. What's it like to find a lost city? Is it -- does it look like a city, or does it look like, "Oh, there's a shard but I know so much about what I do that this shard tells me it’s an entire city?"


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well this is the key, so first there’s kind of a sort of colonial, imperialist mindset where we often call cities lost when Indigenous people still know where they are, or they’re not actually lost.


JAD: I see. Did someone just say, "Oh, it’s over there?"


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: More or less. So it’s a problematic phrase, but what’s interesting about this one in particular is that there are Maya hieroglyphs, they had a fully developed ...


JAD: So we talked about lost cities for ...


ROBERT: A very long time.


JAD: It was like 40 -- 40 minutes maybe? But eventually we did come back around to the question at hand which was, are there more dead people than alive people?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Okay. So step one was that Robert and I got together once he heard that I was an archaeologist. And one of the first things we landed on is when do humans actually exist?


JAD: Are we talking, like, upright bipedal humans? Are we talking about ...




ROBERT: That was the one of the questions -- I said to Jeffrey, "Well, what do we do? Do we go back to the beginning of humans? And when is that?"


JAD: Yeah, when is that? Like, 10 -- hundred thousand years or something?


ROBERT: Well it -- you -- if it's humans who, like, paint and wear jewelry and talk and make music, if it's modern humans that would resemble us or more or less be identical to us?


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: That's 50,000 years ago.


JAD: So have more humans died in ...


ROBERT: No, no. But we decided to go what the hell. We're gonna go back all the way 200,000 years where you get the first grunting group of, you know, cave people who are standing up and running across a savanna. So we went all the way back.


JAD: The -- wow! So ...


SOREN WHEELER: So less musical but still on two feet?




ROBERT: That’s Soren Wheeler, who is our Managing Editor.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Some people's metric is if they're sitting in the subway with you, would you blink and would you look at them twice? And...


JAD: Oh, that's an interesting metric.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So by that metric, it's probably around 200,000 years ago.


ROBERT: But it's a very simple test. Send your 200,000-year-old Homo sapien to Bloomingdale's, put him in a tie and a jacket, stick him in a subway, do you blink? There you go.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: If he looks like he fits in the subway, then he is a Homo sapien. So that's what we decided.


JAD: Okay. 200,000 is ...


ROBERT: 200,000.


JAD: So past 200,000, you would blink on the subway?


ROBERT: We would, because they wouldn't -- they wouldn't be -- what -- what would they be different as? They would ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well, in reality they probably look totally naked and holding, I don’t know ...


JAD: This is the most interesting blend of, like, of -- of -- of high order math and, like, pull it out of your ass.


ROBERT: [laughs]


JAD: So can I restate the question to you and tell me if this is right? Have more humans died in the past 200,000 years than are currently alive?


ROBERT: That is the question.


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So Robert had already seen this Hobbe -- talked with the Hobbe fellow and looked at the math. And Hobbe had a number, 108 billion, plus or minus, being the total number of people who have ever lived. So he'd already done that math.


JAD: This is the dead pile.


ROBERT: Kind of. It's the total number of people who have ever lived. So actually, to get to the dead pile you subtract the people who are still alive and when you adjust all the numbers, it comes out to roughly 100 billion dead people in the history of our species.


JAD: 100 billion people have ...




JAD: ... died, versus the 7.7, whatever it is that are alive today. That feels lopsided.


ROBERT: [laughs] The dead seem to have just won a staggering victory.


JAD: I think ...


ROBERT: If you do it in abstract terms, that means every person on Earth today who is alive, hovering about them are roughly 13.15 ghosts of previous people.


JAD: 1 5 ghosts.


ROBERT: Yeah, it's a mathematical ...


JAD: A little extra ghost.


ROBERT: ... fraction of a ghost.


SOREN: Like the hand of a ghost.


JAD: Ghost hand.


ROBERT: A couple of ghost fingers and maybe a toe. So that's a very ...


JAD: But you know what else just died here, Robert, is your premise.


ROBERT: Well ... [laughs] I guess I could say goodbye right now.


JAD: It's been about nine minutes we've been chatting.


ROBERT: No, no. I don't like this. I can't get out while I'm behind. So no, let me take up the same question a little bit differently.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: One might call this cheating, but I call it simply reframing the question. If you look instead of at the whole Earth, if you think to yourself: is there some place on our planet where the number of people who are alive is almost or actually equal to the number of dead, maybe there is still such a place somewhere.


JAD: Oh, I see. So if we take -- if we go -- if we -- if we zoom in rather than the whole Earth we say, I don't know, Australia.




JAD: Or something.


ROBERT: Australia comes immediately to mind. But it turns out that when Jeff and I just scanned the globe, for some peculiar reason when we look to see whether there will be more living people in any place on Earth than dead people, is it -- could it be possible, we found that we were sitting in such a place, at least possibly ...


JAD: You mean like New York?


ROBERT: No, no. Could be bigger than that. Like, the lower 48 states of the United States of America, as beautiful as we think we are ...


JAD: Uh-huh.


ROBERT: ... for some reason, didn't attract a lot of ancient people.


JAD: Well, we've had Native populations in America for -- for thousands of years.


ROBERT: Yeah, but when you count them, there are many, many more people elsewhere. Like, we ...


JAD: Oh, you mean like statistically, like the population sizes have been very -- much smaller here than elsewhere?


ROBERT: Not many people chose to live here, and therefore not many people died here. That's just a fact.


JAD: Well, why not?


ROBERT: Well, in the effort to try to figure out what is it about the United States of America lower 48 that has made it so different from the others, just quickly, we came up with five things. Some of them more startling than others but they ...


JAD: Quickly we came up with five.


ROBERT: [laughs]


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: [laughs] Real briefly.


JAD: Real brief.


ROBERT: All right. If you -- if you don't want five, that's too much for you, I can do it in three. First, number one, humans did not arrive in North America until very, very recently. Almost like the day before yesterday. So the earth has humans living in it in Africa for a long, long, long, long time.


JAD: Right.


ROBERT: And in the Middle East for a long, long time. And in Europe and Asia for a long time. And in America, like, there was nobody here until fairly recently.


JAD: Really?






ROBERT: It was just snakes and bears and ...


JAD: Really?


ROBERT: Birds.


JAD: We’re sure about that when we say it?




ROBERT: We have never seen any evidence of human habitation of any sort anywhere in North or South America until fairly recently.


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I -- in terms of ...


ROBERT: And that’s a lot of land!




JAD: Right.


ROBERT: Like that’s a huge ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: No, people are pretty confident about the peopling of the Americas. Any scientist you ask, any archaeologist you ask will say, yeah it's around 15,000 years ago.


ROBERT: Okay. So -- so we've settled that we've come here very recently.


JAD: Yes.


ROBERT: So there's -- so that's good, because there's gonna be more living -- there's less dead ones.


JAD: Yep.


ROBERT: The dead pile's gonna be small. Second ...


JAD: Wait, wait. Before we get to this number two, why did it take us so long to arrive in North America?


ROBERT: Well, that's such an interesting question. All of us have heard the story that you imagine these Asians parked at the very, very edge of Siberia gazing across what we now call the Bering Strait and looking for the first time at North America. And you think, okay, it's just, you know, get on that little land bridge that they supposedly took.


JAD: Uh-huh.


ROBERT: And you imagine this little narrow column, and there's snow on the north side and snow on the south side and they're shivering and they run and they say, "All right, here we are in this new place and now we'll go and discover it."


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: And it all happened in an afternoon or something. But the truth is so spectacularly different, it just ...


JAD: Well, what is it?


ROBERT: Okay. What happened is there was an -- as you know, there was an ice age at the time.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: And what happens then is ice freezes and the sea sort of gives up water for the ice, so the sea at that point dropped roughly 400 and some feet. That's a lot less ocean.


JAD: Huh.


ROBERT: And the North Pacific as it happens is a fairly shallow place. So what happened was, as the water went down, land that been near the surface dried and rather quickly became a rather large sub-continent. If you look at the Bering Strait today, what you now have to imagine is back then there was a big land mass that went a thousand miles down.


JAD: Wait, can I just -- just so I can visualize this, you're saying that the water receded to reveal, like, just a whole mountain range of things.


ROBERT: Well, low-lying but nevertheless dry space. The Aleutian chain was sort of up on the north end, and then a lot of the North Pacific wasn't there anymore. Instead, there was land. And on that land, because it was at the top of a Pacific Ocean that had equatorial waters coming from the center of the Earth warming that southern side, in the summertime, that land bridge was covered with flowers.


CRAIG CHILDS: Lupines coming up all around you, so these -- these deep beautiful purples and fireweed.


ROBERT: This is writer Craig Childs.


CRAIG CHILDS: Plains of steppe-like grasses and herds of Pleistocene horses, musk ox. It would have been a pretty lush place.


ROBERT: And what happened was the people stepped out into this enormous landmass. It was beautiful. So they just stayed on this place. Because when you were trying to get further east, North America was still frozen and getting colder all the time. So there's this middle place, which they now call Beringia, I've never heard of it before, which sat between Asia and North America. Asia got cold and they couldn't go back. America was cold and they couldn't go forward, so they stayed for 15,000 years. That’s 15,000 extra years just because.


JAD: Wow! Okay, so this is reason number one of three for what makes North America so different than other places and why you guys decided to focus on it, because I guess it was emptier for longer, there was less people dying here. Is that right?


ROBERT: That's correct.


JAD: And by the way, if these people paused in Beringia for so long because it was so nice there, why did they ultimately decide to come into North America? Why did they decide to ...?


ROBERT: Oh, they left because it began to get warm. The ice age begins to change, and you get a warming period. And now the ocean starts to rise. So there you are on Beringia, and every few years and certainly every generation, there’s a little less of Beringia as the ocean creeps in and then in further and then in further still. And slowly but surely Beringia is beginning to disappear. So you’ve got to go somewhere.


JAD: Okay, interesting.


ROBERT: But where do you go to? North America had been all this time this wall of white, forbidding, frozen, desert-like ice field.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: But with the warming, you now get a little bit of North America that becomes a little bit more available to you. So they enter.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: And once they arrive in North America, that’s where we meet problem number two. Because it was getting warmer, there are pools of ice water that are gathering above the glaciers. The melt water on top grows into ponds and then into lakes. But there are lakes on top of the ice ...


SHANNON KLOTSKO: The size of the state of Georgia. And so ...


ROBERT: [laughs] Really?




ROBERT: Marine geologist Shannon Klotsko.


SHANNON KLOTSKO: So you -- yeah, you start to have your ice melt and ...


ROBERT: These ponds of water get deeper and finally break the ice that has cradled them.


JAD: Uh-huh.


ROBERT: And there are explosions, floods on a magnitude that you couldn’t imagine.


SHANNON KLOTSKO: People have correlated the floodwaters from glacial Lake Missoula to the force of 60 Amazon Rivers.


ROBERT: Oh my God!


SHANNON KLOTSKO: And that can then cause another lake to fail, and so you can potentially have ...


ROBERT: Oh no. So you get a chain reaction?




ROBERT: And Shannon says as these lakes combine and then flow into one another they keep growing and growing and growing until they’re bigger than Lake Superior plus Lake Huron plus Lake Erie.


JAD: Oh my God!


ROBERT: You see a mile of water 150 feet high ...


JAD: [laughs] Jesus!


ROBERT: Roaring all across Idaho. It's knocking down whole forests. Very large animals, like megafauna, are tumbling in the waves of it.


JAD: Oh my God!


ROBERT: And then it’s so forceful that it literally scours the ground. So there’s nothing left to eat. There’s nothing left to protect you. Nothing can survive it.


JAD: I -- I always conceived of North America as this big bread basket.


ROBERT: Yeah, so did I!


JAD: It sounds like a death basket now.


ROBERT: For a little while it was like -- so what happens is there’s so much water coming off of the ice -- cold, freshwater -- and the warm salt water from the equator is just sitting there going, “Oh hello.” Like, singing a Hawaiian song. And then this freezing water comes in and the ice age turns back on.


JAD: [laughs] Oh no!


ROBERT: For another -- I don’t know, some thousand years or whatever we find. So -- so pause number two is basically the water pause. The third one is Jeff's, which is we don't actually notice any big cities in the lower 48. There are huge ancient cities in Peru. Just think about like, I'm gonna ask you how many famous ancient cities are there between Maine and El Paso? Pretty close to zero. Curiously, for some reason or another, there's no cities here but there are right south of us. Central America, Andes America, Machu Picchu. There's big roads and everything just south of us, but we're kind of empty.


JAD: That's interesting.


ROBERT: So that's really good for our math, because that means that there aren't a lot of -- are gonna be as many dead people here because there weren't a lot of people who used to live here for some reason.


JAD: I am suddenly interested to know why people didn't settle more densely in ...


ROBERT: So were we.


JAD: ... North America sooner.


ROBERT: Well the answer, Jeff says, is corn.


JAD: Corn?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: The Children of the corn, yes.


ROBERT: So every city on earth basically needs a grain to give it some energy surplus.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: You know, if all you had was farmers farming, that wouldn't be a city. You need some extra energy to support what you'd find in a city, which would be a king and some soldiers and some priests. So you can't just have a city unless you have some extra energy. So every city that he found from ancient times seems to have a -- a barley or a wheat or a potato. In Central America, which is doing great, they had corn. But it took them a while. We went and interviewed the corn guys.


JEFFREY ROSS-IBARRA: Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra. I’m a Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at University of California-Davis.


ROBERT: And the corn guy says the first corn -- the first corn was like this miserable little plant with, like, seven kernels on it.


JEFFREY ROSS-IBARRA: Eight kernels instead of 800.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: It was like a -- just a sad-ass piece of corn. And you couldn't afford a dog on this corn, let alone a city. But ...


JAD: Piece of [expletive] corn.




JAD: That's another ...


ROBERT: Terrible corn. So then you do is you take the corn that has eight kernels and you plant it until the corn -- and then you get one -- all by some crazy that has 11 kernels and you gradually breed the corn so that it has more and more energy on it.


JAD: Uh-huh.


ROBERT: This takes hundreds of years. But finally, the Mexicans or what -- people who live in what we now call Mexico produce an 800-kernel bit of corn ...


JAD: Hmm.


ROBERT: With an 800-kernel thing, a plant, like, you can now -- you're now eating enough energy to have a soldier or to have a general.


JAD: Okay. Interesting. Interesting.


ROBERT: So ...


JAD: You're saying the Mexicans were the ones to -- to do this first?


ROBERT: They did that!


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: And now they -- suddenly, they have, like, a 50,000 people and then they have 100,000 people. Corn makes people possible gathering in large numbers. And I said, "Well, what the [expletive]? I mean, the Mississippi Valley is still there. The amber -- the grain -- the amber waves of grain. Like, what's our problem here? Why didn't we do the corn?”


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: So ...


JAD: Well we didn’t borrow -- we never borrowed the corn from the Mexicans?


ROBERT: Well I said -- here’s a simple thing. I said if like, let’s just imagine a farmer in what we now call Mexico, but it's 10,000 years ago. And he gives his son an ear of corn with 206 kernels on it and said, "Go north, you know, open up a new farm."


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: And it turns out that corn freaks out. Like, corn when it grows on the side of a mountain in Mexico is used to a 12-hour day and a 12-hour night and a certain temperature cycle. If you give the corn to your kid, and he just takes a seed off of it and plants it in the ground, the corn goes, "No!"


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: "I don't -- don't call me!"


JAD: [laughs] So the corn was doing great in Mexico but it didn't travel well.


ROBERT: It could -- we then clocked it. I said, "How long does it take corn to travel north and not freak out?" And we came up -- we had a number.


JAD: That's hilarious.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: It’s thousands of years, yeah.


ROBERT: It takes a long time. So if you want to get the corn to the Thanksgiving Festival in 1621 with the pilgrims and you're starting in Mexico, you have to wait thousands of years for the corn to do it. Like, that takes -- so you're on corn time.


JAD: Wow.


ROBERT: So it -- the reason why North America doesn't have a lot of people in it is because the corn wouldn't go quick.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: I never heard any of this.


JAD: Can't rush the corn.


ROBERT: Can't rush the corn.


JAD: It needs its 12 hours.


ROBERT: Yeah. So ...


JAD: That's funny.


ROBERT: That plus a ...


JAD: You're now at -- is this number three you've finished?


ROBERT: That's three. And we're pretty much through.


JAD: Okay. Wow.


ROBERT: So if you add it all up, you've got the Beringia pause.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: The flood pause.


JAD: You got floods.


ROBERT: And corn time.


JAD: Corn time.


ROBERT: And you add those three and you got an explanation for why we're peculiar.


JAD: I see. I see. Okay, so I guess this brings us back to your original question. It seems like throughout history there was less people living here than other places. Could it be the case that in North America there are more people alive currently than have ever died?


ROBERT: An arithmetical question. All we have to do is count the dead. We know the living. We will do the dead count in just a second, right after the break and we will find out the answer to that question.


JAD: We'll be right back.


[DIERDRE: Hi, this is Dierdre from the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org]


JAD: Jad.


ROBERT: Robert.


JAD: Radiolab. So before the break, Robert, you explained that when you look at North America, across its long history, you see it's sort of uniquely underpopulated, so it’s possible in this place the number of living people now might actually outnumber the dead.


ROBERT: Right. Possible. But true? That's the question. Before we begin our count, remember that the number of people in the United States right now is roughly 330 million alive people. That's the number the dead have to beat.


ROBERT: So you want to do some dead people math? Dead people in North America math?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Yeah. So the -- the game we played is we took the math that Hobbe figured out already.


ROBERT: "Don't call me!" That's what you call him.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: We took Mr. Don't Call Me's math and we played the same game with North America, specifically using benchmarks that we can infer in the past at different points in time. So in particular, there's something called the Handbook of the American Indian, where a bunch of very smart archaeologists got together in the '70s and '80s and made this 14-volume set. And one of the articles in it that many of the eggheads worked on together is trying to estimate population at -- in 1492, and then sort of in the centuries afterwards of Indigenous peoples. So we used ...


JAD: Oh, wow. So Columbus onward, kind of?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Exactly. So we used sort of an Adam and Eve, two people as our initial benchmark, although if you shift that number ...


JAD: Wait. You used an Adam and Eve, two people, starting when?


ROBERT: He needs a foundation population.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: At 15,000 years ago.


JAD: 15,000 years ago. Okay. The first two humans to step foot onto North America.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Precisely that. And then we took the two million as our endpoint at 1492.


JAD: I see.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: And then we ran this well-known demographic population growth formula to sort of interpolate population through time with this gentle exponential growth rate.


JAD: Okay, wait. Just so I understand ...


ROBERT: No one understood anything you just said.


JAD: No, no I got -- I'd say I got about 62 percent of that.






JAD: Why two million as an endpoint?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So that's what the eggheads had decided. So they're all archaeologists.


JAD: Uh-huh.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Each one was sort of a specialist in a different region of North America.


JAD: Yeah.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: And so they put all of their heads together to kind of try to come up with the best guess estimate of how many people were here in 1492 and then going forward.


SOREN: So you -- you have a reasonable population estimate snapshot at 1492.




SOREN: And you know that -- that 15,000 years before that there were two. And so you're just sort of trying to fill in, was it two then four then 12 then a thousand, then two -- and you fill in -- if you can fill that in and say how much were there at all these different times, then you can know -- since everybody dies -- then you know how many people died.


JAD: I see. I see. Okay. So we're trying to establish the size and girth of the death pile.




JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: The key other tweak beyond just getting the population at each moment?


JAD: Uh-oh.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Is that -- it's a small one, although it's mathematically-confusing sounding, but there's a lot of infant mortality. And so the population at each year at those benchmarks doesn't necessarily capture all the people who die ...


JAD: Interesting.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: ... at various points, especially people who die under being one, right? And so ...


JAD: So do you, like, estimate the -- the rate of infant mortality at various times in history?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So what you do is you use an estimated actual birth rate. You say for a given population of people, what is the likely number of babies that were born that year? And those babies will all die. So instead of counting the people who are alive in any given year ...


JAD: Oh, I see. I see. Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: ... you count all the babies that were born to them in each year based on this ratio of ...


SOREN: Banking -- banking on the fact that they're gonna die eventually.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Exactly. So you're not -- you're counting their babies assuming they'll die each year.


JAD: Mm.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: And then you just do that, integrate through to 1492.


JAD: So, okay. So what did you find out?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So -- well, that -- that only got us to 1492 and then the Indigenous population a little beyond. So ...


JAD: How much -- how many people died up until 1492, out of curiosity?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Jeez. I -- I can tell you. I have it on this laptop, but I don't know if that's inelegant.


JAD: Wait. What do you mean? To -- to open a laptop?




JAD: No. Open it up.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I'm gonna do it.


SOREN: Wait, so now -- so the number you're looking up is the number of people who were ever alive from 15,000 years ago when there was nobody on the continent 'til 1492.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: That's exactly right. So we're looking at 206 million.


SOREN: 206 million people. So then subtracting the two million people who were alive in 1492, then there's 204 million in the dead pile by the time Columbus shows up.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: That's precisely right.


SOREN: That's not many.


JAD: It's not many. The population was two million.




JAD: So the dead are kicking ass at that point.


SOREN: Yeah, but ...


ROBERT: That's right.


JAD: But then -- but then maybe -- maybe we catch up?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: That's the dream.


JAD: This actually -- this seems impossible to me. If you have 204 million dead and two million alive, there's no way that the -- the living can catch up, is there?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well, the next step is to interpolate for the Indigenous population after 1492. So those guys in that book did that.


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: And then to start to collect colonial records and then eventually American CDC and census records, and tabulate all of the dead at various eras ...


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: ... based on that.


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So when you put it all together in one big shiny pile, unfortunately, it comes out to 489 million.


ROBERT: What does?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: The total pile of dead.


JAD: The dead pile is 489 million.


ROBERT: By what ...


JAD: And we have 330 million people alive in North America at the moment.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: We do, yeah. So our ratio -- we -- it's not quite a win.


JAD: But did we ever -- or we did we ever in our -- in our -- in our -- in our expl -- population explosion, ever overtake the dead?






JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: But I ask you to consider this.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: If the world average is ...


JAD: This is rescue number two? [laughs]


ROBERT: Yeah, this is rescue number two.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: If the world average ...


SOREN: I was just gonna be like, let's narrow it down to Arkansas, see what happens.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: [laughs] To Bridgemont County in Arkansas. Here's what strikes me as really interesting. If the global average is 13 ghosts for every living Earthling.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: The American average it turns out is 1.5 ghosts for every living American.


JAD: Interesting.


ROBERT: So we do have a special situation here. We don't have the dead pile being smaller than the living pile, but we're really peculiarly close. And that struck me as interesting. We're in an “almost” situation.


JAD: That's it -- that is interesting. There is a -- I think that there is a good balance somewhere. 1.5 ghosts to one Earthling feels like too little ghosts to me, frankly.




JAD: I don't know. It's just a feeling I have. 10 ghosts to every -- 15 ghosts to every one person feels like too many ghosts. I think there should be like six.


ROBERT: Well, wait a second. No, no. Why? Because here's what -- here's another way to think about it.


JAD: And it's like -- it's a connection.


ROBERT: Of all the people who ever lived, Jad, 15 percent of them are alive right now.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I -- I think it's seven, seven percent.


JAD: Seven percent for the world?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Seven percent for the world, yeah. That's one of 15.


JAD: Can you restate his sentence ...


ROBERT: Yes. Would you please say that? [laughs]


JAD: ... with actual ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Of all the people who have ever lived in the world, seven percent are alive right now.


JAD: Okay. And what about America?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: In America, of all the people who have ever lived in the lower 48 of America, 70 percent ...


JAD: Really! That's interesting.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: ... are alive right now.


JAD: Ten -- a tenfold ...




JAD: Wow.


ROBERT: Okay, thank God for you, Jeffrey Dobereiner.


JAD: Of all the people who have ever lived, 70 percent are alive. So that means ...




JAD: ... the dead pile is 30 percent bigger than the -- than the alive pile.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Yeah. Maybe I need to rephrase it, though.


JAD: But that's not bad.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Because it's not of all the people who have ever lived, 70 percent are alive.


JAD: Is that -- that's not right?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: It's like our living pile is 70 percent of the size of the dead pile.


JAD: Right. Right.


SOREN: Right. Okay.


JAD: Yeah. I like the other sentence better. It has more oomph.


ROBERT: I don't understand the difference.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Maybe I could say something like, 70 percent of the number of people who have ever died here are alive today.


JAD: Wow.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I think that's true.


ROBERT: I know, but it doesn't -- it's just -- it mixes. It's too many die -- it’s -- who have ever died here are alive.


JAD: It’s a -- it’s like a Mobius strip or something. I can’t even actually know where to start on that one.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: And so take our word for it. This is Radiolab. Thank you very much!


SOREN: Oh, that's really -- like, I have to say, I'm sad. Maybe I want the threshold, or I want to have -- it's like I keep thinking about that point in your life, which I have not reached, where more of the people that you have known and loved are gone. And I -- that feels to me as a person like a sad moment ...


ROBERT: When your personal dead pile is larger than your personal alive pile.


SOREN: Yeah. And it feels like a -- even if not sad, it feels like a moment of transition in terms of who you are and what you are. And it feels like if at some point humans went through -- but maybe they -- I don't know. That's what I'm thinking about.


ROBERT: Well I -- I think in mood, you hitting a -- the right note. If you're in stage, I guess, of your cycle where most of the people you've ever met are alive and well and there are a few dead ones, that's a different state.


SOREN: Yeah, it feels vibrant and full of ...




SOREN: ... like, you're -- you're beginning, you're on the up. But once most of your people are gone.


JAD: Yeah.




JAD: But see, I think this is where my number six comes in, and I might need to adjust it. If you don't have any ghost -- if you don't have any dead in your pile, you're like a snot-nosed young person who hasn't lived. Do you know what I mean?


ROBERT: Well, you have no heritage.


SOREN: Well, it's just a trade-off between vibrancy and wisdom.


JAD: There you go. There you go.




JAD: I think with -- the higher the dead pile, theoretically the more wisdom you have.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: I -- I -- the good news for -- for you Soren is that our -- the -- the fifth or sixth way that we save this story actually gets us to a ...


ROBERT: To -- to very much your exercise.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: To very much your exercise. So ...


JAD: How's -- how did you do this?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well, it's July 4th, 1776. The day America was born.


JAD: Okay.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So we decided, let's just count from there instead of all that stuff in the past.


JAD: [laughs]


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Wouldn't that be better?


SOREN: Oh no, but this is fair! This is fair because we had decided to zero in on the lower 48 but, like, politically the lower 48 only existed as of 1776.




SOREN: Yeah, if we're doing America. Okay, I can get on this train.


ROBERT: So we just invented the idea that we'll start the count at America's birthday and see what happens.


JAD: This is -- this is -- this is the -- this is the intervention you've decided to make?


ROBERT: Yes. Well, because ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well, it's America.


ROBERT: Because it allows you to play almost like a quiz program, okay?


JAD: All right.


ROBERT: Because we're gonna -- we're gonna -- we're gonna look at the odometer and say, "Okay, if we start in 1776 at midnight, and let's say at three o'clock in the morning, Solomon Wright, a silversmith in New Hampshire, drops dead." So he's the first dead American under our -- under our count. Like, we start counting at midnight on the Fourth of July, 1776.


SOREN: So you start with a certain number of living people. How do we know ...


JAD: So really what you're doing is you're giving the living a dead -- a head start.


ROBERT: Right.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: But all the people that are alive in 1776 are gonna die before we get to now, so they still end up counting. I mean, like ...




JAD: That’s true.


ROBERT: Everybody alive on the Fourth of July will be dead at some point.


SOREN: I -- I have an estimate. I don't know what you've got, Jeffrey. But the internet tells me that the estimates are that there was about 2.5 million people living in the United States in 1776.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Yeah, that's the number we used.


JAD: Wow.


SOREN: Okay, 2.5 million.


JAD: 2.5 million.


ROBERT: So 2.5 million versus one.


JAD: One silversmith [laughs] who’s now died.




JEFFREY DOBEREINER: That's exactly right. So we're winning.


JAD: Okay. So ...


ROBERT: So ...


JAD: Two and a half million.


ROBERT: Right. So you got two and a half million on your alive pile, and so far one dead person, silversmith Samuel Wright. May he rest in peace.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: But then again, if you look at the sweep of American history, there is a lot of death also.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: You go into any graveyard and you’ll find lots of little boys and girls dying at one and two. There are populations that, you know, get hit by cholera and malaria and flu. You have the wars. You have lynchings and race riots and labor violence, you have a lot of violence. And so there's lots of death in American history. Big spurts of it from time to time.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: Yet at the very same time, when you get to the late -- you know, late 19th century, you get millions upon millions of immigrants pouring into the United States.


JAD: That's true. Waves of immigration. Exactly.


ROBERT: And then having big families.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: We do have a -- a spike at this point.


ROBERT: So there’s all kinds of new living people as well.


JAD: Right.


ROBERT: Death is there and life is there too, coming on strong.


JAD: But then -- doesn’t that work against you on some level? Because all those people who have come in that span of time are now dead. And so if our question here is are there more people in the U.S. than have ever died, well then all that matters is how many people are alive right now. And all those new living people from the time of the immigration ...


ROBERT: Are dead now.


JAD: They're in the dead pile.




JAD: So you kind of ...


ROBERT: Well ...


JAD: I’m getting confused. Every time you seem to win you’re actually losing.




JAD: I think you’ve lost. I think you’ve lost. I think that’s what’s happened.


ROBERT: [laughs] All right Jeffery Dobereiner, tell the man what the numbers actually say.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Our total dead pile from 1776 to today in the United States of America is 251 million.


JAD: Hey!


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Feeling young, feeling spry!


JAD: Living of one. [laughs]


ROBERT: And 251 million is greater or lesser that the current population of the United States?




JAD: Wow. So if -- if you put about 14 asterisks to the question, you do get -- you do get the living win. The living do win.


ROBERT: Well, now just to -- just to pump it up a little bit like a quiz show might?


JAD: Mm-hmm.


ROBERT: Jeffrey Dobereiner, how often since July 4th, 1776, have there -- is there ever been a moment, even a second, where the number of people who are dead outnumber the number of people alive at that moment? [ROBERT HUMS GAME SHOW THEME]


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Geez, this is a tough one. This is a tough one. Uh, never?


ROBERT: Never! So you do have these spurts of death which you'd think would -- would basically push the dead over the living, but the -- the numbers tell you that the living win. And this is the amazing drama, I think, of America as a -- as an example of something special. We live in a country where huge numbers of people came here. They had large families. Those large families, our grandparents, had larger families still. And now, we are still in the echo of that enormous immigration. And that has made us really, I think, unusual in the world.


JAD: Okay. That's all right. That's nice.


ROBERT: So now the question becomes ...


JAD: Is there another one?


ROBERT: Yes. This is the last ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Hold on to your hats ...


ROBERT: This is the last question of the whole essay.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: Now Jeffrey Dobereiner. Take this seriously.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Oh, okay. I'll try.


ROBERT: Surely when the Baby Boom generation after World War II, a humongous number of people, starting in 1946 and go to 1963, let's say. So that's the ba -- an enormous number of people. Now soon, and I can include myself in this group, we will all be dead. I'm kind of hoping, since the Baby Boomers have never for even a day thought of themselves as anything other than important, is it possible that the Baby Boomers will be the group that pushes the United States, in our fictionalist version, into the death column? When we die, there will be more of us than our kids and their ultimate survivors. Are we the odometer moment?


JAD: You say this -- you say this because it is yet one more way in which you Baby Boomers are important?


ROBERT: Exactly.


JAD: Or does it confound the importance? Do you say that as a self-hating Baby Boomer?


ROBERT: Oh, no, no, no, no, no.


JAD: Or as a proud Baby Boomer?


ROBERT: As an eventful Baby -- like, we are always the main event. From Davy Crockett ...


JAD: And we will continue to do that.


ROBERT: ... and rock and roll and Woodstock and now dying.


JAD: Okay.


ROBERT: And so ...


JAD: Is your -- your hunch is yes.


ROBERT: Well, I don't know. I said, "Jeffrey Dobereiner, you can do the math."


JAD: Do you -- you have the answer?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Oh, yeah. I wouldn't leave you hanging like that.


JAD: What is the answer?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Well conveniently enough, the CDC estimates future populations of the United States and deaths each year going up to 2060. So ...


JAD: Really?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Yeah. I don't know why.


JAD: Whose job is that?




ROBERT: [laughs] He has a spear and he wears all black and it's a scythe.


JAD: [laughs]


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Edgar Reaper, can you deliver your report please?


ROBERT: Edgar Reaper. [laughs] He works somewhere in the U.S. Census.


JAD: I want to meet that person.


ROBERT: No you don't.


JAD: No, it's true.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: It's the last person you'll ever meet. So the answer is, it's actually in 2060.


JAD: 2060.




ROBERT: What is -- what is happening?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: The odometer count flips. There are more Americans since 1776 dead than alive in 2060.


JAD: There are more Americans dead or alive in 2060 -- So you were right.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Dead than alive. Yeah.


JAD: So your Baby -- Baby Boomers are going to help tip us over.


ROBERT: Well, let's see like...


SOREN: Well, the Boomers will all be gone before that.


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: So yeah, Robert -- Robert insists, despite hearing these numbers, that it is the Baby Boomers every time. But it would be a 97-year-old Baby Boomer that would have to turn the clock.


SOREN: No, that's more likely to be Gen X. That's gonna be Gen -- that's gonna be me.


ROBERT: Why would it be you?


SOREN: I'm gonna get there. I gotta -- just gotta get to 86. 86 years old, and then I'll -- I'm -- I am gonna tip the scales.


ROBERT: Well, it's true ...


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: The race is on, gentlemen.


ROBERT: It's true that there'll be fewer Baby Boomers to die every year starting ...


JAD: That's true.


ROBERT: Yeah, around -- around ...


JAD: But the Gen Xers are a very small generation.


SOREN: Yeah, but we're gonna tip the scales. The Boomers are gonna take it -- they're gonna take us right -- they're gonna put the ball on the tee.


ROBERT: Well, do you know when precisely this person will die, at least according to the abstract?


JEFFREY DOBEREINER: Yeah. So if we just divide our CDC numbers into days of the year, it's December 29th, 2060, 6:57 p.m. and 36 seconds.


JAD: Oh my God. [laughs]


ROBERT: [laughs] Well, wait. How confident can I be? Who was -- which -- if you take Soren's claim that it's probably a Gen Xer who will be going, like, let's see. If I were to live to 2060, oh God, I'd have to be 113 or something.


SOREN: Yeah. Whereas I’ll be 86. Prime dying time for me. I must -- Jad'll be 87. I'll be 86. Both of us ready to die.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


SOREN: Ready to tip the scales.


JAD: Ready to ...




JAD: As proud Gen-Xers.


ROBERT: I don’t really know what you have to be so proud about. [laughs] So that all said ...


JAD: Wow.




JAD: Okay. What a journey.


ROBERT: [Laughs]


JAD: What a journey.


JAD: [laughs] That was fun.


ROBERT: A quick addendum because before I thank the people I want to thank, this particular Radiolab was more literally than almost any I can remember an actual conversation, sort of loosely done. So of course, mid-conversation certain things came out of my mouth which weren't quite right and I want to just take a chance to correct myself right here. I mentioned that Mr. Hobbes worked at the World Population Council, which seemed like a very good name at the time. But in fact, he worked at the Population Reference Bureau. So I'm sorry about that. And when we were mentioning the Handbook of North American Indians and said it was 15 volumes, the actual number of volumes was 14. I want to say special thank you to Jeffrey Dobereiner, archaeologist and math guru who kept digging me out of mathematical holes. Thanks also to Shane Doyle of Native Nexus in Montana State University and to Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University. To Shannon Klotsko of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra of the University of California-Davis, David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, and Craig Childs whose book Atlas Of A Lost World was one of the inspirations for this study. And then of course, the one who inspired it all, Annie Dillard. Her essay by the way that I -- where I bumped into this question was called In The Wreck of Time. What I'd forgotten is that she actually posited an answer. She -- she said probably the dead do outnumber the living. She didn't ask nearly as many ...


JAD: Follow-up questions.


ROBERT: Follow-up questions as we did. Or go into history or any of that. But that -- she was the one who sort of gave this a little goose. And I thank you for that. Again, the essay's called In The Wreck of Time.


JAD: Thanks to Jeremy Bloom for mixing and Neel Dhanesha for doing a lot of the work to get this going. Okay, we will be back next week with ...


ROBERT: With what?


JAD: With a tribute to you, Bobby K.




JAD: We're gonna celebrate you a little bit. It's gonna be very embarrassing for you.




JAD: Or hopefully not embarrassing. Fun, I hope. Fun.




JAD: Well, anyhow ...


ROBERT: Thanks for listening.


JAD: Bye.


[WILD ROSE: Hi, this is Wild Rose Hamilton calling from Swamp's Landing in Bellview, Colorado. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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