Isaac Newton versus Genghis Khan
Published: Sunday | April 30, 2006

ISAAC NEWTON was the greatest scientist in history and, perhaps more than anyone before or since, changed the world with his ideas.

'Nearer the Gods' said Edmond Halley 'no mortal may approach'.

Newton never had any children and is believed, like Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, to have died a virgin. So arguably, the three most influential intellectuals of modern times never had sexual relations with a woman. Maybe there's a lesson there.

Genghis Khan ruled the largest land empire ever known and was the most prolific human breeder on record. An estimated one in every 200 persons alive carry his genes. The key was his unique value system: "The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him ... and clasp their wives and daughters in his arms." After taking a city he simply had all men killed and all beautiful women brought to his bed. None but the brave deserve the fair indeed. And so much for the meek inheriting the earth.

Who was the more successful individual, Isaac or Genghis? In the large scheme of things such questions are unimportant. To the atheist both were meaningless disturbances in an accidental universe expanding into eternal nothingness. The believer sees them as insignificant illusions in the infinite mind encompassing this universal frame. "The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw dirt over your head, and it's finished forever."

But pointless or not, we all - as Pascal put it - "debate to pass the time". And Newton versus Khan boils down to "What matters more, genes or ideas?"

Biological fundamentalists say ideas have no real existence, since propagation is all that counts in nature. Life went on before 'thought producing' homo sapiens emerged, and will go on after our last mortal coil is shuffled off. Ardent believers in the mind argue that without a conscious observer, life is just genes replicating and replicating until they stop replicating and then, well, who cares? Not the genes themselves.

On a less cosmic scale, the genes versus ideas concept has demographic applications. For the West has dominated the modern age militarily and economically, with Europe and its descendant nations like America, Australia and Canada leading the world in almost every measurable index. Yet in sheer genetic terms, i.e., population growth, the 20th century was actually a triumph for the non-European world.


Europe's population increased at a far lower rate than any other region over the past 105 years, and its share of the world population shrunk from 24.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. At the same time Africa's portion went from 8.1 per cent to 13.8 per cent.

So what, you might say. All humans have 99.9 per cent the same DNA and all originally came from Africa. Who cares which skin colour - a genetically insignificant characteristic - dominates where? Certainly not a half-breed like myself whose grandfathers were from China and whose grandmothers were Jamaican-born mixtures of God knows how much white, black and Indian - one swore she had Arawak blood.


Some people, however, think race important, and changing world demographics will interest them. According to Mark Steyn in The Australian on February 16, 2006:

"Demography doesn't explain everything but it accounts for a good 90 per cent. The 'who' is the best indicator of the what-where-when-and-why. Go on, pick a subject. Will Japan's economy return to the heady days of the 1980s when U.S. businesses cowered in terror? No. Japan is exactly the same as it was in its heyday except for one fact: it stopped breeding and its population aged. Will China be the hyperpower of the 21st century? No. Its population will get old before it gets rich.

"Why does Australia have an English Queen, English common law, English institutions? Because England was the first nation to conquer infant mortality.

"By 1820 medical progress had so transformed British life that half the population was under the age of 15. Britain had the manpower to take, settle and administer huge chunks of real estate around the planet. Had, say, China or Russia been first to overcome childhood mortality, the modern world would be very different."


One demographic reality is that religious societies breed more than non-religious ones. In the U.S. pious 'red' states out-reproduce secular 'blue' ones. In 'post-Christian' Europe the birth rate has plummeted below the 2.2 children per woman replacement rate and in many places is approaching what demographers call 'lowest-low' fertility - 1.3 births per woman - where populations go into steep decline. By 2050, Italy's population will have fallen by 22 per cent.

On the other hand, the highest birth rate countries are mostly Moslem. The long term may be unpredictable, but it takes 25 years to produce an adult. So in a generation, barring catastrophe, there will be a lot more faithful Moslems and a lot less non-practising Europeans than there are now. 'Developed' and 'developing' country birth rates are converging. But even within national borders, faith and fertility go together. The 'religion is dying' crowd have it backwards.

It's very curious. Every other organism reproduces at its maximum environmental capacity rate. Why do humans alone need 'divine' prompting to 'Go forth and multiply'? Dostoevsky once wrote that "If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once."

Well, the population facts support his thesis. From a biological point of view it's clearly better to believe in anything rather than nothing.

Maybe those campaigning for atheists to be described as 'brights', in the same way as homosexuals are referred to as 'gays', are on to something. From a purely organic perspective, atheists and homosexuals are both low reproductive minorities who drastically under-contribute to the human gene pool.

Demographics also suggest that however admirable on the individual level, liberal western values likely weaken the general reproductive will.


Feminism, tolerance for homosexuality and legal abortion are all negatively correlated with state fertility. While rigidly patriarchal traditional societies tend to have high birth rates. The 'open-minded' can't understand why 'religious fanatics' don't share our 'modern educated' outlook on gender and sex. But maybe on an instinctual level, they know something we don't?

Take, for instance, Britain and Iran. In 1950 the former had 50 million people and the latter 16 million. Now Britain has 60 million and Iran has 70 million. Britain scores better on virtually every quality of life measure.

No sensible - at least western educated - person would choose to live in theocratic fundamentalist Iran instead of tolerant and free Britain. Yet Iran has gone from having less than one third Britain's population to having 15 per cent more people. So which is the more successful country? Well, what matters more, genes or ideas?

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: