Too Many Americans
American demographers occupy a position of unchallenged respectability in the academic world despite the obvious connection between their subject and the unruly facts of sex and the political and religious controversies swirling about the question of birth control. Because they rarely stray beyond the careful, craftsmanlike recording of population trends, it is easy to forget that population is after all a consequence of copulation. There are, I am almost sure (though this is an impression, for I have not undertaken a demographic analysis to confirm it), proportionately fewer women, Jews, Negroes and, for obvious reasons, Catholics, in the ranks of demographers than among sociologists, the larger academic grouping to which demographers belong. The professional meetings of demographers tend to be stodgy and abstemious in contrast to the frantic and febrile atmosphere of sociology conventions.
The studied avoidance of controversy by the demographers is partly owing to the fact that the federal Bureau of the Census and National Office of Vital Statistics have long provided them with secure, prestigious, but politically sterile jobs outside the academy. Intellectually, demographers have never had to struggle for recognition as “real” scientists by trying to quantify their subject-matter, for their basic data are quantities to begin with. Since it would be impossible to investigate the facts of population by methods other than those they use, demographers are happily immune from the accusations of pseudo-scientism so often leveled at the sociologists. Moreover, their discipline has a longer intellectual history than sociology: the importance of their subject-matter is acknowledged even in the American Constitution, which directs the federal government to undertake a census of the population every decade.
These factors combine to give demographers something of the caution and security-mindedness of highly skilled craftsmen. But the inevitable result of their readiness to neutralize the explosive implications of their material has been that a host of amateurs and cranks have rushed into the breach to produce a voluminous popular literature on population problems. Most of it is either extravagantly alarmist about continuing population growth or extravagantly counter-alarmist, invoking the marvels of science or the improved productive efficiency to be expected from social reform in order to lay the ghost of the overcrowded, starving anthill world conjured up by neo-Malthusian writers. Conservationists depressed by the spread of suburbia into the countryside, geneticists concerned about the higher “breeding rates” of allegedly inferior human stocks, biologists eager to subsume the growth of human numbers under some general law governing the expansion of animal species, retired army officers with a taste for geopolitical speculation, economists equipped to support their theological convictions with economic ratiocination—these are the sorts of people who contribute to the flood of popular literature on population. Demographers, although they presumably know most about the subject and are better disposed to minimize its importance, have been extraordinarily reticent about participating in this public debate. The authors of these books deserve congratulations for having taken the plunge.
The Days’ book is written for a large audience. Their thesis is that …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.