Do the Dead Outnumber the Living?

Back in the early days of the Internet I said the living outnumber the dead. I think it was on LiveJournal. You’d have thought I was stomping on kittens. Or maybe I too sensitive. Anyway it must have scarred me because now I can’t see anything about this topic without wanting to come out swinging.

I was arguing there aren’t enough lives to go around to give everyone alive today a bunch of past lives. Unless, of course, you want to drag in other planets.

Back then, I couldn’t remember where I got such an idea. Somewhere respectable, I’m sure.

Other people said, Oh no. That’s not at all true. The people living now are just a small part of humanity. This is a myth designed to scare people about population growth. Very Malthusian. Surprised you fell for it.

Someone suggested I go back and re-read Arthur C. Clarke. He said, “Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living” (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968).

Okay, my bad. And I did remember reading that (and thinking it would be a great reincarnation quote). I just didn’t stick with it. I was persuaded the other way. Some day I might find or remember where that was. Was it Annie Dillard? Seems like. Maybe.

In the years since then, I’ve found a fairly consistent answer. It depends on modern experts making educated guesses about the number of people who have ever lived. There’s a fairly wide range of opinion here but one thing seems certain. There must have been a lot of people in the past who died young or didn’t reproduce for one reason or another. There has to have been really a lot in each generation in order for the population to grow.

Here’s an article that says, “In fact, there are 15 dead people for every person living.” I’ll go with that. For now.