image by author after Landscape with a Goat and Two Dogs (1644) by Hendrick Hondius

The Great Pause Week 76: The Goats of Juan Fernandes Island

Albert Bates
Aug 29 · 7 min read

The world’s population is now leveling off to 10 billion. There it will stay, do whatever anyone will.

In 1786, an anonymous “Well-Wisher to Mankind,” later revealed as one Joseph Townsend, published in London A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. In it he described the history of an island named Juan Fernandes in the South Seas.

In this sequestered spot, John Fernando placed a colony of goats, consisting of one male, attended by his female. This happy couple finding pasture in abundance, could readily obey the first commandment, to increase and multiply, till in process of time they had replenished their little island.

The inevitable outcome, of course, was that having no natural goat predators on the island, the goats continued to multiply until they had exhausted the food supply and began to starve. Then the colony was reduced in number until a balance was again struck, after which the population rebounded, followed by famine, and the cycle repeated.

When the Spaniards found that the English privateers resorted to this island for provisions, they resolved on the total extirpation of the goats, and for this purpose they put on shore a greyhound dog and bitch. These in their turn increased and multiplied, in proportion to the quantity of food they met with; but in consequence, as the Spaniards had foreseen, the breed of goats diminished. Had they been totally destroyed, the dogs likewise must have perished. But as many of the goats retired to the craggy rocks, where the dogs could never follow them, descending only for short intervals to feed with fear and circumspection in the valleys, few of these, besides the careless and the rash, became a prey; and none but the most watchful, strong, and active of the dogs could get a sufficiency of food. Thus a new kind of balance was established. The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.

From this Townsend drew the lesson and purpose for his pamphlet: “It is the quantity of food which regulates the numbers of the human species.”

After reading Townsend, the ecologist Garrett Harden asked,

If all this great earth be no more than the Island of Juan Fernandes, and if we are the goats, how can we live “the good life” without a functional equivalent of the dogs? Must we create and sustain our own dogs? Can we do so, consciously? And if we can, what manner of beast will they be?

Perhaps the beast they be is a novel coronavirus. Like the process of evolution that weans out those dogs lacking sufficient stealth and climbing skill to catch a goat, with each generation, or variant, this virus becomes more fit for purpose. Its purpose is not to exterminate us; the killing is merely a consequence of its breeding scheme. Its purpose is to reproduce.

Our breeding is much slower, as much as two decades between generations, and as we have seen, a virus can evolve many times in the course of a year.

We likely can’t develop immunity for every virus or parasite that comes along. We haven’t yet for Ebola, HIV, or many others, after decades of trying. We should probably be grateful for these beasts, because if it weren’t for them we might have already perished of thirst or starvation, surrounded by multitudes of like kind in parched and famished condition.

Townsend’s conclusion about food regulating population, while embraced by Darwin and Malthus, also drew its critics. Francis Bowen, writing a century later, concluded:

On examining the facts in the case more closely, it will always be found that it is not the excess of population which causes the misery, but the misery which causes the excess of population.
Universally the law is, that the numbers of the poor increase most rapidly, of the middle classes more slowly, and of the upper or wealthier ones either not at all, or so slowly as hardly to be perceptible. ‘By a singular anomaly,’ says Alison, a well-informed English writer upon the subject, ‘the rapidity of increase is in the inverse ratio of the means which are afforded of maintaining a family in comfort and independence. It is greatest when these means are least, and least when they are the greatest.’

According to Bowen, the goats and dogs on the island would have reproduced most when food and comfort were at their lowest ebb. By crude analogy, Nigeria is expected to surpass China and India to become the most populous country by mid-century, not because it is best positioned of the three to afford it, but in large part because its people are the poorest.

Bowen’s hypothesis is the foundation of present day sustainable development goals that assume that to curb population we must first raise standards of living.

In the late Hans Rosling’s popular TEDx Talk, “Religions and Babies,” the demographer said it was neither wealth nor poverty that determined population growth after 1960. Neither was it religion or cultural factors. It may have been food and comfort up to a point, but no longer. The world’s population is now leveling off to 10 billion. There it will stay, do whatever anyone will.

Rosling said that what arrests increase in human population today are four factors: children surviving to reach adulthood, children not needed for work, women getting an education and joining the labor force, and accessible means of family planning.

We have reached peak child. The number of children is not growing any longer in the world. We are still debating peak oil, but we have definitely reached peak child. And the world population will stop growing. The United Nations Population Division has said it will stop growing at 10 billion. … So when you discuss and when you plan for the resources and the energy needed for the future, for human beings on this planet, you have to plan for 10 billion.

There is a great deal of worrisome hand-waving in countries like Italy, China, and France about negative population growth and what it will mean for the economy. There it is again, the “e” word we hear whenever we are told schools and businesses must reopen even without mask rules, contact tracing or vaccinations for all students and teachers. The ‘“e” is more important than other values, apparently, such as health, or life.

China need not worry. It only has to look to Tibet, Nepal or Bhutan. It can find examples of quality of living rising even as economies and populations decline. There is a science to that, as important — more important I would argue — than putting robots on Mars or hailing autonomous Didi Chuxing gyrocopters.

Goats and the dogs are a stable system. Together they co-evolve to make a better goats and dogs.


Anon. 1786. London: A Dissertation on the Poor Laws.
Bowen F. 1879. Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism, North American Review.
Hardin, G. Ed, 1964. Population, Evolution and Birth Control: A Collage of Controversial Readings, San Francisco: Freeman & Co..
Rosling H. 2012. “Religions and Babies,” May 22, 2012 TEDx Talk

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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