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Dan Brown, Overpopulation, and the Plunging Fertility Rates of Turkey and Iran

Submitted by on May 21, 2013 – 8:29 am 15 Comments |  
Global overpopulation has recently returned to the public spotlight with the publication of Inferno, the latest offering from novelist Dan Brown, author of the 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code. A mystery thriller on the surface, Inferno is ultimately a piece of demographic fiction. As one reviewer notes, “The specter of a catastrophically overpopulated Earth, its desperate people grasping and clawing for diminishing resources, looms large over the novel. It’s a scene that evokes all the pain and suffering of Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell in “The Divine Comedy.” Brown himself stresses his Malthusian vision, noting in an interview that “Futurists don’t consider overpopulation one of the issues of the future. They consider it the issue of the future.” As is true of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno is striking hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, attacking it for its opposition to contraception and family planning. Taking on the Catholic Church has evidently not hurt sales; to the contrary, some reviewers almost seem to regard it as a marketing ploy. According to the Daily Mail, “The Da Vinci Code offended the Vatican, and was denounced by the Pope. What better publicity could an author hope for?”

Brown’s extraordinary popularity—with books sales of more than 200 million—seems to attract excessive criticism. According to the Belfast Times, his treatment at the hands of critics has been nothing less than “hellish.” Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, tells us that “Dan Brown Is Back, As Bad as Ever.” Many of the harsh reviews of Inferno focus on factual errors, some of which are rather petty. The Daily Beast, for example,  “fact-checks” the book and finds 10 significant “Mistakes, False Statements, and Oversimplifications.” A typical example runs as follows:

After hyping up the brains of heroine Dr. Sienna Brooks, with her enormous IQ of 208 (Stephen Hawking only scored 200) and her various degrees, Brown then presents her as unfamiliar with Venetian Carnival plague-doctor masks. Anyone who has been to Venice, or even watched a Travel Channel documentary about Venice, will know of them.

InfernoBut despite the unforgiving nature of the criticism, Brown’s central concern—that of human overpopulation threatening to overwhelm the planet—has gone almost unnoted. Evidently, this scenario seems reasonable to most reviewers. It is not. Fertility rates are declining if not plummeting almost everywhere, and have already gone below the replacement rate across much of the so-called Third World. After a few billion more people are added, a plateau will be reached and then a gradual fall will likely commence.

Brown’s more specific charges against the Roman Catholic Church are also problematic. Certainly one can object to the Church’s stance on contraception and family planning, but the fact remains that a minority of Catholics actually follow such teachings. Most primarily Catholic countries have birthrates close to or below the replacement level. Exceptions certainly exist, such as East Timor, the Philippines, and Guatemala. Many Catholic areas in Africa, moreover, have very high fertility levels. In Europe, however, the traditionally Catholic countries, except France and Ireland, have substantially lower birthrates than the historically Lutheran Nordic countries. Several Latin American countries of Catholic heritage have lower birthrates than the heavily Protestant areas of the United States.

Turkey Iran TFR GraphFertility QuizAs the reactions to Inferno make clear, an impending population catastrophe remains ingrained in the public imagination. As noted in the previous post on this issue, my own students substantially overestimated fertility rates across India. They also seem to find the idea of a global population explosion difficult to shake. After quizzing them on India’s birthrate a few weeks ago, I showed them fertility-rate maps of both South Asia and the world at large. Last Friday, I quizzed them again, this time on the demographic situations of Iran and Turkey. The image posted here shows my question, the response from the class, and the correct answer. As can be seen, most students expected  higher birthrates in these countries than they actually have.

As it turns out, Iran has experienced one of the world’s most precipitous birthrate declines, its total fertility rate falling from 6.52 in 1982 to 1.67 in 2010. This drop has led the Iranian government to another u-turn in family planning; the pro-natalist policy initiated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was replaced by a family-planning agenda in 1989, but now large families are again encouraged. According to a recent article in the International Business Times:

Teheran officials, who have spearheaded a door-to-door campaign to spread a health education propaganda drive, want to spark a baby boom that would double the Iranian population to about 150 million. The Daily Telegraph reported that no less than 150,000 health workers have mobilized for the ambitious project, literally knocking on the doors of homes to encourage single-child families to have more offspring.

The fertility decline in Turkey has not been as steep as that of Iran, but it has been steady, the total fertility rate falling from 4.57 in 1979 to 2.06 in 2011. As in Iran, the country’s government is not pleased. As recently reported in Al-Monitor:

Himself a father of four, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan has urged married couples to have at least three children, pushing his message bluntly on every platform — from casual chats and wedding ceremonies to party meetings and diplomatic occasions. Arguing that a larger, youthful population will help propel Turkey into the world’s top 10 economies, he has vilified past policies of “family planning” and made bizarre warnings of plots “to wipe the Turkish nation off the global stage.” Recently, he has upped the bar even higher, calling for four or five children.

Turkey TFR MapOne of the reasons why Erdogan is so concerned about the Turkish fertility decline is its geographical imbalance. In the more prosperous western regions of the country, the fertility rate is now roughly 1.5 and falling, whereas in the Kurdish-speaking southeast it is roughly 3.5 and perhaps rising. As recently reported in International Business Times:

Thus, Turkey is facing a demographic time bomb — Kurds, who tend to be concentrated in the country’s impoverished southeast and are generally poorer and less educated — could conceivably outnumber Turks within about 30 years should present patterns persist.

Despite the dreams and plans of the Turkish and Iranian government, it seems highly unlikely that pro-natalist policies will result in a return to the high birth-rates of the past.

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  • A more detailed and recent map of fertility in Turkey (2012 data):

    The large regional differences are striking.

    • Many thanks for posting this excellent map. The regional disparities are indeed striking. Also interesting is the fact that not all Kurdish areas fall in the high fertility zone. Tunceli province, for example, is in the second lowest fertility category. Tunceli is noted as a center of the Alevi sect, a relatively liberal, gender-egalitarian Shia offshoot. Also of note is the fact that while the majority population of Tunceli is usually classified as Kurdish, it is actually Zazaki-speaking. The birth-rate in the Zazaki-speaking areas is notably lower than that of “Kurdish-proper” zone.

  • While not the focus of this article, I think it’s important to note that the author somewhat oversimplifies the Iranian case. Additionally, it is unfortunate that the quote from the International Business Times offers an extremely misleading statistic!

    The Iranian family planning program that began in the late 1980s is the most successful voluntary family planning program in modern history (in terms of how quickly it reduced birthrates) and was achieved, among other means, through a mass mobilization of volunteers from all over the country that spread sex education, access to birth control, and other kinds of family planning tools into even the most remote villages, suburbs, and slums. These network still exist, and the 150,000 volunteers mentioned in the quote are today a part of that network. They are permanently mobilized as health care workers, and so it is quite strange to imagine that after 20 years of helping people have fewer kids and access to birth control, tomorrow they will begin spread the gospel of having big families! An overly confident official + a less than scrupulous Western press give a quite misleading impression…

    Anyways, nice to see Iran’s family planning program covered, at least somewhat.

    More info on the mobilization for family planning:

    and in health care:

    • Many thanks for the additional information and for the links. I imagine that there is a great diversity of viewpoints among the 150,000 volunteers, and among governmental officials as well. But I also do not doubt that many members of the Iranian clerical establishment would like to see a much higher fertility rate. And that establishment does have great power — power enough to prevent Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running for president.

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  • It’s fiction because it’s not factual. Dan Brown is fortunate that many people prefer their imaginations to reality.

    • lzardo

      the very same can be said about all religions…

      • noanswers

        Quite the over-simplifier aren’t we? Of course, all theists are the same. Right? Like all Jews, Atheists, Mexicans, Blacks, Rich People, and so on, they must all be the same! Atheism may seem more reasonable to many folks out there, but my belief in a magical Jewish Carpenter who rose from the dead is rather hard to disprove given the vast connotations implied within such a belief. Men will always be on poor footing when contending with Gods.

  • LiseP

    Before dismissing concerns about overpopulation, best to check global population projections. Latest median projections by the UN’s Population Division suggest world population will grow a further 50% by 2100 to exceed 10.8 billion. Yes, overall fertility rates are declining, but not fast enough to prevent a surging global population. We must heed the bottom line numbers – at 7 billion, we humans are already living well beyond the limits of ecological sustainability; we have everiy reason to fear, and try to avoid, a world at 10.8 billion. I congratulate both Turkey and Iran for moving toward more sustainable population levels!

    • SirBedevere

      By Rev. Malthus’s calculations, we were living beyond the limits of ecological sustainability by the late 19c. Eppur si muove.

    • S.M. Stirling

      The UN “high” and “median” projections share something: they’re always too high. Mostly because they contain unrealistic assumptions — eg., that areas below replacement level will somehow mysteriously go back to at least 2.1 TFR’s.

      The “low” projection, which doesn’t contain this assumption, is historically by far the most accurate. And according to that one, the world will peak at well under 9 billion and begin to fall within the next 30 years.

      More to the point, a falling population due to lower fertility means a -continuously aging- population: each generation is smaller than the one before.

      This is an unsustainable downward spiral, because the increasing burden on the working-age population makes family formation more and more difficult. It’s a slow-motion catastrophe.

    • ProfBob

      Suggest reading Book 1 of the series It goes into much more than food supply. Natural resources, climate change, youth unemployment, waste control, and other factors must be considered. Priests may want more souls to save and wallets to fleece and businessmen want more consumers–but society needs intelligent directions based on employability, happiness, and racial survival.