Dan Brown does a lot of complicated historical research for his novels like The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. Sometimes, a simple raw number just jumps out at him, and onto the page.
"A couple years ago," he told me on WNPR's Where We Live, "I heard a statistic that just sort of floored me: In the last 80 years, the population on the planet Earth has tripled. I thought, 'That can't be right.'"
Brown said, "I’m of the belief, as are many people, that all of these environmental issues we see right now -- lack of fresh water, possibly global warming, too much pollution, plagues -- these are the sort of things that are not actually problems. They’re symptoms of an underlying disease, which, in my opinion, is overpopulation."
Brown used this as the basis for the villainous plot in his latest book, Inferno.
Overpopulation is a topic we've talked about on Where We Live before, after reading a book called The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future. It was, in part, about Paul Ehrlich, who became famous in the 1970s with his book, The Population Bomb. It outlined a doomsday scenario in which the world’s food and resources just couldn’t keep up with overpopulation. His controversial ideas became even more famous because of his regular appearances on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."
Brown said that he read Ehrlich's work closely, even though he knows that might upset some of his fans who don't care for Ehrlich's premise. What's so compelling about the argument about rapid overpopulation of the Earth? "I happen to believe in the power of mathematics," he said. "Some have written and said, 'Hey, ya know what? The birth rate is actually slowing,' which is true. I equate that with all of us in a car driving 100 miles an hour towards a cliff, and six inches from the edge, we start to brake. I don’t think it’s going to help."
When I started speaking with Brown about the overpopulation of earth, the conversation quickly turned to the National Climate Assessment, and a subject he gets asked about more often: spirituality.
Dan Brown: [Overpopulation] is one of these topics, similar to religion or to Vatican politics, or to any of these things I write about, where there are really great arguments on both sides. I feel like my job is to get readers interested in the topic. Whether or not they agree with whatever they take away from the book is really irrelevant. What they need to do is be interested in the fact that our population has grown dramatically, that there are quite possibly technologies that will come along that will enable us to live in the future with an overpopulated planet but, you know, maybe not.
John Dankosky: Have you got a chance to read this most recent climate assessment that paints a very bleak picture of what we’re doing to the planet, and how quickly temperatures are rising, and ice sheets are melting?
I’ve certainly read the highlights, and it’s incredibly alarming. The funny thing about that is that whether you believe that man is causing this change or not, it’s happening. Why it’s happening is really kind of irrelevant. It’s happening, and we need to do something about it.
The real concern is that a lot of these scientists are saying, "There’s not much we can do." We’re going to need to learn to live in a different kind of world.
As we talk about overpopulation, it makes me think about The DaVinci Code, and how many Catholics were upset. A book about overpopulation has faced some of the same criticism from religious groups. How have you addressed that criticism, coming from very religious people, who feel that the themes that you’re talking about are, in many ways, offensive to their belief systems?
I haven’t had that much pushback from the Catholic Church, or from Christianity as a whole, on Inferno. I think I mentioned the Vatican only once, just to mention that they’d gone into Africa behind the World Health Organization, which spent years and millions of dollars there, distributing condoms, and teaching people about sexually-transmitted diseases, only to have a bunch of missionaries go in behind them, and tell everybody they’ll be damned if they use them, which was pretty upsetting to a whole lot of people who felt that some of these diseases could be prevented.
As far as how I deal with the criticism, I essentially try to write books that let people think about topics that I find interesting. It doesn’t matter to me whether somebody agrees or disagrees with whatever the premise of the novel may be. The idea’s really just to spark a debate. On some level, I have to welcome any level of criticism, because it is a debate. That’s really where I fall on that.
What’s your religious background?
I was raised Episcopalian. My mom was the choir director and the church organist at an Episcopal church in New Hampshire. I was in the choir. I was confirmed; I went to Bible school. My dad is a mathematician and a textbook author, and teaches at Phillips Academy, and I sort of grew up in these conflicting worlds of science and religion.
Everything was fine, until I learned about the big bang around the same time I learned about Adam and Eve, and I got a little confused. I asked a priest which one of the stories is true. Did God create Adam and Eve, or did we evolve? Did the big bang happen, or did God just sort of make the heavens? This priest responded, “Nice boys don’t ask that question.” That was really the moment I started studying science, and moving away from religion.
I should add, as a caveat, that I studied a lot of science, a lot of physics and the further you progress into physics particularly the mushier the ground starts to get. Physics starts looking like religion, and you come full circle, and you realize that science and religion are just two different languages that are trying to tell the same story; trying to get us some answers.
I love that idea. The whole concept of theoretical physics, really, at the end of the day, is quite a bit like religion, isn’t it? It's hard to pin down.
It is absolutely hilarious to talk to some of these people who have been hard-core physicists their whole lives, and are now having religious experiences. They’re over at CERN; they see some results; they start scratching their heads, and they say, “Well, that means there must be a God!” So, it’s kind of amusing.
This idea of science and religion needing to be in conflict seems to be something we hear about a lot in American society, and I don’t know if there really needs to be the kind of split there is. It’s clearly something you’ve grappled with. It seems as though we’ve almost divided into two camps: those who believe in religion, or those who believe in science. I’ve interviewed many people who are scientists, who clearly believe in some sort of higher power, but they don’t believe in the way the church may teach it. I think that this is something that more of us would like to see: People who are grappling with both ideas, rather than rejecting one, or the other.
I agree wholeheartedly. I think a lot of the problem is just nomenclature. We need words to define what it is we’re talking about. Even among religions, somebody says "God," and somebody has a different word for "God," and they argue. They are actually arguing the same thing. They’re just arguing over vocabulary on some level.
As far as the battles between science and religion, I think those battles occur with people who are at the beginning of their religious evolution, and at the beginning of their scientific evolution. I think that deeply spiritual people, who have progressed long down that progress line of understanding spirituality -- understanding their thoughts about God, and the soul, and the heavens, and all of that -- are much closer in ideology to those scientists who have simultaneously progressed a long way down their progress line. [They've] started to understand that, wow, the deeper we go into science, and physics becomes metaphysics, numbers become imaginary numbers, and we now know that matter itself -- we’re not even sure it exists; it’s just really matter -- is now considered to be nothing but trapped energy, and hey, the Bible says that God is nothing but energy, and God is all around us. Maybe we’re saying the same thing.
I think it’s those people who are a long way down that line, and understand at a very high level, that will look at each other across the aisle, or the altar, and say, I guess we’re saying the same thing. We just say it in slightly different ways.
A term that comes to me, when anyone talks about overpopulation, is the idea of "playing God." One of the things that’s fascinated me from a policy standpoint is that here in America, we will spend hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of dollars, to keep one individual alive through terrible disease. Those same millions of dollars may be used overseas to save millions of people from some disease that wouldn’t kill us here in America. This idea of global organizations working in Africa, trying to solve these intractable problems -- it seems we never really seem to get anywhere. There are always going to be people starving and dying, and there’s going to be too many babies born into terrible circumstances. Meanwhile, here in the Western world, we’re spending the same money just to stay alive for a few years. It’s a real paradox right now, living in 2014, I think.
I agree. It is actually, I believe, a spiritual question. It’s a question of what is the value of a soul. If you really boil it down, we, on some level, by our policies, are making the argument that one soul that lives well, that is not in poverty, that is not in a terrible situation, is, according to argument, worth the same as hundreds of souls that are struggling.
This gets back to overpopulation, where we say: if we had four billion people on the earth, half as many as we have now, and we could all live well, and not struggle, because we have enough natural resources... does God prefer four billion happy souls, or does he prefer nine billion souls in varied states of happiness? It’s a tough question.
Below, listen to the full interview with Dan Brown on WNPR's Where We Live: