Number Problems in the Bible

Students of the Old Testament often scratch their heads over some of the numbers there. A useful resource on this challenge comes from a section of the Church’s Old Testament Student Manual.

One of the most interesting examples of an issue with numbers is 1 Samuel 13:1, where the text is actually missing one number and part of another. What makes it so interesting is to see how different translations of the Bible attempt to fill in the gap.

Whether we are dealing with the Bible or the Book of Mormon, it’s important to realize that the work of writing, transcribing, copying, translating, and printing a text means that the Word of God passes through numerous human hands, each capable of error. We rejoice in the sacred gift of the scriptures and must look to them for guidance and inspiration, but we need to recognize that imperfections are possible, and that the final authority and source of all truth must be God, not a printed work made with the help of fallible mortals. Frankly, that’s actually one more reason why it’s so important to have modern revelation through authorized servants of God, the apostles and prophets, and one more reason why I’m grateful that this has been restored.

April 14 Update: For insight into some of the numerical issues in the Book of Mormon, see Brant Gardner’s page, “Counts and Numbers in the Book of Mormon.”


Author: Jeff Lindsay

22 thoughts on “Number Problems in the Bible

  1. Jeff, what about the tens/hundreds problem? The Old Testament Institute manual points to possible inflation by a factor of ten because of ambiguity in the Hebrew. Not in the whole number, but just in the part of the number greater than 999 or maybe the part greater than 99.

    I just remembered this while listening to a French course on CD. The French say 71 as “sixty eleven.” And 80 as “four twenty,” and 91 as “four twenty eleven”.

    So I wonder what kind of ancient numeric conventions existed in Hebrew for large numbers.

    The concept of verbalizing or writing numbers, especially large numbers, just doesn’t carry across cultures. I thought the Roman numbering system was crazy when I learned it as a kid, writing four as “one less than 5” as in “IV”, instead of having a number of its own.

    The idea of quantity is the same, of 4 apples, or IV apples. A person can visualize “four” of something. But to the Romans it’s IV, and to us it’s 4. And if you have 70 apples, to the french it’s “sixty-ten”.

    Many groups of pre-columbian american Indians didn’t have a way of writing or verbalizing numbers, but had a system called “quipu” which was a stick with a series of strings. Numbers were represented by making knots in the string. It may have been somewhat analogous to the columns of beads on an abacus.

    Using a spreadsheet, I tried to estimate what the birth rate would have had to be to achieve the numbers in the population at Moses’ time from the 12 sons of Israel. I forget the exact numbers, but if you don’t try to impose the birthrates of modern industrialized societies on the Israelites, it was definitely do-able, with the only assumption that there were no wars, epidemics, or famines to wipe out a significant portion from the time of Joseph welcomed his family to Egypt until the Exodus.

  2. Bookslinger, I think you’re being a bit overoptimistic about the Israelite-in-Egypt population growth problem. From Genesis 46, we have that the number of people (not counting wives) who went to Egypt was 70. Let’s be generous and instead call it 200. Then from Genesis 15:13-16, we have that the Israelites were in Egypt for only four generations, an idea supported by the geneology of Moses in Exodus 6:14-20. (Moses’s line is given as: Levi-Kohath-Amram-Moses. The water is muddied somewhat by references to 400 years in Egypt, but we must remember that life spans and generational intervals recorded in the Pentateuch are usually distended: Levi lived 137 years, Kohath lived 133 years, and Amram lived 137 years. So four generations and 400 years are compatible, given the narrative strategy of the Pentateuch.)

    Next: how many people left Egypt at the end of 4 generations? The census reported in Numbers 1 gives a total count of men as 600,000, which implies an overall population of about 2,000,000. Let’s make the most generous assumption and use a Malthusian, unlimited-population-growth model to analyze this: what growth rate is needed to turn 200 into 2,000,000 in 4 generations? Because we don’t know how many overlapping generations are represented in the 2,000,000, let’s be careful and allow 6 generations of growth. A 530.958% growth rate between generations is required. This means that every male-female couple must marry and have about 13 children who survive to reproduce. This, in turn, implies 20-30 births per reproducing couple during the entire Egyptian period; not a likely result.

    There are arguments reducing the Exodus population to about 20,000. That would, in our model, require an intergenerational growth rate of about 151%; each possible couple would have to reproduce and have about 5 children who also survive to reproduce. Given normal incidence of infertility and death before maturity, that implies 10-15 children per reproducing couple. Once again, this is an unlikely result, since the entire population needs to maintain this high average through four whole generations; every single couple that has only 5 children, say, has to be compensated by a couple with 18-20 children.

    In general, it’s worth remembering that, while pre-industrial agrarian societies had higher birth rates than modern societies, they also had much lower population growth rates. This is because very high mortality was the norm. So, if we adopt typical population growth rates from, say, 6000 BC, the problem becomes worse, not better.

    A last note: Quechua (the language associated with the Inka empire, where the quipu system is from) does indeed have words for numbers. In fact, here they are. Quechua (along with all the other Andean languages) wasn’t written, although there is some evidence that quipu could encode words as well as numbers. So you’re right that the Inka couldn’t write numbers, but they certainly could verbalize numbers.

    Sorry to get all nit-picky, but these are interesting topics to me. I’m convinced that the Egyptian-Israelite population growth problem can’t reasonably be solved, which is just evidence that the Old Testament is an ancient text with some folklore in it — not a conclusion that should scare us. I do understand why people want to solve it, but the numbers are somewhat unforgiving. As Jeff pointed out in the post, I think all that really means is that we ought to be careful about our expectations for the precision of ancient scriptural counts…

  3. Roasted Tomatoes, I don’t think the only conclusion to the number problem is a combination of folklore and history. For example, let’s say it really was 20,000, not 2,000,000 — then maybe it was a a translation error, or originally there was a gap in the text that was corrected by a later scribe who wasn’t so well educated in mathemathics.

    In any case, this is all very interesting.

  4. Joseph, the figure of 2,000,000 isn’t drawn from a single statement; it’s drawn from an entire chapter that provides a number of separate counts. Even the argument reducing the population to 20,000 is dubious–but the text simply doesn’t permit a lower figure without throwing out an entire, detailed census. If there was a change made by some scribe, it thus involves the rewriting of an entire chapter to create a much larger Israel — and therefore meets the criterion of folklore…

    Again, I understand the motive for wanting to make the Bible accurate in historical detail — but no other ancient national history is accurate in that way. Should we be terribly alarmed if the Bible reflects the cultural practices of its time and place? I can’t see any cause for concern, or for excessive manipulation of the text to fix the numbers.

  5. I have often wondered, in reading about the final battles between the Nephites and Lamanites, or the battles in the Book of Ether, whether there might be a more ambiguous meaning to “ten thousand.” I realize the translation was done by the power of the Holy Ghost, but I don’t think that leaves no room for misunderstanding. “Ten thousand” could be the most direct but not the most perfectly accurate way of translating whatever was on the plates.

  6. Roasted:

    I resolve it this way. When speaking of time, not genealogies, a “generation” may be said to consist of a life-span from birth to death, not from birth to the time when your middle child was born.

    Moses definition of “generation” in speaking of time periods may indeed have been 100 years. However, it is a more modern definition that calls a generation 25 years, or limits it strictly to the reproductive sense.

    Four generations of time, in that context, would then mean four complete lifespans, and if each lifespan in that context was 100 years, then it works out to 400 years.

    But that is not to say that generations of _reproduction_ were limited to 4, or that reproduction cycles are measured in 100 year intervals.

    See the different uses of the word “generation”? Your line of logic takes _our_ meaning of “generation” which is strictly the reproductive sense, and applies it to the context used by Moses as author. Which application may not be appropriate.

    If we assume that the actual time in years was indeed 400, that doesn’t mean there was _only_ four reproductive generations for most lines of descendancy from the original 70.

    If we assume each reproductive generation is say 30 years, then there were 13 reproductive generations (according to OUR modern definition) in the 400 year period.

    If you take that measure, then the numbers of Exodus can be achieved by an agrarian-style birthrate, but absent major calamities.

  7. I agree that “ten thousand” in the Book of Mormon may refer to a military group that may actually have had a smaller number of men.

    Here is an excerpt from Brant Gardner’s excellent discussion of “Counts and Numbers in the Book of Mormon“:

    In each of these cases, we have a number ending in a thousand that is given with the assurance of a counted number. However, it is quite probable that these are still estimates, and not counts. The very fact that the number is precisely even in each of these cases, combined with the large number that would make a count difficult, suggests that these numbers are still estimates. A. Brent Merrill makes a similar caution in regards to what appears to be a standard military unit of ten thousand (see Alma 56:28 and Morm. 6:11-15):

    “The foregoing discussion further suggests that one must be careful when interpreting references to Nephite field armies normally composed of ten thousand men. To illustrate this point, the army of Antipus mentioned earlier almost certainly numbered about ten thousand when originally deployed. Through casualties and capture, this number was reduced to about six thousand. If, however, the Nephite reference to “ten thousand” was a form of unit designation—an organizational title—then one might properly say that, although his forces were seriously depleted, he still commanded an Army of Ten Thousand. An example of this can be seen in early Roman military organization. A unit called a “century,” meaning one hundred, originally consisted of one hundred soldiers commanded by a “centurion.” Later, because a unit of one hundred men was too large for a single officer to control readily, the size varied from sixty to eighty men, but the designation “century” was retained. In other words, it is not certain whether Nephite armies of “ten thousand” always maintained this number of troops. There could have been more, or less, depending on battlefield attrition or evolving Nephite usage of this description as an organizational title. The phrase “ten thousand” might not always be an accurate count of manpower.” (Merrill, A. Brent. “Nephite Captains and Armies.” In:Warfare in the Book of Mormon. FARMS 1990, p. 270-271).

    Just as an army of ten thousand might not equal precisely ten thousand, some of the other numbers given make most sense as estimates rather than specific counts. The very fact that the benchmark number is used suggests that these numbers are estimates rather than counts. Particularly when they are counting casualties, it is extremely unlikely that the dead always managed to occur in even thousands.

  8. Roasted,
    Further counterpoints. I realize these are “it could be’s” but I think they are within the realm of possibilities.

    Moses’ 3 direct male ancestors could have been men who took wives much later in life than their contemporaries.

    So just because Moses had only 4 generations back to the 12, doesn’t mean everyone else was limited to 4 to 6 generations.

    If we go with the 400 years, it is likely that some lines of descendency had 16 reproductive generations from the 12 sons to the Exodus. For some reason I like 13, because it works out if you assume women started having babies at age 25 and stopped at age 35.

    We don’t know the typical starting age of childbearing back then. It could have been in the 14 to 20 year age range typical of today’s agrarian cultures. Or, given the long life-spans, sexual maturity could may been reached later in life and child-bearing could have started much later.

    Given the long life spans, the length of child-bearing years could also have been greatly extended beyond what occurs today. Fertility could have been extended longer into a woman’s life. I think that could be a reasonable possibility.

    Even if their women had 24 fertile years congruent to today’s women, 15 live births would still be possible.

    And if their fertile years extended longer than today’s women, the even higher numbers of live births you cited are possible.

    It’s also nebulous for us to extrapolate infant and child mortality rates from today’s agrarian societies back to that point in time. Given that life spans were longer, it could be that birth defects had a much lower rate of occurance. The gene pool was much closer to Adam and Eve’s ideal which generated lifespans of centuries.

    It could also be that they just didn’t have all the same diseases we have today.

    We look backwards and see all the progress made against disease and we assume that it was always worse in the past. But I think there is a big assumption made if we think the prevalence or even the existence of every disease dates from the creation. Just because disease was worse 100, 500, 1000, even 2000 years ago, it doesn’t remove the possibility that at some point in the past, but long after Adam, that those diseases or birth defects came into existence, or existed but just hadn’t erupted. We just don’t know.

    We have no accurate medical literature to know when certain diseases appeared, or when they became prevalent.

    The assumption that disease and birth defects have _always_ been worse in an ever increasing degree as you go back in time is not guaranteed.

    So those are the possibilities:

    1) there could have been 13 reproductive generations over 400 years, in which case the 2,000,000 number is quite likely to be achieved.

    2) Maybe 6 generations of women did have an average of 13 children survive to adulthood, due to a combination of:
    a) more years of fertility, and/or
    b) lower incidence of birth defects and disease

    3) and I have to throw in my catch-all “God just did it that way”. The Lord could have had a hand in extending the fertile years of the women beyond what we consider the norm, and he could have had a hand in preventing infant mortality.

    And I just thought of a 4th:

    4) Maybe the subsequent male descendents of the 12 sons of Israel, from Joseph to the Exodus, took plural wives, not only from the House of Israel, but married Egyptian women too, or for that matter maybe they “imported” more Semitic women from outside of Egypt. Jacob practiced polygamy, so maybe it was passed down.

  9. Roasted,
    I realize the rejoinder to my points is that they are not likely. However, I merely point out they are possible. When dealing with God’s chosen people, probabilities generally don’t count, possibilities do.

    Most of the story of the covenant people, from Abraham to Jesus, consists of things that happened against the odds, things that were unlikely, things that nobody thought could happen, and things in which the Lord made bare his mighty arm.

    I do allow the possibility that there are errors in the Hebrew texts as they exist today, both intentional and unintentional. I think the Lord has even said there were intentional changes.

    The differences between the Masoretic text, the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Nephi’s quotes of Isaiah, attest to the existence of errors.

    But I also allow the possibility that in most places they mean what they say.

  10. Bookslinger, the numbers still don’t look realistic, even if we disregard the Biblical text’s various claims that there were only four generations in Egypt. In preindustrial societies (let alone among slaves!) population growth rates were essentially without exception quite low. For example, according to one scholarly data set, the entire population of Western Europe increased, during the thousand years between AD 1 and AD 1000, by only about 700,000 against a baseline of 24,700,000. During the same time span, Asia grew by about 8,000,000–against a baseline of about 174,000,000. In general, the average annual growth rate for humanity in the preindustrial period seems to have been in the neighborhood of 1/10th of one percent. The largest recorded population booms in the preindustrial period involve growth rates in the range of 0.6% annually, and these were rarely sustained for more than a few decades.

    What annual growth rate would the Israelites have needed to increase from 200 people to 2,000,000 in 400 years? The answer is about 2.3% annually. That’s about 4 times higher than the highest population growth rates recorded in the preindustrial world–and it has to be sustained, year in and year out, for 400 years. This would be–not to put too fine a point on it–a miracle of major proportions, yet the Bible neglects to even mention it as such.

    In fact, to get from 200 to 20,000 (the unrealistic low-ball count for the Exodus Israelites), you would need annual growth rates of about 1.2% — double the highest recorded boom population growth rates, and sustained for far longer. So even the lowest available count is wildly implausible as a demographic hypothesis.

    It’s noteworthy, as well, that in the Pentateuch’s narrative world people typically wait until they are very old (by modern standards) before they have children. I won’t give examples here, but the dates for the births of the firstborn are typically distended in proportion with overall lifespans. This eats away at the real time for reproduction and expansion in Egypt, making high population growth rates even less likely.

    Remember also that the birth numbers from my previous comment had to be the sustained average over centuries–not just peaks occasionally reached by especially fertile families. The recorded geneologies (which usually omit daughters) in the Old Testament suggest typical family sizes of about 6-8, not 15-30. So the text gives no real basis for that kind of expectation.

    Once again, I’m not using birth rate or fertility rate data from modern populations, but rather from preindustrial populations — which, as many people don’t realize, without exception had much lower population growth rates than modern societies. These historical growth rates aren’t made up or entirely extrapolated; they depend on archaeology and physical evidence giving estimates of past population sizes.

    Also, the current demographic evidence suggests that polygyny doesn’t on average increase societal population growth rates at all. The problem is that, roughly speaking, for every man who marries more than one wife, there is a man who doesn’t marry anyone.

    All that we’re really left with is the possibility that God performed a major miracle which the Old Testament forgot to mention. Or, the alternative that the text is inaccurate in its population details–like basically all other ancient Near Eastern texts. Especially in light of the fact that the Book of Mormon has similar population size problems — as Jeff noted in the original post — I can’t see any reason that we should want to reject the possibility that the Bible simply exaggerates Hebrew populations during the Exodus.

    By the way, extra fun bonus facts: the Bible reports that there were only 22,273 first-born males among the Hebrews. Hence, there must have been about 42 boys per family in order to account for the total of 603,550 adult males in the group! If we accept the population of 2,000,000, the camp of Israel would have been about 12 miles in diameter. Since the Law of Moses required the camp to set up toilet facilities outside of the camp, people living in the middle would have had to travel six miles in each direction in order to use the restroom.

  11. Bookslinger, you’ve sneaked in a further statement while I was working on a comment! Now I look unresponsive… Let me briefly respond to your further remarks.

    I realize the rejoinder to my points is that they are not likely. However, I merely point out they are possible. When dealing with God’s chosen people, probabilities generally don’t count, possibilities do.

    Most of the story of the covenant people, from Abraham to Jesus, consists of things that happened against the odds, things that were unlikely, things that nobody thought could happen, and things in which the Lord made bare his mighty arm.

    I wonder if we could agree on a definition of “possible.” There are zero instances of evidence for a preindustrial population having the kind of explosive growth we’re discussing here. If it’s never happened, I suppose it still might be possible in the sense of not violating laws of physics. But it arguably isn’t possible in demographic terms.

    Your second paragraph is, I think, right on: if the population growth in Egypt suggested by the Pentateuch actually happened, then it was a major divine miracle. But the text frowns on this interpretation; the Pentateuch goes out of its way to call attention to miracles, yet the putative population growth miracle is presented in such a laconic way that Enlightenment-era mathematics were needed to even bring it to light. The conclusion seems to be that the author or authors didn’t realize that they were reporting a miraculous population explosion.

  12. Another thought here: The account speaks of the seventy members of Jacob’s family (including Joseph) who ended up in Egypt. I find nothing to preclude others–neighbors, friends, collateral relatives, etc.–having gone there as well. In fact, it makes little sense to suppose that, with these people starving and Egypt having food that nobody except Jacob’s family would think to travel there to obtain some. I would think that if they then chose to stay in Egypt where the food was, they would logically gravitate to the people they would feel most familiar and comfortable with, and become melded into that population. This would certainly contribute to expanding the birth pool considerably, one would think. Of course, this too is conjecture, “possibility” and all that, but it makes good sense to me.

  13. ltbugaf – when you were wondering whether “10,000” really meant 10,000 in the BofM, did it ever occur to you that it was folklore? fiction? And if not, why not? How much mind-bending has to go on to treat this text as historical?

  14. “the entire population of Western Europe increased, during the thousand years between AD 1 and AD 1000, by only about 700,000 against a baseline of 24,700,000. During the same time span, Asia grew by about 8,000,000–against a baseline of about 174,000,000.”

    It’s interesting that you picked that time period out for your numbers because that was right in the middle of a series of epidemics and pandemics due to commercial contact between Europeans and Asians. Between 1000 BC and 1500 AD, recurring waves of diseases like measles, smallpox, Plague, and typhoid all worked their horrors, often to the tune of 40% or more of some city populations.

    To be honest it’s impressive that those popluations grew as fast as they did, but Bookslinger’s got a point. We don’t know how long pandemics have been circulating.

  15. I wonder if, a thousand years from now, historians will have these same arguments about the over- and under-sized numbers our modern society produces, or the figures that just don’t add up.

    – Corporate accounting (i.e. Enron)
    – Government spending ($100 hammer)
    – Civilian deaths in Iraq (estimates range over almost 3 orders of magnitude, for crying out loud)
    – All kinds of statistical results
    – SARS and Bird flu in China (I don’t think we’ll never really know)
    – Average weight of women on TV shows

    If messed-up numbers aren’t allowed to happen in “real” history, we’re all in trouble.

  16. Roasted,

    Why are the choices only 2,000,000 or 20,000? Isn’t 200,000 an option too?

    The people you are getting your figures from are painting themselves in a corner:

    Annual growth rates of pre-industrial population segments in today’s world currently reach into the 4% to 6% range. That is happening TODAY in PRE-industrial segments within Pakistan and Nigeria. Not among the developed areas of Pakistan and Nigeria, but in the dirt floor, agrarian, no electricty, no running water, no vaccination areas of Pakistan and Nigeria.

    So their assertion that a pre-industrial soceity can’t and never has sustained high growth is false. Not only could it have happened, it is PRESENTLY HAPPENING.

    And at 2 to 4 times the rate needed to make the Exodus numbers jibe.

    The Isrealites in Egypt would have had to have only 1/2 the growth rate of what the pre-industrial segments of Pakistan and Nigeria are doing today to get the 2,000,000 figure.

    Here’s the bottom line, I worked it out on a spreadsheet myself. Producing 5 children who survive to reproduce to adulthood works very well for the figure of 70 progenitors creating 2,000,000 descendents using 13 reproductive generations over 400 years. That is not unreasonable. I ran the numbers on a spreadsheet. That’s all the women had to do, was produce _5_ children to survive to adulthood.

    Your assertion that it would translate into 15 births due to infant and child mortality does not detract from the possibility, because due to the prolonged lifespans back then, 15 live births would not be unreasonable.

    So whether they did it with a low infant mortality, and 8 to 10 births per mother, or a high infant mortality and did it with 13 to 15 births per mother, it’s still doable during a woman’s normal childbearing phase, not even taking into account that a woman’s child-bearing years may have been longer back then than they are now.

    And if they had a high incidence of twins, it would be even easier.

    You’re also repeating others’ extrapolations that are not guaranteed. You’re taking history from 1 AD to 1000 AD or present day, and assuming that the birth-rates, death rates, disease, and birth defects must extrapolate back to Jacob’s and Moses’s time. I’m saying that just ain’t necessarily so, and the longer life-spans even hint at a lower disease and birth-defect rate.

    They may in fact have had a MUCH LOWER infant/child mortality rate than what happened from 1 AD to 1000 AD. They might have produced those 5 children with 7 births.

    So what happened in Europe and China from 1 AD to 1000 AD does not translate to what may have happened in the 2000 BC to 1400 BC (Abraham to Joshua) time frame.

    So if you’re getting your figures from people who think pre-industrialized societies can’t have a 2.3%, let alone a 1.2% annual growth rate, I’d suspect all their extrapolations.

    Not only is the 2.3% possible, but the 1.2% would be easy.

    Other extrapolations you’re making are the men waiting until they are old to have children. That happened in many instances prior to the captivity, but we still don’t know what happened starting with Jacob’s 12 sons and following generations. We don’t know if they continued that tradition in Egypt.

    On the polygamy thing, it was not necessarily limited to one man taking away from the pool of women available to other men of Israel. There may have been men importing semitic women from outside Egypt. Wars in other locations in the middle east could have left a surplus of women.

    The Egyptians could have taken women captives after killing their men in wars, and thrown them in with the Hebrew slave population. Taking women and children captives after killing off the men was a popular thing anciently, no? I think the term was “breeder slaves”.

    I would be very mistrusting of archaeologists who said they had evidence of what the family size was among the Israelite slaves in Egypt.

    In fact, there is no archaeological evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt or that they left! There are no Egyptian records of Moses or the plagues. And the ancient Egyptians were fastidious record keepers to boot. If they did exist, the Egyptians did a good job of expunging the records, and wiping out any trace for archaeologists to find.

    (I wonder if those who insist we must reject the Book of Mormon due to lack of archaeological “proof” also get in the face of Jews and other Christians and tell them they must reject Moses and the Bible because of lack of archaeological “proof.”)

    It’s also an assumption to think that the Isrealites had to have camped in a single body in one big square or circle. From the description in Exodus, I envision them camping in the form of a cross or plus-sign centered on the tabernacle.

    My point is not to prove that it was 2,000,000 people, just that with a little stretch, it could have been.

    But, if the true numbers were more along the lines of 200,000 people, then no stretch is needed at all.

    And, the source of your numbers and logic, are themselves repeating falsehoods (as to what growth rate a pre-industrial population can sustain), and are making unproveable assertions themselves in saying the biblical numbers are/were impossible to achieve.

  17. ltbugaf –

    You’re the one with the doubts. Now why not own up to them and use your God-given mind?

  18. Well, Jim, my mistake. I mistook you as someone capable of conversing—as in giving a simple, direct answer to a simple, direct question.

    Sorry about the error. Have a nice day.

  19. Bookslinger, you’re making the same mistake that social scientists made during the 1950s and 1960s: thinking of poor countries in the modern world as equivalent to societies in the preindustrial age. The problem is this: even the poorest countries today have higher life expectancies and lower mortality rates than any preindustrial society. Vaccinations and antibiotics exist — even if not distributed in sufficient quantity or with equality — in poor countries today; they didn’t in the preindustrial world. So when you consider poor countries circa 2000, you’re looking at growth rates that were never, ever achieved for any major time period in the preindustrial world.

    The idea that you need to look at here is the “demographic transition.” This is one of the major results of scientific demography.

    Anyway, setting aside the mistaken comparison between modern poor countries and the preindustrial world, the fact remains that there is no precedent for a preindustrial era society with the kinds of growth rates under consideration here.

  20. Roasted:
    Now we’re at a point of us saying “No it isn’t,” “Yes it is.”

    Your claim: “…even the poorest countries today have higher life expectancies and lower mortality rates than any preindustrial society.”

    is just not provable. If we believe the lifespans given in pre-Mosaic times in the OT, that claim would be false.

    We don’t have records that show mortality rates for the vast majority of human history. Even over the last two millenia, where history of some populations is somewhat known, that knowledge only covers a small percentage of the world’s total population.

    It is illogical to take some knowledge of some populations over only a part of history and covering only parts of the planet, and assume that those observations apply equally to all populations over all of history over all of the planet.

    In fact, I don’t think real scientists or archaeologists do that. They use lots of “couching” phrases like “indicates”, “tends”, “leads us to believe.” It is those analysts who are far removed from the observers who then jump to conclusions trying to analyze and extrapolate based on the little knowledge and records that do exist.

    Your sources seem to make unproveable extrapolations to previous millenia. I say that the history of the last two millenia does not necessarily extrapolate to previous millenia, because we have no accurate nor sufficient nor detailed records covering much of what happened more than 2 millenia ago.

    We have some BCE records, even literature from Rome, Greece and China, and others. But even then it is isolated and not exhaustive or all inclusive.

    And I’ll still maintain my assertion that pockets of modern populations with absolutely no modernity or medicine show us that high population growth is possible, so count me in with those from the 1950’s. I haven’t been to Pakistan or Nigeria, but I’ve been to South America, and I’ve seen for myself that “pre-industrial” still exists today!

    Sure, the native americans there may buy industrial made items of plastic and metal in their interaction with the industrialized part of society. But they go back to their villages with no running water, no electricity, no doctors, and no medicines other than what the curandero provides.

    So I know first hand that people still can and do live without modern medicines and conveniences.

    In the absence of disease, famine, and war, populations with access to arable land, and enough food-producing capabilities can reproduce as fast as the mothers and fathers want to and biology allows.

    “…the fact remains that there is no precedent for a preindustrial era society with the kinds of growth rates under consideration here.”

    In addition to asserting that most of Pakistan and Nigeria really do qualify as “pre-industrial”, I’m not the kind of person who demands precedents. The phrase “It hasn’t been done before” limits exploration, discoveries and inventions, not to mention is a real faith-killer.

    All one can really say is “We don’t know that it’s been done before.” No one can honestly say that it hasn’t been done before.

    Realizing the limits of our secular and historical knowledge is important.

    Demanding precedents and concrete evidence of such when engaged in or learning about God’s dealings with mankind can be dangerous.

    I can imagine Laman saying “Good grief, Nephi! You’ve never built a boat before. You’ve never been to boat-building school. You’re not a certified boat-builder. No one has ever crossed the great waters and come back. It’s never been done before!”

    Ironically, I personally believe it is possible, even likely, that Moses’ record was altered intentionally by scribes both prior to the Christian era and afterwards. But I’m not absolutely certain of it. I allow for that possibility. But I also have to allow for the possibility that 600,000 men in Exodus meant 600,000 men.

  21. Realizing the limits of our secular and historical knowledge is important.

    Your blind spot in this conversation is just the opposite; you haven’t realized the extent of our secular and historical knowledge. I don’t claim that we have definitive knowledge of every single human society before industrialization; however, I am on solid ground claiming that there is no empirical evidence of a single preindustrial society with life spans or population growth rates equivalent to those of even poor modern societies.

    You seem to think that we need written records to have evidence on these issues. We don’t; in fact, written records are relatively unhelpful. What is helpful are archaeological efforts: buildings and the growth of cities help us understand population growth trends; skeletal remains do a lot to help us understand life expectancies; and various other forms of evidence confirm both data points. For the Western Hemisphere (for which I’m more familiar with the archaeology), we have work of this kind extending backwards not 2000 years but 10,000 years. We know, roughly and with error, what people have been dying of, how old they’ve been when they died, and (give or take an order of magnitude) how quickly their populations grew.

    It’s interesting that you raise South America as an example of preindustrial society. In fact, there are a couple of groups in the Amazon basin who haven’t had access to vaccinations or antibiotics (although basically all other population groups within the Western Hemisphere, regardless of their poverty, have–think about all of those charitable medical missions and all of the state-funded clinics). Those Amazon groups have had negative population growth during the 20th century, although that could be due to environmental conditions. In any case, it is clear that they provide no evidence of explosive growth among preindustrial societies.

    It’s obvious that you haven’t really studied demography. If you’re interested in these kinds of questions, you ought to. A lot of really smart people have done interesting research, on the basis of real, empirical evidence.

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