Does Today’s Population Really Outnumber History’s Dead?

“Babies are the enemies of the human race.” —Isaac Asimov

In A Nutshell

It’s repeated every so often, usually as a comment on how out of control the world’s population is getting and what a drain we are on the world’s resources. It’s said that the present-day living outnumber all the dead of human history. But the Population Reference Bureau put some serious work into debunking that. In 2011, there were around 6.987 billion people on Earth, and it estimated that there have been a staggering 107,602,707,791 that have ever lived. There are a lot of variables, from changes in the birth rate to natural disasters, but it’s safe to say that we’re not even close to making the factoid come true.

The Whole Bushel

Every so often, a story pops up claiming that the population living on the planet today outnumbers everyone who’s ever died throughout the course of human history. That’s a pretty staggering claim, but is there any truth to it?

Not really, but the fact has been repeated for a long time. The idea first showed up in the mid-1970s. It was claimed that 75 percent of the people who had ever walked on the planet were alive then, and even though it’s true that we’re living longer than we ever have before, it’s far from true that the world’s birth rates are that high.

The Population Reference Bureau states that people looking to find out how many people have been alive on the planet is one of their most popular questions, and it’s one that’s just as elusive to answer. A little bit of reflection on the sheer number of people that have gone before us seems to make it clear that it can’t possibly be true, but in 1995 the PRB gave it a shot at proving the theory wrong once and for all.

And it wasn’t as easy to do as you might think.

For about 99 percent of human history, there isn’t any data on things like birth and death rates. Even the number of years we’re looking at—research scholar Carl Haub picked 50,000 years as a likely starting point—is up for debate.

Taking into account estimated population sizes, birth rates, and death rates, Haub came up with around 107 billion people who had walked the Earth as of 2011. In the same year, the world’s population was 6.987 billion, so at 6.5 percent of history’s inhabitants still living, we’re not even close to having that 1970s factoid become truth.

There are, though, a huge number of variables that they came across as they were trying to estimate the world’s population. Figuring out how long mankind has been around was the first difficulty, with some early Homo sapiens ancestors showing up around 700,000 BC. Do those people count, or do we start with the appearance of more modern humans 50,000 years ago?

Article Continued Below

Just how many pockets of populations there were is up for debate, too, with a very rough estimate of a world population of five million at the time we were figuring out how agriculture worked. Throw in famines, plagues, natural disasters, and even rough winters that could wipe out an entire population, and you’re looking at even more variables.

By the time we hit the turning point from AD to BC, there’s a massive disagreement on how big the population was, mainly because of the Roman Empire. Estimates range from 45 million to 90 million, and when you’re figuring out birth rates for that many people, that leaves a lot of guesswork.

By around 1800, we have reliable data that makes coming up with population numbers at least semi-reliable. That’s about the time that organized countries and governments started taking a census and collecting taxes, giving us at least a ballpark figure for those years.

But our idea of existence is being challenged with the emerging technology of social media. According to the BBC, there are about 30 million dead people on Facebook as of 2012—after it had been around for only eight years. Some estimates suggest that around 8,000 Facebook users die every day.

So they’re leaving behind a sort of digital autobiography. According to estimates by researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Facebook will catch up to the world (containing more dead people than living) by 2098.

Show Me The Proof

Population Reference Bureau: How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?
BBC Magazine: Do the dead outnumber the living?
BBC Future: Facebook is a growing and unstoppable digital gravevyard
The Independent: Facebook will have more dead people than living ones by the end of the century, researcher claims