Ecstatic demography

by Possible Modernist

Ezra Stiles was an early American educator and theologian who had a fascination with demography. As a pastor at the Second Congregational Church in New England, he obsessively recorded data and details about exports and imports, number of buildings built, college enrollments, arrivals and departures (i.e., deaths) of people, genealogies, and epitaphs on tombstones. Like many people of the time, he believed that the size of a population was the reflection of the strength and potential of a people, and thought that the growth of the colonies was a divine sign of its destiny. In a Discourse from 1761, Stiles wrote:

We transport ourselves to a distance of 100 years forward, look over this wide spread wilderness, see it blossom like the rose, and behold it planted with 123 churches and temples consecrate to the pure worship of the most High . . . when divinely resplendent truth shall triumph, and our brethren of the congregational communion may form a Body of Seven Millions! A glorious and respectable body this, for Truth and Liberty! Well might our fathers die with pleasure.”1

Compare to Toby Ord, in his 2020 book, The Precipice:

If we can reach other stars, then the whole galaxy opens up to us. The Milky Way alone contains more than 100 billion stars, and some of these will last for trillions of years, greatly extending our potential lifespan. Then there are billions of other galaxies beyond our own. If we reach a future of such a scale, we might have a truly staggering number of descendants, with the time, resources, wisdom and experience to create a diversity of wonders unimaginable to us today.”2

What is it that leads some to conflate victory through sheer volume with a divine paradise? Are these merely rhetorical appeals to sentiments they perceive in others, or a felt need to have one’s descendents proliferate at the largest imaginable scale? And how long until people start arguing for prioritizing non-biological descendents, so as to bring about a truly maximal regime of Truth and Beauty?

  1. Quoted in James H. Cassedy, Demography in Early America. Oxford University Press (1969).↩︎

  2. Toby Ord. The Precipice. Hachette Books (2020).↩︎