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I thought of the question "What would human civilization be like if our population was and always had been only thousands or tens of thousands and limited to a small area?" Then I realized this question had to be asked first.

There are many non-human species on Earth with a small population in a small area. But is it likely or possible that an intelligent species would remain in this state?

Hunter-gatherer societies are usually nomadic. This means they tend to scatter population. For a species to stay put, I guess they need sufficient food supply that even without agriculture, they don't need to move on. (Which raises the question: will this species ever develop agriculture?)

I guess the core of the question is: Is an intelligent species without a drive to increase its population likely or feasible?

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  • $\begingroup$ There is no drive to increase population. They don't have birth control to prevent population from increasing. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Oct 22 '14 at 1:47
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I find it hard to imagine a species without a drive to increase population. However, If you put said species on (say) an island on an ocean planet, they would find very good reasons not to increase their population. Looking at small south Pacific Island communities, however, I doubt they would reach our level of technology. After all, the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by a significant increase in population.

Technological development doesn't really happen without cause, so your mini-civ would need a reason to advance. As you have implied that their population isn't really expanding, perhaps their "island" (i.e. habitable area) is becoming smaller?

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Anything is possible


  • Immortality: If the group of creatures never dies, they will likely not have a drive to increase their population. More population means turbulent young creatures, that are annoying.
    • Cloning: This is a subset of the above option, but say the creatures have the ability to clone. If the creatures only have a limited ability to store cloning information, then maybe older creatures would not want more young creatures. New creatures would take up cloning space, possibly pushing out older creatures and ending their lives.
  • Danger: Say this species isn't the only species on the planet. The other species could place a ban on population growth, to prevent this species from becoming powerful. Or maybe your civilization is surrounded by hostile creatures which the group can't fight.
  • Control: The government could be trying to control the species. More people means more possibility of revolt.
  • Environment: if the creatures are in a mountainous or island environment, they will have limited space. The species could be intelligent enough to know that growing too numerous would cause problems. So they limit population growth in an effort to keep things peaceful.
    • A valid point with this approach is that such a speices wouldn't be very technologically advanced. But it's very possible that the speicies is actually a colony, cut off from the mother country. Then the colony would want to sit tight and stop from expanding, so that they don't over populate their space. If the society has specific jobs for each member, it is possible that none of the members of the island know how to make ships or transport vehicles.
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Cheap and effective birth control methods available much earlier in the technological advancement process. Maybe they discover a special fruit, for example.

Then, individual decisions add up to a decreased birth rate. (In many countries today on Earth, organic growth of non-immigrants is negative)

Without a population pressure, the expansion pressure does not build up enough to create settlers. The limits of the easiest and safest arable lands fine-tunes the incentives for children into exatcly zero average growth, and they remain the civilization's borders for ages.

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It is possible for humans to strive for population non-growth. You'd first have to modify us genetically so that we're not biologically programmed to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ Michael, welcome to Worldbuilding! The moderators tend to like our answers a bit more detailed. If you merely wish to leave a comment, that will be possible as soon as you accumulate a bit of reputation. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 '15 at 2:02
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It wouldn't be likely, but we can probably make it happen if we're willing to get a little creative and bend the requirements.

My first thought was the Shakers. These are an almost extinct sect of Quakers who lived in self sufficient communes in the US. The main problem they had, or perk... depending on how you look at it, was that they were all celibate. Which explains why they have almost become extinct. So perhaps an early religion put an emphasis on celibacy, and so many people don't choose to have children, and instead contribute to scientific works.

However, this may not work very well because in pre-industrial societies a large number of children are needed simply to offset deaths in childhood. Additionally in a pre-industrial society, given the inefficiency of agriculture, you need a lot of people working to provide for a few specialist workers. Though they will certainly need to devise some sort of agriculture in order to live in a small area with a higher population density, instead of a large area will low population density; which is typical of hunter gatherer nomads.

The bigger issue I fear is simply that in order to achieve technological progress at all you do need a large population spread over a large area. This enables them to have the numbers to support a variety of specialisations and experiences necessary for development. If your people aren't lucky to live near strategic resources, then I can't imagine they will get far technologically. In this small area... do they have all the metals and fossil fuels they need? Probably not.

Instead perhaps humanity spreads, achieves technological development, and then falls back to a safe place with limited resources after a catastrophic event; meaning they need to limit their numbers. The catastrophe could be anything. Meteor, super volcano, ice age, rising sea levels, nuclear war, global warming, a combination of the aforementioned?

Consider the fate of Easter Island; which was colonised, and then the population got too big, depleted the resources, and shrunk in size. But if resources were limited, how could they advance technologically? If the resources were plentiful, why would they not expand? Perhaps because the rest of the world is some sort of frozen or arid (maybe both?!) hellscape, and their little plot is the only safe oasis left.

Perhaps this event happened so long ago that they start to believe that they only ever lived in this small place, tinkering away with physics equations and machines ever after. They would probably still need access to the outside world, if briefly, to extract resources necessary for survival and technology. But if the rest of the world is a grim place they probably would have automated outposts from which they can collect resources, perhaps remotely, to limit exposure.

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