Human population refers to the number of people living in a particular area, from a village to the world as a whole. A secondary meaning of population is the inhabitants themselves, but in most uses population means numbers.
No one knows the population of the earliest humans, but there may have been only a few tens of thousands of individuals when the species Homo sapiens first emerged 200,000 years ago. Today more than 6 billion human beings inhabit the earth. Three-fifths of them live in one continent, Asia, with the rest occupying every continent except Antarctica.
The overwhelming bulk of human population growth has occurred since the Industrial Revolution began, more than half since 1950. All but a small percentage of the roughly 80 million people added to world population each year live in the world's developing countries, which are home to 80 percent of humanity and more than 95 percent of world population growth. In Europe and Japan, small average family size and relatively modest immigration levels are leading to a leveling of, and even decreases in, population. In the United States, Canada, and Australia, slightly larger families and higher levels of immigration make for continued population growth.
World population grows because births significantly outpace deaths on average. This imbalance occurs not because women are having more children than they once did—quite the reverse—but because improved sanitation and health mean that many more children than in the past survive to become parents themselves. Human reproduction is such a success story that some analysts believe that today's large and ever-increasing population growth threatens the earth's support systems and contributes to global poverty.
Debate on this question has raged since at least the 1800s. Some economists and other social scientists argue that higher populations provide more human resources for solving problems and producing wealth. Most physical and biological scientists, by contrast, argue that key natural resources—fresh water, cropland, forests, and fisheries, for example—are increasingly strained by burgeoning human demands. Rising natural resource consumption by individuals also boosts these demands. The long-term growth of human population clearly has been an especially significant factor in human-induced climate change, species extinction, the loss of forests, and other environmental problems. But scientists and other analysts have been unable to agree on population's exact role in environmental change. Many other factors, from consumption patterns to government policies to the unequal distribution of power and wealth, also influence the environment.
One clear trend in human population is that its growth is slowing down. Women and men increasingly want to have later pregnancies and smaller families than did their own parents. Governments increasingly provide the health services that allow couples to plan their families. For some countries, this trend raises questions about how societies will cope with lower proportions of young and working people. For the world as a whole, however, births are likely to outnumber deaths for decades to come, and human population will continue to grow.
Cohen, Joel E. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: Norton, 1995.
Mazur, Laurie, ed. Beyond the Numbers: A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995.
Robey, Bryant, et al. "Fertility Decline in Developing Countries." Scientific American 269, no. 6 (December 1993): 60–67.