Human Billions: Annie Dillard on Numbers

As one who leans more to poetry than engineering, math for math’s sake is a hard sell. (Read Doing Math in Retirement.) 

That said, numbers, in the hands of literary artists, can be really interesting. 

Annie Dillard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who writes about numbers in her curious collection of essays, “For the Time Being.” 


Like Jack London’s handling of the math problem, “What Is Millions?”, Dillard delves in to the mystery of human numbers. 

To contextualize the problem, Dillard offers the following three approaches, which she deems “hilarious”:   

“Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not comprehend the fuss.  What was the big deal? David von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: ‘I mean, there are so many people.’”
“One R. Houwink, of Amsterdam, discovered this unnerving fact: The human population of earth, arranged perfectly tidily, would just fit into Lake Windermere, in England’s Lake District.”
“Recently, in the Peruvian Amazon region, a man asked the writer Alex Shoumatoff, ‘Isn’t it true that the whole population of the United States can be fitted into their cars.”

I grant that these are interesting approaches to conceptualizing numbers of humans. But hilarious? Maybe in non-pandemic times. 


Image from TIME Special Report: The World at 7 Billion (2011)

Dillard goes on to ponder how many people have lived and died throughout history. She posits there have been around 85 billion people who have ever lived. With 5.9 billion people in the world at the time of her writing, the dead outnumber the living by about 14 to 1.

That was back in the 1990s. Presumably, the dead will always outnumber the living.

They are the silent majority.

Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca 1845, middle panel of color wood triptych
The Trustees of the British Musuem

I wonder how I would go about checking on the status of this number, more than twenty years after she wrote this. Does it account for Native Americans? Did COVID-19 give a noticeable bump toward that goal? 

It’s hard to fact-check math. If I need clarity on a word, I get out my dictionary. But math questions have so many variables attached, and people get cranky if your facts are interpretive. 

Therefore, with math I  don’t venture toward answers; I just wallow in the questions. 


As if the Ted Bundy quote wasn’t a clue, Dillard goes to dark places with numbers:

“More than two million children die a year from diarrhea, and eight hundred thousand from measles.  Do we blink? Stalin starved seven million Ukrainians in one year. Pol Pot killed two million Cambodians, the flu epidemic of 1917-18 killed twenty-one or twenty-two million people…

Ancestors, Anonymous Chinese Artist Widimedia Commons

“Journalists use the term ‘compassion fatigue.’ ….Do you suffer this? At what number do other individuals blur for me? Vanish? Our tolerances, I think, vary not only with culture but with age: children rarely grieve for strangers.”


Dillard points out that throughout history, children and babies make up most of the dead. Will it feel strange to be the old woman among my dead ancestors?

Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, Google Art Project

A dead woman says to her dead son: “Just think about pleasant things, because we’re going to be buried for a long time.” 

Annie Dillard, quoting Juan Rulfo’s novel, Pedro Paramo

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