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Garrett Hardin | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Garrett Hardin was born on April 21, 1915, in Dallas, Texas. At age four Garrett contracted polio, leaving him with a childhood limp that progressed to a need for crutches as an adult. His father's job as a freight sales representative led the family to move frequently, so Hardin's grandfather's farm in Missouri served as their home base. On the farm Hardin had the chore of killing chickens, which led him to view death as part of life. A frequent infestation of stray cats allowed Hardin to observe the problems of overpopulation. He came to believe not all living things can or should be maintained.

During World War II (1939–45), Hardin completed a postdoctoral degree at Stanford University. He researched algae as a potential food source. However, he abandoned this research in 1946, believing adding food sources to the world would only stimulate further population growth.

Biologist and Ecologist

In 1946 Hardin became a professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He specialized in ecology—the study of how living things relate to their environment and to each other. Aware of the need to protect the earth's natural resources, he became active in the environmental movement. His 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," which argues for population control, grew out of his rising concern about the earth's overpopulation and exploitation of the environment.

Other Writings

Hardin wrote several biology texts, including Population, Evolution, and Birth Control (1964). Despite opposition from the U.S. religious right, he publicly supported the use of contraception and abortion as a means for reducing the world's birth rate.

He believed countries dealing with massive overpopulation should reap the consequences of their inability to control it, and he called for restrictions on immigration and humanitarian aid. According to Hardin, immigration allows poor nations to reduce their populations to the detriment of the host countries. He claimed immigrants provide cheap labor in the short run, but over generations they outnumber the original populations, dominate the gene pool, dilute the native cultures, and cause ethnic conflicts. In his essay "Living on a Lifeboat," written in 1974 during one of Ethiopia's recurring famines, he argued against providing food or humanitarian aid to overpopulated regions. Overpopulation had caused the famine, and keeping more people alive would perpetuate it. He rejected accusations of cruelty and racism, believing he was advocating for the greater good.

In the following years, he angered the U.S. political left by supporting eugenics, whose proponents advocate breeding humans in such a way as to promote certain characteristics. This science is based on the theory desirable characteristics, such as intelligence, are linked with race. Drawing on English naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, Hardin believed weaker individuals in a species should be allowed to die off to allow the stronger to survive. It is in society's interest, Hardin claimed, to support those with higher intelligence.

Death and Legacy

Despite his concern with overpopulation, Hardin and his wife Jane had four children. Toward the end of his life, Hardin developed a heart condition, and his wife was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease—a disease of the nervous system that affects muscle strength and physical function. They were believers in the right to die, and they mutually ended their lives on September 14, 2003.

Hardin's work continues to stimulate controversy as well as admiration. A tribute on the Garrett Hardin Society's website states, "His published legacy remains for all who share his concern for the condition and the future of humanity and of the earth's environment."

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