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Human Ecology

“The invention of agriculture did not immediately result in great increases of population, but its subsequent improvement has done so, and has created the potentialities for still greater increases.”[1]

Warren Weaver

As it shifted its geographic focus to the developing world in the wake of World War II, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) began to address population issues through the lens of what it termed “human ecology.” The success of the Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP) opened up new possibilities for the RF to contribute to the “well-being of mankind” in Latin America, Asia and Africa. It also revealed agriculture’s complicated relationship to broader social, economic, political, and environmental factors.

The widening gap between developed and developing nations, the instability of nations emerging from colonial rule, and the rapid increase in population in environmentally challenged areas became problems with global implications. The RF perceived itself as having a special obligation to work on population because its health work had been criticized for curing disease only to leave people to starve. Similarly, its agriculture work was criticized for placing too much pressure on limited resources--feeding too many people for the earth to sustain in the long term.

Titling its efforts “human ecology” accomplished several goals. It conveyed the Foundation’s interest in a host of issues that included, but certainly was not limited to, population growth. It deflated potential controversy by de-emphasizing any direct interest in population control. It enabled the Foundation to accomplish an internal transfer of power as it dismantled the International Health Division (IHD) in favor of programs that would build on the Foundation’s agricultural investments. And, finally, it signaled that the Foundation’s work, even in politically charged contexts, aimed for disinterested, scientific objectivity.

Tools for Development

The dawning computer age expanded analytic capacities, enabling scientists and social scientists to grapple with thousands of factors as never before, and the RF renewed its faith in statistical analysis as a tool of rational and efficient management. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the RF supported demographic studies at leading institutions including the Scripps Foundation for Research in Population Problems, the International Union for Scientific Study of Population, and especially Princeton’s Office of Population Research. In 1948, the IHD and the Division of Social Sciences jointly sponsored a reconnaissance survey of the Far East, led by IHD staffer M.C. Balfour and Princeton demographers Frank Notestein and Irene Taueber.  At the same time, as the RF looked to become involved in countries like India, it confronted the daunting task of effecting systemic change within a complex culture, geography and economy, and it turned to this new kind of statistical analysis to aid in its efforts.

At first it seemed that population, with its clear connections to birth rates and life expectancy would be the logical province of the medical sciences, and the IHD spearheaded the Foundation’s initial exploration. But biologist Marston Bates, hired to assist Balfour, recognized that “the ‘population problem’ belongs to the social sciences,” and involved “values, social wisdom, and human purposes” as much as biological health.[2] Furthermore, social science understandings were essential to changing human behavior regarding reproductive as well as agricultural practices, and the Social Sciences division led a series of internal RF discussions on these issues.

Excerpt from Marston Bates's diary, 1949

Excerpt from Marston Bates's diary, 1949

Agriculture and Population

Ecology is originally a biological term that describes environments as interconnected systems affected by multiple, inseparable factors. Framing the population discussion as ecological allowed nutrition and resource distribution to redefine the very notion of “health." The IHD’s single-disease approach, which had helped build the RF’s worldwide reputation, was no longer sufficient. As trustee John D. Rockefeller 3rd (JDR 3rd) told the IHD Commission on Review in 1951, “hunger as a basic problem has now succeeded disease.”[3]

Natural Sciences Director Warren Weaver described this shift in a cold war context:

 “What are now the great enemies of the welfare of mankind? Hunger, the incapacity of the hungry, the resulting general want, the pressures of expanding and demanding population, and the reckless instability of people who have nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain by embracing new political ideologies designed not to create individual freedom but to destroy it.”[4]

In this era as never before, the RF operated in an expanded milieu of American governmental technical assistance programs as well as multilateral aid and development organizations. On the one hand, the RF shared the U.S. cold war sensibility that aid programs were powerful persuasive tools for promoting democracy in underdeveloped countries. On the other hand, nonpartisanship had opened many doors to the RF, and countless internal discussions revolved around respecting other cultures and meeting their needs on their own terms.

Human ecology, while concerned with population, actually tackled large-scale economic and political transformations of agrarian societies. In this context, agriculture emerged as the forum through which the RF hoped to influence not only food production, but also social issues like family size.

At first, targeted population work explicitly involving family planning and population control remained outside the purview of the Foundation, prompting JDR 3rd to establish a new organization, the Population Council, to address concerns the RF would not initially take on. Later in the 1950's, however, more extensive experience in “the so-called underdeveloped countries of the world”[5] revealed the deep connections among food, health, environment and population. From this point forward, population work would become a significant feature of RF development programs.


[1] Warren Weaver, “The World Food Problem, Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation.” June 21, 1951. Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3.1, series 908, box 14, folder 144, p. 2.

[2] Marston Bates’ diary excerpt, 1949. RAC, RG 3.2, series 900, box 57, folder 310, p. 93.

[3] Notes from the Meeting of the Rockefeller Commission on Review of the International Health Division, June 29, 1951. RAC, RG 3.1, series 908, box 14, folder 144, p. 11.

[4] Warren Weaver, “The World Food Problem, Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation.” June 21, 1951. Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3.1, series 908, box 14, folder 144, p. 1.

[5] Dean Rusk, “A Statement by the President.” Excerpt from the January, 1956 newsletter. RAC, RG 3.2, series 900, box 61, folder 333, p. 6.

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