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Under the banyan tree: a population scientist’s odyssey
  1. John C Caldwell

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    S Segal. Oxford University Press, New York, 2003, pp 242, £22.95. ISBN 0-19-515456-8

    In retrospect the global demographic transition of the second half of the 20th century will probably be seen as the most important event of our time. Between 1950 and 2000 the life expectancy of people in developing countries rose from 40 to 60 years and the resulting explosive growth of population was constrained only by a decline in family size (as measured by the total fertility rate) from over six to under three children. This was no accident and was largely the product of human intervention in the form of reproductive biological research, contraceptive development, and organised family planning culminating, especially in Asia and North Africa, in government national family planning programmes.

    The person in the most pivotal position to take leadership and observe this vast human drama was Sheldon (Shelly) Segal, first with the Biomedical Division of the Population Council (where he became director), then as founding director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Population Sciences Program, and finally back with the Population Council as its Distinguished Scientist. His interests spanned the biomedical and social science fields, and his understanding was moulded by early experience in India.

    The book is the product of its author’s unique experience and his humane and humanistic liberal philosophy. He can become angry at actions and outlooks that contribute on ideological grounds more to misery, and especially unnecessary female suffering, than is necessary. In a series of linked essays he tells the story of the key reproductive research and contraceptive development with elegance and in a language that everyone can understand. This is embedded in analyses of population change and feeding the world. The reader will probably feel more anger than the author himself expresses at the way the American legal system can block such new developments as Segal’s implant, Norplant. The book is produced in Oxford’s careful and clear style. The only error I noticed was in attributing to me a statement about a positive (instead of a negative) relation between children’s educational level and national fertility (on page 185) but even here the rest of the paragraph makes the intention clear.

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