The Happy Arab News Service

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Evolution of Parenthood

Yet another article in the Economist demonstrating how excessive intellectualism struggles to make friends with common sense. In the wake of the current crisis, much talk has been produced in the sense of fancy mathematical modeling of risks having chased away healthy intuition and just plain common sense. The Economist itself is making this point occasionally. And yet another article comes and another example of an out of control social science gone on rampage.

This article tries to make sense of the demographic decline now taking worrying proportions in developed nations and spreading rapidly into the third world. The Economist seems to have spotted a sudden reversal of fortunes in a recent uptick in Western birth rates and is musing over the possibility of "the environmentalist’s nirvana of uncoerced zero population growth".

No doubt all these social explanations are true as far as they go, but they do not address the deeper question of why people’s psychology should have evolved in a way that makes them want fewer children when they can afford more. There is a possible biological explanation, though. This is that there are, broadly speaking, two ways of reproducing.

One way is to churn out offspring in large numbers, turn them out into an uncaring world, and hope that one or two of them make it. The other is to have but a few progeny and to dote on them, ensuring that they grow up with every possible advantage for the ensuing struggle with their peers for mates and resources. The former is characteristic of species that live in unstable environments and the latter of species whose circumstances are predictable.

Viewed in comparison with most animals, humans are at the predictable-environment and doting-parent end of the scale, but from a human perspective those in less developed countries are further from it than those in rich ones. One interpretation of the demographic transition, then, is that the abundance which accompanies development initially enhances the instinct to lavish care and attention on a few offspring. Only when the environment becomes super-propitious can parents afford more children without compromising those they already have—and only then, as Dr Myrskyla has now elucidated, does the birth-rate start to rise again.

How far the process will continue, and whether it will spread to holdouts like Japan and Canada, remains to be seen. Indeed, the whole exercise is a warning of the risks of extrapolating the future from present trends. But, on present trends, things do, indeed, look hopeful.


A much more plausible and less extravagant theory would be of course that as Western societies were growing rich, people were simply getting more selfish and individualistic. Raising children in the modern urban environment is a time consuming business while would-be and actual parents are getting increasingly self centric and reluctant to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of following the God's first commandment (which is multiply and procreate in Judaism). The crucial factor here is that people's priorities have changed. This pseudo scientific evolutionary approach can explain why people prefer to raise three children instead of ten, but it cannot explain one child families or such phenomena as 20% or 25% of German women who opted to live childless lives.

Some people won't mind to have more children and they don't do it not because they are not ready to compromise those they already have, but because they are not ready to compromise their own ambitions and lifestyles. The low fertility trend, however, can be indeed expected to reverse itself as people grow more prosperous but this is because people get extra income to spend on offloading child raising chores to private tutors, babysitters and their likes. In modern societies fertility can be probably factored out of the time child raising leaves to people for themselves. In some Western countries, however, big chunks of the population may now refuse to be bribed into parenthood by whatever amount of social benefits, parenthood leaves and such stuff. There is an acute crisis of culture here in a society that looks increasingly shaky and decadent and no amount of smart talk can cover up this fundamental fact.

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Proclaimed un monstruooo muy monstruoso at 9:35 PM