Be fruitful and multiply

I've always wondered why God found it necessary to tell us this.  Or, if you're not a believer, why did a culture find it necessary to exhort its own members to reproduce?  Don't we have a biological imperative?  How did we get here otherwise; why did our ancestors survive?  It's strange to observe that one of the most basic human drives is so vulnerable to collapse, especially once birth control comes into the picture.

David Goldman argues that cultural death causes and is revealed by a collapse in reproduction.  His thesis, focusing on Islamic societies, is that some religions cannot survive the transition from traditional society to modernity.  The hallmark of their failure is that their fertility rate collapses as soon as their women acquire an education. In 1979, before the Iranian revolution, the fertility rate was 7 children per female.  That rate abruptly dropped to 1.6 children per female, just above the disastrous European rate, and an unprecedented "snapping shut of the national womb."  This giant vote of no confidence in the future of the culture induces a frightening social dynamic:
[A] society that suddenly stops having children suffers from cultural despair.  The same cultural despair that curtains off the future for families afflicts policymakers.  Cultural pessimism is a great motivation for strategic adventures.  A nation that fears that it may have no future may be willing to risk everything on the roll of a dice.  Iran has one last big generation of military age men, the ones who were born in the early 1980s before the great weapons.  Nothing but the use of force would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with dreadful consequences.  With Iran on the verge of building a nuclear bomb, we have hit crunch-time.  Will the foreign policy establishment connect the dots in time?
This is a sore subject for me, as you can imagine.  I wonder if we've managed the transition well in our own country to a culture in which no one need be fertile unless he or she chooses.  How are the incentives for childbearing different now?  When the choice whether to reproduce or not becomes unconstrained, what makes fathers willing to support their children and their children's mothers?  What makes mothers willing to raise the children?   You'd think it would be obvious, but the demographics tell us it's anything but.  When people acquire choices for the first time, there can be a scary period in which we find out what new motives will operate, and what we have to offer each other to make it all keep working.

Gloria Steinem famously remarked that she had no children because she didn't mate in captivity.  If educating women causes a large fraction of them to adopt this view, what's wrong with the world they've become educated about?  Why should it be necessary to withhold education in order to get them to buy into continuing the race?  We've lost most of our traditional culture and religion.  What is there to replace them with, as a motive for looking to the future in a spirit of sacrifice?


E Hines said...

Hubie Brown once remarked that "to be successful at this game, you have to understand the clock." Maybe God issued his injunction too early, and it's become ancient and hoary, and so ineffective.

On a more serious note, there are other factors besides educated (and so uppity?) women involved in the falling birth rates. The drop also coincides with societal (and individual family) wealth increases and greatly improved technologies--medical, which makes recreational sex much less likely to result in pregnancy (and so in some sense less "risky"); labor saving devices, which collectively reduce the imperative to have children to help with the (farm) work; a shift in where that labor occurs from the farms to the cities.

I'm curious about Goldman's logic concerning the threat Iran poses as a result of its demographics. Russia, the PRC, Germany, Italy, among others are facing the same catastrophic demographic implosion threat. Some of these are in a position to roll the dice on a war or other catastrophic adventure, also. I don't see them going for it.

Another thing that's interesting to me is that, even after whole generations were lost to war in the era after those technologies began to appear (Republic of Korea, Great Britain, Germany, France, for instance), there didn't seem to be much of a spike in birthrate (the US' Baby Boom generation may be an exception in terms of per centage of population it represents) to replace the numbers if not the lost generation itself. Maybe that's the despair you mentioned.

The drop has been going on at a noticeable rate, if not a catastrophic one, for a few generations. I'm not sure it's a matter of being new to the situation and not having yet figured out what to do about it. We haven't figured it out, but we're not new to it. Individuals get old and die. Maybe civilizations do, too. Maybe species do, too.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

That's a good point. I can't say he tried to explain why Iran would react with a unique panic to its imminent demographic bomb.

Eric Blair said...

While Japan has some really low birth rate--there are still 165 million Japanese.

I've said it before here, the humans got along just fine when there were less than there are now.

I don't expect people to die out, anymore than I ever expected the world to look like the movie 'Soylent Green'.

I've been reading Spengler's columns for a while know when people point to them. Nothing he's ever predicted has come to pass. Even the nom de plume should have been a clue.

Grim said...

We just read the poem, didn't we?

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

Grim said...

That points, I suppose, to my answer. Most of America has lost most of its tradition and culture. Those will survive who have not, or who manage to rekindle it.

Presumably you shouldn't have to stop educating women among this set of survivors. In fact, I would think this would make an excellent object lesson -- just the sort of thing you'd want everyone to learn. By all means ensure that everyone is properly educated in this history.

In this poetry, for that matter. Spengler may have a bad track record for accuracy of predictions, but alas! Kipling's is very, very good.

David Foster said...

Arthur Koestler, in his novel The Age of Longing, seems to suggest that the relationship between the sexes can be heavily influenced by civilizational self-confidence or lack of same. (His protagonist, Hydie, is unable to be attracted to European or American men but falls hard for a committed Russian Communist)

Worth considering in the context of fertility.

I reviewed the book here: Sleeping with the Enemy

Texan99 said...

Eric -- it's true people got by just fine when there were fewer of them, but it's not the absolute numbers that create a problem. It's their relative numbers in comparison with their competitive neighbors.

If all cultures dropped equally quickly to a similar below-replacement rate, we'd all gradually have smaller populations without disrupting our international relations. We'd still have to make serious adjustments to our economies, because the intergenerational Ponzi schemes won't work at all in that scenario. On the other hand, the strain on some scarce resources would lighten up.

David -- yes, exactly. I've been trying to think of cultures that are modernized and do not prevent the education of their female half, and yet are exuberantly producing large families. Mormons come to mind. Their view of blissful eternal life depends on having a large family, and they seem confident and happy in their culture even though the Mormon women are educated and presumably capable of comparing their lives with the possibilities available for them in other cultures. Isn't that the trick? What kind of life must be available to women in a particular culture before the only way to get them to stay in the culture and produce children is to lock them up and not let them learn about alternatives?

Does Koestler's Hydie not only fall for her Russian Communist but bear him a lot of children? That doesn't track well with the statistics about the average modern Russian woman having eight abortions. But I take your point about the connection between passionate attachment and passionate commitment to some kind of future.

MikeD said...

Even the nom de plume should have been a clue.

Sorry, Eric B, you may need to explain that. I see "Spengler" and think "Egon". And Ghostbusters is a non-sequiter.

Grim said...

The Mormons also have an economic model that supports the centrality of religion to the life of the community. It's not just that you won't go hungry, because they will feed you. It's also that they will help you find work, favor you as partners in businesses that they own, and so on. From the top down, life is structured to support the traditional culture, including especially religious life.

Cass said...

But their economic model isn't inclusive, Grim.

Which by today's standards makes it racist, sexist, and a whole lot of other "ists". Maybe if the federal government got involved, they could improve upon the model. You know, force them to include people whose values are antithetical to the Mormon faith - make them not just tolerate, but take responsibility for the actions of people whose values they don't share.

Texan99 said...

That's my experience with Mormons, too, Grim. It fits my ideal of a private, voluntary, cooperative institution. I can't get with their religious specifics, but they do seem to have cracked the code on a culture that makes its members, including the female ones, want to reproduce and hand it on to their descendants.

I can't really think of any other examples. Maybe Christian evangelicals or very traditional Catholics, if there are any of them left? Am I overlooking a distant culture somewhere? It wasn't so many years ago that Mark Steyn was very worried about Islamic culture overtaking the West by sheer reproduction. I never would have guessed that the birth rate would crash so fast, not just in Iran, but all over the Muslim world: Egpyt, Turkey, you name it. I'm starting to get interested in who's immune to this trend.

David Foster said...

Tex..."Does Koestler's Hydie not only fall for her Russian Communist but bear him a lot of children?"

We don't get to find out, because Hydie's relationship with Fedya ends very badly...

In the book, Koestler explicitly links the West's loss of civilizational self-confidence to the decline of religion and specifically to the decline in belief in personal immortality. He sort of undercuts his own argument, though, since his examples of self-confident societies/individuals are the Soviet Union and Fedya, both explicitly atheist.

Texan99 said...

I suppose if you don't believe in individual immortality, you might believe that the survival of the State is the all-consuming goal. But as a motivating philosophy, it has not translated into Russian women bearing a lot of children.

David Foster said...

It would be interesting to see Russian fertility numbers over time. I suspect the numbers would be higher in the eras when most people actually *believed* that they were building a glorious Communist'd have to adjust for the effects of famine and war, though.

Eric Blair said...

@Mike: Goldman wrote a column for the Asia Times under the pseudonym "Spengler" which I (and others) took to be an homage to the historian Oswald Spengler, known principally for a book called "The Decline of the West".

I am increasingly wary of 20th century novelists like Koestler, who lived through the upheavals of WWI and WWII. Sort of colors the thinking, I suspect. I think all of Goldman's reading of history has been influenced by this.

Likewise, to T99's thought that If all cultures dropped equally quickly to a similar below-replacement rate, we'd all gradually have smaller populations without disrupting our international relations. --What makes you think that? I will bet cash money that people are still going to make decisions that get themselves into wars no matter how many people there are, if the history of humanity is any example.

So, Steyn looks to be wrong, the overpopulation scaremongers look to be wrong, the 2012 Mayan calendar end of the world forecasters were wrong; no doubt Goldman isn't going to be any more accurate.

Texan99 said...

Eric B, I didn't mean to suggest that shrinking populations would lead to international peace. I meant that, if all nations shrank at the same rate, the relative positions of nations wouldn't necessarily change from the present balance of power (including the present experience of periodic wars). If some nations shrink and others don't, there clearly will be disruptions, as the growing populations will swamp the shrinking ones.

In any case, it's hard to imagine everyone will shrink at the same rate, barring an amazing coincidence. So I have a hard time seeing shrinking populations as benign, even though it's true that the Earth was fine when there were fewer people.

Cass said...

Shrinking populations do have one consequence in the West. The more technologically advanced societies owe a lot of their prosperity and security to technology.

America in particular is not educating the younger generation to the standard required to support our present level of technology. The way we support population increases (and with people living longer and legal/illegal immigration, the population is likely to continue increasing even if the birth rate falls) is by doing more with less through technology.

A lot of the apocalyptic novels of the 70s used the notion of the critical mass needed to support civilization (which in turn often rests on technology). This is what worries me about young men not going to college and not even getting challenging jobs in many cases. It's not that I think women are incapable of tech jobs, but the fact of the matter is that women move in and out of the job market more than men and are (in general) less interested in/less focused on very technical jobs.

Don't know whether that's nature or nuture - in Asia and Russia, there are far more women in tech. But it's reality for us.

Grim said...

Maybe Christian evangelicals or very traditional Catholics, if there are any of them left?

I had lunch today with a friend of mine who is a female evangelical minister (and quite liberal, by the way). She certainly had the option of not being engaged in religion, and certainly shares (at least broadly speaking) the worldview of Steinem et al. But there's a meaning in the church that drew her in, and made her want to engage it.

Still, I don't know that this generation is going to be where you see a change. I think we're going to see a drop in population, but the survivors will be more religious on average -- and, insofar as the demographic bust does produce serious problems, the association with the secular worldview will be a kind of lesson.

There's a reading of the situation that satisfies both Darwin and Hegel: the secular, me-first, non-reproductively-organized model is a selection people are making. It's self-determined, freely chosen, and it leads nowhere. The other way is also freely chosen, self-determined, but productive of future generations. In this generation fewer may choose it, but those are the ones who will inform the future by and large. There's a good reason to believe that the future world will be both much smaller in population, and more religious.


I'm sure someone will find a clever way of inserting the camel's nose, so we can get on with improving the few remaining holdouts. But it's part of the problem, isn't it? Traditional religious culture doesn't accord with the government's norms, even when it is freely chosen and voluntary -- at the least, it discriminates against other religions by preferring their own! That's part of why there's been this kudzu-like secularism crowding religiously-informed culture out of the public space, I agree.