Low fertility helps the species but threatens cultures and some dreams. 

Weddings get me thinking about reproductive success. I went to two this week, both outstanding professional couples, and I couldn't help wondering if and when they might make a contribution to the next generation's genetic and cultural mix.

And I do mean "if."

 The New York Times Magazine last week had an article called "No Babies?" about increasingly childless Europe, but the same point could be made about the most educated Americans. The U.S. overall has 2.1 children per couple, the replacement rate. Southern and Eastern Europe are now below 1.3.

We used to cluck our tongues about population doubling times; 1.3 gives you a 45-year halving time. Northern Europe is celebrating with 1.7 or 1.8, believed due to the greater support for working moms in those countries. But that is just postponing the inevitable.

As population ages, Europe must import youth, unlikely to be assimilated by shrinking native populations. Italy will cease to be Italian before Sweden stops being Swedish, but both will happen soon.

The one-child family edict in China is causing similar shrinkage, but Thailand, with no such policy, is down to 1.5 and South Korea and Japan are about tied for lowest at 1.1. According to UN data, 25 countries in the developing world are below replacement.

Worldwide, birthrates themselves have halved since 1972, from an unsustainable 6 to a still expansive 2.9. This rate will continue to drop, but the species will grow until mid-century, when it is slated to stabilize at around 9 billion.

But meanwhile, there will be drastic and transformative shrinkage in Europe. Biologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb back in the ‘60s, was interviewed for the Times piece: "It's insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis. Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it's wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we're wrecking our life-support systems."

I agree that it's good for the planet and the species. "ZPG," for Zero Population Growth, became a watchword after Ehrlich's book; we need that and more. Some naïve scientists have decided Malthus was wrong, since the nine billion we will have when the species crests can be fed by the world's grain.

But it's not just about grain production. It's about getting the grain to the hungry bellies, fraught with politics and conflict. It's about oil and other commodities, fresh water, garbage, pollution, and global warming.

And it's about whether nine billion can attain even a modest Western life style-a one-bedroom apartment, a refrigerator, a TV set, and a Prius-without, as Ehrlich put it, "wrecking our life-support systems." No one thinks the answer to that is yes.*

So what we need after mid-century is NPG, Negative Population Growth, which in a century or two might reduce our species to true sustainability. But while some places are in rapid NPG, others are still expanding. No one can predict future evolution, but we know some things.

Religiosity is rather heritable, and religious people have more children. So the future is religious, not necessarily a bad thing. The overall shrinkage will in due course save the world, and God will get some credit.

But remember the law of unintended consequences; there will be economic and social consequences both foreseeable and unforeseen. Aside from having an elderly species for the first time in history, we will have lost the extended family. Think of those large Italian and Chinese family dinners; in one generation they will be gone, because there will be no aunts, uncles, or cousins. And the rapid shrinkage of Europe, Japan, and South Korea will eliminate many specific cultural traditions.

At lunch after the wedding yesterday-it was a beautiful Hindu ceremony, joining an Indian to a Polish family-I sat with yet another former student and his new wife. She is thirty-five; both are in the prime of their productive professional lives. When they asked me if I had read the Times article I talked about the need for NPG.

But when she said that she has always dreamed of having a family, I felt my doctor hat settling on my head. This happens when I know something that might be help the person in front of me, the welfare of the species notwithstanding.

I told this loving couple that the thirties are a decade of marked decline in the receptivity of the uterus, independent of the aging of the ovaries. I told them that postponement of childbearing is fine, if you accept a growing risk of permanent failure. I told them that I have seen terrible disappointments.

I would not have made these statements if she had not told me her dreams. To lighten things up before I left, I looked at my watch. I knew they had a great hotel room upstairs. "You have five and a half hours before we have to be back here for the reception."

When I saw them at the reception, they had talked about it. 


*Ehrlich's excellent new book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, co-authored with Anne Ehrlich, summarizes the details. 


  1. Clare says:

    This reminds me of a story told by one of my colleagues who recently returned from a sabbatical in China. He took his wife and two sons with him. Naturally, he attracted attention because he had two sons, but even more striking for him was that in talking about his children with his hosts they would make reference to the kin term for “elder brother,” a word they noted had otherwise disappeared from everyday conversation. It makes me wonder how different our understanding of kinship terminology (and kin relations) would be if they were studied two hundred years in the future, instead of in the early years of anthropology.

  2. Melvin Konner says:

    Clare, If memory serves, which it doesn’t always, one of the greats of British social anthropology (Evans-Pritchard?) once said of our field, “It’s history or nothing.” As time goes by, for better or for worse, this can only become more true. (In light of that statement, I’ve always found it ironic that the postmodernists claim to have introduced history into ethnology.) In the ’60s, my late wife Marjorie Shostak and I visited the Cherokee Museum in North Carolina, and were impressed with our guide, who identified himself as Cherokee. I asked if he had learned about Cherokee culture from his grandparents. “No,” he said, “they didn’t know anything. I learned it from the anthropologists at the university.” A pretty important role, I think, however imperfect.

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