Chapter 7 - Everything You Were Taught About Fertility Is Backwards
In Kurt Vonnegut's great novel, Galapagos, a group of
people end up on a famed South American islands of Galapagos at the same moment
that a virus is spreading throughout the world.
"How could he have known that some new creature, invisible to the naked eye, was eating up all the eggs in human ovaries, starting at the annual Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany? Woman at the fair were experiencing a slight fever that came and went in a day or two, and sometimes blurry vision. After that, they couldn't have babies anymore. Nor would any way be discovered for stopping this disease. It would spread everywhere except to the Galapagos..."
In the novel, humanity, other than the handful of tourists stranded on Galapagos died out. They just stopped having babies. Within 100 years, no humans were left.
Fertility is the most basic element of the survival of any species. Stop having babies and you disappear very quickly from the world.
Few consider this a problem when it comes to humans. For my whole life, I have been shown charts like this (1):
This chart leaves the reader in cold sweats. Given that exponential growth rate, one could imagine a situation where people are literally living on top of each other to survive in just a few years. We see pictures of this sort of life in dense cities like India's Mumbai and we have been trained to imagine a world where that was true everywhere.
And so, UN, Planned Parenthood, Bill Gates, and many other influential academics throughout the world have spent
their efforts figuring out ways to drop birth rates. How can we convince humans
to have less children?
But what few realize is that no convincing is needed. People are having less kids. A lot less. Consider the following (2):
rates have dropped in half since the 1950s (which were already low
historically). And those are UN numbers. The UN is known to be a bit biased in favor of alarmism on overpopulation and they are saying that just in a 65 year
period birth rates globally halved.
Now, if birth rates of honey bees, trout, or sperm whales halved in a such a short period of time, ecologists would be panicking. What if the trend continues? What if it drops below replacement rates for some period of time? What if some sort of disease wipes out a large portion of the population and the species is unable to recover thanks to ever falling birth rates?
But with humans, not only are we not panicking, we are pushing harder to reduce birth rates further. We are allowing a billionaire software engineer from Seattle go to Africa to tell people in villages how to use condoms. And the rates continue to drop.
But... here is the thing. It is very likely that the UN numbers are underestimating the drop in fertility globally. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson recently published Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline argue exactly that. They did a detailed study, country by country, of how many children per woman were being born and found that the rates are most likely much lower than commonly cited statistics like those from the UN. The fear of overpopulation is not only wrong, they argue, it is exactly backward. Consider this quotation:
“The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of
the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Never happened before. What is going on with humans? Why are we not having children anymore?
China recently removed their misguided and oppressive 'one child policy' only to find out that people didn't want much more than one child anyway. Reuters reported that in 2018 (two years after one child policy was rolled back) the birth rates fell to the lowest in recorded history. That should sound familiar to us here in the USA. Our fertility rates are at historic lows as well. The total fertility rate in the USA dropped to an all time low of 1.73 in 2018. That is way below the replacement rate of 2.1. And almost half of all nations are also below replacement. Mexico is below replacement. Brazil is below replacement. India is just barely above replacement rates. And outside of India almost all of Asia is well below replacement. And again.... these are based on the widely accepted stats that are probably wrongly inflating the rate!
And while some nations still report high fertility rates (especially sub-saharan Africa) it is important to remember how quickly fertility rates can drop. Remember, Japan went from 5+ children per woman to below replacement in 15 years! Africa (thanks to the UN, Bill Gates, and others) now has widespread access to condoms and birth control pills. If the causes of the drops in other nations take place there, it might just be a few short years before Africa follows the rest of the world to sub-replacement rate fertility. And the authors of Empty Planet have reason to believe this is likely. The report on interviews conducted with women in Africa and learn that many young women are hope to have far fewer children than their parents had (many saying that they would like 1 or 2).
We will talk more about the reasons shortly but humans are acting in a way that would
disturb us if it was happening in almost any other species. And remember the
quote from above, "Once [population] decline begins, it will never
But... you might respond, let's not get worried. There are still plenty of humans and even if we steadily decline in population, we would have centuries to figure out and solve the problem. This sort of thinking has several major problems with it. First, it assumes that the causes for the drop are not getting worse. The rate has dropped in half in the past 65 years. What if the rate drop accelerates in the next 65? What if it is quartered or worse?
If this was any other animal we might be worried about extinction (I will talk about this later) but instead many celebrate the drop as progress. After all, remember all the bad things over population can cause? Food crises? Humanitarian crises? Hardships for women?
But few realize the hardships that come from a shrinking population. Let's examine some negative outcomes.
Bad for the Economy
Bad for the Environment
Since 1950, the world's population has more than doubled.If population growth is bad for the environment, you would think that this would have caused irreparable damage to the environment. But a funny thing happened along the way. Things got cleaner not dirtier. Factories no longer dump their waste in the Great Lakes. Industrial districts no longer are choked with black smoke and smog. International treaties on fishing, whaling, and poaching have brought many animals back from the edge of extinction. Cars are cleaner. Oil takers have more safety precautions and cause less spills. Cities once covered in dirt and soot are now fresh and clean. And while the most discussed environmental risk in the news today is global warming, there is much data to suggest that the most steps that have been taken to curb global warming (regulations on emissions for vehicles, clean energy etc) have been taken when the population was at its highest.
How is it possible that the treatment of the environment got better as the population doubled? The answer is that this is what rich countries can afford to do. In today's world, the most polluting countries are the developing ones. According to World Population Review, the top 5 most polluted countries are Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bahrain (6). These countries pollute not because they do not want to have clean environments but because they are poor and they prefer having food on their tables to having a perfectly clean world to live in.
So what happens when the population drops and these already poor countries get poorer? The answer is that it will not be good for the environment.
Bad for Women
One of the most fundamental purposes to the existence of every living creature (humans included) is passing on our
genes to the next generation. That makes it so strange that our society seems so
hell bent on not perpetuating the human species. If one of the fundamental purposes of every species is procreation, we would expect procreation to be central to much of our physical and mental processes as human beings. And so it is. As I have mentioned in previous chapters, men and women are different primarily so that the next generation can be conceived, fed, protected and raised to adulthood. But what happens when those things don't happen anymore. What happens when a men and women start getting married but no kids follow? What does it do to men and women when we go from having a natural birth rate (4-6 children over the course of a woman's child bearing years) to 1 or 0?
And both roles were honorable roles. Women usually were surrounded by other
women. Each woman would have two or three sisters, two or three sisters-in-law,
and two or three daughters. And these groups of women would work together to
accomplish 'women's work' - an incredibly important part of traditional
societies. They would protect and train children. They would make sure that the
house was in order. They would prepare the food that the men brought back from
Everyone had their role. Life was difficult but meaningful for both men and women.
But what happens when we suddenly say that women no longer
have 4 to 6 children but 1 to 2? Women with one or two children are suddenly
left without this traditional role. Men go out and do what we always did.
Sometimes that work is in a traditionally physical role in the trades but often
it is in the less pleasant cubicle instead but there is still a solid vestige of
what men were built for. We go out, compete for salaries, challenge coworkers,
and act in some ways just like men have always acted. But the traditional role
for women is almost completely gone. The one child is put on a bus and sent to
free public schools (also a modern invention) and then the woman has nothing
particularly important to do. She does not have two sisters nearby. She does
not have two sisters-in-law. She is at home alone without kids to watch, modern
tools to make caring for the house easier (vacuums, washing machines, etc). The
urgency, necessity, community, and meaning of "women's work" is gone.
Women could stay at home, vacuum meticulously, and become gourmet chefs for
their husbands but that is a poor exchange for the vital, communal, and
difficult work that was once required.
And so, starting about the time fertility rates started dropping, women have increasingly entered the work force. Men, after all, seemed to be fulfilled doing this sort of work, why shouldn’t that be good for women as well?
This created changing workplace dynamics. The entrance into the workforce created a problem for women. First off, traditional workplaces for women were to be surrounded by other women. Men and women are different. Jokes are different. Men tend to be more confrontational. More competitive. And the workforce that women were entering had been built for men. They entered a world of bawdy jokes, rough and tumble office politics, long hours, and cut throat competition. While this environment might make some women happy, for many this was a very unsafe space. It is not a surprise that as women first started to entere the traditionally male dominated workplaces, the dynamics were difficult to say the least. Sexual harassment and abuse were common. The male culture rewarded confrontation and competition along with male “locker room talk” but this sort of talk was, traditionally, not the sort of talk that men did in front of women. Women protested and over time, the harassment of women in the work place has been reduced by shaming, firing, and suing men who violate good standards of behavior.
Women have also successfully changed the work place to be
much more female friendly in other ways. They have added flex time, worked to
pass legislation mandating maternity leave, and encouraged ‘diversity’ hires to
make it more advantageous for corporations to hire and promote women. But
despite these changes, women still struggle to keep up with men. After 50 years
of cultural, legal, and tax incentives pushing for diversity, as of 2017, only
32 of the Fortune 500 corporations have female CEOs. There is an ongoing wage
gap, with women earning about 80% as much as men for similar jobs. This wage
gap, despite claims that it is just due to bigotry, is instead due to the fact
that women make choices that are good for women but bad for corporate
advancement. They choose to have children, they choose to take time off to
raise them in the early years, and they choose to work fewer hours as a result.
In short, they choose to maintain some vestige of the traditional role they
once had. Which makes sense.
And in addition to the time that women take maintaining some shadow of the traditional role, there are other advantages men have in the workplace. Men are naturally more competitive so when it comes to salary negotiations, pushing for promotions, and going the extra mile to get noticed, men are more willing to do this. They are more willing to cause waves in the office to get what they want. This is the same instinct that helped men survive in a more tribal life and it works well in the industry that men set up over the past 1000 years of capitalism.
So, we are left with the question, why do we as a culture ask men to do something similar to what we have been built for but ask women to do something similar to what men were built for? The answer is that we do this because of birth control. In other words, the reduction of fertility far from being the liberator of women, has forced women to take on roles and work in environments that were built for men.
But, what about the woman who does not like the traditional
role? It has to be acknowledged that many women say that birth control gives
them options. They could have five or six kids if they wanted but they do not.
They like going and working in the workplace. In a world without birth control,
they would have no option but to take the one role given to them.
I have a couple of thoughts. First, options do not always create happiness. Sometimes, knowing what we are called to do and finding a way to do it is actually better for our mental health than endless options and no right answers. Second, it is hard to say you like or do not like something you have never experienced. Unless you have lived in an Amish community or a traditional society from another country, you do not know what it is like to live in a context where almost every woman has as many children as God gives her. You do not know what it is like to have that sort of societal and family support and culture. Women who say they do not like the traditional role likely are picturing the 1950s or 1960s mother who puts her kid on the bus and then is home alone to vacuum all day. Few have experienced a community of women doing meaningful work building the next generation together. My guess is that on the whole many who say they do not want that role might find it better than they expected. The household historically speaking was much more chaotic and women often worked in groups of women to do a wide variety of roles. If a woman does not like changing diapers, she might be sent by her sisters to cook. If she did not like cooking she might be sent by her mother to go garden. If she did not like gardening, she might be sent to help make clothes. In short, the traditional society offered many options for women that are not in the 1950s or 1950s 'Leave it to Beaver' understanding of 'women's work'.
Another thing to consider is that devastating global pandemics have not
magically gone away. I write these words during the COVID19 pandemic
that is on pace to kill at least 1 million people globally by the end of
the year. But COVID19 has a relatively low death rate and primarily
targets the elderly. In terms of global pandemics, as bad as it is, it
is relatively mild. In the middle ages, plagues are thought to have
out at least a third of the population of Europe. What if something
And... what about war? Genghis Khan is thought to have
killed about 11% of the world population. And that was using spears and swords.
We now have weapons that could literally wipe out the whole world. The fact
that our species is here on earth is a miracle. Humans are amazing. I would
argue we are the very image of God on earth. But we are very vulnerable and
mortal things. Disease and war are real things that have killed large
percentages of the world population in the past and there is really no reason
to think that something similar will not happen in the future.
But in the past, we were able to bounce back. We had 5 or 6 kids per woman on average. We repopulated when war or disease tried to wipe us out. That is why any species has children. To replace those that die. And when a species loses that power, warning lights should blink.
In Vonnegut's Galapagos humanity went (almost) extinct due to a disease that attacked the fertility of the global population. I think that it is hard to argue with the statement that some sort of similar disease is already sweeping the globe. Fertility rates are dropping off. But the people who are supposed to be helping... fighting disease.... are helping to spread it.
Causes of the Fertility Drop
What is causing the drop in population? Some of the central of falling fertility rates according to the Empty Planet authors: secularization, urbanization, feminism, technology, and birth control.
Let's explore these.
Secularization is something I will argue is often exaggerated. The general population remains very religious. But it is true that the less religious you are the fewer children you have. According to a 2009 study by researchers Sarah R. Hayford and S. Philip Morgan, how important you view religion to be is closely associated with how many children you have.
"Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), we show that women who report that religion is “very important” in their everyday life have both higher fertility and higher intended fertility than those saying religion is “somewhat important” or “not important.”" (3)
A society that moves in a secular direction is also a society that moves in a childless direction.
Urbanization is perhaps one of the most significant trends in recent decades. Urbanization started with the Industrial Revolution and has not slowed down. For the first time in known history, more humans now live in urban areas than in rural ones. This affects fertility in a number of ways. First, in cities, women are surrounded more by friends than they are by family. Parents and siblings tend to pressure young couples to have children. Almost every family member wants a grandkid, nephew or niece and the nagging for them usually starts right after a couple is married. And in rural communities, this family is often the primary social circle for women. But in urban environments, parents and siblings are rarely one's closest friends. Instead coworkers, neighbors, and old classmates tend to fill this social space.And this crowd is much less likely to pressure a woman to have children. If anything, they put pressure in the other direction. The second way that urbanization affects fertility is cost. To have a child on a farm is in many ways beneficial to the family finances. Typically from age seven or eight a child can contribute meaningfully to the many chores required to raise livestock and work the fields. But in the city, children do not benefit the family financially. Instead they tend to be incredibly expensive. Diapers, food, toys, sports, private schools, health care, and college funds all present dramatic drains on the family finances. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the total cost to raise a child from birth to age 17 (prior to college) is somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars. (4) If this number is even close to being right, having four kids would cost a couple about a million dollars (and that is before any college tuition is payed)! It is no wonder that so few families have four kids now.
Technology affects fertility in a number of ways. First, even the most isolated families get to watch TV shows and movies about glamorous people living glamorous lives and these glamorous people rarely have large families. The authors of Empty Planet talk about how soap operas may have been a giant cause for the drop in fertility in the slums of Brazil. Further, technology has been shown to negatively affect sex lives of young couples. Binge watching Netflix, endless discussions on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention widespread porn use among men have caused couples to have much less sex than they used to. BBC published an article arguing that couples in 2010 reported having 15% less sex per year than just a decade earlier and put much of the blame on our electronic devices (5). It would be hard for me to believe it has gotten better since then.
Finally, widespread availability of birth control cannot be downplayed as a major reason for the dropping global birth rates. Birth control used to be viewed as scandalous and was often illegal but in today's world it is cheap, stigma free, and widely available. And if your birth control fails, abortion (once widely illegal) is now also widely available.There was a time when a couple having a few too many drinks after dinner might lead to an unexpected little one but there is little reason for that to be the case today. People control their fertility in a way that they never have before and therefore they are able to decide when and if to have children. And as a result, many are waiting longer to have children or not having children at all. This is taking place all around the world.
How to Reverse the Fertility Drop?
So... if these are the causes and if we accept that fertility is a problem... what is the solution? Is it possible to stop a population collapse and all its negative consequences? For better or worse, birth control is here. It seems impossible to put that genie back in the bottle but I do think that there are some reasonable steps that societies can take to reverse the trend.
1) Stop pushing birth control on traditional societies
Sub-Saharan Africa still has 5-6 kids per woman. But the benevolent elites from the US and Europe think they know better than the Africans. Rich white countries are now flooding them with condoms and birth control pills. We should stop this. It amazes me how many get upset because missionaries "pushed" their faith on these traditional societies but are doing the exact same thing with their social policies. Stop it. It won't change some of the other trends I have listed but it is a start.
2) The Church Needs to Develop a Theology of Birth Control
We know that religion affects fertility. But many churches could do more to encourage believers to have children. Over the long term, religion shapes morals, laws, and our outlook on life. The problem with birth control is that it is so new that the amount of religious reflection on the subject has been paltry.
When the birth control pill was invented, the pope prohibited it and also condemned other forms of birth control. He listed a number of reasons and many of these were prescient and important. But throughout the 20th century, Protestants became more and more open to birth control and when the pill was invented, there was a general acceptance of it. Soon, if you had a big family, a common joke was to ask, "are you Catholic?" But Catholic birth rates have dropped as well now and there is little difference between Protestant and Catholic family sizes.
I don't think this is because people no longer listen to their pastors. I think it is largely because pastors stopped talking about it. The bible has multiple commands to be "fruitful and multiply". It may be that Western
theologians are succumbing to the secular culture in accepting birth control. The church needs to do what she was built to do.... teach the bible. Evidence shows that the faithful will listen.
It is time that the theological thought leaders of the Christian world rethink that tacit and unthinking acceptance of birth control.
3) Praise and help big families
One of the reasons that many do not have large families is that our society is not built for large families anymore. Because both mother and father have been working since the 1960s, the lifestyle associated with two incomes is inflated from where it would be. People have a lot more stuff because mom works. And this makes it socially difficult for the large family. If every kid costs a quarter of a million dollars to raise, it is a simple fact that the financial situation of a large family will be more difficult than the family next door that only has one or two kids.
As a society, we should help. This does not need to be a slew of government programs (although reduced taxes and child tax credits are a must). A focused society can do a wonderful job of raising charitable funds to encourage and bless big families. But care for them we must. Give them stuff. Give diapers.
Give clothes. Give space.
But also give time. Traditional societies were gave women social context that was full of other people. Kids, in-laws, retired grandparents, sisters, and mothers. Now, the stay at home mother is isolated. She might have five kids under ten years old and that is it in her life. As a society, we need to help her. Other mothers should visit. There should be a network of mom's with large families. Churches should have ministries to give time to mom's and families.
The social situation worsens when we tease, mock, or even condemn large families. When I had my second kid, a childless friend jokingly said, "you know how to control that right?" A mother having to watch 5 kids is not going to have as much time to clean or do her make up or money to buy fashionable clothes. It is easy for mother's in large families to feel judged by the broader society. And often they are. Many do not see the value of large families and think that having too many kids is a bad thing. We need to stop this sort of judging. As a society, we need to offer praise to someone doing something important. Raising five kids is a heroic and wonderful thing. We should give credit where credit is due.
Are the Amish the Evolutionary Solution?
Darwin's theory states that the species that is best able to survive and reproduce generation after generation will dominate. If sagging fertility rates cause the broader society to become less numerous, what groups might rise? Well... think about the causes of lower fertility that we discussed above: secularization, urbanization, feminism, technology, and birth control. A group that could, generation after generation, reject secularization, urbanization, feminism, technology, and birth control might be a group that could dominate the world population. What group does that?
In the USA, there is one group that comes to mind. The Amish. Amish rules vary by region and bishop but, generally speaking, the Amish are deeply religious, anti-urban, not feminist, reject technology, and opposed to birth control. have somewhere over five children per woman. Their population doubles every generation or so (7). If they can maintain the principles they live by now... maybe we will all be Amish
It is shocking that the people that came up with the whole idea of
evolution seem to miss the importance of procreation in the survival and
thriving of a species. If the population of bees globally is shrinking the
solution is not to move the bees around. Its to encourage bees to keep
I speak of the Amish taking over the world with a half joking tone. The idea of this strange sect dominating the population seems outlandish and unlikely. Who knows who will dominate future populations. But I bring up the possibility only to show the things they are getting right on fertility that everyone else seems to be getting wrong.
And let's step back and talk about the Emperor and his new clothes. In the introduction to this book I talked about the elements of our modern culture that would immediately jump out at a time traveler. Someone from another era looking at 21st century America would see so many things that seem obviously wrong. For any time traveler from the past, one thing would not seem particularly strange: the Amish. Hardworking rural farmers using horses and having lots of kids would not be anywhere near as strange as the childless couple jetting around the world visiting beaches on every continent. But what of the time traveler from the future? If Darwin's theories have anything at all to say, they too will not view the Amish as the strange ones.
The emperor has no clothes.
(1) Source: OurWorldData.Org. OurWorldData.Org is not associated with or a contributor to this work and use of their charts in no way implies agreement with my conclusions.
(2) Source: OurWorldData.Org.
OurWorldData.Org is not associated with or a contributor to this work
and use of their charts in no way implies agreement with my conclusions.