Elite Fertility Falls

An ’06 essay says falling fertility often afflicted indulged elites:

“If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance.” So proclaimed the Roman general, statesman, and censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, in 131 B.C. Still, he went on to plead, falling birthrates required that Roman men fulfill their duty to reproduce, no matter how irritating Roman women might have become. …

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. …

Societies with high fertility grew in strength and number and began menacing those with lower fertility. … That was the lesson King Pyrrhus learned in the third century B.C., when he marched his Greek armies into the Italian peninsula and tried to take on the Romans. …

Greece, after falling into a long era of population decline, eventually became a looted colony of Rome. Like today’s modern, well-fed nations, both ancient Greece and Rome eventually found that their elites had lost interest in the often dreary chores of family life. “In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and a general decay of population,” lamented the Greek historian Polybius around 140 B.C., just as Greece was giving in to Roman domination. “This evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life.” (more; HT sestamibi)

This supports the idea that farmers naturally return to foraging ways as they get rich. I wonder how many “civilization collapses” were due to fertility losing its social status.

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  • Evan

    This is an interesting study, but the question I’m wondering is, why is this fertility problem happening now. We’ve been far richer than the Greeks or Romans for a couple centuries now, but this fertility trend is less than fifty years old. Why did it take so much more wealth to trigger it this time around?

    • Gil

      Womens’ and child rights? Access to birth control? Children are too financially and time expensive to be desirable? People wanting to extend their adolescence for as long as possible? Perhaps even living longer and healthier?

    • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

      It might have been delayed by the increasing number of things we might want. We might be richer without feeling richer.

    • Karl Hallowell

      This is an interesting study, but the question I’m wondering is, why is this fertility problem happening now. We’ve been far richer than the Greeks or Romans for a couple centuries now, but this fertility trend is less than fifty years old. Why did it take so much more wealth to trigger it this time around?

      I’d guess that the primary causes for us are a combination of the birth control pill and higher wages for women. Sex is far less likely to lead to pregnancy now. Higher wages for women means both that families lose more when a pregnant mother stops working and females are much less reliant on males as traditional providers.

    • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

      I wonder how much of it is risk aversion, the possibility of having a child that is retarded or severely handicapped or criminal is a frightening prospect many people.

  • http://foyer-deluge.blogspot.com/ tommi

    European fertility collapsed centuries ago because of the urbanization and industrialization. There was a bump in the early 20th century. Huge amounts of money was poured to families because nations suddenly needed more cannon fodder.

    Before that families might have been large but few could afford to have a family in the first place.

  • http://kazart.blogspot.com mwengler

    Instead of pressing for settling on other planets to insure humanity’s survival past earth, perhaps we should press for “child factories” so that advanced civilizations can advance beyond the point they have in the past, where in the past they were limited by their member’s loss of interest in having babies.

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