Fertility Looks Bad

Bryan Caplan complains about evo psych folk who say we didn’t inherit “an overwhelming, conscious desire to have children”, and about my suggestion that “It is hard to tell grand hero stories” about high fertility”:

How secure are the premises that people don’t crave children, and can’t frame parenting as a noble quest?  Even nowadays, these claims seem exaggerated. … An ultra-Darwinian yearning to have vast numbers of descendents – and grand hero stories about this yearning – seem like common memes throughout history. [See] these Biblical quotes: …

Genesis 22:17: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven.

Yes, people do try to tell parenting hero stories. But this was lots easier among Biblical herders. Herder men who grew their herd well could afford to take many wives, while impressive herder women could attract successful herder men, who could afford to feed many children. Women who grew their herd well could also support more kids. For the folks of Genesis, having more kids was in fact a strong positive signal about your qualities; having many kids looked good.

Not so much today. Imagine you had a child who seemed extremely talented in some area, such as music, writing, analysis, or sport. Imagine that he or she was young, say early twenties, and was considering having her first child. Compared to a kid of ordinary talent, would you encourage them more or less to wait before having a baby?

Now imagine you had a child who seemed of unusually low ability. Loving and caring, with a good stable spouse, they would probably never be much more than the janitor, driver, receptionist, etc. of their current position.  While they would never get much respect on the job, their kids would probably love and respect them. Compared to a kid of ordinary ability, would you encourage them more or less to start a family?

Seems to me that in our modern world, the obvious answer is: more. The more talented your kid is, the more you’d encourage them to put off having kids. Which creates a signaling effect: having kids earlier tells other folks that you see yourself as being less talented. This effect encourages delayed fertility, which tends toward reduced fertility.

Alas, as I’ve suggested before (1 2 3 4), in the modern world trying to making parenting seem heroic runs into a signaling problem that having more kids earlier tends to make you look bad.

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  • There have been studies linking advanced maternal and paternal age with autism and low IQ. The latter is particularly striking since folks who postpone marriage tend to be more ambitious and intelligent, so you’d expect their kids should be smarter.

    We have a national trend towards obesity, which has moderately bad health effects. Result: huge public health funding and social disapproval of the obese. We also have a shift towards later childbirth, which also has moderately bad health effects. Result: a minuscule literature, no public health effort, and no shaming of old parents. This is confirming evidence of your thesis that fertility is low-status; it is not acceptable to lower the status of late-fertility (and therefore low-fertility) couples.

    (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15547461, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=98381)

  • “While they would never get much respect on the job, their kids would probably love and respect them.”
    Reminds me of some bits near the end of “The Bell Curve“. Cognitive stratification means a lot of people are going to sub-modal status jobs. Charles Murray waxes communitarian on how it is that a person can still be valued by others, a need receiving a check from the government (something he does advocate in other books) doesn’t satisfy. His answer is that previously an average man could derive status from being husband, father and fixture of his community. Making more things the responsibility of the government means less opportunity for such people to be valued. I don’t know if he ever addressed the benefit an economist would see in the modern setup due to division of labor.

  • I intuitively agree with your post, except your framing of average ability jobs as unusually low ability jobs. I think driver may actually be moderately above average ability job (I recall higher IQ expectations for it?) I suspect janitor at worst is moderately below average ability, not unusually low ability.

    I found a definition of unusually low ability workers here:


    “Just how low are the skill levels of low-wage workers? The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) provides an answer. NALS tests a nationally representative sample of individuals on their “functional literacy” or their ability to perform common tasks involving basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills such as interpreting a bus schedule. … Individuals scored at the lowest level if they could not locate an intersection on a street map, understand an appliance warranty, or total the costs from a purchase order … Twenty percent tested at the lowest level.”

    I suspect unusually low ability jobs have a combination of invisibility from high talent people, undersirabily of work demands, and low skill needs.

    I was goinjg to post found examples of such jobs (migrant farm worker comes to mind on the extreme low end) but I’ve ran out of research time.

    • Thanks for the link, but it contains the quote “This effect is stronger for women than men, in part because the remaining higher-wage jobs that require only low levels of basic skills, such as truck driver or construction worker, tend to be dominated by men.”

      • TGGP, I noticed that, but I have a feeling that they wrongly conflated truck driver with construction worker, given that one of the criteria for lowest skill level classification is “could not locate an intersection on a street map”.

        My sense is truck (and other types of) drivers have to have threshhold levels of literacy, numeracy, and conscientiousness that lift them above the lowest skill level class. But I’m arguing here from intuition, not specific sources.

    • Now that I think about it, it’s obvious, unusually low-skilled laborer is the career path for unusually low ability children. I think the focus in the OP on “unusual” might be sending us down the wrong path. Having kids earlier might not specifically signal “unusual low ability” but rather simply “lack of unusual high ability” or at worst “moderately below average ability” -a category janitors probably fit (I’m not sure how drivers and receptionists make out).

      • A Receptionist (for 8 years now)

        I can’t speak for drivers or janitors, but while reception desks certainly don’t necessarily demand a world-beater, they’re usually staffed by basically literate people, and they require at least average personal presentation skills and reliability, which calls for a decent amount of conscientiousness, which is correlated with IQ. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself to take the sting out of the status-smackdown that was that “Now imagine you had a child who seemed of unusually low ability” paragraph for me.

  • The Monster from Polaris

    In certain religious groups having plenty of children is the norm. For instance, among Laestadians families with 10 children are common. I suspect these groups will inherit the Earth, so in the future (some centuries ahead) mankind will be even more religious than now.

  • Gil

    What of the question: why do we need umpteen children and a population explosion? The only answer I can think of when this topic arises is that the civilised parts of the world are depopulating whereas the barbarian parts of the world are still breeding up and becoming a majority thus sending the humans bacs millennia in evolution. If all humans in all parts of the world were all civilised, peaceful and scientifically-minded then it wouldn’t really matter what the population was. It would the same as say saying “going on diet isn’t the same as being an anorexic” and “putting some fat is the same as having an obesity problem”.

    On the other hand, what of the Libertarian economics notion “the more expensive something become, the less desired it beocmes”? Children were cheap and expendable in the olden days. Once a child exited infancy they had to earn their keep or hit the road (usually the latter). This is consistent with most animal species – once the young can basically fend for themselves they leave the nest and the parents make another batch of babies. Hence Libertarians would argue governments in modern welfare states make children artificially expensive: anti-child abandonment laws, anti-child labour laws, compulsory education laws, etc.

    • Logically you make a good point (one would think that if people could sell, kill, or work their kids they’d feel more hedged against the risk of having them) but in practice generous child welfare states don’t seem to do better in encouraging population growth than, for example, the USA. So I think it makes sense to look at other things like the social status signal of having kids and the effects of certain types of religions on population growth.

  • >Seems to me that in our modern world, the obvious answer is: more. The more talented your kid is, the more you’d encourage them to put off having kids.

    That’s the conventional response all right. But it is not the best response. I realized more than twenty years ago that today it actually makes more sense for a would be professional or career woman to have children early, to stretch out her education rather than interrupt her career.

  • JAMayes

    Mormons don’t have this problem.

  • Sister Y

    I don’t think it’s just about status and stories. Having children reduces one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex, whether one is male or female. Since we don’t force people to stay in lifetime monogamous or polygynous unions, the appeal of a new partner is always present. Adults with children often try to disguise their parent status (e.g., driving an SUV instead of a minivan) to try to get the best of both worlds.

  • Robert Koslover

    This sounds good to me.

    Simple Irish Wedding Blessing

    May God be with you and bless you
    May you have many children
    And live to see your children’s children
    May you be poor in misfortunes, but rich in blessings
    May you know nothing but happiness from this day forward

  • noematic

    The more talented your kid is, the more you’d encourage them to put off having kids. Which creates a signaling effect: having kids earlier tells other folks that you see yourself as being less talented. This effect encourages delayed fertility, which tends toward reduced fertility.

    This effect seems to begin by being enforced by the parents and end with the children enforcing it themselves – once educated and/ or in a good job, it is difficult to see (at least in the short term) how parenting could rival the high status that follows from a good education and/ or good job.

    On my (limited) empirical observation, these seems particularly true of young women in professions traditionally dominated by males, which may be seen an additional signal of ability/ assertiveness. Parenting certainly cannot make up for this signal and early parenting would perhaps preclude this signal from being given at all.

  • The idea that having “more kids earlier tends to make you look bad” seems to be a value judgement of a kind which would be made by someone with non-Darwinian values. In nature’s eyes, such things are seen differently.

    • Thursday

      People are adaptation executors not fitness maximizers. Those adaptations may be for another time.

  • Thursday

    The end of this article goes into Singapore’s massive failure to raise the birth rate using monetary and other material incentives:

  • Jordan

    The most amazing thing about his article is the “what would you encourage in scenarios A and B” question, mostly because I wouldn’t remotely presume the typical response that the author does, and not a single comment has called him on it. Meaning: I was probably woefully ignorant of the typical person’s responses, and had to rely on my bias that everyone else would think like I do. It’s a real eye-opener. Now I have to wrap my head around why people would encourage more kids from people who will be less able to support them well.

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