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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