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The Economist Begets Confusion


The Economist this week asks: Why do people have fewer children as they get richer? Unfortunately, the writer seems to have jumped into the deep end of the (gene) pool and winds up confusing the reader over what probably is probably simply explained. The basic family-planning models, ascribed by The Economist’s writer to ecologists (I would have thought sociologists or biologists), are “r-selection” or “K-selection.” Those who choose r-selection beget a kit of kids, invest less in each one, and go for quantity over quality; not surprisingly, they usually choose this in conditions of high infant mortality or poverty. “K-selection” — otherwise known as “Upper East Side Reproductive Strategies” — “have only a few offspring, but nurture them so that they are superb specimens and will thus do well in the competition for resources and mates, and produce more grandchildren” according to the article.

Yet the study in Sweden the piece cites appears to show that K-selection repeats itself over generations, thus leading to smaller reproduction rates among K-selection-oriented families. This means that the K-selected contribute less to the gene pool over time, thereby nullifying their supposed benefit of greater reproduction by future generations that have had advantages denied to their poorer brethren. To The Economist’s reporter, this means that “K-type behavior is not delivering the goods.” Adding confusion on to misreading, the article states that today, K’s advantage over r is weakened by widely available better hygiene, nutrition, free education, and lower infant mortality. K-selection is seen by the author as “ancient psychology” that no longer fits a world in which r-selection traditionally has had disadvantages (i.e., fewer resources lavished on each individual).

I’m no scientist, so feel free to pile on, but it seems there’s a load of misunderstanding in this piece. First, it seems safe to bet that r-selection was not seen as a disadvantage, a victim’s lot, as the author asserts, but rather as an advantage for both individuals and families in the past: the more offspring you produced the more likely a higher number were to survive, thus supporting the family unit and providing the opportunity for future reproduction. Yes, the r family’s circumstances may have been represented a disadvantage, but their reproductive strategy was not. R-selection instead was a way to ensure greater survivability for the family unit (it does create real problems with inheritance, and feudal and agricultural societies from Japan to England had to figure out ways to pare the family tree, in part to avoid constant intra-family warfare). In addition, it may also have meant greater survival chances for children born into poverty, even if they weren’t given as much as K children, since r strategy would produce more hands to grow food and a greater support group in each unit; otherwise, poor families that had fewer children would run a much higher risk for each individual child, as well.

Second, r-selection can’t simply be explained by disadvantageous circumstances. Aristocracy the world over produced as many offspring as they could — even if they could provide K-level upbringing, perhaps thus creating an “rK” combination. They did so to ensure survivability of familial lines. Today, similar incentives may be at work with very religious families, who make their choice due to reasons other than survivability or economics. Similarly, a billionaire I once fleetingly knew who had (I think) three children, told me he’d have a dozen if he could — in part precisely because he could provide for them.

This leads to a third and, to me, crucial point. The Economist scribe applies an absolute analysis to a situation of relative perception by the better-off. Today, our general level of stability, safety, and security allows us to make choices relative to our individual circumstances, and not to a broader (and unforgiving) ecological environment. My choice of whether I can afford to redo my kitchen and Bill Gates’s choice are completely disconnected from the universal environment of greater availability of kitchen renovators today vs. the 14th century; rather, it is a choice based on relative factors. In terms of reproductive strategies, the fact that there is free education, nutrition, post-natal care and the like is not a factor for families in most developed societies, I would argue, because they are a given. Nor is my 21st-century K-decision aimed at ensuring the future viability of my family line or more grandchildren from my “superb specimen” of child. Rather, modern man has a keenly developed sense of today’s costs of child-raising: primarily time and money. The decision is no longer generational (i.e., looking to future generations), since generational survival is not at risk, but rather is focused solely on one’s own lifespan.

#more#From the time perspective, K-selection is still preferable for those who chose to privilege their careers, which happens to ensure the viability of the family unit in this generation. This doesn’t require reams of explanation. More time should equal more money, opportunity, and individual success.

Intimately connected with this, and particularly in a relative sense, the same holds with money. If it does cost something like $300,000 to raise a child with many modern amenities (and with no income expected from them, unlike the past), then parents are painfully aware of the trade-off of having more children. K-selection is still preferable for those who consider relative quality important. Yes, their child is unlikely to succumb during childbirth, but that child’s future nonetheless may well be determined by an education better than that provided in the public schools, or a life filled with piano lessons, trips abroad, and the like. We have reached a point in social and environmental stability where quality can be pursued for its own sake, not for biological success.

That raises the question of the fertility yields being assessed. What is r and K today? If the mid-century American ideal was 2.3 children (or something like that), the relative rise in cost of rearing a child may parsimoniously explain why the average has been dropping among the middle classes and more affluent. Having one child may ensure that a family can provide most of what they want for him, but even having one more may make $25,000-per-year private school impossible for both. In other words, security and comfort are still perceived as scarce goods even by those who have achieved what is considered middle-class status in a developed country.

Given the overall stability of our environment, however, have we moved to a society in which r is represented by as few as three, or even two, children, which in the past would have been judged a K-level of reproduction? Similarly, has K has shifted downward, perhaps, to just one child among the relatively better off? Unlike The Economist’s writer, it seems to me to make perfect sense that a family, having achieved a certain level of material comfort, would rationally choose limited reproduction, thereby benefiting both the parents as well as the child. R-selection may make for happier generations, filled with larger support groups. But that is an issue disconnected from the primary strategy of competitive advantage in an environment in which resources remain relatively restricted, even when the goals are no longer individual or family-line survival.


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