Contraception and Causality; r/K Selection and Population Growth

Tod’s recent post on contraception contained this thought-provoking segment:

Another note of interest was this argument by Connell:

“Birth control as it is now practised in the United States is bound to bring about a notable decline in our white population in the near future.”

I think in may ways this comment deserves more consideration, and maybe at some point a different post. And not because I think thisargument shows that those that are either anti-birth control or pro-religious freedom today are racists – in fact quite the opposite. No, what I find fascinating about this argument is that of all Connell’s warnings about what would happen should contraception be made available, this is the one that has actually occurred. There are a myriad of factors other than contraception at work, of course, and the reality isn’t so much that the white population has decreased numerically so much as decreased as a proportion to the whole. But the concerns and fear that lie in Connell’s warning have most certainly come to pass.

As I mentioned in the comments to Tod’s post, I think it’s very difficult to infer causality – that widespread use of birth control has resulted in a lower white population rather than the two phenomena being unrelated or sharing the same root cause (condoms have been available for centuries, for instance). When it comes to the question of whether or not the decline in the birth rate of the white American population and the availability of chemical contraception are incidental or epiphenomenal to each other, I find it more interesting to speculate that the two trends share a common root cause. So what is that root cause?

Understanding cause requires an understanding of mechanism. There is something missing from most public discussions of population growth, whether those discussions assert that Great Britain and Japan will continue to decline to nothingness and childbirth will be considered an eccentricity of the past akin to handmade goods and typhus or whether those arguments assert that the Indian subcontinent will someday contain a majority of the world’s population. As far as these population problems are problems at all, they are problems of management: how to manage scarce resources, how to prevent violence from erupting over competition for resources, how to distribute resources from productive groups to vulnerable groups, how to plan cities to minimize congestion, etc.

Luckily, nature provides an automatic stabilizer when it comes to population growth: the logistic sigmoid pictured above, otherwise known as (MacArthur-Wilson) r/K selection theory. r/K selection theory states that – ceteris paribus – population growth for a species follows two general, mathematically-modellable paradigms: r-selection – the exponential growth area of the sigmoid function – dominates in unstable environments, such as might be experienced by vulnerable or marginalized populations like immigrants or the poor. K selection – the logarithmic (flat) area of the sigmoid at the upper right – dominates in stable or predictable environments, such as those experienced by comfortable classes.

Contraception and Causality; r/K Selection and Population Growth

Population growth is a sigmoid function.

Some speculate that it is “culture” that causes fewer children as a function of wealth, but this is a meaningless explanation. Attributing rising or declining birth rates to culture fails to explain why the phenomenon is so widespread and cross-cultural: as populations have access to more resources, as their needs progress up Maslow’s hierarchy, they produce fewer offspring, whether those populations are American yuppies, middle-class Japanese or Koreans, members of the European upper class, chimpanzees, elephants, or penguins, despite having access to more resources.

So what is the cause of such counter-intuitive behavior? I’d hypothesize that the sudden exponential growth in the global population around 1900 has something to do with modern technologies – specifically solutions to the various problems of disease and security – allowing higher than usual populations to exist in many places. What we’re seeing now with the rise of urbanism is the end stages of the effective neutralization of the capacity of communicable diseases to ravage human populations in close proximity to each other. As a corollary, I’d hypothesize that the inflection point of the graph at the left – sometime in the late nineties it seems (earlier for industrialized countries) – corresponds to a certain critical global saturation of these nature-fighting technologies.

What happened in Rwanda, what happened with World War II (notice the ever-so-slight “dip” on the graph above), and what is happening in many other places where wars are fought over resources, is a new kind of war. Whereas war historically – during the r phase of global population growth – was a natural check on growth and a driving factor of r selection, war now is an anomaly, a failure on our part to fully understand the implications and unintended consequences of our own cleverness.

As for what is truly driving the sigmoid function – as opposed to an immediate adjustment and stabilization corresponding to a flat or linear growth rate –  I’d imagine it has to do with a “lag” in information, or a kind of “sticky perception” of one’s situation. Families many centuries ago gave birth to many children, and relatively few of them made it to adulthood to produce their own children. The pattern – through the natural cullings of disease, war, famine, and many other basic problems that we have solved in much of the world – tended towards self-replacement. Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, we made great progress as a species and developed technologies to allow a significantly higher percentage of children to survive to adulthood. Despite there having been a paradigm shift, people continued reproducing at levels to allow self-replacement under the old paradigm. Eventually – typically after one generation – we acquired the ability to plan for self-replacement under the new paradigm, which is represented by the area of K growth at the upper right of the sigmoid (which, for the graph of global population, above assumes continued global diffusion of technology).

Inasmuch as we seem to analyze this phenomenon in the United States specifically in racial terms – probably because we are obsessed with race – it is more a function of the wealth that comes with being the established power culture that the white population has declined relative to the populations of various minority groups. Not only has the above pattern affected whites disproportionately on account of (1) whites historically having access to more wealth in this country; (2) the category of “white” being continually and historically redefined and rather arbitrary; (3) the huge wealth gap of the American economic mode; but there has also been a trend towards diversity in the immigrant pool – i.e. a higher proportion of “non-white” immigrants relative to overall numbers of immigrants – even as our immigration policy on the whole has become increasingly hostile, since the time Father Connell wrote those words in the Atlantic.

I suspect that, if chemical contraception is to be blamed for causing a decline in the white population, it is only because chemical contraception – among many other things – has come to gradually replace disease and poverty as an equilibrator, first for the white population, then for everyone else.

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28 thoughts on “Contraception and Causality; r/K Selection and Population Growth

  1. Brilliant, it honestly never occurred to me to apply r/K to human history I suppose because I’m used to thinking of reproductive traits as changing over evolutionary time but once you remember how flexible humans can be this makes a lot of sense.

     

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    • Thanks, Matty. I think r/K as it’s often applied means that we classify one species as r and another species as K, but I know r/K is used as a descriptive tool for describing the growth of primate populations over time and in anthropology, so, given the fact that r or K will be dominant strategies under different sets of circumstances, it makes sense that human populations will adapt quickly to one paradigm or the other, or the kind of hybrid you see in countries like China or the United States where there are relatively large wealth disparities.

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  2. Nice post, Chris.  I’d like to see you do a follow-up one where you tie this into a critique of Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” article, in which he claims that voluntary reduction in child-bearing is ultimately self-defeating because those who do will select their type out of the population through lack of progeny, while the breeders will replace them with their many progeny.  It seems to me Hardin either ignores r/K selection theory or implicitly assumes that there will always be “r”  types in the human population, who will simply replace K types (if the latter get too Kish).  It’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my head for a number of years now, and I’d love to see someone tackle it.

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  3. Educational attainment is a very critical factor in accounting for lifetime fertility differentials. Women with 1 or more years of college have sharply lower lifetime fertility than less educated women, regardless of race or Hispanic origin. Women with college degrees can be expected to complete their childbearing with 1.6-2.0 children each; 1.7 for non-Hispanic white, 1.6 for non-Hispanic black, and 2.0 for Hispanic women. For women with less education the total expected number of children are: 3.2 children for those with 0-8 years of education; 2.3 children for those with 9-11 years of education and 2.7 for high school graduates.

    Among unmarried mothers age 25 and older only nine percent had college degrees; about a third has less than a high school education. Birth rates for college-educated unmarried women are substantially below the rates for less-educated unmarried women.

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    • This isn’t the first time that you’ve brought that up. I find it a convincing argument, but I wonder if that’s just because it seems to coincide with my own notions. I tell myself that I like it because it’s based on data– hard numbers– and that’s what I like rather than it just being a comfortable position– but that’s also what makes me suspicious of it.
      Data does weird things at times.
      So, I’m wondering if there is anything that would show that the results stated are due to educational effect or the natural effect of aging from having acquired the education?
      That is, if we teach them in 10 years what they would otherwise learn in 12, would that make any difference?

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      • I made a better argument, now lost to the Database Error Beast, which went along these lines:

        Education is not Culture.   The educated are taught to think for themselves.   It is the uneducated who must resort to external cultural cues for guidance.   As the uneducated grow to maturity, they learn to impose those cultural cues upon others.   Religions used to manage this stunt until the rise of the Enlightenment and its priorities were centered on the Individual.

        Notice how Education is associated with Liberal thought.  As it turns out, the farther up the educational ladder we look, politically, there seems to be a rough parity between conservatism and liberalism, but the Ivory Tower itself is an exceedingly liberal edifice.   The educated might imbue the cultural norms of the Ivory Tower upon each other in the faculty lounge but there’s not much real estate there and most of those fights are petty attempts to impose some goofy bit of pilpul on each other.

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        • I had a better reply that was just lost to the same Database Error.
          Briefly, a reserve of resources means very little outside of the psychological effect if one is without the means to exploit them. So, I don’t see something like “culture” or “wealth” as being specific enough to be of any value (in current terms).
          I was wondering about the ideas I’ve heard floated about for restructuring high school education, to offer vocational training in lieu of the latter years of high school.
          If it’s simply a matter of maturity gained, then keeping them in school for X number of years would do well.
          If we actually have to teach them something, that could make a bit of a difference.
          From what I gather (and I could be wrong here), it looks like you’re making an argument toward the use of peer pressure.

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    • That might be significant except:

      Some speculate that it is “culture” that causes fewer children as a function of wealth, but this is a meaningless explanation. Attributing rising or declining birth rates to culture fails to explain why the phenomenon is so widespread and cross-cultural: as populations have access to more resources, as their needs progress up Maslow’s hierarchy, they produce fewer offspring, whether those populations are American yuppies, middle-class Japanese or Koreans, members of the European upper class, chimpanzees, elephants, or penguins, despite having access to more resources.

      If the r/K graph holds true for all the above, it’s hard to see how education could be a cause.

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            • Well, do the uneducated become wealthy?   Not usually.   I did some work many years ago on the sociology of Communism in various locations throughout the world.

              The state of Kerala began to return Communists to India’s parliament in the 1950s, much to the consternation of some folks in my chain of command.   The people grew rice on terraces and had a communal labour system which lifted water from one paddy to the next, all the way up the side of the mountain.  Their culture was thus well-suited to the framework of communism without the usual totalitarian tendencies seen elsewhere:  the rice paddy had inured them to a notion of the commons in ways few other cultures ever exhibited.

              We looked at another culture, that of China, where the One Child Policy caused untold heartbreak and misery.   Curiously, Kerala’s birth rate fell faster than China’s.   What could be the difference?

              Literacy and the education of girls are central tenets of Communism.   China only educated its girl children to the sixth grade, when most of them left school.   But Kerala educated its girl children for 12 years, often more.

              Though Kerala has morphed into a thoroughgoing capitalistic culture, the ancient frameworks of the common good and plentiful education have not budged, even a little.   I’ve been to Kerala, it’s an amazing stew of cultures, idealistic yet intensely practical.   Do check out that link I’ve provided, Chris.

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    • @Blaise–I think you’re on to something. Around the turn of the twentieth century, there was great concern among nativists about falling reproduction rates among more educated, middle and upper class women (nativists also expressed great concern about immigrant and lower-class women out-reproducing white women). Some of these folks argued that educating women caused blood to flow toward the brain and away from the reproductive organs, thus greatly reducing their fertility. They therefore recommended curtailing any kind of higher education for middle-class women as a means of saving white civilization.

      I’m almost surprised that this argument hasn’t resurfaced among some of the right-wing save-the-family types.

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      • it has, but primarily as a “once you’re XYZ age, you get married and have a lot of kids”

        … with the corrollary that if you “happen” to get pregnant at one of our thinly disguised places designed to create atmosphere where that will happen, you just get married and it all turns out fine.

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      • Heh heh!  I had never heard that physiological explanation.    It has been my fate in life to put two women through college and higher education, a process I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in both cases.   The first woman got a double major undergrad degree and two master’s degrees out of the process, the current woman in my life is well on her way to becoming my partner in software.

        At a strictly selfish and cynical level, what sort of man would prefer an uneducated woman in his life?   Wouldn’t it promote his status to have the love of an educated woman?    Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you were a caveman and your wife evolved… but you didn’t?

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          • The children of these educated women become educated themselves.   The larger-brained species don’t have many offspring but they’re cared for in ways smaller-brained species don’t care for their offspring.   They mature later as well.   Educated women lavish attention upon their children in ways uneducated women don’t, or can’t.    The advertisers tell us the most desirable population is the adult woman, not only because she’s often out-earning her husband but because she’s spending his money on the household.

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  4. Very interesting post, and the logic seems to hold together.  I’ve never though of applying r/k selection in that way, as biologically humans are defined as an r-selecting species relative to other animals (we have a few kids and care for them rather than having dozens, hundreds or thousands and not carving for them), but it still works.

    What I find interesting in the chart is that it presumes no change in third-word birthrates over the next 40 years, which strikes me as unlikely.  Birthrates are already starting to decline everywhere outside of Africa.

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  5. Interesting Chris,

    There is one parameter I typically find missing in the topic of slow decline of the white population.

    What if the white traits aren’t recessive?

    In the populations of non whites and the mixing of the races, typically what is observed is the skin color lightening, and the hair and eye color eventually becomes lighter.

    Historians often try to trace white traits back to small populations. If there were so few from the start, why are there so many today?  I have observed typically any american family is only one or two generations from producing a white child.

    When all the colors bleed into one, what will be the reality, not the pre-conceived notion?

    Guess the “Whiting” of America isn’t as popular a headline.

    Fighting over resources is nothing new to humanity, even in small populations with vast resources, there were many disputes.

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    • I was so taken with the cleverness of linking ecological theory and social change I missed a question.

      What is it that is declining, that is what is the definition of white anyway? Is it based on ancestry, specific biological traits (which ones) or a ‘know it when I see it’ basis?

       

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      • Here is a fairly interesting article on the topic:http://www.salon.com/2010/03/23/history_of_white_people_nell_irvin_painter/

        Originally, “white” was a very restrictive term that essentially meant Western European. Many Eastern Europeans were considered a separate racial category. Gradually, the meaning of the term began to expand and reached near its broadest application around the time of Father Connell.

        Citizen is right that the term’s use as a racial category is rather arbitrary. Let’s take our President for instance. We consider him “black”, but only one of his parents was of African descent. So, to be correct, he would be half black, half white genetically. Culturally-speaking, Barack Obama was raised by his mother and Indonesian step-father, so there we might presume he is half white, half Indonesian culturally. Yet, he is universally considered “black”. Don’t tell me this isn’t some modern iteration of the one-drop rule.

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        • It’s not really a one-drop rule so much as a bias. Colloquially, we classify most half-African, half-European people as black, in part because many of the traits associated with European ancestry are recessive. But if someone looks white, we typically don’t consider him to be black, even if we know that his great-grandfather was black.

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  6. There is no white. A quick ancestry exercise makes most people sober up:

    Take a blank page, a “I” in the middle of the page, below that put two “ll”, for your biological parents, below that place 4 “llll”

    Continue this for a mere 12 generations. No man is truly an island. No race is even remotely pure. Whether we like it or not, we are deeply rooted in the foundations of all humanity.

    The inversion of this very flattened ancestry pyramid, the children of today may or may not reproduce, leads to a less flattened pyramid going into the future. Possibly columns.

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  7. Interesting, but I have a question…  I understand some of the logic of the r/K description, but the intention is always how to meet or exceed replacement.   For humans in the current technological situation, replacement is about 2.1.  For many of the populations discussed the fertility rate is well below 2.1 – from Singapore at 0.8 to Italy and Japan at 1.4.  The United States is close to replacement at 2.06  on one list, but most of Europe is not.  How does the logic make sense when fertility is well below replacement?

     

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