Across the globe, people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It's more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.
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. "Since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure."
With the number of human beings having increased more than six-fold in the past 200 years, the modern mind simply assumes that men and women, no matter how estranged, will always breed enough children to grow the population -- at least until plague or starvation sets in. It is an assumption that not only conforms to our long experience of a world growing ever more crowded, but which also enjoys the endorsement of such influential thinkers as Thomas Malthus and his many modern acolytes.
Yet, for more than a generation now, well-fed, healthy, peaceful populations around the world have been producing too few children to avoid population decline. That is true even though dramatic improvements in infant and child mortality mean that far fewer children are needed today (only about 2.1 per woman in modern societies) to avoid population loss. Birthrates are falling far below replacement levels in one country after the next -- from China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, to Canada, the Caribbean, all of Europe, Russia, and even parts of the Middle East.
Fearful of a future in which the elderly outnumber the young, many governments are doing whatever they can to encourage people to have children. Singapore has sponsored "speed dating" events, in hopes of bringing busy professionals together to marry and procreate. France offers generous tax incentives for those willing to start a family. In Sweden, the state finances day care to ease the tension between work and family life. Yet, though such explicitly pronatal policies may encourage people to have children at a younger age, there is little evidence they cause people to have more children than they otherwise would. As governments going as far back as imperial Rome have discovered, when cultural and economic conditions discourage parenthood, not even a dictator can force people to go forth and multiply.
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. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.
Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.
Through a process of cultural evolution, societies that adopted this particular social system -- which involves far more than simple male domination -- maximized their population and therefore their power, whereas those that didn’t were either overrun or absorbed. This cycle in human history may be obnoxious to the enlightened, but it is set to make a comeback.
THE CONSERVATIVE BABY BOOM
The historical relation between patriarchy, population, and power has deep implications for our own time. As the United States is discovering today in Iraq, population is still power. Smart bombs, laser-guided missiles, and unmanned drones may vastly extend the violent reach of a hegemonic power. But ultimately, it is often the number of boots on the ground that changes history. Even with a fertility rate near replacement level, the United States lacks the amount of people necessary to sustain an imperial role in the world, just as Britain lost its ability to do so after its birthrates collapsed in the early 20th century. For countries such as China, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, in which one-child families are now the norm, the quality of human capital may be high, but it has literally become too rare to put at risk.
Falling fertility is also responsible for many financial and economic problems that dominate today's headlines. The long-term financing of social security schemes, private pension plans, and healthcare systems has little to do with people living longer. Gains in life expectancy at older ages have actually been quite modest, and the rate of improvement in the United States has diminished for each of the last three decades. Instead, the falling ratio of workers to retirees is overwhelmingly caused by workers who were never born. As governments raise taxes on a dwindling working-age population to cover the growing burdens of supporting the elderly, young couples may conclude they are even less able to afford children than their parents were, thereby setting off a new cycle of population aging and decline.
Declining birthrates also change national temperament. In the United States, for example, the percentage of women born in the late 1930s who remained childless was near 10 percent. By comparison, nearly 20 percent of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having had children. The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of their parents.
Meanwhile, single-child families are prone to extinction. A single child replaces one of his or her parents, but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population. The 17.4 percent of baby boomer women who had only one child account for a mere 7.8 percent of children born in the next generation. By contrast, nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers descend from the mere 11 percent of baby boomer women who had four or more children. These circumstances are leading to the emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one’s own folk or nation.
This dynamic helps explain, for example, the gradual drift of American culture away from secular individualism and toward religious fundamentalism. Among states that voted for President George W. Bush in 2004, fertility rates are 12 percent higher than in states that voted for Sen. John Kerry. It may also help to explain the increasing popular resistance among rank-and-file Europeans to such crown jewels of secular liberalism as the European Union. It turns out that Europeans who are most likely to identify themselves as "world citizens" are also those least likely to have children.
Does this mean that today's enlightened but slow-breeding societies face extinction? Probably not, but only because they face a dramatic, demographically driven transformation of their cultures. As has happened many times before in history, it is a transformation that occurs as secular and libertarian elements in society fail to reproduce, and as people adhering to more traditional, patriarchal values inherit society by default.
At least as long ago as ancient Greek and Roman times, many sophisticated members of society concluded that investing in children brought no advantage. Rather, children came to be seen as a costly impediment to self-fulfillment and worldly achievement. But, though these attitudes led to the extinction of many individual families, they did not lead to the extinction of society as a whole. Instead, through a process of cultural evolution, a set of values and norms that can roughly be described as patriarchy reemerged.
POPULATION BECOMES POWER
In the primordial past, to be sure, most societies did not coerce reproduction, because they had to avoid breeding faster than the wild game on which they fed. Indeed, in almost all the hunter-gatherer societies that survived long enough to be studied by anthropologists, such as the Eskimos and Tasmanian Bushmen, one finds customs that in one way or another discouraged population growth. In various combinations, these have included late marriage, genital mutilation, abortion, and infanticide. Some early hunter-gatherer societies may have also limited population growth by giving women high-status positions. Allowing at least some number of females to take on roles such as priestess, sorcerer, oracle, artist, and even warrior would have provided meaningful alternatives to motherhood and thereby reduced overall fertility to within sustainable limits.
During the eons before agriculture emerged, there was little or no military reason to promote high fertility. War and conquests could bring little advantage to society. There were no granaries to raid, no livestock to steal, no use for slaves except rape. But with the coming of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, starting about 11,000 years ago, everything changed. The domestication of plants and animals led to vastly increased food supplies. Surplus food allowed cities to emerge, and freed more people to work on projects such as building pyramids and developing a written language to record history. But the most fateful change rendered by the agricultural revolution was the way it turned population into power. Because of the relative abundance of food, more and more societies discovered that the greatest demographic threat to their survival was no longer overpopulation, but underpopulation.
At that point, instead of dying of starvation, societies with high fertility grew in strength and number and began menacing those with lower fertility. In more and more places in the world, fast-breeding tribes morphed into nations and empires and swept away any remaining, slow-breeding hunters and gatherers. It mattered that your warriors were fierce and valiant in battle; it mattered more that there were lots of them.
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. Pyrrhus initially prevailed at a great battle at Asculum. But it was, as they say, "a Pyrrhic victory," and Pyrrhus could only conclude that "another such victory over the Romans and we are undone." The Romans, who by then were procreating far more rapidly than were the Greeks, kept pouring in reinforcements -- "as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city," the Greek historian Plutarch tells us. Hopelessly outnumbered, Pyrrhus went on to lose the war, and 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." But, as with civilizations around the globe, patriarchy, for as long as it could be sustained, was the key to maintaining population and, therefore, power.
FATHER KNOWS BEST?
Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of "illegitimate" children. One measure of the degree to which patriarchy has diminished in advanced societies is the growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, which have now become the norm in Scandinavian countries, for example.
Under patriarchy, "bastards" and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers' name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, “legitimate” children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers’ family, and not to their mothers', which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.
Another key to patriarchy's evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives.
To be sure, a society organized on such principles may well degenerate over time into misogyny, and eventually sterility, as occurred in both ancient Greece and Rome. In more recent times, the patriarchal family has also proved vulnerable to the rise of capitalism, which profits from the diversion of female labor from the house to the workplace. But as long as the patriarchal system avoids succumbing to these threats, it will produce a greater quantity of children, and arguably children of higher quality, than do societies organized by other principles, which is all that evolution cares about.
This claim is contentious. Today, after all, we associate patriarchy with the hideous abuse of women and children, with poverty and failed states. Taliban rebels or Muslim fanatics in Nigeria stoning an adulteress to death come to mind. Yet these are examples of insecure societies that have degenerated into male tyrannies, and they do not represent the form of patriarchy that has achieved evolutionary advantage in human history. Under a true patriarchal system, such as in early Rome or 17th-century Protestant Europe, fathers have strong reason to take an active interest in the children their wives bear. That is because, when men come to see themselves, and are seen by others, as upholders of a patriarchal line, how those children turn out directly affects their own rank and honor.
Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, "Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation." Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options -- be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children -- has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.
PATRIARCHY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Patriarchy may enjoy evolutionary advantages, but nothing has ensured the survival of any particular patriarchal society. One reason is that men can grow weary of patriarchy's demands. Roman aristocrats, for example, eventually became so reluctant to accept the burdens of heading a family that Caesar Augustus felt compelled to enact steep "bachelor taxes" and otherwise punish those who remained unwed and childless. Patriarchy may have its privileges, but they may pale in comparison to the joys of bachelorhood in a luxurious society -- nights spent enjoyably at banquets with friends discussing sports, war stories, or philosophy, or with alluring mistresses, flute girls, or clever courtesans.
Women, of course, also have reason to grow weary of patriarchy, particularly when men themselves are no longer upholding their patriarchal duties. Historian Suzanne Cross notes that during the decades of Rome's civil wars, Roman women of all classes had to learn how to do without men for prolonged periods, and accordingly developed a new sense of individuality and independence. Few women in the upper classes would agree to a marriage to an abusive husband. Adultery and divorce became rampant.
Often, all that sustains the patriarchal family is the idea that its members are upholding the honor of a long and noble line. Yet, once a society grows cosmopolitan, fast-paced, and filled with new ideas, new peoples, and new luxuries, this sense of honor and connection to one’s ancestors begins to fade, and with it, any sense of the necessity of reproduction. "When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard 'having children' as a question of pro’s and con's," Oswald Spengler, the German historian and philosopher, once observed, "the great turning point has come."
THE RETURN OF PATRIARCHY
Yet that turning point does not necessarily mean the death of a civilization, only its transformation. Eventually, for example, the sterile, secular, noble families of imperial Rome died off, and with them, their ancestors' idea of Rome. But what was once the Roman Empire remained populated. Only the composition of the population changed. Nearly by default, it became composed of new, highly patriarchal family units, hostile to the secular world and enjoined by faith either to go forth and multiply or join a monastery. With these changes came a feudal Europe, but not the end of Europe, nor the end of Western Civilization.
We may witness a similar transformation during this century. In Europe today, for example, how many children different people have, and under what circumstances, correlates strongly with their beliefs on a wide range of political and cultural attitudes. For instance, do you distrust the army? Then, according to polling data assembled by demographers Ronny Lesthaeghe and Johan Surkyn, you are less likely to be married and have kids -- or ever to get married and have kids -- than those who say they have no objection to the military. Or again, do you find soft drugs, homosexuality, and euthanasia acceptable? Do you seldom, if ever, attend church? For whatever reason, people answering affirmatively to such questions are far more likely to live alone, or in childless, cohabitating unions, than those who answer negatively.
The great difference in fertility rates between secular individualists and religious or cultural conservatives augurs a vast, demographically driven change in modern societies. Consider the demographics of France, for example. Among French women born in the early 1960s, less than a third have three or more children. But this distinct minority of French women (most of them presumably practicing Catholics and Muslims) produced more than 50 percent of all children born to their generation, in large measure because so many of their contemporaries had one child or none at all.
Many childless, middle-aged people may regret the life choices that are leading to the extinction of their family lines, and yet they have no sons or daughters with whom to share their newfound wisdom. The plurality of citizens who have only one child may be able to invest lavishly in that child's education, but a single child will only replace one parent, not both. Meanwhile, the descendants of parents who have three or more children will be hugely overrepresented in subsequent generations, and so will the values and ideas that led their parents to have large families.
One could argue that history, and particularly Western history, is full of revolts of children against parents. Couldn't tomorrow's Europeans, even if they are disproportionately raised in patriarchal, religiously minded households, turn out to be another generation of '68?
The key difference is that during the post-World War II era, nearly all segments of modern societies married and had children. Some had more than others, but the disparity in family size between the religious and the secular was not so large, and childlessness was rare. Today, by contrast, childlessness is common, and even couples who have children typically have just one. Tomorrow's children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents' values, as always happens. But when they look around for fellow secularists and counterculturalists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.
Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not. In addition to the greater fertility of conservative segments of society, the rollback of the welfare state forced by population aging and decline will give these elements an additional survival advantage, and therefore spur even higher fertility. As governments hand back functions they once appropriated from the family, notably support in old age, people will find that they need more children to insure their golden years, and they will seek to bind their children to them through inculcating traditional religious values akin to the Bible's injunction to honor thy mother and father.
Societies that are today the most secular and the most generous with their underfunded welfare states will be the most prone to religious revivals and a rebirth of the patriarchal family. The absolute population of Europe and Japan may fall dramatically, but the remaining population will, by a process similar to survival of the fittest, be adapted to a new environment in which no one can rely on government to replace the family, and in which a patriarchal God commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father.