Bryan Caplan  

Darwinian Heroism in History

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Contraception is a common challenge to evolutionary psychology.  Why on earth would evolution lead us to try to have fewer children than we can?  In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright provides the standard evolutionary psych response:
[N]atural selection's primary means of getting us to reproduce hasn't been to instill in us an overwhelming, conscious desire to have children.  We are designed to love sex and then to love the consequences that materialize nine months later - not necessarily to anticipate loving the consequences... Only in the wake of contraceptive technology has this designed faltered.
Robin Hanson tells a more sociological story about low modern fertility.  People (especially "young, single, energetic" people) want to raise their status by trying to "save the world," and having extra kids doesn't qualify.  Why not?  "It is hard to tell grand hero stories" about high fertility.

But 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.  The vast majority of women, and even a majority of men, admit to having some degree of "baby fever."  But leaving aside the modern world, an ultra-Darwinian yearning to have vast numbers of descendents - and grand hero stories about this yearning - seem like common memes throughout history.  These Biblical quotes predate Darwin by millenia - yet they're exactly the promises/threats a crude Darwinian would expect humans to put into the mouth of God:

Genesis 22:17: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which [is] upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

Genesis 26:4: And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed...

Deuteronomy 1:10: The LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye [are] this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.

Deuteronomy 28:62:
And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the LORD thy God.

1 Kings 4:20:
Judah and Israel [were] many, as the sand which [is] by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry.

Isaiah 48:19:
Thy seed also had been as the sand, and the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.

Nehemiah 9:23:
 Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them into the land, concerning which thou hadst promised to their fathers, that they should go in to possess [it].

Hebrews 11:12: Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, [so many] as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.

Request: Provide other influential pre-Darwinian expressions of child-yearning and grand hero stories about the same.  This might sound like I'm encouraging confirmation bias, but remember: The purpose is to unearth evidence disconfirming the commonly expressed opposing view.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Pandaemoni writes:

I know that pope has praised having large families on the theory that children are the future.

Also Mormons traditionally (though less so recently) believed that having a large family was a duty. Brigham Young insisted that it was the obligation of all Mormons to prepare many human bodies "pre-mortal" spirits waiting to enter the world.

Young said that the failure to do so would lead these spirits to be born into less righteous (by which I presume he meant "non-Mormon") families:

"There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles [i.e. bodies], now what is our duty? To prepare tabernacles for them; to take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into the families of the wicked, where they will be trained in wickedness, debauchery, and every species of crime. It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197).

Kian Conteh writes:
fewer children than we can?
I think the problem is in this premise. Evolution is not driven by the number of eggs fertilized but by the quality of the children. The human animal has specialized in few but extremely valuable children - unlike fish and ants. In our modern society the investment required (or perceived) for a successful child is higher than ever.

Having many children will strain our personal resources (not only money) and thus put a limit on "we can" that has nothing to do with our ability to fertilize eggs.

Doc Merlin writes:

1. There is a reason that the Catholic Church views contraception as a sin.

2. Using contraception throughout ones life is akin to asking for a darwin award. Culturally and demographically it is a long slow cultural suicide pact (just ask the Romans).

3. This leads me to what I consider the main problem in our society: Education takes too long. This has two side effect.

a) Women cannot get to where they feel safe to have a family, early in their fertile years.

b) Our most creative years are used up in education, preparing for the future instead of used in creation.

We need to speed up education!

Tracy W writes:

Caplan, if there is a grand desire to have hordes of children, how come so many people use contraception, when they can get it?

Revealed preference strikes me as pretty strong here.

Anonymous writes:

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Bob Knaus writes:

Gibbon's famous quote about the emperor Gordian comes to mind. But more generally, classic "grand hero" stories were about a hereditary elite. The Malthusian mathematics must have been obvious. Who wants a story that ends with hundreds of emperors vying for power?

Since we're using Biblical examples, I'll provide the usual anti-Darwinian explanation. It's called the "afterlife". Early books of the Bible don't have much to say about the existence of the soul; whatever immortality there is comes through one's descendants. As mankind learns more about the nature of the soul, some people replace their belief in genetic immortality with a more transrcendant one. Thus monks and nuns speak of marriage with the divine, and anticipate joining the numberless throngs of heaven.

A common counter to my explanation comes from the Book of Job, probably the earliest written. God kills all of Job's sheep, camels, and oxen; last he kills all 10 of Job's children. After Job repents, God gives him twice as many animals as he had before. But God only gives Job 10 new children. Reason? Job's first 10 were waiting for him in heaven, so 10 more made it double on the children as well.

If all this seems tenous, trust me it is typical of Biblical exegesis.

Rachel writes:

In the past, ethnic/religious groups encouraged high fertility because it helped them fight other ethnic/religious groups. If the two groups start out roughly equal, the high fertility group will take over fairly fast.
However, that only works if people have a strong identification with their ethnic/religious group. In modern America, few people identify that strongly with their ethnic group or religion. And minorities feel relatively safe even if they remain small. So there's not too much social incentive to have kids

Jason Collins writes:

While we can debate about current motivations, those with "baby fever" will form a larger part of the next generation. Assuming this predilection to overcome obstacles or shocks to fertility (such as contraception) has a genetically heritable component, "baby fever" types will eventually dominate the population

Under this scenario, whether the majority of the population tends to have baby fever or not is a matter of timing relative to the fertility shock.

OneEyedMan writes:

A Zoroastrian text has such a reference:

6. I announce (and) carry out (this Yasna) for Aiwisruthrem (and) Aibigaya, the Asha-sanctified master(s) of Asha, and for the Zarathushtrotema, and for him who possesses and who gives that prosperity in life which furthers all. And I celebrate and carry out (this Yasna) for the fravashis of the saints, and for those of the women who have many sons ['Men and herds?'], and for a prosperous home life which continues without reverse throughout the year, and for that Might which is well-shaped and stately ['Well-grown'], which strikes victoriously, Ahura-made, and for that Victorious Ascendency (which it secures).

Asha, the Zoroastrian Concept of Truth and Universal Order

Sam Schulman writes:

I think you'll find it true that not having children before (roughly) capitalism-in-the-west was a right/duty/cost/price of some compensating high privilege - having priestly or royal rank or caste. It was a mark of prestige that was also a wound - being a priest or magician or vestal or seer or tribal leader took you out of nature, and childlessness was the cost. (The converse was also true - childlessness made you into a feared/hated/despised figure, made you liable to be thought a witch etc.) And of course the notion that a period of celibacy was necessary as initiation or a chance to prove one's worth (the prince in fairy tales - also the fact that retired Vestal Virgins were highly desirable as wives for Roman bigwigs!).
So there was some religious/political prestige already associated with childlessness, and also something uncanny.
But only with capitalism, and its ability to bestow relative freedom of action upon anyone outside the privileged ranks and castes who was not a brigand, did the notion that having children was a liability. No accident that the first memorable expression of this notion (at least memorable to me) was by Bacon (chidren are hostages to fortune) with his connections to scientific method, etc.

Daublin writes:

Darwin's argument will win in the end. It's perfectly normal for some mutations to make reproduction less viable. Those mutations die out.

Why should contraception be any different? It's very new in human history. Give it 3-4 generations, and the vast majority of people around will be those that want more children.

Sam Schulman writes:

-and of course meant to conclude that therefore premodern childlessness was usually consciously anti-natural and therefore non-Darwinian avant-le-lettre.

OneEyedMan writes:

@Sam Schulman
Though cross-culturally this may be true, my understanding is that early Christians held celibacy as a virtue over child rearing for all people (Celibacy in the Early Christian Church).

Sam Schulman writes:

@oneEyedMan
True, but this was only because the Early Christians (some of them) shortly expected the Millennium, I believe most scholars now think - Millenialism is a beautiful example of non-Darwinian thinking! Since then, and especially since the reformation, the RC Church has been pro-natalist - as is Rabbinical Judaism, and for the same "Darwinian" reason - natalism is a crucial survival technique for self-conscious groups in a hostile political and natural world - it is true Darwinian heroism.

parviziyi writes:

By coincidence yesterday I read the following in the Wikipedia article "Women in Ancient Rome" and it's relevant:

Large families were not the norm among the elite even by the Late Republic. The birth rate among the aristocracy declined to such an extent that Augustus [emperor 27 BC to 14 AD] passed a series of laws intended to increase it, including special honors for women who bore at least three children, and prohibiting those who were unmarried, divorced, widowed, or barren from inheriting property unless named in a will. Under the Augustan Marriage reforms unmarried men and women could remain unmarried but faced penalties for choosing to remain such: they could not receive an inheritance outside of the 6th degree of kinship, so while a bachelor could inherit from his father, he could not receive an inheritance from an unrelated Patron or a close friend. To receive a full inheritance from a non-relative a man or woman would have to have children and be married. Women would gain the "Jus Liberorum" honor if they gave birth three times, while a man would need the same children to live and be legitimate to enjoy all the possible benefits of Jus Liberorum (i.e. exemption from certain unpopular tasks and preferences for promotions). Augustan Marriage Legislation also tied inheritance from a spouse to rights gained from having children.... Roman women were not only valued for the number of children that they produced, but also for their part in raising children to become valuable Roman citizens.... The frequency of remarriages among the elite was high. Remarriage was an available option for the widow or divorcée, particularly if she was still of childbearing age. Because marriage was considered a vocation for Roman women, women who remained wedded to one man were highly celebrated for their devotion.

Interpretation: A war-like society such as Ancient Rome or Ancient Judah desires itself to have fellow tribesmen as multitudinous as the stars in the sky, but the individual tribesmen don't necessarily desire the chore of child-raising themselves, individually.... Hats off to everybody who performs the socially vital function, especially the women.

Douglass Holmes writes:

I can't believe you missed the "full quiver" passage. This from Psalm 127
3 Children are a heritage from the LORD,
offspring a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court.

Of course, today, there's a movement based on this passage. As you might guess, www.quiverfull.com tells all about them.

dave.s. writes:

Well, Genghis Khan said "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."

He set up a lot of harems throughout his conquered areas. And, 9% of Han Chinese men have his Y chromosome, so it worked pretty effectively.

You can think of the ape to human transition as the partial adoption of the r strategies characteristic of "fish and ants." Mama ape will usually raise just one child at a time. Human mothers are likely to raise several at a time, even if they rarely give birth to all at once. In addition, human infants are much more altricial than is the norm among primates. (This is not original but I don't recall where I read it.)

Jacob Oost writes:
3. This leads me to what I consider the main problem in our society: Education takes too long.

Kinda, but not really. Education doesn't need to take very long. The schooling-industrial complex, however, ensures that it is loaded with enough filler material and make-work time-wasting garbage, that it seems like education takes a long time. The featherbedding takes a long time, education doesn't. That's why schools hate home schooling with a passion, and keep up the stereotype that it's for fanatics and off-the-grid looney tunes. If most parents actually tried real home-schooling and saw how fast, easy, and superior it is to the more traditional factory-style schooling, more and more parents would do it.

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