Breeding misconceptions

One of the problems with "insert prejudice here" is that they breed like rabbits. Or do they?
An eight-month pregnant woman touches her stomach at her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina/ Credits: Reuters
Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy with the American Enterprise Institute, believes that population predictions enter the realm of science fiction when they go out further than 40 years.
Over the past two centuries, the charge of propensity to propagate has been leveled at many ethnic groups, including Italians and Irish, whose Catholic restrictions on contraception were seen as encouraging high fertility rates.

At other times, it has been seen as a characteristic of Asians and Hispanics in the United States in particular.

Today, despite its still-strong Catholic heritage, Italy has the oldest population in Europe and one of the lowest fertility rates. Between the 1840s and 1960, Ireland saw its population collapse from 8.3 million to 2.9 million. Even though much was due to emigration, the current fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is only slightly above the replacement rate, while China’s one-child policy is about to see it be rapidly transformed into one of Asia’s oldest countries.

More recently, Muslim countries have been seen as prolific breeders, but prepare to have your preconceptions challenged: the most rapid, most dramatic declines recorded in human fertility in history have been within the last generation in Muslim majority countries.
Berlin Demographic Forum The Berlin Demography Forum is an annual event initiated by Allianz and the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. It aims to promote dialogue on and propose solutions for the demographic issues of our times.
Algeria and Iran have dropped from seven births per woman to less than two within a generation. Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia have also gone from seven births to between 2 and 2.85 births. Sub-replacement fertility rates are a reality in many Gulf states, and Israel has a higher (and rising) fertility rate than many of its Arab neighbors.

"China didn’t move so fast. South Korea didn’t move so fast. There is no place in the world that has outpaced the radical transformation we’re seeing in parts of the Muslim world," says demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. "But, stay tuned. What we have seen over the past century is that the pace in the newest country to engage in fertility decline seems to get faster and faster. So, what does that mean, for example, for Yemen and Afghanistan?"

Women know best

"We don’t have a large reliable corpus of knowledge about what causes fertility change ... if we can’t understand why it occurred in the past, then we might be  limited to account for the future."
Nowadays, poverty remains predominant in Bangladesh, female literacy is limited and the overwhelming majority of people live in rural, not urban settings. Despite this, over the last three decades fertility levels, in terms of births per woman per decade, have dropped by 60%.

"Such examples indicate to me that we really don’t have a large reliable corpus of knowledge about what causes fertility change in the first place. And if we can’t understand why fertility change occurred in the past, then we might be rather limited to account for the future," Eberstadt comments.

He says, however, that the single most accurate predictor of fertility rates around the world is desired fertility. "If you ask women in these health surveys how many children they want, their answer corresponds better to actual fertility levels in a society than any other indicator like income, education, urbanization and contraceptive access."
So what are women in Muslim countries answering? "It’s a mixed bag," says Eberstadt. "There are places like Yemen or Gaza where desired family size and actual births-per-woman are still high. But there are other places like Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran where birth levels are below the replacement level."

This has significant social implications, such as arranged marriages between cousins. The arithmetic becomes difficult if there are not a lot of relatives to choose from, and as a consequence some aspects of traditional life are coming to an end in certain regions.

So, while universal marriage is still seen as the presumptive norm in most of the Muslim world, there has been a trend towards postponing marriage and even a flight from marriage. In Lebanon, notes Eberstadt, which is largely Muslim, there is a higher proportion of women in their late 40s who have never married than there is in the United States.

"In many ways, our perceptions of the Arab world and fertility are out of date. If you look at the trends and patterns, you can see that even at much lower income levels, at much lower education levels, there is a clear flight from marriage and the march to sub-replacement fertility rates in countries with a Muslim majority, just as was the case in developed societies. It would be kind of helpful if people woke up to obvious, basic facts like that."

Fertility change

Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, takes devilish delight in demographically wrong-footing interviewers. Under- pinning it all, however, is the serious claim that we simply do not have reliable scientific methods for making long-term fertility assumptions.

This means, he says, that population predictions enter the realms of science fiction when they go out further than 40 years. It is, Eberstadt explains, the reason why the United Nations World Population Prospects Revision (2010) predicted we could have as many as 16 billion people on the planet or as little as six billion – a 10 billion bandwidth for error.

"It would probably take a catastrophe of biblical proportions to prevent global population growth over the next several decades. But we do not know with confidence just how big the world’s population will be in 2030, much less 70 years after that," he explains.

"The question underlying this is: ‘What determines the number of children people want?’ I don’t think the social sciences have a good handle on that," says Eberstadt. "To answer that question you’d need a Nobel Laureate, not in economics, but in literature. You’d want somebody who can explain the human heart and the spirit of the time, and these things are very difficult to quantify."
"To answer that you'd need a Nobel Laureate, not in economics, but in literature ... someone who can explain the human heart and the spirit of the time."
For people who cite the dawn of the Industrial Age and the benefits it brought, including universal education, improved public health and more societal wealth, as the reason for changes in family patterns, Eberstadt has a simple response: "It sounds perfectly plausible," he answers. "The problem is, when you start scratching below the demographic surface, you see that none of the great theories are capable of explaining the variety of differences we have experienced. And a lot of the experiences are inconsistent with the theories."

The first sustained fall in fertility in the modern world occurred in Europe two centuries ago. At that time, Great Britain was, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the most prosperous, urbanized and literate country in Europe. However, the first decline in birthrates and shift to deliberately smaller family sizes occurred in France. France was poorer, more illiterate, more rural, less industrial and largely Catholic.

"All of these indicators fly in the face of our preconceptions of modernization and fertility change, and were there at the very beginning. We are still not entirely sure why they occurred, and ever since then, we’ve seen a lot of exceptions to developmentalist paradigms," explains Eberstadt.

This article first appeared in PROJECT M 

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