Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is our desire to reproduce outdated?

In seminar this week, our professor posed the question: “are children a public good?” My first reaction, which fortunately I kept to myself, was something along the lines of “well, obviously.” But then I started thinking back to a Human Evolution class that I took in college. I recalled that just because an adaptation was at one point evolutionarily advantageous doesn’t mean that it remains so today.

Human beings evolved to survive in a very different setting than modernity's conditions. Back in the hunter-and-gatherer days, this meant a number of things – we grew wisdom teeth for gnashing up grains, and because food was scarce our brains morphed to crave and seek out dense, high-calorie foods. These once-helpful traits are today at best obsolete and at worst harmful: we extract our wisdom teeth, and America is facing a devastating obesity epidemic.

Many people argue that children (and, by indirect extension, reproduction and heterosexual gender roles) are so obviously “good” that it’s not worth discussion. (This is reflected, for example, in the pro-life abortion position.) Similarly, some argue that our cognitive abilities and reproduction-based gender roles are “hard-wired” – which, intentionally or not, seems to imply that it’s futile to resist them. [See, e.g., Robin West's connection thesis, Robert Wright ("The Moral Animal"), Kingsley Browne ("A Darwinian View of the Glass Ceiling").] By contrast, I’ve started to wonder: do we want children the way that we want that third donut?

For the sake of argument, I began to entertain the thesis “children are not a public good.” There is certainly ample evidence to support this point. The world is facing a population crisis. There are orphaned or abandoned children in almost every country. [See, e.g., international adoption resources.] Yet individuals continue to reproduce, instead of focusing on improving quality of life for those already living. [See Thomas Pogge, Keynote Address: Poverty, Climate Change, and Overpopulation (2010) 38 Ga. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 525, 526.] Is this rational?

Yes, a potent cocktail of hormones makes us want, even crave, children. But philosophers and writers have long argued that human beings’ distinguishing trait is our ability to overcome our biological (“animal”) appetites. As long ago as in the early 14th Century, Dante wrote in The Purgatorio (trans. John Ciardi), “Or put it this way: all love, let us say, that burns in you, springs from necessity, but you still have the power to check its sway.”

At the end of the day, if the human species is to survive, individuals must eat, and individuals must reproduce. At the end of the day, however, if the human species is to survive, individuals must further do so mindfully. Instinct-driven eating and reproduction may lead our species into crisis. We must engage in measured contemplation of the long-term consequences of our actions before mindlessly acting on evolutionary hormonal cues.


Chez Marta said...

How insightful this post is, thank you so much for it. I have often pondered this same question. My husband and I have reproduced only two children, so far, thus not causing the overpopulation of the earth, only maintaining it. And here I am, freshly graduated from law school, thinking that I am done with having children, and that my diploma was "my third child." Yet, every time I pass a baby in a stroller, I stop and stare and say the customary "Awww" while my ovaries skip a beat.

Thankfully, our conscious mind can solve this problem by applying some contraceptive, which we can conveniently forget about and continue having joyful sexual lives for the most time. But secretly, I wonder if I would be happier should said contraceptive fail, as it supposed to at about 3% of all cases.

hanestagless said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I left class last week dwelling on the same question, and I'm glad you raised it again. Particularly viewing the issue from an evolutionary perspective raises interesting questions.

I agree with you that we need to be mindful of reproduction, but I wonder what that should look like. Do we leave the decision to the individual as we have in the past? While this certainly adheres to our principles of individual freedom, I question whether individuals would collectively choose to reproduce less. As you note, we are not slaves to our evolutionary tendencies. However, we shouldn’t ignore them either. If having more offspring will increase an individual’s chance of passing on their genes, then this would encourage people to cheat against society’s collective goal.

Alternatively, what if the government finally stepped in to limit reproduction? Maybe something akin to China’s one child policy? There are plenty of criticisms of the policy, especially the gender disparity that emerges. This becomes especially problematic with increased prenatal genetic screening. Furthermore, once the government gets involved to what extent should they regulate reproduction? Aldous Huxley describes a troubling dystopia where the government takes population control to the extreme. I’m optimistic that Huxley’s world won’t come to pass, but it is a potent warning.

Ultimately, I do believe children are a public good. However, where it intersects with our population does create our present crisis. What measure should we take to tackle our crisis? I don't know, but I don't think we can afford to wait for the next generation to figure it out.

S said...

I echo the complements of those before me. Your post is insightful and I appreciate the evolutinary perspective.

Interestingly enough, my initial reaction to Professor Pruitt's question of whether children are a public good went a different direction. My thoughts went straight to the proverb: It take a whole village to raise a child. In my mind there is a connection, a strong one in fact, between whether children are a public good and the notion that it takes a village to raise a child. Whether children are a public good depends in part on the interests of their respective communities, and the level of commitment and investments that community is prepared, willing, and does to make.

In today's world, I see people and families less interested in the communities that immediately surround them. We have become more self involved. In this sort of society, I struggle finding that children are a public good.

Megan said...

My partner and I both knew long ago that we would adopt. The reason we made the decision is simply because there are children who are already in the world who need love, care, and resources that we can provide. With over 150,000 children in the US foster care system, adoption just seemed to be the socially and environmentally responsible thing to do.

That is not to say that we do not feel the biological urge to procreate. We do. But I know from having watched my best friend's family (she was adopted) that adoption is as fulfilling as having a child for those who have made the decision to adopt. For those who haven't, I do not pass judgment. After all, we do need some new babies...