Modernity As Maladaptation

In 2009 I wondered if secularism was an evolutionary dead end, a self-terminating defect. It is a fascinating question.

The expansion of modern secularizing culture — in particular its characteristic features of irreligion, prolongation of education and the expansion of the educational franchise to women, widely available contraception and abortion and the elimination of any stigma regarding their application, and transition to knowledge-based economies in which women can compete as equals against men — always acts so as to sharply reduce fertility rates wherever it takes hold. This makes the young and productive an ever-shrinking segment of society, while the old geezers who contribute little or nothing and must be supported become proportionally more and more numerous. This puts unsustainable fiscal pressure on a dwindling economic base. Catastrophe looms.

I see three possibilities:

1) Total social and population collapse.

2) A return to higher birthrates either through radical changes to the secular culture (by economic incentives, perhaps, or, conceivably, worse), or through a rejection of modern secular culture in favor of more “traditional” family and social norms, including religion. In either case, contraception and abortion would have to be broadly suppressed, or rejected outright.

3) Direct government production of babies ex utero.

I consider 3) the most likely, though that’s just a hunch. (Huxley had it right, I think.) Perhaps all three will happen in different parts of the world. In any event, I expect some rather unpleasant “bottlenecking” to happen in coming decades. (Keep your powder dry.)

Here is an outstanding survey of the issues, by Stanley Kurtz. Read. Discuss.

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  1. But we seem to have something of a dilemma.

    Right now I’m living in China where the one child policy is in full effect (BTW, I don’t think you could quite call China before Mao and after Mao a country that went from a non-secular to a secular system of values — so I’m not sure secularism itself is to blame) — and the Chinese do have a feeling for the bottleneck you describe.

    At the same time, the reason why the Chinese have their policy seems to me, well, quite reasonable — if population doesn’t keep up with production (and production is of course tethered to resources) you’re going to have mass starvation and other sorts of problems.

    To compare, young people in the US love the cities, because there’s so many things going on and so many others to meet — but in China people love the country and anywhere out of the way, because they’re sick and tired of other people and prefer to be more isolated.

    In short, their attitude is a mixed one: they feel the difficulties of their high population, but they also feel the difficulties of efforts to control population.

    I think some kind of a balance has to be struck here. You need enough people to carry the torch in the next generation, and to support your generation (though to say it this way sounds a little mercenary) but you also want to have a population that won’t eat everything and destroy its environment in the process.

    One last thing about the elderly. It’s true that they can’t contribute the same power to production that the young can, but at the same time, I think all the skilled labor is concentrated in them. One of the amazing things about China to me: the old women do everything. And they know how to do everything. The problem is just that as we get older, we need more (especially more medicine, more expensive healthcare) in order to be comfortable, and so that does drain the economy.

    Still, I hope you’re not suggesting (and I think it’s safe to assume you weren’t) that the solution to our problems is that we multiply like bunnies. Remember that sexual self-restraint has been a traditional value also.

    But it probably comes very much down to a matter of prudence. It’s prudent to have children because they’ll take care of you. At the same time, it’s prudent not to have children if you can’t take care of them. Since we have a harder time controlling our desire to have sex than we do its outcome, people use contraceptives.

    I even think infant mortality rates might have been higher before the spread of easily available contraceptives (lest we forget). You hear so much about exposing children when you read ancient books. When people didn’t want to have children but didn’t know how to have abortions, they resorted to that. Of the three evils — exposure, abortion, and contraception, I think contraception is by far the lesser.

    But I will admit when we reason about ourselves in this way, we can’t help but think of the production of people in much the same way we think of the production of any other resources, with all the advantages and disadvantages thereuton appertaining, which is somewhat disturbing.

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink
  2. Dan says

    ‘Islamization of Europe a good thing’

    “Rabbi Baruch Efrati believes Jews should ‘rejoice at the fact that Europe is paying for what it did to us for hundreds of years by losing its identity.’ He praises Islam for promoting modesty, respect for God”,7340,L-4299673,00.html

    ” As concerns grow over the increasing number of Muslims in Europe, it appears not everyone is bothered by the issue, including an Israeli rabbi who even welcomes the phenomenon.

    Rabbi Baruch Efrati, a yeshiva head and community rabbi in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, believes that the Islamization of Europe is actually a good thing.

    “With the help of God, the gentiles there will adopt a healthier life with a lot of modesty and integrity, and not like the hypocritical Christianity which appears pure but is fundamentally corrupt,” he explained.

    Rabbi Efrati was asked to discuss the issue by an oriental studies student, who inquired on Judaism’s stand toward the process Europe has been going through in recent years.

    Following the election of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman as the mayor of the Bosnian city of Visoko for the first time in continent’s history, the student asked the rabbi on the Kipa website: “How do we fight the Islamization of Europe and return it to the hands of Christians and moderates?”

    Efrati wrote in response that the Islamization of Europe was better than a Christian Europe for ethical and theological reasons – as a punishment against Christians for persecuting the Jews and the fact that Christianity, as opposed to Islam, is considered “idolatry” from a halachic point of view.

    “Jews should rejoice at the fact that Christian Europe is losing its identity as a punishment for what it did to us for the hundreds of years were in exile there,” the rabbi explained as the ethical reason for favoring Muslims, quoting shocking descriptions from the Rishonim literature (written by leading rabbis who lived during the 11th to 15th centuries) about pogroms and mass murders committed by Christians against Jews.

    “We will never forgive Europe’s Christians for slaughtering millions of our children, women and elderly… Not just in the recent Holocaust, but throughout the generations, in a consistent manner which characterizes all factions of hypocritical Christianity…

    “A now, Europe is losing its identity in favor of another people and another religion, and there will be no remnants and survivors from the impurity of Christianity, which shed a lot of blood it won’t be able to atone for.”

    ‘Islam a relatively honest religion’

    The theological reason, according to Rabbi Efrati, is that Christianity – which he sees as idolatry – has a tendency to “destroy normal life and abstain from it on the one hand, while losing modesty on the other hand,” as it “ranges between radical monasticism to radical Western licentiousness.”

    Islam, the rabbi added, is “a religion which misjudges its prophets but is relatively honest. It educates a bit more for a stable life of marriage and creation, where there is certain modesty and respect for God.”

    Efrati ruled, therefore, that “even if we are in a major war with the region’s Arabs over the Land of Israel, Islam is still much better as a gentile culture than Christianity.”

    He added, however, that Jews must pray that the Islamization of most of Europe will not harm the people of Israel.”

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says


    Rabbi Baruch Efrati is entitled to his opinion, of course.

    I do hope you’ll forgive us if we of the European Christian civilization don’t contemplate the prospect of our demographic extinction at the hands of Islam with quite the same enthusiasm. We might even push back a little, one of these days, yes we might indeed.

    Rabbi Efrati might also reflect on the fact that he owes his people’s survival, and the existence of his homeland as a haven for said people, to the valiant efforts of certain Christian polities in America and Europe. (Veteran’s day seems a particularly apt occasion to mention this.)

    He should also keep in mind, if you ask me, that the Muslim world, generally speaking, has indeed been “relatively honest” — positively forthright, even — about its feelings toward the Jews: it would like nothing better than to see this community of “apes and pigs” subdued or exterminated. (I think that these sentiments apply with additional warmth to those Jews who, like the good Rabbi himself, have chosen to settle the West Bank.)

    But, as I said, Mr. Efrati is certainly entitled to his opinion.

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Thanks to its one-child policy, which at a stroke cut fertility to below half of replacement rate, China will soon be staring into the abyss. The prospects are even direr when you consider that this policy dramatically skewed the sex ratio in favor of boys — exactly the wrong direction as far as fertility is concerned.

    Old women may seem to do “everything”, but of course there are actually a great many things they simply can’t do as well, or as productively, as the young and healthy and strong — vitally important things that absolutely need doing. Old people also cost a great deal more to keep alive than young folks do, as you correctly point out. That makes a very big difference.

    As regards contraception, the great Brother Theodore once said this:

    “The best thing is never to be born at all. But how many of us are so lucky? Not one person in a million.”

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    One other thing, Alex. You wrote:

    One last thing about the elderly. It’s true that they can’t contribute the same power to production that the young can, but at the same time, I think all the skilled labor is concentrated in them.

    Forgive me, but I would like to ask: how old are you?

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
  6. I am 29.

    What I meant is that old people have wisdom and experience, and that balances out the vigor of youth, to some extent.

    I think it would be premature to say where China is headed. I tend to think most predictions are premature, until they become irrelevant!

    On 2 points you might respond:

    1. It is possible to have too many children, just as it is to have too few.

    2. We can’t start talking about this sort of thing without regarding our population as something to be regulated for the sake of some good — regarding the number of us as an end.

    One of the more interesting passages from the Bible, maybe from Kings, contains a condemnation of the census, as if there were something wrong with counting people. But when I think about it, I find there’s something sympathetic in the injunction…

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  7. I mean, to put it in a pithy way, if I can:

    China’s one-child policy tends to one undesirable extreme, but I think that the stereotypical Catholic families with 5, 7, or more children running around the house tend towards another, and I think there’s something to criticize in both.

    It interests me somewhat, to what extent the decision to have a child is a matter of personal liberty (from a moral standpoint, not necessarily a political standpoint). When we have children, we contribute to the world people which must be cared for, both by ourselves and others, so I think others can have somewhat of a moral claim against us both for having too few children and having too many — in that failing to have the right number of children, in the right way, at the right time, is a failure in our responsibilities towards other people.

    Well for myself I certainly failed to be pithy…

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Alex,

    What I meant is that old people have wisdom and experience, and that balances out the vigor of youth, to some extent.

    Wisdom and experience, certainly. And “to some extent”, certainly. But old people get tired. A nation that relies overmuch on its elderly is itself descending into twilight.

    I’d be glad to take up your numbered points:

    1. It is possible to have too many children, just as it is to have too few.

    I suppose I’d agree that, in principle at least, a nation might somehow be too fecund. But in practice, I can think of no civilization in the history of the world that ever perished from an excess of fertility — while examples of death by population decline are everywhere, and include some of the greatest societies the world has ever known. (Perhaps the clearest explication of this fatal affliction of high cultures is to be found in the early chapters of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Revolt Against Civilization, although I must caution you that this is very definitely not the sort of book that one is supposed to be reading these days.)

    2. We can’t start talking about this sort of thing without regarding our population as something to be regulated for the sake of some good — regarding the number of us as an end.

    But of course we can! If our temperament inclines us to prefer description to prescription, we may, for example, simply note that we are entering the final stages of our civilization’s great arc, and look at history (and simple arithmetic) to understand why. After all, as Dr. Vallicella reminded us just recently, the owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk.

    Only if we feel compelled to do something about it might we start looking at our fertility as something somehow to be regulated.

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  9. As to prescription versus description, I don’t think the enquiry would have ever interested us if we didn’t care about the practical consequences, but I can concede that in some sense this can become a question of pure fact. Only then I think we ought to extend the net and ask whether it is the case with all populations that the health of the whole depends upon the perpetual increase of its parts, or whether an equilibrium is possible, or whether a decrease has ever proven beneficial. I am suspicious from the outset that any hard and fast rule will be discovered. At best I think we will discover certain trends in particular cases from which I would not be over-hasty in making the general conclusion.

    But returning to the moral point of view, which is easier, and which must be settled before an entirely disinterested inquiry into this matter is possible (I think, because otherwise we will be looking to the data to marshal hopes and fears — which is a psychological hindrance to seeing the truth, however earnest we may pretend to be), a few more things might be said.

    First, I don’t see what there is to recommend the sort of perpetual growth I sense you favor. Now perhaps if the extent of our dominions were infinite, matters would be different, but as it is, increasing the population is in a certain sense analagous to incurring a debt which must at some point be paid, and paid for more dearly than I think the more nominal debts of political economy will be. Each of the old replacing himself several times — this is like a biological Ponzee Scheme, isn’t it? But the people at the bottom — the last generation — are the ones who face starvation because of it. So I hope there is a way for a community of people to survive without perpetually increasing — there should be a status quo. I just don’t see any way around the observation that at a certain point, space and resources are exhausted. I am fully prepared to grant that there may be a very lively dispute, as to WHEN they will be exhausted.

    Second (for I think I have a second), I’m interested still in your claim that this decline is a consequence of secularism. What do you understand by “secularism”? I brought up China largely as an example of a country where secularism seems to have been in effect all along, so that one can’t really say its present decline was caused by irreligion. But then again, I suppose you’ll point to the irreligion of communism. (Well was that a change from the irreligion of Daoism and Confucianism?) Still, I don’t really see what irreligion has to do with it — especially when the main consideration is whether it is prudent for people not to have children. Isn’t that a pretty thoroughly secular consideration?

    And then that religion should enjoin us all to have many children, and especially the Christian church, I do not understand either — because if anything these churches are millenial, and are not (or should not be) interested in the precautions we take for the future. In the long run, Christ is coming back, the dead will rise, and it seems entirely indifferent whether we should have a lot of children until then. It seems indeed the more imminent the return the less the need for children? Or is having many children a duty because there will be more souls to enjoy heaven on earth? (And I am not entirely certain of doctrine, so does the birth of the child create the soul, or is the soul as already existing merely implanted? In the latter case, what is the benefit of giving it a body?)

    Finally, I notice a tendency in some of what you write to think that what is just and what is profitable are often to be found in the same act? So that the best proof that a stagnant or decreasing population is also to some degree a decadent one, is that it cannot long abide?

    Putting many speculations to the side, I think the human population, like the rest of the populations, should ideally respect certain boundaries, so as to establish an equilibrium, if that is possible. (I hope that biologically speaking life isn’t the kind of thing that must constantly be increasing at the risk of perishing in the short run, for the reason I advertised, that it will inevitably perish in the long run, like the bacteria in the petri dish. Well if the physicists are right it will inevitably perish anyway, only we desire to extend the run!)

    We want to aim towards living, as far as we can, in the perennial society that the ancients supposed had always existed and would always exist, where those coming in are as many as those going out, and the whole of life is a stately and ordered procession among the ages, each enjoying what is appropriate to its station (the laughter of children, the women washing their laundry in the river and gossiping, the old men peering into their books).

    But I am well aware this is not a Christian vision, either, or even a Jewish vision, for according to these religions the world must propel itself towards cataclysm and then transformation. (And some people are even suspicous, that when the religious express a lack of concern for maintaining some sort of equilibrium, it is because they want to hasten the crisis, and not because they actually believe, as they profess, that there will be no crisis.)

    I must have said many ridiculous things and imputed many false motives, but I think there certainly is a rich theological and ethical background motivating what you say, and it is the weave of this theological and ethical tapestry that piques me, and not the apparently disinterested and scientific subject…

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    …I think there certainly is a rich theological and ethical background motivating what you say…

    Oh, I don’t know. I should say at least that I’m no theist, and that I think ethics is a finnicky business, and mostly intuitive anyway.

    Simply put: civilizations die, and why they die interests me. I live in a civilization that, for all its flaws, I have some affection for, and so I’m unhappy to watch it die.

    The first thing is to understand what’s happening, which is difficult enough all by itself. Before you get to prognosis and treatment, you must have a diagnosis.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 2:16 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    First, I don’t see what there is to recommend the sort of perpetual growth I sense you favor.

    I haven’t said what I favor. But sure:

    I don’t favor death by self-induced sterility.

    A stable equilibrium might be fine, if such a thing is actually possible. I expect that the far more likely tendency, though, is either up or down, and that perpetual sideways is very rare — perhaps because the only way it can be maintained is through cultural and intellectual stagnation.

    Growth is probably best, and certainly the most interesting. (At least when your numbers are growing, you know you aren’t going extinct.)

    To Infinity, and beyond!

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 2:30 am | Permalink
  12. Interesting. As usual, I bring more assumptions to the table than can be deduced from it!

    But do you agree that growth in the long term is also unsustainable?

    It seems civilization has to fail, and the question is only how soon! Very pessimistic!

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    But do you agree that growth in the long term is also unsustainable?

    I can’t see why it has to be, as long as you keep finding clever ways to keep everyone fed (which is a merely technical problem), or keep finding new places to go.

    That said, there are other, much more difficult intrinsic problems that afflict high civilizations, and the Huxleyan solution may be the only way out. More on that later, perhaps.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  14. One major limitation I’m pretty certain of is that we’re not going to get off the planet. So if nothing else, there’s only so much space for people to occupy. And we don’t even want to occupy the maximum amount of space because — well I think of “Soylent Green”.

    On a more abstract level, I don’t like the idea of things being too big, because if things are too big you can get lost. You get a glut of everything — it’s all too much to keep track of. And that’s daunting to me. I like things to be small and organized. So when I think of an ideal world, I also think of it as being small and organized.

    On the other hand, I will admit that more of everything offers more possibilities, and that can be exciting. You live in or have lived in New York? When I was a teenager, I always thought it would be great to live there, and for that very reason.

    So I think there’s some inconsistency in what I think is the ideal society. On the one hand, it would be something that you could *know* — you could get a grip on every nook and cranny and represent it to yourself all in one book, the way James Joyce did with Dublin in “Ulysses”.

    On the other hand, I can understand why you say we want something that’s always changing and growing and offering new possibilities.

    But returning to practical considerations, I think we should be pretty confident that we have a grip on the business of feeding everybody and other technical problems before we loosen the reins and let ourselves go. How can I say it? Once the people are there, you have to deal with them, but so long as they aren’t there, I think we mostly have time to (excuse the strange turn of phrase) create them.

    Still, we may miscalculate and be replaced. It’s somewhat gloomy for those of us living in the current state of things, because we have an urgent sense of what will be lost.

    But we can’t imagine whether something better might not come and replace us. Go back to Hegel and think of what he says in introduction to the Phenomenology of Mind: when the old age is passing away, we feel the bitterness of parting because nothing has fully developed to take its place. But if you’re optimistic, you can convince yourself that something new is coming — something that will incorporate the best parts of the old order, but bring an unexpected resolution to what we can at the moment only see in a negative light — as a problem.

    Hegel wasn’t a gloomy philosopher, I think, and even if our society is passing away, for the reasons you suggest and others, think what that might make room for…

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  15. “A stable equilibrium might be fine, if such a thing is actually possible.”

    The very concept of “a stable equilibrium” is impossible. That may be the only certainty in our dynamic universe, which, to the best of our knowledge, is governed by the guarantor of uncertainty — quantum mechanics.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Henry, long-lasting equilibria do exist in nature, though I agree that they are very rare in advanced civilizations. China comes to mind: if you were reviewing most of China’s history you could skip ahead w thousand years without missing much.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  17. Not to nitpick, but “stable” implies “indefinite”. If “thousand(s) of years” is your working approximation for “indefinitely”, then have at it.

    But note that when discussing issues like long-lasting safe-storage of radioactive waste, for example, we must consider orders of magnitude more time than that …

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    I was thinking of things like the middle period of the lifetime of a medium-sized star.

    But thousands of years would be a pretty good run, in human terms.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  19. Go for it …

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    I think we should be pretty confident that we have a grip on the business of feeding everybody and other technical problems before we loosen the reins and let ourselves go.

    Well, you needn’t worry. Unless I missed something, the preeminent issue of this election was the need to ensure that our women do not conceive, and that if they do conceive they don’t bear live young.

    But we can’t imagine whether something better might not come and replace us.

    You’ll forgive me if I fail to get terribly fired up about the prospects. “Better” than the extended civilization that gave us the creative genius of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Praxiteles, Aquinas, Archimedes, Diogenes, Leonardo, Dante, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Wren, Palladio, Kubrick, Gauss, Bach, Newton, Dickens, Galileo, Beethoven, Goethe, Franklin, Feynman, Voltaire, Leibniz, Swift, Tolstoy, Mozart, Tesla, Ford, Carlyle, Hitchcock, Edison, Mann, Picasso, Balanchine, Rembrandt, Schubert, Einstein, van Gogh, Jobs, Ellington, Pascal, von Neumann, Gershwin, Twain, Reimann, Descartes, Drake, Hume, Ellington, Pascal, Kandinsky, the Beatles, Locke, Jefferson, et al.?

    Where’s THAT going to come from? China? The Muslim Brotherhood?

    No, I actually feel rather glum about the whole thing.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  21. I empathize with your gloomy outlook, Malcolm. Given the likelihood that some flavor of Armageddon, including the technological singularity, will be encountered by today’s children, I think it more profitable to focus on just getting past Obama Redux.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    We just did focus on that, Henry. We failed.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  23. No; we focused on preempting Obama Redux. We failed to do that.

    Now it behooves us to survive it, which is what I meant by “getting past” it.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  24. Alencia Lysander says

    China had and may have yet a great civilization (Lao Zi, Kong Zi, Si Ma Qian, Ou Yang Xiu, Dong Po, Lu Xun, just to scratch the surface). Islam has had its poetry, philosophy,, and calligraphy. And as for your own names, cut the list off at any point, and a man might think that the times had descended and nothing remained but decadence and decline. A man living after Aquinas might never have suspected Shakespeare, a man after Shakespeare Newton — and meanwhile the Church had to collapse and Europe fall into unending war.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  25. Johannes Gutenberg says

    Kubrick? How did he make that list?

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    Hi Johannes,

    Thought I’d toss in a filmmaker.

    Anyway, you’re just jealous.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    Yes, China may have a great civilization. I like MY civilization.

    As I said, I’m unhappy to see it die. The idea that there may be Muslim poets or Han calligraphers plying their trade atop the ruins of Brooklyn five hundred years hence just doesn’t do much for me.

    I’m sure that cultured Romans were dismayed to see Rome fall (population decline at work there too, by the way). I can’t blame them, Shakespeare notwithstanding.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  28. Malcolm says

    One last thing:

    A man living after Aquinas might never have suspected Shakespeare, a man after Shakespeare Newton — and meanwhile the Church had to collapse and Europe fall into unending war.

    Yes, our current iteration of Western culture stands upon the ruins of Rome, of Athens, of Jerusalem, and the deep and enduring foundations of those lost civilizations have given their distinctive lineaments to the architecture of our own. But as each of them fell — in particular, as what remained of classical civilization succumbed to universal population decline and entered the Dark Ages — much of incalculable value was lost. It grieves to me see it happening again.

    I realize that there are surely high civilizations still to come, and that humanity’s path no doubt will traverse broad, sunny uplands in history not yet written. But I mourn the death of this great culture, nevertheless, and I fear that much will be forgotten forever.

    Sorry to be the skunk at the garden party.

    Posted November 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Permalink
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