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January 24, 2003

Aesthetic Impacts of Population Dynamics


According to the Wall Street Journal of January 24, falling birth rates around the world may lead to the global population topping off at around 9 billion in 2050 and dropping to around 8.5 billion by 2075. Granted 9 billion people is still 50% more than we have today, but it’s a whole lot less than the 12 billion that was the estimated peak 10 years ago.

The reasons for this shift are varied, although clearly the largest one (other, possibly, than the impact of governmental population control in China) is the desire and increasing ability of women to limit the number of their pregnancies. My question—given this blog’s continuing interest in evolutionary biology—is how this squares with the desire to perpetuate one’s genes.

The best explanations I could come up with are these: (1) in poor societies having too many children involves a high a risk for women of dying in childbirth, which negatively impacts the likelihood of their children growing to adulthood and reproducing; (2) in urban environments, children cannot contribute to their own upkeep, so excessive numbers of children again reduces the economic resources available to support them to reproductive adulthood. Ergo, in both cases, women are limiting the number of their children to increase the odds of their children’s eventual reproductive success. (Along the way, it’s also less wear and tear on mom.)

The interesting difference between the theories is that in the first situation (which seems to reflect a rural environment), men’s and women’s interests are not aligned—the men would press for more children than the women would want. Whereas, under the second (or urban) theory, men’s and women’s interests are far more aligned, as long as men feel compelled to economically provide for their children. If they don’t feel so compelled, of course, we have another mismatch, in which women limit fertility and men seek out multiple partners.

I wonder if this dynamic explains the shift in art from the Venus de Willendorf—who is loaded with symbols of fertility, including actually being pregnant, to today, when the most desirable woman is the one who obviously hasn’t had her quota of children yet?

Venus de Willendorf; Venus de Victoria's Secret What a Difference 10 Millenia or So Makes!

Have you read discussions on this topic by a recognized sociobiologist?



P.S. Women may find it amusing to note that in the era of the Venus de Willendorf, being fat was obviously considered deeply erotic (although practically no women got enough to eat to appear this ripe), while today very few women are as thin as the above model (who is, however, probably about as skinny as everyone was in the Paleolithic--excess calories being hard to come by). In short, ladies, you just can't win.

posted by Friedrich at January 24, 2003


Good post, guys-this discovery of female attractiveness I discovered last semester in Western Civilization I class. Interesting stuff for sure. -Jen

Posted by: Jennifer on January 24, 2003 11:19 PM


"Ergo, in both cases, women are limiting the number of their children to increase the odds of their children’s eventual reproductive success."

I am doubtful that people have children for rational reasons, and I am doubtful that they reduce their reproductive output for rational reasons. In the past, people lacked birth control, which meant that every time they indulged their sexual appetites, they ran the risk of pregnancy. It doesn't surprise me that the result was that most women had many children.

However, with birthcontrol used regularly, many people have to actually make a conscious decision to have children, and their sexual appetite has very little to do with it. The result is that people are having fewer children, but I don't think this necessarily implies that women are thereby trying to improve reproductive success.

I think of it more along these lines. In the past, desire for sweetness led people to certain vitamins that were hard to come by. But technology has enabled us to fulfill our sugar drives through doughnuts or other artifical foods that do not have those vitamins. Thus, for many people, it is now necessary to make a conscious decision to consume the vitamins that their taste buds no longer lead them to naturally. The result is that many people are as malnourished as they are obese.

I see no reason to assume that an analogous situation might not be occuring in developed countries, where technology has made the sex drive largely irrelevant to actual reproductive acts, which now require, in many cases, a conscious decision. Those who do not think much about it, those who live to gratify their desires will just have sex, try and achieve material success and so on, but they will not stop and think "hey, maybe I should be popping out my 15th kid" because they don't have a drive built into do that. The sex drive used to fill that function, but technology has distorted its effects.

This is mere speculation, of course, but it seems possible to me that the declining birthrates we see in rich countries are due to the distorted impact of technology on our entire emotional structure, starting with the sex drive. It is not a given that the long-term result will be beneficial for rich countries, especially as many countries continue to breed rapidly.

Posted by: Derk on January 25, 2003 9:53 AM


I just wanted to add that you may well be correct. But I sometimes wonder. . .

Posted by: Derk on January 25, 2003 10:26 AM

I think Derk is entirely correct here: it's almost certainly futile and a little bit silly to try to apply evolutionary biology to populations with easy access to birth control. Friedrich talks about "the desire to perpetuate one’s genes" – which isn't a desire like the desire to have sex, or to eat sugar, or to finish the crossword puzzle. In fact, it's not really a desire at all: it's more of a description of animals' biology. Evolutionary biology might be able to explain what happens naturally, but I don't think it can be asked to explain what happens when birth control is thrown into the mix.

Posted by: Felix on January 25, 2003 11:33 AM

Guys, thanks for your comments. Allow me to respond, if feebly.

Felix--I agree that I was sloppy with my language to discuss evolutionary "desires." You are correct that such "desires" are not of the same order as the desire to have sex, or to eat sugar, or to finish the crossword puzzle. Perhaps the word "drive" would be more accurate, because the urgency is far more long lasting, and, I would argue, profound, than those desires. I can only speak to my own experience in this (the curse of all discussions of subjectivities) but I was at least dimly aware throughout my twenties--before I had children--that on some level it was extremely important to me to have children, to reproduce. Far more important, say, than what I was pursuing at the time--financial success, artistic representation, or fumbling attempts to date great looking girls. Again, after getting married and having two children well out of diapers, it dawned on me one day in a period of deep personal turmoil that what I really needed/wanted to do was to have another child. Pursuing this desire to its logical conclusion and having this child has made me both highly gratified and happy (which is saying a lot for a depressive type like me). So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, despite the studied indifference of modern commercial culture to reproduction, childbearing (and death), I think the desire to perpetuate one's genes is one of profound importance in the human psyche--analogous, and of course, highly related to, the awareness of our own impending mortality.

Derk--The introduction of contraception into the picture has, I would argue, significantly impacted reproductive tactics but hasn't changed the strategic fundamentals at all. Perpetuating one's genes is a teleological issue, not a technological one. Choosing to limit pregnancies, like any other decision, is meaningless unless larger goals frame the decision. Sociobiology argues, and I think with some degree of persuasiveness, that (1) the overarching goal that frames such decisions is the drive to perpetuate one's genes, (2) that this drive enormously predates human "rationality" or "consciousness" and (3) that human consciousness, in fact, is "conditioned" (to use a Buddhist term) by that overarching goal--sometimes in a way that is perceivable to our mental processes, often perhaps not. So rationality, consciousness, etc. is--ahem--sort of a red herring here.

Finally, guys, neither of you commented on the aesthetic shift I illustrated in the post. If birth control doesn't account for this shift in taste, what does?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 25, 2003 2:23 PM


Oops, sorry I ignored your comment. Thanks for paying more attention to the real point of the post--changing perceptions of female attractiveness--than the boys did. If you've got more points to make on this topic feel free to jump in; I'd love to have a female perspective in this area.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 25, 2003 2:35 PM

First, I have first-hand experience that says men like women with a little meat on their bones. FYI - the phrase "you should eat something" is not exactly flattering.

Additionlly, the waifish model image of beauty is usually in women's magazines, not porn. In any case, I think the thinness ideal is a side-effect of photography. The camera adds ten pounds, so all the offically beauitful women are ten pounds thinner, and then the most striking quality is stressed... look at what happened with eyeliner in the sixties.

Posted by: j.c. on January 26, 2003 2:13 PM

And I think you need to take into account the fact that fashion models are generally picked by gay male fashion designers, who are much more interested in girls who look like boys...

Posted by: jimbo on January 26, 2003 10:02 PM

Michael--I really enjoyed the post and am linking to it from my blog so you should get some more comments. The problem I see is one that happens every time we try to explain the art from a culture that we don't have a written record of--we're just guessing. We think that the Venus de Willendorf was looked up to--possibly even a goddess--or at any rate was a standard that was admired.....but we don't know--we're looking at it through our own culture-biased eyes.

I also have to disagree with jimbo...models are picked thin because the clothes hang well on lumps or bulges. The model's main purpose is to sell clothes. From that, our perception of what is 'fashionable' grows so that someone who is selling perfume or cars or shoes uses the same standard.

Jimbo, as far as your gay reference, I think you're showing your ignorance!

Posted by: Penny on January 27, 2003 4:25 PM

So most fashion designers are not gay? Coulda fooled me...

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