One of the things that has been on my mind a lot lately was inspired by article that talked about why women aren’t choosing to have children in our society. I was originally going to write about that first, but in my mind I ended up always going into the topic of abortion, and given how much the defunding of Planned Parenthood is being talked about today, I thought I would talk about this controversial subject first, and then follow up with a piece about wanting or not wanting to raise children, because ultimately much of what I will talk about here feeds into that.
Recently my wife and I had our first night away, together, from our child who is now 19 months old. It was a weird place in both our minds because it felt like we were fighting some primal urge, vs some rational thinking machine. One was very emotional and was worried about the stress on my wife’s parents who were watching him, worried about whether he would wonder if we just left him, worried that he was crying helpless wondering where mommy and daddy was. The other part of us was thinking how good this was for him and us. He was with people who loved him and quite capable of taking care of him. And it was healthy for us to have some time away together, because it certainly is a good thing for a baby who have parents who have a strong friendship and love and some time away certainly helped that. Also in the long run this was beneficial for healthy sleep patterns, gaining independence and trust.
The trap in the thinking here, is that we often believe that these are almost two separate parts of us. One might criticize us for being too emotional, and another would criticize us for being too rational about it. Of course both are evolved and necessary parts of what makes us who we are. Those strong emotions we feel are extremely important for protecting and bonding with the child. That rational part of us is there to make sure we do it in the best way possible. It can be a see saw at times and we all vary in how much we let one side take a hold over the other. The point is that regardless of the emotions you feel, it is also sensible. It is sensible to be emotional, and it is sensible to be rational.
This leads us to a very uncomfortable thing that few of us want to admit about child rearing. It really boils down to a lot of math. We need both the emotional and the rational, but the one that win depends a lot on circumstances. It could be circumstances of the environment, culture, family values, etc, but there is natural state of a human that favors one side or the other. My mom told me once that she couldn’t accept that I was just a biological thing that happened, and that part of her belief in religion is founded on the fact that she sees things as much more than the sum of their parts. The thing is, I feel the same way, but I also know that it is part of our biology to do so. And all of that to me is amazing even if it is explainable. But our brains are constantly working to make decisions that ensure both our survival and our genes survival, and the emotions we feel, and the rational decisions we make support that drive in us. It gets even more confusing given that the rational part of us tends to actually make us feel like our emotions are rational. “I really want that piece of cheesecake, but am trying to lose weight.” Suddenly you start to rationalize…well I’ll just have a small piece, or so-and-so makes such good cheesecake it would be rude not to have some…I’ll spend an extra half hour at the gym tomorrow. We’ve all been in this situation before, even if not about cheesecake. 🙂
So let’s take a look at some of the math of having children. But before we start let’s remind ourselves that while we may live in a modern world where we have smartphones, cable TV, and airplanes, but from an evolutionary standpoint our brains haven’t progressed much from the stone age. A couple hundred thousand years ago, when man was relatively what is today in terms of brain size and structure, is really a blink of an eye on the time scale of evolution. Now we know that we are a social creature, but we didn’t live in populations like we do today. As hunter gatherers we searched every day for food and lived in groups of around 200 people. If you or someone you know has been pregnant and you’ve seen them go through it, you know a lot changes in them. They tend to have less energy on average, and they tend to require more resources. More water and more food. In a group of 200 people where everybody has to pull their own weight, having less to give to the tribe in terms of energy, and you are taking more energy away from them as you require more resources. You are a drain to your group. Now certainly a necessary one, and I’m sure no one minds since in egalitarian groups such as hunter gatherers the ability to help as a community was strong, and of course later you’d be expected to do extra duty to help out other women who were pregnant. But that doesn’t change the math one bit. So one woman getting pregnant wasn’t too bad, but if all the women got pregnant at the same time, that would probably be bad. Once the child is born of course resources get even more drained, because that new member will need calories as well. Hunter gatherers needed to practice population control making sure the group didn’t get too big and also not too small. Furthermore, small children were a strain on mobility. My son at his age, still requires being carried a lot, and even though he sometimes likes to walk it’s not overly fast and, more importantly, not the direction you want him to move in. His cousin however who is 4 and half and can keep up quite well, and will respond to voice commands even if somewhat reluctantly. 🙂 Anthropological evidence shows that women spaced their children apart about 4 years apart at minimum so make sure that their child was old enough to keep up with a tribe. Most hunter gatherer tribes were not sedentary for very long. After using the resources in one area that had to move until that previous areas recovered. And depending on the environment, they may have had to make very long treks. The luxury of having children at will, would not come until the age of agriculture. An important theme that I will by discussing throughout this series, is to remember that our evolutionary advantage is our intelligence. Everything reproduces, but we found a way to make having one children at a time work and make smart decisions about how many children to have and when to have them.
Abortion is by far not a new thing, but it is at the very least a more advanced process considering what life was like pre-civilization. Despite the cool rational population control practiced by hunter gatherers, mistakes were going to happen. Sex after all is pretty fun, as it needs to be, in order for us to want to reproduce, but the best laid plans go awry. They do today and they did back then. For them it could have been not as many people got eaten by lions that year, or not as many of the older people in the tribe died and populations were approaching critical. Likely they would still try to survive, but the wild card that likely created the most population pressure was the environment (A great book on the impact of the medieval warming period on aboriginal tribes throughout north america and Europe can be found on Amazon here). Perhaps it was a long term climate trend, drought, or some geological catastrophe blocked a passage they normally took to areas where they knew food was, or some other resource was scarce. Whatever the case, evidence also indicates that infanticide was common. It’s likely the rates were around 15-20% (I’m sorry the source is wikipedia here under the paleolithic and neolithic sections, but references are given on the page), which is extremely high given that even the worse abortion rates now are at around 5%. Despite the emotional trauma the parents must have went through, with abortions not possible, this was the only way to make sure that a larger portions of the group didn’t starve to death. And in an extremely cold and rational way, the truth is, the mother can always have another baby when situations allow, but an extra member of the tribe, until early adulthood, was a drain on resources. We are made of finite energy, and we have to unfortunately look at ourselves as an energy budget, a tribe or group as the combined energy budget, which while more efficient is still finite. So if anything, human history has helped us not only have more children, but see less overall (as a percentage) die.
I am going to end this here with the thought of our finite nature, and continue in my next post to talk about some of the more modern day points about abortion, and why people who are anti-abortion aren’t helping (and in fact making things worse), and give them some realistic suggestions about how they can actually help reach their goal of an abortion free world.