Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, something remarkable happened: people started having fewer children. Way fewer. In country after country, fertility rates fell from four to eight children per woman to less than three, and in many cases less than two.
What caused this decline in fertility? Did changes in child mortality and life expectancy cause parents to desire fewer conceptions? Did increased return to human capital change the optimal child-rearing strategy? Was the decline caused by increasing exposure to the toxic chemical mix of industrialization?
The above explanations, and many others, have been proposed at various times by biologists, economists, and sociologists. But a growing body of economic research is offering a decidedly anthropological explanation for fertility: it’s about culture. People have the children they have not simply due to their individual pursuit of happiness, economic returns, or mere biology, but because of how cultural and values systems shape their behaviors.
It’s easy to spot culture-fertility linkages “in the wild.” For example, in ethnically Chinese populations around the world, birth rates spike in lucky Zodiac years, like the Dragon year. Births fall sharply around major holidays in virtually all countries. In America, they also fall sharply on unlucky days like April 1 or Friday the 13th. I’ve catalogued these and many more cultural-fertility interactions elsewhere.
But can cultural factors explain big changes in fertility? Sure, maybe a change in cultural values can nudge when a couple has a baby by a little bit here or there, or maybe we can change the pace of change in birth rates a bit. But could an arbitrary shock to social values really trigger an epochal shift in demographics like that observed during the so-called “demographic transition?” New research by Brian Beach and W. Walker Hanlon says yes.
The whole project of Western-funded family planning operations is nothing else than cultural colonialism. https://t.co/rfXby8iDdz
— Public Discourse (@PublicDiscourse) May 8, 2019