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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 760)...

    Among the wealthy of the world infertility is a significant challenge. All sorts of treatments are available – medical, psychological, and other therapies. However, among malnourished and impoverished women fertility is abundant. I don't believe this can be explained by the younger age of the women. How come the threat to the existence of the mother (esp. lack of food) doesn't follow the ABC's of Ecology?

    ...and the response:

    Thanks for bringing me something I rarely see (after 20 years of hearing from readers)-- a brand new question that no one has ever asked, and it must be a good one, since it gave me a good six hours of work.

    You say that "All sorts of treatments [for infertility] are available – medical, psychological, and other therapies."

    There is no practical way to directly measure infertility in the population. Rather, studies of the demographics of infertility are actually studies of those who SEEK TREATMENT for infertility. (There's just no way to count those who keep their infertility to themselves.) Those who seek treatment for infertility are not solely the wealthy. Treatment is readily available to the middle classes.

    It should be understood that infertility only began to be widely identified as a problem when treatments of infertility began to be developed and made readily available – in recent decades. And it appears to be a BIG problem because nowadays thousands seek treatment for infertility, whereas very few people did so a hundred years ago (as far as anyone can tell). So, lacking any studies from the past, it's impossible to say whether infertility is a more significant challenge now than it was, say, a century ago.

    In this, it's similar to mental illness. Mental illness (as opposed to madness) didn't even exist as a concept until well into the last century. But thousands of people began to suffer from it once TREATMENT of mental illness became available (and rather fashionable). Again, since treatment of mental illness is fairly expensive, it could easily be concluded (doubtless inaccurately) that wealthy people tend to be especially prone to mental illness.

    Also: It can't be said that there is anything like a direct causal relation between wealth and infertility. The increased cost of living and of raising children in developed countries discourages many couples from starting families until later in life (when they will be less fertile). And it's recognized as a general trend that middle class and wealthy persons tend to marry later and to guard against pregnancy for a longer period of time, meaning that they too will be less likely to be fertile when they come to have children. So, for these people, infertility is less a matter of wealth and more a matter of the unintended result of conscious choices.

    However (since you bring up the ABC's of Ecology), it should be noted that no matter how infertile the wealthy of the world are, our global population continues to grow, steadily and relentlessly, year after year after year.

    Now we come to your next point. You say that "Among malnourished and impoverished women fertility is abundant. I don't believe this can be explained by the younger age of the women."

    Just for brevity's sake, if I use the word "malnourished" alone, I should be understood to mean "malnourished AND impoverished," since in fact most of the malnourished ARE impoverished. (We're not talking about rich anorexic adolescents here.)

    Okay. So you say that, among malnourished women, fertility is abundant and you don't believe this can be explained by the younger age of the women. I say rather that the high incidence of fertility among the malnourished can't be explained ENTIRELY by the younger age of the women. I owe this qualification to two facts: the fact that younger women ARE unquestionably more fertile than older women, and the fact that younger women ARE much more likely to be malnourished than women aged 19 and older.

    So the abundance of fertility among malnourished women CAN be explained fairly persuasively by the fact that 27% of all young women (who are most likely to be fertile) are malnourished. (These are U.S. stats; I find no world figures.)

    Now it must be noted that, just as infertility is not measured by counting infertile PEOPLE but by counting people who seek TREATMENT for infertility, fertility in women is not measured by counting fertile WOMEN but rather by counting women who give BIRTH. All the information I find on fertility, therefore, is actually about BIRTHS, not about fertility as such. I quote one source on teenage childbearing: "when a poor young woman perceives that socioeconomic success is not achievable to her, she is more likely to embrace motherhood in her current position ... When there is relatively more hope of economic advancement, it is relatively more desirable to delay motherhood and invest in human or social capital." Births cannot be used as an unequivocal measure of fertility. Malnourished teenagers are highly likely to have babies (which proves their fertility), but nothing can be known about the fertility of teenagers who DON'T have babies. Affluent teenage women are less likely to have babies–but, again, this tells us nothing whatever about their fertility.

    So: if childbearing is the measure of fertility, your question–Why are malnourished and impoverished women abundantly FERTILE?– becomes this: Why do malnourished and impoverished women BEAR CHILDREN so abundantly?" The answer then becomes this: The most fertile women of any population are teenagers; more than a quarter of all teenagers are poor and malnourished; such women are more likely to embrace motherhood (than their affluent sisters) because they perceive that socioeconomic success is not achievable to them.

    I think I've addressed your first two points. You follow these points with your question: "How come the threat to the existence of the mother (esp. lack of food) doesn't follow the ABC's of Ecology?"

    I have to do some guessing about what you mean here. The ABC's of Ecology are not about food availability and INDIVIDUALS, they're about food availability and POPULATIONS. They tell us that when more food is available to a species, its population grows, and when less food is available, its population declines. By means of agriculture, we see to it that more food is made available to us annually, and, as expected, our population grows annually.

    About one billion of our population is classified as hungry. Your question could possibly be read this way: Why doesn't the number of the hungry DECREASE? The answer is that it WOULD decrease if it were a separate population and LESS FOOD was made available to it every year – less this year, less next year, less next year, and so on – till the population of the hungry became zero. But that obviously isn't what's happening here.

    The number of the hungry doesn't decrease, because it's NOT a separate population, and less food is NOT being made available to it. More food becomes available to the whole human population every year, and the hungry are a PART of that population. And because more food becomes available to the hungry every year, their numbers increase every year, right along with the rest. More food is available to them every year, but because there are more of them to feed every year, they stay hungry.)

    But I think this may be a closer approximation to what's really on your mind: Why are women who are malnourished and abjectly poor not suffering from the same infertility that plagues women who are well nourished and wealthy? Why are they "abundantly fertile"? It would seem logical to suppose that, being malnourished, they would be LESS fertile than their better-nourished, wealthy sisters–certainly not MORE fertile!

    Here's the thing to look at: There is no data that will allow us to compare the fertility of wealthy women to the fertility of impoverished women, because no one is measuring the fertility of EITHER class. All that's being measured is the incidence of treatment for infertility in one class and the incidence of childbearing in the other class. Infertility treatments and babies: apples and oranges.

    But I think that, at the deepest level, your question is this: Malnourished women should be LESS fertile, but instead they're ABUNDANTLY fertile. (You seem to think this conflicts with, or perhaps disproves, the ABC's of ecology, but it doesn't have anything to do with those ABC's.)

    Here's what you have to look at. There is no direct evidence that malnourished women are more fertile. However, IF malnourished women ARE more fertile, this merely confirms that the genes of every organism are programed by evolution to replicate, not to fail to replicate.

    When a person is wounded, the body responds with a series of events that serve to resolve the injury. The body’s top priorities are to stop blood loss, restore function, and prevent infection. Other events follow that serve to promote recovery but need not be detailed here. It should be noted, however, that while these events may occur, they may ultimately fail. The wounded person may die.

    Similarly: When experiencing malnutrition, it may well be that a woman's body tries to overcome this adversity by increasing fertility. Increasing fertility increases the chances that the woman's genes will be passed along to an offspring. This doesn't necessarily improve the woman's life. Rather, it improves the chances that her genes will survive. This can be seen as an example of the selfish-gene theory. The selfish-gene theory contends that the genes that get passed on in an organism are the ones whose consequences serve their own implicit interests (to continue being replicated), not necessarily those of the organism. The malnourished woman's genes are more likely to continue being replicated if she becomes more fertile than if she becomes less fertile. As the theory makes clear, this action serves the interest of the gene, not necessarily the interest of the woman (teenage motherhood is no picnic).

    In the case of the wounded person, the body's healing measures may ultimately fail. So too in the case of the malnourished woman: her body may act so as to increase fertility, but this doesn't guarantee success.

    It seems to me that this hypothesis (that the fertility of malnourished women increases) could be tested, though I'm inclined to doubt that it ever will be.

    To finish off, let's examine this hypothetical action of the selfish gene in an entire population that is declining because its food source is declining. If, in this hungry population, women's fertility increases, their likelihood of bearing children increases; this would tend to MODERATE the inevitable population decrease – not eliminate it or turn it around into an increase. In conditions of food scarcity, infant mortality is high, because infants have access only to the milk of their malnourished mothers, while adults have access to many different foods. But if the fertility (and likelihood of childbearing) increases among the women of this population, this increase would serve to somewhat offset the losses sustained among the newborn. If the selfish gene were not at work in this way, it seems to me that the fertility of these malnourished women would almost certainly decrease, causing the population to decline even more steeply. Under the condition of an entire human population being in decline, as described here, I think the hypothesis advanced in this paragraph would be almost impossible to prove in the world as it is.

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