Monthly Archives: April 2013

Burping

After that philosophical post, it’s time for a post about — burping. Too many bloggers underestimate the importance of the element of surprise.

*

My four siblings and I were homeschooled for most of our childhood. (I, the eldest, spent four years in public schools; my younger siblings, less than that. My youngest sister never attended school at all.) Because of that, and because we lived in the middle of nowhere with no real neighbors, we spent a lot of time together. One outgrowth of that was the family dialect known as Lingyo. (It was originally Lingy Lingo, named for the characteristic word lingy, meaning “cool.” The contracted form was created when I typed up a dictionary on the word processor and there was a six-character limit on filenames.)

Quite a lot of Lingyo vocabulary revolved around the topic of burping.

The term that started it all was baked hiccup — which originally just meant a burp but quickly acquired a more limited meaning, referring only to burps which were done on purpose. As a general term for eructations, without reference to intentions, belch was preferred. The word burp itself was then applied only to unintentional or “naturally occurring” eructations. Between these extremes was the baked burp — either an intentional belch which comes out louder than expected, or a natural belch which is deliberately amplified or elaborated. There were also deep fat fried hiccups — farts — but we didn’t use that term much because we just weren’t much interested in bodily functions other than burping. An apple baked hiccup was an exceptionally loud and long baked hiccup produced after eating an apple. The theory was that apple baked hiccups are caused not by anything in the apple itself but by smacking your lips while you eat. Sometimes trying too hard to produce a good baked hiccup would result in a baked sickup, a term which I suppose requires no explanation.

The act of belching intentionally was called “eating a baked hiccup.” As for the baking itself, no one was really sure what that entailed, but it was done by Athena, one of the family dogs. Every now and then my brother would announce that Athena had just baked a batch of hiccups. Then, of course, we would eat them.

There were other, non-hiccup-related terms for burps as well. Burp was modified to brup, which gave rise to the term abrupt ending — as in “That was an abrupt ending. I brupped out the ending.” We also decided to commandeer brachiate — a perfectly good word with no obvious synonyms — and use it as yet another word for “burp.” For some reason this became associated with the catchphrase “No brachiating in the locker room!”

*

As a way of quantifying how long a particular belch had been, you could try to say something while you burped. Some of our friends would recite as much of the alphabet as they could, but for us the thing to say was “Cranium House Pasta Company.” I don’t think anyone ever managed to say the whole thing in one burp, but we sometimes got as far as “Cranium House Pasta Com–,” which is the equivalent of getting all the way to the letter G. (Cranium House Pasta Company? I think this was originally inspired by a story my brother wrote, in which one of the characters referred to brains as “cranium-housed noodles.” Not that that really explains how it came to be a thing to say during a baked hiccup.)

*

As I mentioned, we never got much entertainment from farts, only from burps. We completely ignored flatulence.

Later, during my college years, a roommate was reminiscing about the farting contests he had participated in as a kid and asked if I had ever done anything like that. I said I hadn’t, but that I had won the “Tons of Tone” award at the first annual Boy Scout Belch-Off. He was surprised and said something like, “Really? I always thought that farts were funny but burps were just disgusting.”

The exact opposite of what I always thought — but I guess most people would agree with my old roommate, since farting clearly outguns burping in the world of lowbrow comedy. At least Bill Watterson is on my side.

*

Finally, a classic poem by one of my brothers:

Burping

If you gulp glug and slirp
up your pop you release a Big old Burp
then your dad will say don’t Burp
that way it is Just plain Bad
if you try and tell him why
he will say don’t Burp that way it’s Bad

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Anecdotes, Language

Be ye doers

I’ve just been reading William James’s little treatise on Habit and found this passage, which reinforces what is becoming something of a leitmotif in my recent reflections: the gospel according to Goethe’s Faust — “In the beginning was the Act.”

(In James’s original, this passage is all one big paragraph. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking it up a bit as a concession to the preferences of modern readers.)

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J. S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.

Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.

There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure abstract form!

The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves not musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world — speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers — but let it not fail to take place.

— Habit, pp. 61-64

William Blake makes very similar points in several passages of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire. . . .

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. . . .

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

Blake’s epigrams on this subject had always been opaque to me in the past — particularly the last one quoted, which seemed to be making the insane claim that it is better to commit a murder than to resist the temptation to do so. (I know these are the “Proverbs of Hell” we’re talking about, but still!) I suppose the word desire has carnal connotations, which led me to interpret Blake’s comments as being about temptations and how we ought not to resist them. James’s different wording — “a resolve or a fine glow of feeling” — served as a reminder that there are good desires as well (that, in fact, all our desires are desires for something good) and helped me see Blake from a different angle.

James sheds a similar light on Aleister Crowley’s notorious maxim “Do what thou wilt.” The key is to put the stress on the first word: “Do what thou wilt.” Inflected and interpreted correctly, this could indeed be characterized as “the whole of the law.”

Quoting that bozo approvingly kind of makes me want to take a shower, so here’s something on the same topic from a rather more reputable source:

Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like:

He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.

But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.

— Luke 6:47-49

The emphasis on hearing and not doing — rather than simply on not doing — is something that never jumped out at me on previous readings of Luke (and Matthew, and the Epistle of James), but to which my attention has now been directed by William James. Hearing and doing is best; neither hearing nor doing is worse; but hearing and not doing — nursing the unacted desire to be good — is worst of all. Not only is one failing to do one’s duty in that particular instance; one is also building up a habit of reacting to moral appeals and moral emotions by doing nothing at all. And being restrain’d, the conscience by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

One of Iris Murdoch’s characters puts it well (if you overlook the cheap shot at Christianity):

Your ‘moral ambition’ or whatever you call your selfish optimism, is just the old lie of Christian salvation, that you can shed your old self and become good simply by thinking about it – and as you sit and dream this dream you feel that you are changed already and have no more work to do – and so you are happy in your lie (The Book and the Brotherhood, p. 25).

James presents the rather counterintuitive idea that “uplifting” art and literature — the type that evokes feelings of compassion and heroism — might be positively harmful to one’s morals, because it dissociates one’s moral emotions from the actions which ought naturally to follow from them (just as surely as a pornography habit emasculates a man by training him to dissociate sexual stimuli from sex). Too much looking at archaic torsos of Apollo and too little changing one’s life could actually lead to moral callousness, to a decreased sensitivity to the voice of conscience.

People often comment on the paradoxical fact that many of the Nazi leaders were great music lovers — and music, I suppose, would pose a greater danger than the other arts simply because it is so abstract, so far removed from action. When it comes to drama, even if you watch a play, are moved, and do nothing, you aren’t really doing nothing; the pathways of habits are being reinforced behind the scenes by mirror neurons. But the farther removed a given art form is from the actual witnessing of an action, the less this will be true, and the greater the danger that James warns of.

Of course this is not to suggest that art, music, and literature are to be avoided, but perhaps there is something to say for James’s advice “never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.”

10 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

The Bugs

These he knew were minor presences, riffraff of consciousness.

— Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

When I can’t fall asleep at night
I picture clouds as black as ink,
One on my left, one on my right,
And try of both at once to think.
When thus directed, right and left,
Attention can be drawn apart
Like cotton wool, and through the cleft
Black sleep seep down into my heart
Till waking sinks beneath its spell.
That’s how it works when all goes well.
But sometimes all does not go right.
Tonight, I fear, is such a night.

The bugs! Into my room they file.
They’ve been attracted by the cloud.
On each bug-face, a stupid smile;
From each bug-throat, a thrumming loud.
They stand and smile and hum and drone,
All lined up straight before my bed,
And seem to sing for me alone,
To pound their song into my head.
And if you saw me as I lay
And listened to that awful song,
All motionless, you’d surely say
I was asleep — but you’d be wrong.

I seem to sleep as deep as death,
Then up I start and gasp for breath,
Eyes bugged, and say, What’s wrong with me?
I feel like I’ve been undersea!
Much longer, and I would have drowned

And in my head, that thrumming sound.
It echoes still, the bugs’ fell song,
And should it settle in my brain,
That brekekex-ing loud and long,
I know I’d never sleep again.
But in the end it fades away,
That brekekex-ing loud and fell,
Beneath the blows of light of day,
Till silence falls and all is well.

If ever there should come a time
I write my life in epic rhyme,
I know exactly how to start.
The first two lines I know by heart:
Sing, Muse, the tale of one who dared
To brave the bugs and how he fared!

(As for the rest — well, time will tell.
At least I’ll know it started well.)
In saner moods, though, I forswear
such epic fluff and say this prayer:
Protect me, Lord, when I arise.
Keep thou my feet from every sin.
Protect me when I close my eyes.
Don’t let the bugs come filing in.

4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

Two things the Mormons are doing right

Recent posts at Bruce Charlton’s blog (this one, for example) have dealt with the idea that Mormonism is currently producing more “good fruits” (in terms of the devoutness of its members, the integrity of its leaders, and its resistance to corruption and liberalization) than are the other major branches of the Christian family of religions — and that Catholics and Protestants ought therefore to set their theological objections to Mormonism to one side, approach that religion with respect, and try to learn from its successes. As an ex-Mormon with Christian sympathies, I obviously find this discussion interesting.

So what are the Mormons doing right? The answer is unlikely to be found in Mormon doctrine itself, I think. A theme which keeps turning up in the conversation Dr. Charlton has started is that Mormonism is consistently better in practice than in theory, and that its often unusual and (from the point of view of other Christians) objectionable doctrine is a red herring. For example, in theory Mormonism is considerably more liberal than Catholicism on issues of sexual morality — but in practice, most Mormons actually follow their moral code, whereas most Catholics do not. In practice, what makes Mormons different from most other Christian groups is not so much their unorthodox theology as the fact that they don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, pay a full tithe, and keep the Sabbath day holy.

So, aside from doctrine, what is unique to Mormonism that might account for its success? Two things come to mind.

*

The church and the temple

One unique feature of Mormonism is that it offers two distinct levels of participation: the church and the temple.

The church is similar to other churches. Regularly scheduled weekly services are held which are open to everyone, both members and non-members, and maintaining membership in the church is very easy. Once you’ve been baptized, you have to try pretty hard if you want to be kicked out. (I found this out when I tried to leave the church in 2002. Even writing to church headquarters and explicitly renouncing my membership didn’t do the trick.) Church members are “disfellowshipped” (put on probation) or excommunicated (expelled) only for extremely serious sins such as murder or adultery, or for public and unrepentant opposition to the church itself or to its core doctrines. Except for these extreme cases, the church welcomes the participation even of people whose lives fall far short of its standards.

The temple is something else entirely. There is no schedule; members attend whenever and however often they like, mostly individually or in small groups which they organize themselves. If the nearest temple is far away, the local ward (congregation) may organize monthly temple trips so as to allow for carpooling — but these trips are still “extracurricular” in nature. A good member is expected to attend church every week, but there is no corresponding expectation that one participate in every temple trip. Given that you can attend the temple anytime you want, with or without other members, most of the other ward members won’t even know how often you attend, or even whether you attend at all.

Unlike the church, which is open to the public, the temple has very strict standards for admission. Temple patrons must show a “temple recommend” at the door in order to be admitted. This is a card certifying the member’s worthiness to attend the temple, which must be renewed periodically. A person seeking a temple recommend must be interviewed by the bishop (pastor) and stake president (like a Catholic bishop), and must assert that he believes key Mormon doctrines, accepts the authority of church leaders, is chaste, is honest, pays a full tithe, doesn’t drink or smoke, and so on.

Of course some hypocrites will lie through their teeth and attend the temple unworthily, but the system is so structured as to minimize that kind of thing. The unscheduled, extracurricular nature of temple participation makes it relatively easy for a member with worthiness issues to discreetly stop attending the temple for a while until the issues have been resolved. (Temple attendance can be contrasted with the Eucharist, called simply “the sacrament” by Mormons. Because the latter is administered publicly at weekly services which members are expected to attend, non-participation is much more public and obvious. I suspect Mormons take the sacrament unworthily far more often than they attend the temple unworthily.)

No system is perfect, but overall I think the two-tier church-and-temple system is an effective way of maintaining high standards while not putting undue social pressure on those who struggle with living up to those standards. Consider someone who is basically a good Mormon but struggles with some relatively common sin — pornography, say, or not paying a full tithe. If the whole church insisted on temple-level standards, such a person would either have to leave the church — with all the personal and social disruption that implies — or else live in a state of increasingly cynical hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, there were no temple at all, he might easily become complacent and feel that his current way of life is “good enough.” Under the church-and-temple system, though he can maintain normal social participation in the church while at the same time receiving a very clear message that his current way of life is not acceptable and that he is called to live up to a higher standard. Even if he should choose the path of hypocrisy, maintaining temple-level participation unworthily, the system of temple recommend interviews forces him to confront that hypocrisy; it replaces the easy, diffuse hypocrisy of “keeping up appearances” with the black-and-white dishonesty of looking the bishop in the eye and lying to him — something which is sure to prick the conscience of even the most jaded sinner, nudging him in the direction of repentance.

*

The calling system

The uniqueness of the Mormon system of “callings” was brought home to me recently while I was thinking not about religion but about politics — about the redeeming features of democracy and how they might be incorporated into a basically monarchic system of government. It occurred to me that this is precisely what the Mormons have done.

The appeal of democracy is the idea that governing the polity is everyone’s responsibility, that (ideally) every citizen is involved and invested and has a voice in the process. Its downside is that it tries to realize that ideal by means of mass voting — a system in which each citizen’s individual contribution is minuscule to the point of meaninglessness. In the name of making everyone responsible and letting everyone make important decisions, democracy gives us a system in which no one is responsible and important decisions are made by an algorithm.

The democratic approach to giving power and responsibility to the citizenry reminds me of the Mohist approach to love. Mozi taught that love and benevolence ought to be universal and absolutely impartial — that even one’s friends, family members, and fellow-countrymen ought not to receive preferential treatment. Confucius, a wiser Chinese philosopher than Mozi, made “treating relatives as relatives” a cornerstone of his ethical teachings. The Mohist doctrine is superficially appealing, but Confucianism recognizes the fact that having the full love and loyalty of even just one person is of far more value than having an infinitesimal fraction of the love and loyalty of every person on the planet. The same principle applies to power and responsibility. It’s far more meaningful to have full responsibility for one small thing than to share a tiny fraction of the responsibility for many big things.

Thus, in the ideal polity, instead of holding mass elections and maintaining the fiction that each citizen is making big important decisions such as appointing presidents and the like, the government would give each citizen a far smaller sphere of responsibility but make him really and truly responsible in that sphere.

The Mormon church comes very close to realizing such a polity with its system of “callings.” A calling is specific responsibility — such as maintaining membership records, teaching a Sunday school class, or being the bishop of a congregation — which is extended to a church member by his superiors, and typically every active member is given a calling. Callings are unpaid positions in which one typically serves for a few years, upon which one is “released” from one’s old calling and given a new one. Individual members have no say in what callings they receive; they can only accept or reject such callings as their leaders see fit to extend — and it is generally understood that one should accept all callings unless there is some compelling reason not to do so. No one ever volunteers for a calling, nor does voting play any role in the process of assigning callings. After a calling has been extended and accepted, the newly called person is presented to the congregation for a “sustaining vote,” but this is more like the “speak now or forever hold your peace” bit of a traditional wedding ceremony than like an actual election. The voting is virtually always unanimous in the affirmative. If someone did object, I suppose the bishop would speak with him privately and perhaps (if he had a valid objection) consider withdrawing the calling, but he would not be obligated to do so. In other words, the Mormons use voting the way voting ought to be used — as a source of potentially useful information which the leader can take into account, not as a substitute for decision-making.

Though totally non-democratic in its structure, the calling system has some appealingly “democratic” effects. Any “ordinary” member might find himself suddenly elevated to the bishopric or higher, only to return Cincinnatus-like to a much lower position after a few short years. Running the church is everyone’s job, and everyone is involved and invested — and that involvement takes the form of real, meaningful, clearly defined individual responsibilities. And the church accomplishes this all within the context of a unified top-down “monarchic” organization, leaving its polity uncompromised by the permanent state of limited civil war which is true democracy.

I’m not sure how effectively the Mormon system could be adapted to a secular polity, but it certainly seems to be a highly effective way of running a church. The members are motivated to stay involved because they have responsibilities and their involvement matters.

4 Comments

Filed under Mormonism

What is money? What is avarice?

I am Covetousness, begotten of an old churl in a leather bag; and might I now obtain my wish, this house, you and all, should turn to gold that I might lock you safe into my chest. O my sweet gold!

— Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

Money is absolute potential. Money as such has no actual characteristics at all. Gold is heavy and yellow and malleable, but none of those properties belongs to money qua money, which can just as easily take the form of banknotes or cowrie shells or computerized data. Money is spiritual; the material form it happens to assume is of no consequence.

Money’s only property is the fact that it can be exchanged for something else. It is not even a possession, properly speaking, but a mere potential to possess things. The moment you actualize that potential, you no longer have money.

There is therefore a sense in which money is the opposite of God — which latter Aquinas defined as pure actuality with no potential characteristics. (This may seem a counterintuitive way of describing the Being traditionally called “omni-potent,” but it must be remembered that Aquinas’s God exists outside of time and cannot change. There is nothing he can do because it is all done already from eternity. To quote another Faust, “In the beginning was the act.”) This suggests another way of looking at certain biblical passages which make money the antithesis of God: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” — and “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

The love of God is the root of all good. But the root of all evil is declared to be — not the love of Satan or sin or the pleasures of the flesh, nor even the love of nothing at all — but specifically the love of money.

*

Avarice, one of the seven deadly sins, is the love of money. It is the love of money as such, as an end in itself. Note how Marlowe’s personification of avarice wants only to lock the gold safe in a chest, not to buy anything with it. He who wants money as a means to status or comfort or pleasure does not love money; he loves status or comfort or pleasure. Money is pure means — literally nothing but a means — but avarice makes it an end. The ambition of avarice is to possess the one thing in this world which by its very nature cannot be a possession. Avarice seems pedestrian enough, a shabby downmarket sin almost beneath our notice, almost unworthy of fellowship with such grand wickednesses as wrath and pride and lust — but it is something deep, spiritual, metaphysical. It is the root of all evil.

*

Those who despise money — or think they do — think avarice has no hold on them. They forget that money is something metaphysical, that the material form it assumes is of no consequence. Avarice is the love of potential as potential, and the desire that it remain potential and not actual. The familiar trappings — banknotes and dollar-signs and all that — are neither here nor there.

The love of “free time” — as such, distinct from the desire to do anything particular with that time — is avarice. And it is even less sane than the more familiar monetary version, since it is at least possible to hoard money, whereas time must inevitably be spent one way or another. There is no chest in which to lock it up safe, no possible way to keep it always potential and never actual. But the impossibility of fulfillment does not change the nature of the desire. The deadly sins are not actions but dispositions — vices — and they retain the same character even in cases where the action they characteristically inspire is impossible. It’s impossible to murder Emmanuel Goldstein, but anger is still anger; it’s impossible to commit adultery with pixels on a screen, but lust is still lust.

Looking back after the conclusion of a much-anticipated stretch of “free time,” the time-miser is inevitably disappointed. He has been forced to spend what he had hoped to hoard, and whatever purchase he may have made, it is unsatisfactory simply by virtue of having been a purchase. If he spent his time on pointless time-killing amusements, he thinks, “All that free time, and I just wasted it!” If, on the other hand, he spent it on something productive, he thinks, “I didn’t end up having any free time at all.”

One of Dante’s interesting ideas is that the devils in hell can know nothing of the past or present but see only the future — only what is potential rather than actual — with the consequence that when time comes to an end, their consciousness will be entirely extinguished. “It is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain” (Hel. 13:38).

*

Dare we generalize from these examples and conclude that the love of freedom is the root of all evil? Can such an idea even be processed in this freedom-worshiping age? It is bound to be misinterpreted as meaning that slavery or compulsion or mechanicality is good, which could not be further from the truth. What is good is agency — to act, and not to be acted upon — which is obviously the opposite of compulsion, but (less obviously) in some sense also the opposite of freedom. Agency is willed action, but freedom is the mere potential for action — and action is destructive of potential. As soon as you take a particular course of action, you are no longer free to have done otherwise. The lover of freedom (as opposed to the lover of agency) wants nothing more than to “keep his options open,” to avoid doing or committing to or becoming any particular thing, for fear of losing the potential to do otherwise. This is the spirit of avarice.

5 Comments

Filed under Philosophy

The insoluble problem of population

The world population is currently more than two and a half times what it was when my parents were born. It can’t keep on growing forever.

*

One point of view is that as the population continues to grow, technology will grow apace — so that, no matter how high the figures climb, human ingenuity will always find a way to make sure there is enough food, water, oxygen, and living space to go around.

Obviously that can’t be true. Maybe the earth can be made to support a very large number of people — trillions, say — but it can’t support an arbitrarily large number. There must be a limit somewhere. Sooner or later, if the population continues to grow, we will reach that limit.

And long before we reach the point where it is physically impossible for the earth to support us, we will reach the point — many countries have reached it already — where population density begins to have a negative effect on the quality of life. No one wants to live on a planet — or in a country — which is filled to capacity, where there is no extra space, no countryside, no wilderness, not even any backyards or roomy living rooms. Living in Taiwan (with 19 times the population density of the U.S.), I’ve had a little foretaste of that, and it isn’t very nice.

Nor is space colonization a viable solution. Even assuming it were technically feasible, uprooting a few billion people every generation or two and shipping them off to other planets isn’t going to do much for our quality of life either.

*

Another “optimistic” point of view is that the problem will solve — is solving — itself, as more and more peoples voluntarily choose sub-replacement fertility. In most of the developed world, population growth rates are low or even negative, and what growth there is comes more from immigration than from the reproduction of the indigenous population. And the developing world is, as the euphemism implies, assumed to be developing. That is, given time, it will become “developed” and stop reproducing.

But such a situation is evolutionarily unstable and cannot possibly be permanent. So long as there is variation in fertility rates, and so long as that variation is correlated with heritable (genetic) or quasi-heritable (religious) features, those who reproduce at above-replacement levels will multiply at the expense of those who do not, and overall rates of population growth will go back up.

*

Since voluntary population control cannot by its nature be a long-term solution, that leaves Chinese-style coercive population control — which is obviously morally unacceptable. To be effective, it would have to be applied to the entire world, and it would have to be strictly enforced — meaning, in practice, forced abortion or infanticide. Without strict, universal enforcement, it would be no more stable than voluntary control. Some people would inevitably go on reproducing, regardless of social pressure or sanctions, and whatever it was that made them do so, they would be likely to pass it on to the next generation — leading in the long term to rising fertility.

*

So there’s no solution at all.

3 Comments

Filed under Politics, Science