Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/January 1911/Is the Diminishing Birth Rate Volitional?

1579495Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 January 1911 — Is the Diminishing Birth Rate Volitional?1911Charles Franklin Emerick




IT is quite generally agreed that the conditions of modern life make for a lower birth rate. But whether they make for voluntary or involuntary sterility, there is much diversity of opinion. Economists quite generally incline to the first of these views while many biologists incline to the second. Now it must be admitted at the outset that there are no statistics by which the merits of this controversy can be definitely settled. We are left, therefore, to ascertain where the probable truth lies in the light of certain considerations of a more or less general character.


The biologist maintains that the human organism requires a certain amount of food, clothing and shelter for the normal development of the body and to repair the wear and tear to which the varied activities of life subject it. He maintains, furthermore, that the stress of modern life is such that after other demands have been met there is often insufficient energy left for reproduction. In other words, in a fiercely competitive world the reproductive organs are undernourished until they are incapacitated to perform their special function. In accordance with the conservation of energy mental activity is said to withdraw the blood from other parts of the body with the result that the tissue of the brain is built up at the expense of other organs. The stress to which present-day conditions subject the eye is illustrative. Primitive man uses the sense of sight but sparingly, while civilized man uses it wellnigh incessantly, much of the time by lamplight, either at study, in the factory or office, or at newspaper reading on steam car or trolley until it is overtaxed. The burden thus imposed, so the biologist asserts, makes such a demand upon the fund of human energy as to interfere with the birth rate. Whether one sex is more frequently the victim of the sterilizing process than the other, there is, so far as I am aware, no consensus of opinion.

The biologist sometimes varies the preceding statement of his position by emphasizing the difficult nature of the task imposed upon the reproductive organs. So complicated is the work assigned them that it can only be successfully performed when the involuntary regulatory system is in a highly efficient condition. This regulatory system, we are told in turn, is so delicately balanced that its efficiency is frequently paired by the furious rate of our business and social life. According to this view, the diminishing birth rate is not due to the under-nutrition of the reproductive organs, but rather to a breakdown in the machinery which normally controls their functioning.

In further support of his position, the biologist rests his case upon an inference. Observing that the higher animals are less prolific than the lower, he concludes that fecundity among the more advanced types of the human race is necessarily smaller than among the less advanced. Or taking his clue from the fact that wild animals when made captive become less fertile, he asserts that the industrial and social changes of the last fifty years have had a similar effect upon the human race.

Finally, the explanation of the biologist is occasionally supplemented by that of the medical expert who emphasizes the amount of involuntary sterility induced by sexual diseases. Modern transportation and the growing density of population, together with the increase of wealth and leisure, are said to spread the taint of sexual disorders by making possible more promiscuous relations between the sexes. The immoral relations which wages insufficient for self-support or for an attractive manner of dress tempt some young women to sustain are now and then mentioned as a contributory factor.


While conceding a certain force to the position of the biologist and the medical expert, the economist insists that it offers a far from satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon in question. Doubtless sexual diseases account for a good deal of involuntary sterility. Some authorities hold venereal diseases responsible for fully twenty-five per cent. "of the inability to procreate in man," and for more than fifty per cent, "of enforced sterility in woman, to say nothing of the one-child sterility where the conceptional capacity is absolutely extinguished with the birth of the first child." This leaves us quite in the dark, however, concerning the proportion which sterility that is involuntary is of the sum total of all kinds. More important still, there is little evidence that incapacity due to sexual diseases has become more common. The fact that existing conditions afford greater opportunity for the spread of such diseases no more proves that this has actually occurred than the increase of positions of trust proves the increase of theft. For the achievements of modern civilization are scarcely reconcilable with either the increase of dishonesty or with growing laxity in the sexual relations. Nor do the temptations incident to low wages prove that an increasing proportion of women lead lives that are impure. Certain it is that economic independence was never so consistent with chastity among women as to-day. Moreover, it is not clear that venereal diseases are most common in that portion of the population where the birth rate is lowest. The social evil in its refined as well as in its vulgar forms is nothing new.

The economist further objects to the inference which the biologist makes from the difference in fecundity between the higher and the lower animals, or from the fact that wild animals become less fertile in captivity. The argument from analogy can easily be pushed too far. According to Malthus, the power of reproduction is less among barbarous than among civilized races.[1]

The economist also takes exception to the main contention of the biologist. Without presuming to take issue with the biologist in his own field, one may at least ask whether the decline of the birth rate has not been too sudden and marked to account for mainly in terms of a deficiency in the human organism to meet the demands made upon it. In the evolution of the race it is probable that nothing has become more firmly fixed than the power of reproduction because nothing is more necessary to survival. In fact, the persistence of procreative power is one of its noteworthy characteristics. This is so notorious among many kinds of degenerates as to call for the new science of eugenics. Apparently, the ability of the reproductive organs to take care of themselves in any competitive contest with other demands upon the human system is to be presumed. Hence, the theory that the rapid pace of life has lessened the power of fecundity to anything like the extent that the birth rate has fallen seems improbable.

Certain additional facts lend color to this position. If stress in excess of the ability of the body to appropriate nourishment impoverishes the reproductive organs, why is fecundity among the insufficiently nourished, clad and housed so great? In place of a low birth rate among the poor, quite the reverse is true. Adam Smith's oft-quoted remark that a half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children illustrates what is a matter of common observation. On the frontier, also, the strenuous and hard conditions of life have been in no wise inconsistent with large families. Indeed, many writers attribute the diminishing birth rate to over-nutrition rather than to under-nutrition.

Again, why should the activity of the brain rather than the activity of other parts of the body interfere with the normal development and nurture of the generative organs? For what is more conducive to contentment, happiness and health than an alert and active mind. A writer in a recent number of The American Naturalist remarks: "An impotence ascribed to psychical causes may rarely occur, but concerning this factor, we have, obviously, little or no exact evidence."[2] In point of fact, such meager statistics as exist upon the subject indicate that the birth rate among college women who marry is practically the same as among their non-college sisters, cousins and intimate friends. Moreover, if the failure of the involuntary nervous system to work properly is responsible for the diminishing birth rate, why is not the phenomenon localized in place of diffused? Amid the quiet retreats of rural life as well as amid the rush of cities, among skilled mechanics and even among day laborers subjected to comparatively little mental or nervous strain as well as among business men and other brain workers the birth rate has fallen. The phenomenon is far more wide-spread than the explanation offered by the biologist would lead us to expect. The excessive use of the nervous system can neither cause its own undoing, or cause the under-development or atrophy of the generative organs in any considerable portion of the population.

The economist further objects to the explanations of the biologist and of the medical expert on the ground of their complexity. When asked for a bill of particulars, they are at a loss to give any reply that is at once simple and clear. The undernutrition of the reproductive organs plus the failure of the involuntary regulatory machinery to function properly offers a complex rather than a simple explanation. Moreover, the matter is still further complicated by adding the influence of sexual diseases. Besides, the argument from analogy seems a trifle fanciful. An explanation of the difference between the birth rates in France and Germany, in Germany and India, in France and French Canada, or again in the different portions of the population of any given country in terms of the will seems much more simple and clear than in terms of one or all of the several explanations offered as an alternative. The variations in the birth rate due to a scanty or an abundant harvest, or to any of the various forms of adversity and prosperity, are more readily traceable to volitional conduct than to physiological changes.

Finally, the economist objects that the biologist unwarrantedly assumes that the birth rate is determined in a purely mechanical fashion. No provision is made for the action of anything but physical and chemical forces. Elsewhere in human affairs the will guided by intelligence plays an important role. In so vital a matter as the birth rate, is it reasonable to absolve it from a due measure of responsibility? For the biologist rules out even a will that acts in a predetermined manner. A man enjoys a certain freedom in selecting an occupation, in spending his money, in imitating the dress of others, and in selecting his friends, but is the victim of fate as to the size of his family. Hope and fear are thus debarred from influencing the will in one of the most important domains of life. Such a view looks upon man as purely a creature of circumstances, utterly powerless to respond in tiny voluntary way to the forces that buffet him about. The position of the economist seems more in keeping with the general character of human nature. For man is a being with the faculty of rational prevision. No trait of civilized man is more distinctive, or more necessary to every kind of progress. Nor is there any department of life in which the exercise of foresight is more indispensable to well-being than the realm of the birth rate. Hitherto, in the formulation of public policy the attitude of moralists, publicists and statesmen has assumed the position of the economist to be correct. Clearly, he who would prove that the birth rate is in the main determined in a manner different from the results of conduct in general assumes a heavy burden. Professor Marshall says:

In the animal and vegetable world the growth of numbers is governed by the tendency of individuals to propagate their species on the one hand, and on the other hand by the struggle for life which thins out the young before they arrive at maturity. In the human race alone the conflict of these two opposing forces is complicated by other influences. On the one hand regard for the future induces many individuals to control their natural impulses; sometimes with the purpose of worthily discharging their duties as parents; sometimes, as for instance at Rome under the empire, for mean motives. And, on the other hand, society exercises pressure on the individual by religious, moral and legal sanctions, sometimes with the object of quickening, and sometimes with that of retarding, the growth of population.[3]


The economist, however, does not rest his case upon merely discrediting that advanced by others. He is able to adduce evidence of two things, namely, a growing desire to limit the size of the family, and a willingness to take the steps necessary to this end, which go far toward establishing his claim that the will is the influential factor in determining the birth rate. There can be no doubt that a large family in the old sense of the word is no longer desired. The increased outlay necessary to raise a child to the age of self-support, an increase out of all proportion to the increase of incomes, in itself constitutes a good and all-sufficient reason. A much more prolonged and expensive term of training and of apprenticeship has become necessary to enter successfully upon many careers. The expense of producing self-supporting men limits their supply as truly as the expense of producing commodities. Again, the economic reasons which once rendered marriage compulsory for women have lost much of their force. The will of woman has consequently become more influential in determining not only the formation but the admission of new members to the family. The desire for ease and the fear of the birth pangs, the craving for an independent life and the desire to realize other aims inconsistent with marriage and offspring have a greater opportunity than formerly to influence the birth rate. Moreover, the keener competition to which the growth of cities subjects an increasing proportion of mankind in most progressive countries may well make men hesitate about assuming the responsibility of the marriage relation. Doubtless, also, the business uncertainties and hardships to which people in cities are especially subject during trade reversals contributes to the same state of mind. Besides, the growing prevalence of democracy arouses ambitions and aspirations which enter into competition with a numerous progeny.

There is also evidence of a willingness to take the steps which these conditions demand. In the first place, marriage is postponed at the expense of the child-bearing period of woman, a fact of first importance in lessening the birth rate. It is later marriage among women rather than among men that lessens the size of the family. The postponement of marriage signifies a small increase in the proportion of women who never marry, and a large increase in the proportion who marry either at the end of the child-bearing period or when the time of greatest fertility is partially or wholly over. Later marriages among women are partly of choice and partly of necessity. So far as they are due to men, for one reason or another, proposing later, they are a matter of necessity. So far as they are due to women electing some other alternative, they are a matter of choice. In the one case the preferences of men, and in the other case the preferences of women, are decisive. In either case, however, the matter is voluntarily determined.

In the second place, steps are taken to limit the size of the family subsequent to marriage. It is not necessary for the economist to stake his case entirely upon an increase of continence, though there is little doubt that it has increased.

There are vicious measures, not here to be named in detail, which keep down the number of births or increase the number of deaths, mostly prenatal, though the infanticide of earlier times is not extinct. By strength and also by weakness, by virtue and also by vice, is the economic mandate which limits the rate of growth of population carried out.[4]

It is well known that the impediments which occasion involuntary sterility are, to some extent, within the power of medical practitioners to remove. The possibility of the contrary, namely, the "voluntary prevention of conception," is, therefore, an unavoidable inference. That this is more than a possibility appears from the fact that many members of the medical fraternity are approached much more frequently for advice by those who wish to avoid children than by those who wish to have them. This undoubtedly points to the use of "preventives" in numberless instances which escape the notice of physicians. Perhaps the chief difference between the more intelligent and the less intelligent is that the devices employed by the latter are the more crude and harmful. Among the principal causes of the diminishing birth rate mentioned by a man of such extensive medical and statistical experience as Dr. John S. Billings "is the diffusion of information with regard to the subject of generation by means of popular and school treatises on physiology and hygiene, which diffusion began between thirty and forty years ago. Girls of twenty years of age at the present day know much more about anatomy and physiology than did their grandmothers at the same age, and the married women are much better informed as to the means by which the number of children may be limited than were those of thirty years ago.[5]"

In a footnote of an article on "The Declining Birth Rate," Professor John B. Phillips says:

There is certainly developing there (in Germany) the desire to reduce the size of the family. The large number of pamphlets treating of methods of preventing conception which have recently appeared and are offered for sale at the bookstores is an indication of the desire for smaller families. There is no law against the public sale of such literature in Germany. In the window of one large bookstore I counted five such pamphlets conspicuously displayed. The price of most of them was below fifty cents.[6]

Another fact which corroborates the position of the economist merits attention, namely, the birth rate is usually low at the points where we should expect. For example, a low birth rate commonly coheres with a low death rate. This holds not only between the different portions of the population of the same country, but also between the populations of different countries. Where sanitary conditions are good and the knowledge of preventive medicine most widely diffused, where the spirit of caution is most prevalent and the numberless little attentions that economize life are most unstintedly bestowed, both the birth rate and the death rate are low. On the other hand, where the reverse of these conditions obtain, both the birth rate and the death rate are high. Apparently, the same forethought safeguards both. Again, so long as the American people were mainly a nation of frontiersmen, the birth rate was high. For on the frontier the man without a wife was at an economic disadvantage and children much more than repaid for their bringing up by the time they became of age. "Under these circumstances early marriages and large families were both dictated by prudence. But with the passing of the frontier and the massing of men in cities where a wife and children are often a handicap, and where the opportunities for employment open to the unmarried woman are especially attractive, the postponement of marriage and the small family become increasingly common. Under existing conditions, the highly emotional who lack self control and who are frequently without property or devoid of ambition usually marry young and have numerous children, while those in whom the deliberative faculty is conspicuous and who are people of substance or are highly ambitious commonly marry late and have few children. In other words, the birth rate is usually low among those in whom prudence is highly developed, and imprudence in the matter of marriage and offspring is frequently but a symptom of imprudence in other directions.

President Hadley says:

It is true that as society exists at present, high comfort and low birth rate are commonly associated, because comfort is made to depend upon prudence. Let the comfort be made independent of prudence, as in the case of the pauper or criminal, and the birth rate tends to increase rather than diminish. It may not be exactly true, as some Malthusians would have us believe, that the low birth rate is the cause of the comfort, but it is much farther from the truth to assert that the comfort is the cause of the low birth rate. Both are the results of a common cause—the exercise of prudence, which gives high comfort and low birth rate to those who are capable of practising it, while those who are incapable of so doing have at once a higher birth rate and a lower level of comfort.[7]


We recur, then, to the question propounded at the beginning, namely, is the diminishing birth rate for the most part voluntary or is it involuntary? The contention that the increasing stress of life causes sterility by impoverishing the reproductive organs, or by disturbing the involuntary regulatory system, while plausible, is open to doubt in so many respects that it is not entitled to great weight. As an explanation it is clearly inadequate. It does not account for the widespread character of the fall in the birth rate, nor does it make due allowance for the various considerations that postpone marriage and render a small family, or no family at all, desirable. Moreover, the argument from analogy is so speculative that not much need be conceded on that score. Unfortunately, the sterility due to sexual diseases can not be so easily dismissed. Even some sociologists are disposed to attribute no small part of the decreasing birth rate among the negroes to this cause, on the ground that "emancipation removed the strong economic motive of the master class to keep their slaves in good physical condition." This explanation, however, does not apply to whites. No one of course who pretends to be informed denies that venereal diseases are a fruitful cause of sterility. But when we are asked to believe that they have spread enough to account for the fall in the birth rate, we may well ask for the facts in the case. Such a supposition runs counter to progress in so many directions and to what seems to be a marked increase in the moral sensitiveness of the race. The opinion sometimes expressed that a majority of men contract venereal diseases prior to marriage may be an unwarranted generalization. The error of arguing the increase of these diseases from their known prevalence in the present is also a pitfall into which it is easy to fall. Professor Willcox well says:

It is so easy and so fallacious to argue the increase of any phenomena from the increase in the known instances. I am still unconvinced that there is any increase of insanity in the United States and my attitude is much the same regarding the diseases affecting the birth rate. At the same time I admit that the balance of expert testimony is strongly in favor of both these positions.

A final objection to the explanations offered by the biologist and the medical expert is that incapacity is to some extent a by-product of certain kinds of "preventives" that sterilize the reproductive organs. This explains why some newly wedded couples who make it a point to avoid children subsequently find that they can not have them. Of the incapacity originating outside of wedlock, also, some is undoubtedly traceable to this cause. An increase of involuntary sterility, therefore, may be merely a symptom of the increase of the voluntary variety.

The explanation of the economist, on the other hand, has the advantage of simplicity and clearness. To most minds, also, it seems less speculative than do its rivals. Besides, it comes nearer explaining the more obvious and important facts. It squares with the fact that the fall in the birth rate is not confined to any one class, and with the tendency of social phenomena, especially in a democracy, to spread throughout the rank and file of society. Moreover, a point of view that takes the will into account and does not reduce man to a mere automaton is more in harmony with the commonly accepted method of explaining social phenomena in general. The sensitiveness of the birth rate to social and economic changes is admitted by both parties to the controversy. But here the agreement ends. On the one hand, the blind response of the human organism to the environment is maintained. On the other hand, the rational response of intelligence is asserted. One emphasizes the resemblance between man and the vegetable and the animal kingdoms. The other differentiates man from other animate beings. The latter has the decided merit of recognizing what is distinctive in human nature.

Finally, the position of the economist is in keeping with certain patent and well recognized truths. One is that men act with a sense of responsibility in contracting the family relation. The general acceptance of the view that children are invited and not sent undoubtedly makes powerfully for self-restraint and social decency. The general acceptance of the contrary view would undoubtedly increase the birth rate. A second truth, and one consistent with the foregoing, is that the birth rate is well inside the physiological limit. Moreover, it is farther inside than formerly. The evidence is conclusive. First, in most countries all births, save only a small residue, occur within wedlock. Second, women marry later than formerly. This is a fact of tremendous import. The much smaller proportion of women married in the age classes 15 to 20 and 20 to 25 in England than in India largely accounts for the difference between the birth rates in the two countries. Third, in one way and another the birth rate is to an increasing extent consciously controlled in every progressive country. Fourth, early marriages and large families have become less consistent with prudence. The expense necessary to rear children to the age of self-support has become more burdensome. Besides, the rise of other ambitions in life render both sexes more cautious about assuming the marriage relation. No theory that leaves prudential considerations out of the account can possibly explain the manner in which the social and economic changes of recent years have influenced the birth rate. Our conclusion, therefore, is that the diminishing birth rate is primarily volitional, and that the various factors which make for involuntary sterility are of minor importance.[8]

It is of interest to note that so well known a biologist as Professor H. W. Conn, of Wesleyan University, subscribes to this conclusion. He writes as follows:

. . . I am very glad to give my opinion on this matter, recognizing that one man's opinion on this subject is of no special value except as one vote. My own opinion is that the primary reason for the diminishing birth rate is the voluntary one. The increasing demand for luxury raises the marriage age, and the same desire, together with others kindred to it, lead to the intentional and voluntary limiting the size of families. My own belief, judging from such knowledge as would come to a single individual, is that this is the greatest factor in the diminishing size of families. Indeed, I should rather be inclined to believe that if this factor could be removed we should find the race practically as fertile as in previous generations.

  1. Marshall, "Principles of Economics," fifth edition. Vol. I., p. 184.
  2. Dr. Max Morse, "Sterility," Vol. XLIV., October, 1910, p. 624.
  3. Marshall, op. cit., p. 173.
  4. Clark, "Essentials of Economic Theory," p. 334.
  5. Forum, Vol. 15, 1893, p. 475.
  6. University of Colorado Studies, March, 1910, p. 161.
  7. "Economics," p. 48.
  8. The frequency with which economists discuss the subject of population as compared with biologists deserves a passing notice. Ever since the essay of Malthus there have been few treatises upon economics without a chapter upon the subject. Certainly, any text-book which failed to consider the matter to-day would be regarded as incomplete. A century of criticism has established a fairly consistent and satisfactory body of opinion. Moreover, the periodical literature devoted to economics has in recent years been enriched by numerous articles upon the diminishing birth rate. The American Economic and Sociological Associations have now and then discussed the subject at their annual meetings. On the other hand, there is a scarcity of literature from the biological standpoint, I do not know of any place in print where a biologist has attempted to advance a definite and complete theory of population, and in arriving at the biological explanation of the diminishing birth rate I have been dependent upon stray hints found here and there and especially upon information gained by conversation with two of my colleagues, one a zoologist and the other a botanist. There is no body of doctrine upon population to which biologists subscribe at all comparable to that among economists. In other words, the weight of well-defined opinion supports the view that the decline of the birth rate is volitional.