“Bearing children has largely become the province of the lower classes”

The Daily Mail runs an article today about why the middle class are not breeding any more. It is not difficult to get a faint whiff of eugenics. But I can’t help feeling that some level of eugenics is not necessarily all bad as we move from natural selection to a world where artificial selection (IVF, surrogacy, sperm banks etc.) is increasing. And of course, even the availability of abortion on demand is in itself a form of selection.

  • Educated women deferring motherhood for so long they’re no longer fertile
  • Bearing children ‘has largely become the province of the lower classes’ 
  • TV historian Dr Lucy Worsley is poster girl for intentionally childless women

…. as author and demographic expert Jonathan Last observes in his controversial book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting:

‘The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes. It’s a kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.’

If “lower class” were a genetic trait then the middle and higher classes should fear extinction in due course. Fortunately “class” is just relative and subjective so no matter what the demographics are, distinctions of class will be introduced into any population that exists. But what is more interesting to consider is the fact that women with a higher level of education (which says nothing about native intelligence) have fewer children. This seems to be a global phenomenon. Data from 2010 in the extract below.

The full table is here. Primary School Enrollment and Total Fertility Rates, Latest Year (2000-2010)

Primary School Enrollment and Total Fertility Rates for Selected Countries, Latest Year 2000 – 2010

Rank Country

Primary School Enrollment

Total Fertility Rate


Number of children
per woman

1 Japan



2 Spain



3 Iran



4 Georgia



5 United Kingdom



181 Equitorial Guinea



182 Guinea-Bissau



183 Djibouti



184 Sudan



185 Eritrea



Note: Rankings are based on a list of 185 countries for which primary enrollment data are available.
Source: EPI from UNESCO

Fertility rates tend to be highest in the world’s least developed countries. When mortality rates decline quickly but fertility rates fail to follow, countries can find it harder to reduce poverty. Poverty, in turn, increases the likelihood of having many children, trapping families and countries in a vicious cycle. Conversely, countries that quickly slow population growth can receive a “demographic bonus”: the economic and social rewards that come from a smaller number of young dependents relative to the number of working adults.

For longer term population stability the goal is to reach replacement-level fertility, which is close to 2 children per woman in places where mortality rates are low. Industrial countries as a group have moved below this level. Some developing countries have made progress in reducing fertility, but fertility rates in the least developed countries as a group remain above 4 children per woman.

The trends with secondary education are also very clear:
Female Secondary Education and Total Fertility Rates

Of course the level of development in a country dominates and fertility rates around the world are reducing and converging. Whether this trend will continue even when all female children enjoy secondary education remains to be seen. The UK case where nearly all children do get secondary education would suggest that those with higher (university) education continue to show a declining fertility. But the real test of this hypothesis will only come when education levels around the world have equalised and fertility rates all lie around the same level.

So is the human population “dumbing down”? Not really. Education level is not intelligence. To what extent intelligence is a hereditary trait is uncertain. While it would seem that evolution should favour increasing intelligence, even this is not crystal clear. It is certainly a perception I have that “successful” people tend to be more intelligent but high intelligence does not ensure success. And success in life correlates with wealth but not so well with number of offspring.  “Success”, however we define it,  is not a genetic trait. There have been some suggestions that there may be some optimum level of intelligence for the genetic success of the species and that hunter-gatherers were actually somewhat more intelligent than we are now. Perhaps humans can be “too clever by half”!

But for some time to come, as the developing world catches up with the developed world, we can surely conclude that less-educated parents will have the higher fertility. Whatever that may mean for the long term evolution of humans, and that will be the result of the level to which we intentionally apply genetic selection.

Related: “Selection” lies in the begetting and evolution is just a result

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