Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Population control in history

Population growth is sometimes trumpeted as one of the main reasons why some countries stay poor. Governments have done everything from forced sterilization to a mandated one-child policy and have spent millions of dollars on propaganda campaigns and education on contraception. Interestingly, attempts to control population growth are much older, however. Much of the rest of this post is inspired by Greg Clark's book The Conquest of Nature.

In Europe over the course of several centuries a system known to demographers as the European Marriage Pattern emerged across much of Europe. This is a social and cultural system with the following characteristics:

1) Women marry late -- that is, several years after they reach the age when they are capable of conceiving.
2) Birth control is generally not used; instead, births are limited by the fact that women eventually die from giving birth or reach menopause.
3) There are strong social norms against illegitimate children to limit births outside of marriage.
4) Married couples tend to live apart from their parents or relatives.

In many Asian societies, on the other hand, a very different system existed. Women married relatively early and so also tended to start having children earlier. Also, married couples in many Asian cultures are much more likely to live with the husband's parents or close relatives. This removes the barrier in Europe that the man be productive and well-off enough to pay rent on a house of his own.

So how did countries like India, China and Japan avoid large-scale starvation due to a population explosion (women are biologically capable of giving birth between 12 and 15 times)? The answer is through either female infanticide or by neglecting the health of female children enough to cause them to die in infancy or early childhood.

This can still be seen in India (especially the North), China and Taiwan where sex ratios are skewed towards male children. Statistically, it turns out the more girls a family in these countries has, the higher the probability the next child will be a boy -- a clear sign that female children are aborted or killed in infancy.

What is interesting to me about this is that these marriage practices were not developed by a demographer or social planner trying to limit population growth. Instead, they evolved through social norms and traditions and as different as these two systems are, they both achieve the same result to limit population growth.

Was this purely accidental or were these systems the result of conscious, if decentralized, efforts to limit population growth by changing social norms?

Back to the Top

Back to the Top