January 3, 1992

Life, Death and Morality

Men, like other animals, naturally multiply in proportion to the means of their subsistence.

Adam Smith, 1776

It seems self evident that nature doesn't hold an individual life in much esteem. So it must be an article of faith that life is sacred. I have never been quite sure what "life is sacred means." Does it mean that one should never injure life? Does it negate the talion principle: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; or a life for a life. In India, a Hindu would not kill an ant or a cow; but a wife would be burned on her husband's funeral pyre. Certain religious sects are opposed to abortion, but favor capital punishment and approve of killing in war; while others don't. There are as many variations as there are sects.

Even with regard to animals, attitudes can changed. When I grew up, if you found a wounded or sick animal, you would do the right thing by shooting it to put it out of its misery. Now many animals are doctored and then returned to the wild or a zoo. Except for very endangered species, the effect of all of this good work on animal populations is zilch. It doesn't affect the populations at all; although it is a way of life for the people who do it and it gives them much personal satisfaction. I like people who get their jollies out of helping things and people.

If you want to know what life is all about, just look around at the way that things are. One thing that is certain is that many many more eggs and sperm are always produced than can ever be used, and more offspring are produced than can survive to maturity.

In modern nations, the majority of the babies born survive to an age that is considerably past their reproductive life. This has never happened before. In much of Africa today, infant survival is less than 50%. Except in cities, there are few reliable statistics, since no one records births and deaths any more than they record the birth and death of wild animals.

If a woman has a child every year through her reproductive life, she will have about 30 children. If they all survive and half are female, the next generation would have 450 people. The 3rd generation would have 6,750 people and by 12 generations after that first woman, there would be 259 trillion people. Another generation or two and ......this is getting silly. Obviously it is impossible.

Theoretically, if a sect wished to dominate the world, all that it would have to do is insist that all of its adherents reproduce as much as possible. But this can't work. It can't work because of the limited food supply. The probability of a large group surviving a famine is less than for one with a small number of people. In other words, there is an optimum population size for whatever the living conditions happen to be.

Despite the injunctions of some clergy, populations obey a higher law. Most people will have only as many children as they feel that they can care for --give or take a few.

In a farm community, 100 years ago, every child was considered another pair of hands to help out. In the cities, every additional child after the first few, is considered another mouth to feed. The result is that, as societies industrialize, the number of children per family decrease. This is affected by belief systems; but even rigid belief systems change depending on circumstances. Catholic or Mormon families in this country still tend to have more children than members of other religions, but it is a far cry from the very large families at the first part of this century. As people moved from farms to the cities and from hand to mechanized agriculture, family size decreased.

The regulator of family size is the woman, who usually has to take care of the children. Given the means to prevent conception, she will use it. Not many women are interested in making it into the Guiness Book of Records for fecundity.

Major patrons of back alley abortionists in New York City during the early part of this century were married women who had more kids than they could feed. These were vigorous people who hadn't yet learned that golf, bridge and exercise might be used as a substitute for sex. Television hadn't been invented. Life was mostly very hard work and long hours. They took their pleasure when and if they could. For some, birth control was forbidden; so some people took chances and, as often happens, they lost the bet.

Despite the pundits who make rules for nature to obey, nature and people cannot be molded at whim. Natural laws can be temporarily bent, but never broken.

Next column

Return to the Race, Class, Culture, Religion Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page