Thursday, September 22, 2005

Optimal reproductive strategies

Ampersand has a post up about teenage pregnancy and poor black girls. Most of it is accurate, it reflects what is current thinking in Anthropology (Human Evolutionary Ecology) concerning optimal reproductive strategies. The commentary in the post is a bit too racially specific, these principles apply to the poor in general, or to those living closer to the subsistence level in Third World countries. There were a few items addressed:

1) For teens raised in poor (and statistically more likely to be polluted) areas, with lousy food and lousy medical care, their health will probably peak at around ages 17-19. That makes the teenage years a much better time to give birth than later years. Among poor black girls and women, the infant mortality rate is twice as high among those who wait until their 20s to give birth as it is for those who give birth in their teens.

The health of the girls isn't particularly an issue, or I should say it's not an issue which is determinative here. The infant mortality comment is appropriate but slightly misdirected; infant mortality (in the U.S.) is higher among pregnant teens, but since it's much higher for the poor in general it benefits them to have more children to compensate, rather than necessarily having them at a younger age.

2) For those who will be relying on an extended family of older female relatives to help with childcare and support, it makes sense to give birth when mothers, aunts and older cousins are younger and more able to offer assistance. Furthermore, grandmothers may feel more obligated to offer extensive aid to their 16-year-old pregnant daughter than to their 26-year-old pregnant daughter.

That's mostly on the money, but should be expanded to include the grandmothers of the pregnant teens, who should still be around if we're following a multi-generational pattern of teen pregnancy. Another thing which should be added is that poor people are not going to have retirement funds or big pensions, so having more children earlier in life (and your children doing the same) provides a large family base to care for you when you're old.

3) For middle-class whites, the opportunity costs (aka “what you give up”) of early childbirth are enormous; college and early career-building are made much harder by a baby or two in tow. Furthermore, the odds of eventually getting married and having a healthy child in wedlock are very good for middle-class teens who wait until they’re women to marry and have children.

Right on the mark. This is telling when we see that the demographic most likely to obtain abortions is that of white, middle class teens. What abortion does in this instance is put middle to upper class women back on their optimal reproductive track when there is an accidental pregnancy; they can then have their 1-3 kids in their late 20's or early 30's, after they've been to college and established a career. This does not simply apply to whites, but any people of means regardless of race.

Another point I would make is that all of what I'm saying does not necessarily imply a conscious choice, or specific awareness of circumstances and serious thought as to the best course of action. Like any other animal, humans naturally tend to fall into reproductive patterns which will provide the most benefit, without necessarily devoting any thought to it.

I would also add that humans mature sexually in their teens, and that expecting sexually mature animals to not engage in sexual activities is, well, stupid. As modern humans we have extended the developmental curve for what we would term a successful transition to adulthood through things like higher education and career development, but we've generally failed to address in a meaningful way the fact that our sexual development has remained static. Birth control and abortion are the only means of realistically bridging the gap between sexual maturity (and sexual activity) and deferring childbearing until we're actually successful adults capable of giving them (and ourselves) a decent lifestyle in modern society.

Amanda asks "Can teen pregnancy ever be a rational choice?" I would suggest that for the poor it's the only rational choice, until they can be offered the same opportunities as the rest of society.