Ross Douthat generated quite a lot of chatter with his column this past week on America’s declining birthrates. Particularly controversial was this passage:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
What’s particularly curious is that the second paragraph of Mr. Douthat’s column begins:
It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility.
On the face of it, this appears nonsensical. “Modern” means “of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote“. As such, there can be no “universal laws” about modernity. All we can say is that in modern times fertility decreases, but “modern” is itself a relative term. What is “modern” today will be ancient some time from now, and if the birthrate goes up at some time in the future, the law will reverse itself.
There is a kind of logic to it though, if you buy into Spenglerian theories of civilizational life-cycles. In this view, all civilizations are born, grow and die. If “modernity” is taken to mean “the end of the cycle”, then this makes some sense. I think that is the only way it does, in fact.
When an NYT columnist echoes an ultraconservative German nationalist, it naturally causes a stir. Really though, Douthat’s article is thoroughly in agreement with biological determinism–whatever group of people produces the most offspring will “win” in the eyes of biological determinists, and the quality of the upbringing is only a secondary concern. (I am not saying Douthat actually believes this. I am just saying what he wrote in that column agrees with it.)
It’s the old “nature vs. nurture” debate that lies at the core here, and that debate is so old–I’ve said my bit on it here–I think it’s safe to conclude that it is insoluble. Probably it will turn out that Ray Kurzweil is right, and it is all a moot point anyway.