The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
At the end of 2013, the Centers for Disease Control released the final data for births in 2012. For the second year in a row, the American fertility rate has fallen to a record low—63.0 births per 1,000 women (ages 15-44), a drop of almost 50 percent since 1960. Forty percent of babies were born to unmarried women.
In light of these depressing statistics, The Family in America would like to republish Bryce Christensen’s piece from the July 2006 issue, which outlines what happens to the children of conservatives when liberal philosophies regarding children and fertility prevail.
It has been almost a century and a half since Charles Darwin first taught the world that all species—including human beings—are locked in an unrelenting, competitive struggle for reproductive success. Often translated into the grim phrase “the survival of the fittest,” the outcome of this evolutionary contest depends finally on the transmission of genes that carry each species’ biochemical blueprints. In this Darwinian paradigm, genes that succeed in getting themselves reproduced triumph over those that do not. For doctrinaire Darwinian theorists, therefore, all human activities—from the discovery of new principles of astrophysics to the composing of orchestral symphonies—are ultimately no more than alternate strategies for securing some advantage in the propagation of genes. Biologist Richard Dawkins states the orthodox scientific view with provocative bluntness: “[Genes] are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale of our existence. . . . [W]e are their survival machines.” And neo-Darwinian philosopher John Gray asserts the centrality of the fight for genetic success with similar brusqueness: “The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.”
It is hardly surprising that the Victorian intellectuals who first confronted the unsettling doctrines of Darwinism recoiled from the spectacle of “Nature, red with tooth and claw” and lamented that “Nature lends such evil dreams.” However, for most 21st-century Americans the whole notion of life as a ruthless struggle for reproductive success seems irrelevant, perhaps even absurd. Even some neo-Darwinians admit that a phrase such as “the survival of the fittest” simply does not reflect modern social realities. “Entire human societies,” remarks molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, “have already stopped playing by Darwinian rules as a result of a confluence of cultural changes caused by modern technological civilization. . . . [I]n liberal democracies, an ethic of a universal right to life and liberty prevents people with one kind of gene from curbing the reproductive output of those with an alternative kind of gene.”
However, even if very few Americans still view life as simply a fight for reproductive success or see themselves as simply survival machines designed to protect and propagate genes, a great many are beginning to recognize that changes in American fertility patterns are very much implicated in a fight that is cultural and political, not merely biological. The reality of such cultural and political clashes has indeed been acknowledged by Dawkins, who recognizes that above and beyond the biological competition that determines the fate of competing genes, the workings of human society inevitably involve contests between the competing cultural units that he calls “memes.” Defining a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission” such as an idea, a fashion, or a particular way of performing a task, Dawkins sees a clear parallel between the biological competition between genes and the cultural competition between memes: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain in a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” Following in Dawkins’ tracks, Silver stresses that “part of the ‘life’ cycle of a meme is its moment-to-moment competition with other ideas . . . within a host brain.”
The Conflict of “Memes”
Neo-Darwinian theorists insist that the competition between memes differs from the competition between genes and occurs on a different plane. As one theorist explains, “[memes] have their own fitness as replicators, independent of any contribution they may or may not make to the genetic fitness of their hosts, the human vectors.” Gray laments that “memes are not genes [and therefore] [t]here is no mechanism of natural selection in the history of ideas.” Gray judges it naïve to suppose that in memetic evolution “competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth.” “Certainly ideas compete with one another,” Gray cynically remarks, “but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side.” But despite the clear distinction between the competition between genes and the competition between memes, neo-Darwinian Daniel C. Dennett detects “strong interactions between genetic and memetic evolution” and believes it imperative “to look at the cui bono? question” in such interactions. Who does benefit from transmission of a particular meme? To what degree does a meme-related benefit confer or deny a biological benefit in propagating genes?
Such questions have become more and more pressing in recent decades in a country swept by liberal ideological memes that have disrupted family life and depressed fertility. These liberal memes include those promulgated by New Leftists, Sexual Liberationists, Malthusians, Feminists, Environmentalists, Marxists, Homosexual Activists, and Secularists. Those who care most about these ideological memes are beginning to realize that they can hardly rely on their own genetic offspring to promulgate these memes in the decades ahead. There are simply too few of them. After all, the demographic event that some commentators have called “the Birth Dearth” has been—unsurprisingly—most pronounced among those Americans committed to spreading liberal memes subversive of traditional family life.