A year ago I wrote a column on population growth. In it, I made two major points. The first was that the low ratio of births to existing population would inevitably lead to populations of increasing average age. This was already causing economic and psychological difficulties – and would do so increasingly in the future. That is not second sight but simple mathematics. Indeed, the Jesuit sociologist Fr Stanislas de Lestapis demonstrated in the early 1960s that this would happen to Japan as a result of contraceptive programmes influenced by America after the War. And so indeed it has.
At a seminar held last autumn by the Research Council of Norway it was noted that almost all countries except Africa would soon have more old people than children. And the question was raised about the effect on the lifestyle of working couples who may have four elderly parents to support on their own. And there are several related problems which I indicated in my previous column.
My second point was that once this bulge had worked its way through the population, peaking at around nine billion in 2050, it would gradually decrease – bringing deflation and numerous other economic troubles, unless people could be persuaded to have substantially larger families. And in modern economies it is much easier to persuade people to have smaller families than the other way about. In fact, they scarcely need persuading.
I return to the subject because, as we reported in a recent issue, Sir David Attenborough was specifically critical of the Catholic Church for its prohibition of artificial contraception, and the effect of this on population growth. Now, Sir David is a wonderful communicator with no less than seven sets of initials gilding his name. His views carry authority. It is a pity that, in a matter of such importance, he is talking through his hat. Apart from the facts I have summarised above I imagine that the Pope, looking at the scant birth rate of several reputedly Catholic countries, would say: “I wish.”
This week I want to look at a closely connected, and extremely threatening issue. This was discussed in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on March 15 this year. Over the next 20 years there will be a 10 per cent to 20 per cent excess of young men over women in China, India and South Korea. This is a result of a wish to have sons, facilitated by sex-selection abortions.
The natural differential between male and female births is 105 to 100, which compensates for the marginal extra mortality in males. In South Korea and several provinces in China the ratio can be as high as 130 per cent. A 2005 estimate showed that males under 20 in China exceeded the number of females by 32 million. A similar imbalance is found in the northern states of India.
A large factor appears to be the shape of the family. Where the first or second child is female there is a strong tendency to select for male in a subsequent child. While some governments have been relatively successful in campaigning for an equal balance of sexes, the incipient improvements will not filter through to the adult population for another two decades.
Why is this so threatening? We are talking here of countries of immense size which are quickly becoming the major economic powers of the future. What happens there will reverberate with increasing force over here.
We may speculate about the effect of deep changes in culture. The capacity to form partnerships in a society which has a normal balance of the sexes seems to have been optimised by evolution. What happens when the pendulum of power and choice moves strongly over to one sex rather than the other? I do not know the answer to that with any certainty but experience tells us that in this vital area of sexuality a lack of balance has always caused trouble. A relatively small number of females having the pick of a relatively large number of males may seem attractive to those of an extreme feminist bent – but one should be wary of what one wishes for in case it comes true.
The dangers which come from a large proportion of disaffected, un-mated males are clearer. In the absence of a widespread acceptance of polyandry, we can expect multiple reservoirs of seething testosterone. This in itself is a threat to marriage and the family, but it is also a recipe for delinquent behaviour and crime. As the report authors summarise the situation in China curtly, “94 per cent of unmarried people aged 28 to 49 are male, 97 per cent of whom have not completed high school, and there are worries that the inability to marry will result in psychological issues and possibly increased violence and crime”.
We have seen recently swathes of revolutionary activity and, whether we approve of the motivations or not, instability and the spilling of blood is so often the outcome. When the spur to mass disorder is the sheer repressed energy pumping from frustrated young males, rather than the quality of the cause, it becomes random and dangerous.
It is ironic that David Attenborough, who has looked at the life cycles of so many other species, should not have reflected more deeply on his own. Had his perspective been as long as a human lifetime or two he would quickly have spotted the dangers of artificially altering reproductive patterns. I do not say that there is nothing that should be done, but that it should be done with care and forethought. Homo sapiens evolved at a time when a large family was required to ensure population replacement. This is no longer so. Neither society nor the Church has faced up to this issue yet.