Houston, we have a problem. In my column of October 5, in the context of ethical problems for the future, I wrote: “Our long-established habit of deducing moral imperatives from structure will have to survive our acceptance that God created our structures indirectly and dynamically through evolution. Thus, for example, the human fertility rate, developed during quite different conditions, is about four times as high as is required for population replacement in developed countries. How would we lawfully correct this accidental maladaptation?”
In the light of some queries put to me, I will take the opportunity to flesh out the bones. In fact, I set out the whole problem in my Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T & T Clark, 2002). So here I just clarify the main issues.
In discovering the imperatives of the natural law our primary instrument is reason. Thus, for example, the observation that man’s nature is social implies that we must keep promises for, without that, social life could not flourish. But we have another way of detecting God’s will. We can analyse human, biological structures, and from our rational analysis discover how God intended them to be used. This is paralleled by the archaeologist working out from the structure of a recovered artefact how its maker intended it to be used. The difference is that the archaeologist owes no duty to the maker of the artefact, whereas we owe obedience to the maker of biological structures.
The principle dates back to Aristotle’s teaching that we flourish only by acting through our nature and it was influenced by the Stoics’ confidence in the rationality of the universe. Aquinas was ready to declare that interference with the “right” sexual structure was more wicked than incest or adultery, since “the injury is done to God, the author of nature”.
But this absolute imperative does depend on the concept that God’s creation of structure is immediate and direct. And this is challenged by evolution – the method many would claim God used for biological creation. The mode of such creation is essentially dynamic. In humans it operates as an interplay between the inherited survival of the fittest and the ingenuity of the human brain. Thus the Inuit developed into the stocky form required to conserve heat (evolved inheritance) but did not forget to design a fur coat (human ingenuity). This thinking suggests that it is not enough to draw moral judgments from how structures are; they must also respect the way that structures, under God’s will, came to be.
There are precedents for new knowledge leading to a modification of long-term moral positions. Kidney donations inter vivos are no longer regarded as intrinsically evil; they even have papal approval. And the long tradition, held at least since St Augustine, which taught that sexual intercourse was only justified for the sake of conception or for rendering the debt was abandoned in 1930. Whether such precedents are sufficient to suggest that a revision to a major way in which we identify the intrinsic evil of an act is another question. But they remind us that all bets based on mistaken concepts are off.
The problem issue lies in the fact that human fertility evolved at a time when seven to eight births were required to ensure that about two survivors lived to produce children in their turn. This is the number needed to replace population. Given the harsh conditions and low life expectancy of the hunter gatherer, the female was required to have a succession of pregnancies, punctuated by lactation, throughout her reproductive life. We see the evidence for this fertility in the frequency of ovulation, the abiding interest of the male and the potential concealment of ovulation through which a mate may be tempted into unwanted fatherhood. The chimpanzee and the gorilla have developed similar biological characteristics in sexual structure, modified to meet the reproductive needs of their own species.
If we go back no further than reliable records we find that the number of births per woman of childbearing age in America was between seven and eight in the 1820s. The number then began to decrease as artificial methods of preventing live births began to spread. Today, their fertility rate is around 2.1 births per woman: the rate needed for population replacement.
So we have a dilemma. We have evolved a level of fertility which provides around four times the number of children than is required to reproduce the population. Were this to be fully exercised we would quadruple the population, and then continue to quadruple it, generation by generation, into the future. I am aware of how many pessimistic Malthusian scenarios have been flouted by human ingenuity, but this is of an altogether different scale.
But it won’t happen. As we have seen, human ingenuity ensures that every society which raises its standard of living also learns eventually how to reduce its birth rate by fair means or foul. But what will be the Catholic contribution? Our discernment of God’s will through “directly” created structures prevents us from exhorting worldwide control of fertility through any means other than abstinence, long-term or periodic.
Perhaps a cynical world will see this as an irrelevant solution. And, sadly, it may write off all that we have to offer in our understanding of the gift of faithful married love and the gift of children. So how else might we lawfully correct this accidental maladaptation? Or must we just walk by on the other side?