Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

February 19, 2019

The rise of the childless class

Filed under: Demography — Razib Khan @ 3:57 am

Due to the recommendation of a reader of this weblog I’ve been listening to the audiobook of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. I am good at reading a text. I am not so good at patiently paying attention to the narration of someone speaking.

But with that said, one passage that stuck out at me is where Keegan talks about the tension between the Christian professional class of secular and religious priests and the military nobility of early medieval Europe. Priests and monks were the Christianized cultural descendants of the Roman elite, which engaged in war, but generally focused on literate self-cultivation so as to signal their acceptability to polite society (this was especially true after the 3rd-century emergence of an Illyrian military elite that took up the martial responsibilities of the Roman nobility). The post-Roman and early medieval ruling class, in contrast, was marginally literate at best, and with exceptions took after German warlords in their practices if not their professed beliefs.

Keegan notes that numerically the religious caste and the military caste were balanced, adding to the tension which was punctuated by events such as Humiliation at Canossa which occurred in 1077 AD. But my interest and thoughts were piqued by the realization that this balance between priestly and military castes is neatly paralleled in many societies. It occurred among ancient Indo-Europeans, and continued down into historical periods among Zoroastrian Iranians, and continues down to the present day in Indian among Hindus. In China, the situation is somewhat different, because the bureaucratic and civilian gentry had traditionally subordinated any military element. The famously civilian Song dynasty was founded by a successful general. But in Japan arguably the large Buddhist establishment coexisted with the samurai class, while in the Islamic world the ulema serves to buttress military caste.

And yet there are differences between these groups. The Western Christian priesthood and the Dharmic religious class exhibit a degree of detachment from normal society due to their celibacy. This is not the case for the religious class of Muslims, who marry and have children, just as Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and most Eastern Orthodox priests, do. Though Hindu priests generally marry, an ancient tradition of celibacy exists in Indian culture and persists within Hinduism, and this was transmitted throughout the world via Buddhism.

The Buddhist tendency to produce large self-supporting and independent institutions which supported celibate monks and nuns was one of the main reasons that the Confucian elite objected to the religion: it undermined family life.

The difference between religious and intellectual elites which have a normal family life and those which don’t remind me of a close friend who is a very productive and prominent (for his age) professor at an elite university. Now that he is settled down with someone, the consideration of children has emerged. If they are able to have children, likely a single child due to age, my friend expects that his life will change in many ways. This will impact his work. In fact, when it seemed likely that he was never to have children I did tell him that in a way it was a benefit to him, as he could pursue high-risk research and allocate his time geared purely toward maximizing human knowledge.

Aristotle married and hand children. Plato does not seem to have done so. I think the difference seems entirely reflected in the character of their philosophies. Christianity and the Dharmic religions have had large numbers of religious-intellectual professionals detached from worries of family life as monks across their history. In contrast, Jewish rabbis, Muslim ulema, and Confucian scholars have all had to concern themselves with family life.  I would say on the whole Christianity and the Dharmic religious have concerned themselves more with abstruse philosophical issues around metaphysics, while the latter religions have focused more on the organization of prosaic life so as to further “the good” as they understand it. Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are fundamentally religions of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

When I say “family life”, I really mean children. Children change you in many ways. For parents, they are the biggest contributions you will make to the human race. Having children can cure many of abstract radicalism and hunger for philosophical speculation.

Of course, not all single people are reading thick scholarly tomes with their marginal time. Most American single people who will never have children are rather stupid, and so focus on consumption, sex, and assorted distracting leisure. They are hedonic machines. But, a minority are devoted to causes. To society. And they have a lot more time than those of us with family obligations.

Over the last generation American society has changed a great deal when it comes to children (or the frequency of):

Delaying marriage is related to delaying childbirth. The median age at first marriage has gone from 20.6 to 27.4 for women and from 23.1 to 29.6 for men since 1967. Age at first birth increased as well. Most babies are born to a married couple, so it is natural to see shifts in the percentage of adults who live with no children in particular age groups.

The largest change in the proportion of adults living without children happened among those aged 18 to 35. In 1967, the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds had children living with them (53.3 percent) but by 2016, less than a third did (31.2 percent).

The changes are even more dramatic among 25- to 34-year-olds. In 1967, 23.9 percent in that age group did not have their own children under their roof. By 2016, the share more than doubled to 61.5 percent.

What are the implications for a much larger number of American adults in their prime years living in households without children?

Societies are complex. I think the existence of a large number of celibate adults as a persistent institution probably resulted in some unique aspects of Western Catholic and Indo-Buddhist cultures. To be frank, I think a sort of strange and peculiar unmooring from reality can occur. The reflexive ridiculousness of Zen or the openness of hyper-rationalism of Thomas Aquinas are both products of this. This isn’t bad. The flourishing of science in Western Europe may have been enabled by the independent and detached institutions of Catholicism.

Today in much of the world we see a different phenomenon from religious institutionalized celibates: the existence of a large number of childless adults outside of a strong institutional framework that channels their energies and leisure. I think a consequence of this may be some peculiar enthusiasms for various radical ideologies.

February 3, 2011

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

Link to review: Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization

February 2, 2011

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

Link to review: The wheel of history turns to the gods.

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

Link to review: The wheel of history turns to the gods.

October 5, 2010

Ancient Rome as a death pit

Filed under: Cities,Demography,History,Urbanization — Razib Khan @ 1:13 pm

One of the assumptions that I’ve made on this weblog repeatedly based on ancient literary references is the idea that before 1900 urban areas were population sinks. In Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America the historian Eric Rauchway asserts that ~1900 in the USA urban health and life expectancy surpassed that of rural areas, arguably a first in the history of the world (the reason for this was a public health revolution prompted by fear of the diseases which Southern and Eastern European immigrants were presumably bringing to American cities). It’s not that difficult to find data on early modern urban areas, which does confirm the lower fertility vis-a-vis rural areas, and often an excess of deaths over births (some scholars have argued that this second is an artifact of the transient nature of urban residency for a large segment of the population). Most of the older research seems based on extrapolation from archaeology and physical anthropology. But I did find one paper from 1913 which looked at inscriptions on tombstones in the Roman Empire to calculate curves of life expectancy at a given time from three locations: Rome, the Iberian provinces, and Roman North Africa. The first was an urban location, and the latter two less urban ones.


Some caveats:

- The author notes than underrepresentation of lower status individuals in marked graves. This is expected. But, one presumes that life expectancy curves calculated from slaves and urban proletarian would probably be very different from what you see below. Days of birth and death listed on a tombstones indicates a level of functional literacy in the class from which the individual is derived (even if the individual was an illiterate, their family and friends are likely to have included literates).

- Some of the ages at death recorded are almost certainly fictitious exaggerations. I don’t think the author expresses proper skepticism of recorded ages in ancient Rome.

- All that being said, the key is to focus on differences between locations. Unless there are systematic biases which vary by location (e.g., more marked graves among lower status individuals in urban Rome) we’re getting a sense of differences of mortality. As a reference the author naturally uses the English of circa 1900.

The charts are in order those of Rome, the two Iberian provinces, and Africa.




What you see on the x-axis are ages of individuals, and on the y-axis the expected years of life at that age. The lower life expectancy for women at all ages in the ancient world except for among the very old is in line with our intuitions. In a pre-modern environment there was no necessary expectation of “women and children first” in times of want, and women had to bear offspring which would be a net drain on their resources. Older women do not bear as many of these costs. At least the one of having to bear offspring. The author explains the higher life expectancy of older individuals in the Rome Empire as being due to a process of selection; the healthiest made it to more advanced ages. This sounds plausible, but I suspect part of it also has to do with inflation of ages for those who make it do an advanced age. Finally, you see the noticeable difference between Rome and the provinces. The author sees this as confirmation of the contemporary literary sources which point to the lack of healthfulness of ancient urban life. He also adds an addendum that after the paper was drafted a correspondent pointed him to another analysis which included a Gallic sample, which confirmed again that provincials seemed to have a higher life expectancy.

I don’t think that our argument can hinge on this one analysis, and I’ll be digging further. To get a better sense though of ancient Roman urban areas soon I’ll look to see what there is on Alexandria, since Egypt is one area because of climate that ancient documents have been preserved. It’s interesting that this idea that cities are demographic sinks seems widely accepted in the literature, but there’s been little cliometric exploration of the ancient data…though who can blame them given the nature of the ancient textual records.

Powered by WordPress