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Civilisation And The Birth-rate Post by :Sam_Odiaka Category :Essays Author :Havelock Ellis Date :April 2011 Read :3349

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Civilisation And The Birth-rate

It was inevitable that the Great War of to-day should lead to an outcry, in all the countries engaged, for more children and larger families. In Germany and in Austria, in France and in England, panic-stricken fanatics are found who preach to the people that the birth-rate is falling and the nation is decaying. No scheme is too wild for the supposed benefit of the country in a fierce coming fight for commercial supremacy, as well as with due regard to the requirements in cannon fodder of another Great War twenty years hence.

It may be well, however, to pause before we listen to these Quixotic plans.(1) We may then find reason to think, not only that any attempt to arrest the falling birth-rate is scarcely likely to be effective in view of the fact that it affects not one country only but all the countries that count, but that even if it could be successful it would be mischievous. Whatever the results of the War may be, one result is fairly certain and that is that, under the most favourable circumstances, every country will emerge laden with misery and debt; whatever prosperity may follow, living will be expensive for a long time to come and the incomes of all classes heavily burdened. A Bounty on Babies would hardly make up for these difficulties. The happy family, under the conditions that seem to be immediately ahead of us, is likely to be the small family. The large family--as indeed has been the case in the past--is likely to be visited by disease and death.

But there is more to be said than this. We must dismiss altogether the statement so often made that a falling birth-rate means "an old and dying community." The Germans have for years been making this remark contemptuously regarding the French. But to-day they have to recognise a vitality in the French which they had not expected, while in recent years, also, their own birth-rate has been falling more rapidly than that of France. Nor is it true that a falling birth-rate means a falling population; the French birth-rate has long been steadily falling, yet the French population has been steadily increasing all the time, though less rapidly than it would had not the death-rate been abnormally high. It is not the number of babies born that counts, but the net result in surviving children. An enormous number of babies are born in China; but an enormous number die while still babies. So that it is better to have a few babies of good quality than a large number of indifferent quality, for the falling birth-rate is more than compensated by the falling death-rate. That is what we are attaining in England, and, as we know, our steadily falling birth-rate results in a steadily growing population.

There is still more to be said. Small families and a falling birth-rate are not merely no evil, they are a positive good. They are a gain for humanity. They represent an evolutionary rise in Nature and a higher stage in civilisation. We are here in the presence of great fundamental principles of progress which have been working through life from the beginning.

At the beginning of life on the earth reproduction ran riot. Of one minute organism it is estimated that, if its reproduction were not checked by death or destruction, in thirty days it would form a mass a million times larger than the sun. The conger-eel lays fifteen million eggs, and if they all grew up, and reproduced themselves on the same scale, in two years the whole sea would become a wriggling mass of fish. As we approach the higher forms of life reproduction gradually dies down. The animals nearest to man produce few offspring, but they surround them with parental care, until they are able to lead independent lives with a fair chance of surviving. The whole process may be regarded as a mechanism for slowly subordinating quantity to quality, and so promoting the evolution of life to ever higher stages.

This process, which is plain to see on the largest scale throughout living nature, may be more minutely studied, as it acts within a narrower range, in the human species. Here we statistically formulate it in the terms of birth-rate and death-rate; by the mutual relationship of the two courses of the birth-rate and the death-rate we are able to estimate the evolutionary rank of a nation, and the degree in which it has succeeded in subordinating the primitive standard of quantity to the higher and later standard of quality.

It is especially in Europe that we can investigate this relationship by the help of statistics which in some cases extend for nearly a century back. We can trace the various phases through which each nation passes, the effects of prosperity, the influence of education and sanitary improvement, the general complex development of civilisation, in each case moving forward, though not regularly and steadily, to higher stages by means of a falling birth-rate, which is to some extent compensated by a falling death-rate, the two rates nearly always running parallel, so that a temporary rise in the birth-rate is usually accompanied by a rise in the death-rate, by a return, that is to say, towards the conditions which we find at the beginning of animal life, and a steady fall in the birth-rate is always accompanied by a fall in the death-rate.

The modern phase of this movement, soon after which our precise knowledge begins, may be said to date from the industrial expansion, due to the introduction of machinery, which Professor Marshall places in England about the year 1760. That represents the beginning of an era in which all civilised and semi-civilised countries are still living. For the earlier centuries we lack precise data, but we are able to form certain probable conclusions. The population of a country in those ages seems to have grown very slowly and sometimes even to have retrograded. At the end of the sixteenth century the population of England and Wales is estimated at five millions and at the end of the seventeenth at six millions--only 20 per cent. increase during the century--although during the nineteenth century the population nearly quadrupled. This very gradual increase of the population seems to have been by no means due to a very low birth-rate, but to a very high death-rate. Throughout the Middle Ages a succession of virulent plagues and pestilences devastated Europe. Small-pox, which may be considered the latest of these, used to sweep off large masses of the youthful population in the eighteenth century. The result was a certain stability and a certain well-being in the population as a whole, these conditions being, however, maintained in a manner that was terribly wasteful and distressing.

The industrial revolution introduced a new era which began to show its features clearly in the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, a new motive had arisen to favour a more rapid increase of population. Small children could tend machinery and thereby earn wages to increase the family takings. This led to an immediate result in increased population and increased prosperity. But, on the other hand, the rapid increase of population always tended to outrun the rapid increase of prosperity, and the more so since the rise of sanitary science began to drive back the invasions of the grosser and more destructive infectious diseases which had hitherto kept the population down. The result was that new forms of disease, distress, and destitution arose; the old stability was lost, and the new prosperity produced unrest in place of well-being. The social consciousness was still too immature to deal collectively with the difficulties and frictions which the industrial era introduced, and the individualism which under former conditions had operated wholesomely now acted perniciously to crush the souls and bodies of the workers, whether men, women, or children.

As we know, the increase of knowledge and the growth of the social consciousness have slowly acted wholesomely during the past century to remedy the first evil results of the industrial revolution. The artificial and abnormal increase of the population has been checked because it is no longer permissible in most countries to stunt the minds and bodies of small children by placing them in factories. An elaborate system of factory legislation was devised, and is still ever drawing fresh groups of workers within its protective meshes. Sanitary science began to develop and to exert an enormous influence on the health of nations. At the same time the supreme importance of popular education was realised. The total result was that the nature of "prosperity" began to be transformed; instead of being, as it had been at the beginning of the industrial era, a direct appeal to the gratification of gross appetites and reckless lusts, it became an indirect stimulus to higher gratifications and more remote aspirations. Foresight became a dominating motive even in the general population, and a man's anxiety for the welfare of his family was no longer forgotten in the pleasure of the moment. The social state again became more stable, and mere "prosperity" was transformed into civilisation. This is the state of things now in progress in all industrial countries, though it has reached varying levels of development among different peoples.

It is thus clear that the birth-rate combined with the death-rate constitutes a delicate instrument for the measurement of civilisation, and that the record of their combined curves registers the upward or downward course of every nation. The curves, as we know, tend to be parallel, and when they are not parallel we are in the presence of a rare and abnormal state of things which is usually temporary or transitional.

It is instructive from this point of view to study the various nations of Europe, for here we find a large number of small nations, each with its own statistical system, confined within a small space and living under fairly uniform conditions. Let us take the latest official figures (which are usually for 1913) and attempt to measure the civilisation of European countries on this basis. Beginning with the lowest birth-rate, and therefore in gradually descending rank of superiority, we find that the European countries stand in the following order: France, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Scotland, Denmark, Holland, the German Empire, Prussia, Finland, Spain, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Roumania, Russia. If we take the death-rate similarly, beginning with the lowest rate and gradually proceeding to the highest, we find the following order: Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Scotland, Prussia, the German Empire, Finland, Ireland, France, Italy, Austria, Serbia, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Roumania, Russia.

Now we cannot accept the birth-rates and death-rates of the various countries exactly at their face value. Temporary conditions, as well as the special composition of a population, not to mention peculiarities of registration, exert a disturbing effect. Roughly and on the whole, however, the figures are acceptable. It is instructive to find how closely the two rates agree. The agreement is, indeed, greater at the bottom than at the top; the eight countries which constitute the lowest group as regards birth-rate are the identical eight countries which furnish the heaviest death-rates. That was to be expected; a very high birth-rate seems fatally to involve a very high death-rate. But a very low birth-rate (as we see in the cases of France and Ireland) is not invariably associated with a very low death-rate, though it is never associated with a high death-rate. This seems to indicate that those qualities in a highly civilised nation which restrain the production of offspring do not always or at once produce the eugenic racial qualities possessed by hardier peoples living under simpler conditions. But with these reservations it is not difficult to combine the two lists in a fairly concordant order of descending rank. Most readers will agree, that taking the European populations in bulk, without regard to the production of genius (for men of genius are always a very minute fraction of a nation), the European populations which they are accustomed to regard as standing at the head in the general diffusion of character, intelligence, education, and well-being, are all included in the first twelve or thirteen nations, which are the same in both lists though they do not follow the same order. These peoples, as peoples--that is, without regard to their size, their political importance, or their production of genius--represent the highest level of democratic civilisation in Europe.

It is scarcely necessary to add that various countries outside Europe equal or excel them; the death-rate of the United States, so far as statistics show, is the same as that of Sweden; that of Ontario, still better, is the same as Denmark; while the death-rate of the Australian Commonwealth, with a medium birth-rate, is lower than that of any European country, and New Zealand holds the world's championship in this field with the lowest death-rate of all. On the other hand, some extra-European countries compare less favourably with Europe; Japan, with a rather high birth-rate, has the same high death-rate as Spain, and Chile, with a still higher birth-rate, has a higher death-rate than Russia. So it is that among human peoples we find the same laws prevailing as among animals, and the higher nations of the world differ from those which are less highly evolved precisely as the elephant differs from the herring, though within a narrower range, that is to say, by producing fewer offspring and taking better care of them.

The whole of this evolutionary process, we have to remember, is a natural process. It has been going on from the beginning of the living world. But at a certain stage in the higher development of man, without ceasing to be natural, it becomes conscious and deliberate. It is then that we have what may properly be termed _Birth Control_. That is to say, that a process which had before been working slowly through the ages, attaining every new forward step with waste and pain, is henceforth carried out voluntarily, in the light of the high human qualities of reason and foresight and self-restraint. The rise of birth control may be said to correspond with the rise of social and sanitary science in the first half of the nineteenth century, and to be indeed an essential part of that movement. It is firmly established in all the most progressive and enlightened countries of Europe, notably in France and in England; in Germany, where formerly the birth-rate was very high, birth control has developed with extraordinary rapidity during the present century. In Holland its principle and practice are freely taught by physicians and nurses to the mothers of the people, with the result that there is in Holland no longer any necessity for unwanted babies, and this small country possesses the proud privilege of the lowest death-rate in Europe. In the free and enlightened democratic communities on the other side of the globe, in Australia and New Zealand, the same principles and practice are generally accepted, with the same beneficent results. On the other hand, in the more backward and ignorant countries of Europe, birth control is still little known, and death and disease flourish. This is the case in those eight countries which come at the bottom of both our lists.

Even in the more progressive countries, however, birth control has not been established without a struggle, which has frequently ended in a hypocritical compromise, its principles being publicly ignored or denied and its practice privately accepted. For, at the great and vitally important point in human progress which birth control represents, we really see the conflict of two moralities. The morality of the ancient world is here confronted by the morality of the new world. The old morality, knowing nothing of science and the process of Nature as worked out in the evolution of life, based itself on the early chapters of Genesis, in which the children of Noah are represented as entering an empty earth which it is their business to populate diligently. So it came about that for this morality, still innocent of eugenics, recklessness was almost a virtue. Children were given by God; if they died or were afflicted by congenital disease, it was the dispensation of God, and, whatever imprudence the parents might commit, the pathetic faith still ruled that "God will provide." But in the new morality it is realised that in these matters Divine action can only be made manifest in human action, that is to say through the operation of our own enlightened reason and resolved will. Prudence, foresight, self-restraint--virtues which the old morality looked down on with benevolent contempt--assume a position of the first importance. In the eyes of the new morality the ideal woman is no longer the meek drudge condemned to endless and often ineffectual child-bearing, but the free and instructed woman, able to look before and after, trained in a sense of responsibility alike to herself and to the race, and determined to have no children but the best. Such were the two moralities which came into conflict during the nineteenth century. They were irreconcilable and each firmly rooted, one in ancient religion and tradition, the other in progressive science and reason. Nothing was possible in such a clash of opposing ideas but a feeble and confused compromise such as we still find prevailing in various countries of Old Europe. It was not a satisfactory solution, however inevitable, and especially unsatisfactory by the consequent obscurantism which placed difficulties in the way of spreading a knowledge of the methods of birth control among the masses of the population. For the result has been that while the more enlightened and educated have exercised a control over the size of their families, the poorer and more ignorant--who should have been offered every facility and encouragement to follow in the same path--have been left, through a conspiracy of secrecy, to carry on helplessly the bad customs of their forefathers. This social neglect has had the result that the superior family stocks have been hampered by the recklessness of the inferior stocks.

We may see these two moralities in conflict to-day in America. Up till recently America had meekly accepted at Old Europe's hands the traditional prescription of our Mediterranean book of Genesis, with its fascinating old-world fragrance of Mount Ararat. On the surface, the ancient morality had been complacently, almost unquestionably, accepted in America, even to the extent of permitting a vast extension of abortion--a criminal practice which ever flourishes where birth-control is neglected. But to-day we suddenly see a new movement in the United States. In a flash, America has awakened to the true significance of the issue. With that direct vision of hers, that swift practicality of action, and, above all, that sense of the democratic nature of all social progress, we see her resolutely beginning to face this great problem. In her own vigorous native tongue we hear her demanding: "What in the thunder is all the secrecy about, anyhow?" And we cannot doubt that America's own answer to that demand will be of immense significance to the whole world.

Thus it is that as we get to the root of the matter the whole question becomes clear. We see that there is really no standing ground in any country for the panic-monger who bemoans the fall of the birth-rate and storms against small families. The falling birth-rate is a world-wide phenomenon in all countries that are striving toward a higher civilisation along lines which Nature laid down from the beginning. We cannot stop it if we would, and if we could we should merely be impeding civilisation. It is a movement that rights itself and tends to reach a just balance. It has not yet reached that balance with us in this country. That may be seen by anyone who has read the letters from mothers lately published under the title of _Maternity_ by the Women's Co-operative Guild; there is still far more misery caused by having too many babies than by having too few; a bonus on babies would be a misfortune, alike for the parents and the State--whether bestowed at birth as proposed in New Zealand, or at the age of twelve months as proposed in France, or fourteen years as proposed in England--unless it were confined to children who were not merely alive at the appointed age, but able to pass examination as having reached a definitely high standard. The falling birth-rate, which, it must be remembered, is affecting all civilised countries, should be a matter for joy rather than for grief.

But we need not therefore fold our hands and do nothing. There is still much to be effected for the protection of Motherhood and the better care of children. We cannot, and should not, attempt to increase the number of children. But we may well attempt to work for their better quality. There we shall be on very safe ground. More knowledge is necessary so that all would-be parents may know how they may best become parents and how they may, if necessary, best avoid it. Procreation by the unfit should be, if not prohibited by law, at all events so discouraged by public opinion that to attempt it would be counted disgraceful. Much greater public provision is necessary for the care of mothers during the months before, as well as during the period after, the child's birth. The system of Schools for Mothers needs to be universalised and systematically carried out. Along such lines as these we may hope to increase the happiness of the people and the strength of the State. We need not worry over the falling birth-rate.



(1) Those who wish to study the latest restatements of opinions in England may be recommended to read the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Great Britain's falling birth-rate, appointed in 1913 by the National Council of Public Morals, under the title of _The Declining Birth-rate: Its Causes and Effects_, 1916.

(The end)
Havelock Ellis's essay: Civilisation And The Birth-Rate

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