Optimizing Modern Family Size

Human Nature 21 (1):39-61 (2010)
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Modern industrialized populations lack the strong positive correlations between wealth and reproductive success that characterize most traditional societies. While modernization has brought about substantial increases in personal wealth, fertility in many developed countries has plummeted to the lowest levels in recorded human history. These phenomena contradict evolutionary and economic models of the family that assume increasing wealth reduces resource competition between offspring, favoring high fertility norms. Here, we review the hypothesis that cultural modernization may in fact establish unusually intense reproductive trade-offs in wealthy relative to impoverished strata, favoring low fertility. We test this premise with British longitudinal data (the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children), exploring maternal self-perceptions of economic hardship in relation to increasing family size and actual socioeconomic status. Low-income and low-education-level mothers perceived the greatest economic costs associated with raising two versus one offspring. However, for all further increases to family size, reproduction appears most expensive for relatively wealthy and well-educated mothers. We discuss our results and review current literature on the long-term consequences of resource dilution in modern families



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Ruth Mace
University College London