Wednesday, April 20, 2005

On not having children

I was at a party recently when a couple who are friends of mine were asked by someone when they planned to start a family. “We don’t want to have any children,” the girl replied. Everybody (except me and her worse half) looked at her as if she was mad. “How unnatural,” their faces said. “How can you not want children? There must be something wrong with you?”

One of them, trying his best to hide his astonishment, asked politely, “But why not?” At that moment I wished that I had a deep stentorian voice, so I could spellbind them by reciting this poem by Philip Larkin:
This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Not having kids is a personal choice, but too many people I come across react as if it’s a perversion, as if it’s wrong to not have children. They make a common error: assuming that just because something is a ‘natural’ craving, as wanting to have children is, to not fulfil that ‘natural’ desire is wrong. If it is natural, they think, it must be right; they derive a value from a fact, an "ought" from an "is", which some philosophers would call committing the naturalistic fallacy.

This very fallacy was behind some of the controversies in science in the 70s and 80s. Those were the years when evolutionary biology reached a much wider audience through brilliant books such as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology. Some of these gentlemen’s conclusions were misinterpreted and ridiculed by the political left, their descriptions attacked as if they were prescriptions. If they described the natural differences between men and women, for example, they were attacked as if they had prescribed unequal treatment for them. And so on.

One of the reasons that it was politically incorrect to ascribe anything at all to nature rather than nurture was that biology had been misapplied to justify some abominable politics in the early part of the century, most particularly eugenics. (There's a fine account of this in Matt Ridley's Genome.) Through the middle years of the century the left sanctified the belief – now accepted to be utterly mistaken – that genes play no part at all in who we are, that everything is down to our environment.

This became dogma, and when a wellspring of knowledge exploded because of the work of evolutionary biologists like William Hamilton, George Williams, Robert Trivers and others in the 60s and 70s, and was popularised by the work of people like Dawkins and Wilson, it was attacked for political reasons, even by fellow evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, the Marxist in him overriding the scientist.

The right, meanwhile, had fears that nature could be used as an excuse to avoid resposibility. “I have a genetic predeliction towards alcoholism,” someone could say, “so you can’t blame me for it.” A promiscuous man could argue to his wife, “men have a natural tendency to sleep around, more so than women. I’ve been programmed this way, you can’t blame me for this.” What to say to arguments like this?

Just that they are fallacious, that no matter how we are “programmed”, we still have volition and free will, and are not slaves to our genes. As that great non-fiction writer, Steven Pinker, put it in How the Mind Works, while talking about his decision to (we come a full circle) not have any children: “By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.” We make our own choices.

If the subject interests you, you will not find a better book to read than Pinker’s The Blank Slate, an authoritative, exhaustive and lucid account of how the battles over nature and nurture have affected every area of our lives, and how the advances of the last three or four decades have shattered so many age-old myths, such as that of the blank slate, the ghost in the machine and the noble savage.

But if it’s poetry you prefer, and you enjoyed that beautiful poem I quoted earlier, you can read some more of Larkin’s poems here. I don’t understand most modern poets, with their dense images and obscure allusions, but Larkin I love. You can buy his collected poems here.

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