The German public was recently shocked to learn that 30% of “their” women are childless—the highest proportion of any country in the world. And this is not a result of infertility; it’s intentional childlessness.
Demographers are intrigued. German nationalists, aghast. Religious fundamentalists, distressed at the indication that large numbers of women are using birth control.
And evolutionary biologists (including me) are asked, “How can this be?” If reproduction is perhaps the fundamental imperative of natural selection, of our genetic heritage, isn’t it curious—indeed, counterintuitive—that people choose, and in such large numbers, to refrain from participating in life’s most pressing event?
The answer is that intentional childlessness is indeed curious—but in no way surprising. It is also illuminating, because it sheds light on what is perhaps the most notable hallmark of the human species: the ability to say no—not just to a bad idea, an illegal order or a wayward pet but to our own genes.
It happens over and over, from Nigeria to Nicaragua. Even the already low birthrates in developed countries become lower still when each child is expected to be outfitted with an iPod and yoga lessons, not to mention a personal trainer. It is notable that child-wariness is not only characteristic of highly developed Germany (and northern Europe as a whole), but that it rises from 30% to more than 40% among German women who are college graduates.
When it comes to our behavior, evolution is clearly influential. Of this there can be no doubt. But only rarely is it determinative, even when something as deeply biological as reproduction is concerned. Indeed, the trend toward childlessness is neither particularly German nor strangely “un-biological” but profoundly human.