Ask Colin: To Baby or Not to Baby

Hi Colin,

I am a free-spirited travel-loving minimalist from Germany. I am in my mid-thirties now. For years I have been thinking a lot about having children or not. To me this is the most important, complex and consequential decision most people have to make at some point in their life. Maybe because of our genes the question feels more heavy and fundamental than any other personal lifestyle-choice. Nevertheless there seems to be very little open and honest discussion on the topic e.g. in the media.

To me it feels like most people feel a need to pretend that they always knew if they want to have children and therefore they share very little about their decision making process. In contrast, people who don’t want to have children feel an obligation to justify their decision. In this regard norms in our society seem to have changed much less and much slower compared to other areas.

I would love to hear your perspective on that topic.

How do you personally approach this decision? Do you think having children is an essential or maybe the most essential part of a meaningful and successful life? What role plays personal freedom and an increasingly uncertain future (e.g. global warming) for you when tackling the question?

Thank you very much Colin, take care and keep up your wonderful work!

Felix

Hey Felix-

Let’s start with the broader context and work our way inward.

Having kids is a natural disposition, and it makes sense that it would be. Biological entities are—depending on who you ask—either entirely or almost entirely walking, breathing, defecating means of passing on genetic information. The whole story is obviously a lot more complex than this, but if we wanted to be reductive we could certainly make a good case that procreation is the point of life, as we typically define it.

That said, there are a lot of complexities within that larger story, including the interwoven nature of life; especially the nature of ecosystems and how they interrelate pretty much all the things with all the other things.

Case in point: a human being is not really a single entity, but rather an aggregation of microbiota, including bacteria, fungi, viruses, protists, and archaea. It’s estimated that, depending on a variety of variables, at any given moment our bodies are 50-75% not-technically-human cells, but we still think of our bodies as human bodies and our genetics as human genetics. Thus, we procreate and pass on our genes, even though we’re also passing on the genes of this multitude of other microscopic non-human creatures that are a part of our personal microbiomes.

All of which is to say the simplified story of us having kids because we desperately want to pass on our genes to the next generation is partially true, but also sort of not, because what we’re really doing is maintaining an ecosystem that we’re especially protective of; an ecosystem that we think of as our bodies.

That love of ecosystems extends beyond our singular bodies, though, as it’s been shown that the species which are most likely to survive from generation to generation are often those that have built-in drives to protect not just themselves, but also beings they consider to be their kind, their kin, their pack.

An evolutionary strategy called kin selection demonstrates why this might be a useful predisposition to have, alongside the knee-jerk instinct to look out for oneself above all else.

Kin selection says, in essence, that a species—and within that species a particular genetic grouping, like a family or tribe—will almost always be better off as a group if they are willing to sacrifice, personally, to benefit those they perceive to be their kin.

This is, it’s thought, part of why we have things like altruism, and why so many of us are so fixated on protecting other people—especially children—who look or seem like us, but will at times be less enthusiastic in that protection when it comes to those who don’t feel like part of our tribe.

A sub-theory of this theory, which is particularly relevant here, I think, is often called the gay uncle hypothesis, which posits that homosexuality, which is something that can be difficult to justify from some evolutionary perspectives, is actually a huge survival advantage for groups that include homosexual individuals because adults without children tend to help provide resources and other advantages like food, defense, shelter, and supervision to their relatives and their relatives’ offspring.

Said another way: having folks around who don’t have their own kids can be a wonderful advantage for a population, because that means there are people available who will be more thoroughly contributing to the health and wellbeing of others and others’ offspring due in part to a lack offspring of their own; no children that would otherwise occupy a great deal of their time, attention, and priority.

Now, my partner and I are both keen to not have children: not because we think it’s bad or anything like that, but because we just don’t see the appeal, and would rather invest ourselves in other things. I personally think that this is a perfectly legitimate and potentially valuable use of one’s time, for both personal reasons and because of the aforementioned social benefits derived when some people aren’t occupied with raising their own offspring.

I’m also aware that this is a fairly unusual choice to make, but I don’t think it’s one that anyone should be ashamed of, or worried about: there are plenty of ways to find meaning in life. And although having kids and raising them to the best of your ability is absolutely one of those ways, and though I salute the people who do so, I also salute those who contribute to society in other ways, and who, through conscious decision or situational necessity throw themselves into other aspects of life throughout their lives.

I do think that our current circumstances justify a good deal of thought before having kids, in the sense that simply doing it out of tradition or because you can’t think of anything else to do isn’t necessarily a great idea. There are many good reasons not to have kids, just as there are plenty of reasons to have kids, and it’s prudent for each of us to stop and take stock before doing so if we’re in the position to make such a decision.

That said, Malthusian population concerns are less worrying than they were decades ago, and the early-21st century has actually been a tale of population stabilization and decline, more than the opposite.

Yes, the global population is still growing and it will likely continue to do so until the mid- or late-21st century, but it’s expected to peak at under 11 billion people, and then decline for the foreseeable future. Not because of mass die-offs (we hope), but because as health, access to education, and fundamental prosperity spread, populations tend to decline in number.

We’ve actually arrived at a point, in many wealthy countries in particular, where the growth/fertility rate (number of births) isn’t keeping up with the replacement rate (number of people who need to be born in a country to replace those who have died), and thus, local populations are declining, and economists and politicians are scrambling to figure out how to fill local jobs that will be vacant in ten years, and how to take care of the elderly people who will outnumber the young by mid-century.

So while I absolutely agree it’s worth keeping things like consumption and climate change in mind when considering what you do and where the world goes, next, there are other variables at play, as well, that potentially argue in the opposite direction.

The best questions to ask oneself when deciding whether to have a kid, then, are probably:

Is this something I actually want to do? Will I put in the effort necessary to give my potential child a good life?

Can I afford to do it now, or should I wait until I can, and/or reconsider?

Should I consider my own consumption habits and adjust them accordingly before bringing another life into the world and imprinting upon them a similar set of habits?

And importantly:

Based on everything I know about myself, and the human and non-human ecosystem of which I’m a part, what seems to be the optimal procreation path for me to take in terms of personal and societal well-being?

The answers to these questions will be different for every single person, and thus, the proper path will differ greatly, as well.





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