Malthusian Times 
Malthusian Times
by Yale / Robert Wyman
Video Lecture 6 of 24
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Date Added: November 8, 2009

Lecture Description


In many regions, the central cultural idea is that of a lineage, a family and its line of male ancestors and descendants. The prime duty in these cultures is to keep the lineage going. Religion is small scale with the ancestors performing many of the functions of gods. Denser populations and larger political entities lead to large-scale religion where conformity is stressed and cultural rules are codified in a book and not subject to discussion with the ancestors. In pre-modern Sub-Saharan Africa, land was not limiting, so a maximum number of children was desired. Neither monogamy nor chastity were valued as much as fertility. Families were not nuclear; husbands and wives did not engage in many activities together; children were often raised by other members of the village and women had the responsibility for economic support of the children. In many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, farming is the work of women. Women often prefer men with resources which leads to polygamy. Women in polygamous relationships form support groups for each other and men enjoy the fruits of several women's labor and children. In temperate regions, the land eventually fills up and the dangers of overpopulation come to the fore. Peasants are miserably poor. Massive epidemics (the Black Death, 1347 and onward) and wars (the Catholic-Protestant wars, 1562-1648) can kill a third of the population.



Reading assignment:


Livi-Bacci, Massimo. A Concise History of World Population: An Introduction to Population Processes, pp. 37-42 and 49-57



Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, chapters 3 and 5




Transcript



January 29, 2009



Professor Robert Wyman: Last time we started talking about tropical places where high productivity agriculture is generally just not possible. Hence, without productive agriculture you can't support dense populations. Those cultures grew up in time--in places where plenty of land, land was not filled up, it was people that were scarce. While individual women of course still had to control their fertility so that the children--the infants that they had didn't die and there's many, many things that they do for that.



The community cultural controls on fertility are generally absent because from the community point of view you always wants to be, at that time, larger and among other reasons to protect your community from the ravages of hostile neighbors because almost all of these communities are--just read any history of any part of the world constant, constant warfare, as we've discussed a lot.



Of many places in the world, which one could describe, traditional Africa provides some of the best examples of how these cultures operate. Again, I want to emphasize that this a tradition--a picture of a traditional time and things are changing now extremely rapidly everywhere in the world, including of course Africa. As I showed you last time, Africa really is different than the rest of the world. I showed statistics comparing Morocco on the north coast of Africa, included in the Mediterranean cultural zone. You cross the Sahara, you're in Niger, or you're in Mali, and totally different situation. The number of children is much high--people have is much higher, I showed you that, the number of children that they want is much higher, infant mortality has come down in both places, in Morocco the fertility responds to it, in Niger the fertility does not respond to it.



While we're going--so we're going to discuss this region and using a lot of generalizations which will not fit any particular culture. If you add up all the birthrate statistics, Sub-Saharan African has about twice the birth rate of North Africa. Again, it's all Suni Muslim we're talking about, so religion is not the difference, but the something else about the southern culture which we've been talking about. It probably starts with the agriculture and then goes into other fields. Of all the things that are changing in Africa, fertility--the attitudes toward fertility--again I'm always using fertility as the number of children a woman actually has and not her ability to have children. The attitudes towards fertility are sort of the most resistant to change.



These societies have what you might call a culture of reproduction in which the central idea is that of lineage, a family and its line of male ancestors. The prime duty in these cultures is to keep the lineage going. Of course you've all read stuff about China, China is not--traditional China is not particularly different than this. The important thing is to provide descendants for the ancestors. Not only is your own future--if you don't have the son as your own future as a shade, as sort of a spirit that hovers around, is dependent on continuation of the line. The whole history of ancestors, stretching back, is dependent on your having descendants. The future line which is perceived as sort of almost in existence, of potential existence, the whole line from the distant past going through you to the distant future is all dependent on you having descendants, male descendants in the line.



The central purpose, the central goal, the central job of existence is to continue this line of fertility. Now the traditional religion is based on this lineage idea. Because it's your own--the gods are in a sense your own ancestors, people that you knew, people that you talk too, they stay more close to you after they die. Unlike Western gods where you pray but it's never clear whether your prayers are being answered or not, in an ancestor worship situation, the answer is right there, and you can talk back and forth with them. They're not distant, eerie, supernatural kind of characters but rather like a grandfather who just stays near us after his death.



This kind of description comes from the ethnographers, the anthropologists that go and talk to the people in these traditional cultures. The lineage head, who is almost always the old--often the oldest male member of the lineage, he often can communicate directly with these ancestors or there may be a soothsayer in the community and then the head man will commission the soothsayer to ask the ancestors some particular question. The ancestors are quite available to discuss the most ordinary and mundane issues of life or they can discuss very weighty affairs. This doesn't require waiting for some big holiday or some huge amount of time, it can be--the whole thing can be transacted in 15 minutes or maybe a half an hour. Sometimes they're contacted, they provide their answers, and you've got the answer that you need.



One of the interesting, with respect to this course, one of the interesting things that goes on is that family planning is being introduced into Africa, has been now for quite a while, and it's becoming available. The people are thinking it over; it's a hot topic. They're discussing it, they're trying to figure out whether it's good for them or not, whether it's permissible for them or not, what's going to happen if you use it, what's going to happen if you don't use it. It's a very hot topic and of course they want the wisdom of the ancestors on this.



In the middle of this, one set of demographers went into--in Ghana there's a group of Nankana--the name of the people there, and they went into their villages and they wanted to see how this worked out. If this discussion with the ancestors, as they call the traditional religion, would be hostile to the introduction of family planning because elsewhere in the world of course the more conservative the more--it doesn't depend on the individual religion, a particular religion as I have said and will say again, but it does depend on the religiosity of the person. The more religious a person is, in almost any tradition, the more hostile they will be to change, and in particular to the adoption of new reproductive practices like family planning.



They're interested in this issue how this would work out in traditional villages in Africa. He asked the village head man--one of the anthropologists--to inquire of the spirits how many children should a family have; a simple question. Here's what the spirit said, "Listen to what I have to say, children are the lineage, if there are no children the lineage will end. We ancestors want many children; the women should give birth to many children." That was a pretty clear answer; there was no futzing around with that one. But being Western skeptics, they didn't really believe that the ancestor was saying that, so he was saying, well the headman put into the mouths of the spirits whatever the headman believed, and that was not--made the anthropologists quite satisfied with this.



He was a good scientist and he did the control experiment, he asked the headman, the same headman who had just reported the conservative views of the ancestors. Well what do you think, he got a completely different answer. "Women need to have just enough children. Currently it is very difficult to fend for the children. There's no food to feed them. If they are in school it is difficult to pay their school fees and to buy them school uniforms. Taking them to the hospital when they are sick demands a lot of money. That is why we need to give birth to few children." Well that's a little different take, and so then the demographer's brain starts rolling and says; now I got the scene, now I got it right. The ancestors are giving the traditional point of view, well that's true, that was what the older generation believed, but the headmen are part of the current generation and they're going to take current views into consideration and take a more moderate view.



They interviewed the next--they went to the next village and interviewed the next lineage head and that hypothesis didn't stand up. Speaking for himself, the headman said, "I would like them to have many children because a large following it makes one a chief. There is power in numbers." This is the idea that if you have only a few people in your village you're not very powerful, your neighbors can ignore you, they can take advantage of you, but if you have a big set of descendants and a big family and extended family, a big village then you're a powerful chief and he wanted children so that he would be powerful.



But then this same guy was asked to see what the ancestors have to say about it, and the ancestors said, "Everybody should have a small number of children, but they should not refuse to have children altogether." Since the ancestors are close at hand, it's perfectly reasonable that they're aware of current trends, and one of the ancestors said, "It is now difficult to get an education as well as to do farming. If a problem crops up and the child is sick then money is everything. You have to buy medicine," meaning modern medicine, "And even if you go to the herbalist," traditional medicine, "You need to take a fowl," a chicken or something, "along to pay for the treatment. It's no longer the same as in the olden days when everybody did farming." That's the ancestor speaking, very well aware of current trends and problems.



After they interviewed a whole lot of these Nankana villages in Ghana they summarized the research, and the result was no pattern of responses at all. Sometime the headman and his ancestors they agreed; sometimes they disagreed; sometimes it was the ancestor taking the conservative line; sometimes it was the headman taking the conservative line. It was indeed like a discussion between a man and say his grandfather that was going on and they will have different points of view and individuals will be different. This contact with the ancestors seems quite natural.



You read this story--you hear this story as 'oh my God,' but it's perfectly natural to the people. These people in northern Ghana they have no word for supernatural. It just doesn't exist. They don't have any--they don't have scientific explanations for anything, so all explanations are sort of somewhere floating around, some are empirical and observational, and some of them are supernatural, and so there's no boundary between these kinds of explanations for things, and so they don't have such a word and they don't distinguish these kinds of discussions with the ancestors from real things, real dreams or daydreams or anything else. It's all a very fluid kind of thing.



To people living in that kind of a culture the Western idea of an unwavering set of rules, cast in stone in some book thousands of years ago, like the Bible, like the Koran, would seem ludicrous to Nankana. To them, our system of a book that says everything you need to know is as crazy as our view of them talking to the ancestors. You should then compare this kind of individualistic, flexible style of religion to the mass monotheistic religions that we have in the northern temperate zones, at least the Western northern temperate zones. These religions are all part of a big political structure which requires uniformity of the subjects of some king, or some emperor, and submission to that person.



Of course, as you probably all know, the word Islam itself means 'submission' and the ideal in monotheistic religions is often--notice the uniformity. This is women at prayer and notice the--as you see--when you see a bigger picture of this there's just a sea of women at some big event all dressed identically, all looking identical. When I was in Morocco I got a little instruction book that is given to children about how to pray, and every detail is specified down to when you bow down during prayer the position of the toes is specified--are they curled under, are they spread out, you have to know that. Conformity is a very important part of mass religion.



Of course in the west how is conformity enforced in Christianity? You burn the heretics, a long history of burning and killing by the dominant church, wherever it is, you just slaughter the people that--even on very tiny theological differences if they don't believe exactly as the authorities think they should believe, off with their head, so it's a very different kind of pattern of cultural understanding of religion and ancestors and the world.



Given this intensity of devotion to the lineage, the main virtue in Africa then is fertility. The main sin is to be barren, is not have children. An inability to have children, barrenness, is not just a passive thing that happens to you but it's punishment for something bad that you have done. There's very little distinction between infertility, the woman just can't get pregnant, and of course they don't accept the idea that it might be the man's fault, but the woman doesn't get pregnant, she's infertile, she has miscarriages, goes partway through the pregnancy, or infant deaths. The important thing is to have descendants who can carry on the line and however--whatever the mechanism is by which a man or woman, or the family, is incapable of having descendants, that's the worst sin and it's your fault. It's not a passive thing that happens to you.



Barren women can be divorced, they can be shunned, and sometimes they need to--they're not even allowed to live in the center of the village because--of course they have no scientific explanation for barrenness, but maybe it's catching in some sense, either by evil spirits which are keeping the woman from getting pregnant and you don't want the evil spirits to attack you, or some other reason they can often be required to live on the edge of the village.



Given this emphasis on, one way or another, getting pregnant, monogamy is not strictly enforced; it's not the kind of obsession that it is in the West. Here's a wonderful story--recent 2000, this is The People Newspaper from Nairobi, Kenya. "A group of women stormed the Kenya police station to demand that officers either make love to them or close illegal drinking dens. They said the drinking made their husbands impotent. The women said the population of the district was falling off as a result of the poor sexual performance of the men. The women," it was Kanda actually, north of Nairobi, "brought the businesses in town to a halt with their daylong protest against excessive drinking by their men folk. 'Our men have turned to vegetables; they leave home early and come back intoxicated. There is no one to meet the sexual needs of the wives.'"



Guess which group it was where these women came from? It was 24 Catholic Church groups in Kenya. They came together and demanded that the officer in charge of the police station order his men to make love to these women. The newspaper discretely does not say how the police responded to this demand.



Now--so the women must be fertile and the men must be believed to be potent or fertile, of course it's harder to tell whether the man is or isn't. The men of course, in a sense, want to keep the fertility of the women for themselves but it's more important to have children no matter who is the biological father. Not only in the family but once a child is born, perhaps under obviously uncertain circumstances, the village will accept--the community accepts the children. They need people; they want strength in numbers, and so promiscuity is not frowned on particularly by the community. Everybody knows it goes on and just keeps quiet.



I was reading this week and last a history of a Lesotho. How many--Lesotho is a small country--you've been there? No, okay. A small enclave totally surrounded by South Africa. This was a history before the Europeans came about the 1700s. There was a king then and the king, it was a very small group at that time, not much more than a village, and when the third son--this is sort of a quote, "When the third son of the king died he left a widow who was still of childbearing age but had no surviving children. By custom the widow should have gone to live with her husband's younger brother so that she could continue the seed of her dead husband." Exactly as we see in the Old Testament that we talked about last time.



The widow didn't agree and she went off and actually got pregnant by sort of a no good who wasn't even of that tribe. Now this is a real no-no and--but nevertheless the child, since that woman was legally part of a certain lineage, that child by someone who wasn't even a member of the tribe and against the convention was still accepted as a member of the king's lineage there. It turns that the child of this--illegitimate in a sense--child became the greatest king that Lesotho has ever known, a very important guy named Moshoeshoe.



Moshoeshoe himself, the grandson of the time I'm talking about, he was reputed to have 140 to 200 wives. You read the history, they of course--they have whatever written records they have and the first one says well--when he was young he has 35 wives, then he has 80 wives, and every time this is reported as he gets older, and probably accumulates more wives, the number goes up. The last report was 200 wives. Of course we don't know anything about the accuracy of this. But it was said most of his latter wives were regarded as distinctly inferior. Moshoeshoe would summon whomever he wished to spend the night with him, and he undoubtedly sired a vast progeny. He also offered these lesser wives to visitors for the night by way of hospitality, but according to custom, any children these visitors produced were regarded as Moshoeshoe's own children.



Again, in the West, chastity, monogamy is valued, who the father is. In under-populated cultures, in cultures that have responded to under population it's the children that are wanted, and the mechanism of biologically fathering a child is much less important. I experienced this myself quite surprisingly. I think I mentioned I had been in Borneo living with some headhunters for a while, and I got along pretty well with the young guys. Sort of the guys stay together and so after I was there a little bit they offered me their sisters and said, 'you shouldn't be sleeping alone,' and for discretion, I won't tell you what happened.



Even nowadays many African scholars maintain that African societies don't even really distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate births. 15% to 25% of women in various west and east African countries, including Kenya for instance, report premarital births, so they may or may not marry the guy that's there before marriage. As all these estimates of behavior that is now becoming with the Christianization and the Islamization becoming somewhat questionable, if the official statistics are 15% to 25% for sure it's a lot larger than that.



Of course the husband again isn't really wildly happy about all this playing around and--but what's most important to him is his status. Again, the biological parentage of the child is less important. He knows whatever child his wife has will be officially his, but he doesn't want to get to be known as impotent. His potency is what matters to him. As long as the woman--and this happens a lot because very often the man is quite significantly older than the wife, especially younger--as he gets older and accumulates more wives, then younger wives, and so his potency may really be flagging quite a bit, so it's a real concern.



As long as--if the wife--as long as the wife is discreet and doesn't make a public display that this kid is really someone else's then not a big problem. The legal father accepts the child; the community accepts the child. Anthropologists of course thought this was very interesting and they--one wonderful--Susan Watkins from The University of Pennsylvania, a sociologist, works in Kenya in the Luo, with the Luo on the west of Kenya; Luo people. She got together a focus group of women to discuss this issue.



It's a long thing, I'll just tell you a little bit from it, and so Susan says, "So sometimes women were unfaithful," pretending a Western perspective and the women said, "Yes being unfaithful started a long time ago," another woman: "Long ago the older woman, the elder women, would tell us that the only time you could sleep with another man was if your husband was not able to make you pregnant, but it's not that way anymore." The moderator again asks, "Once you got the baby of the other man, was it for your husband or the other man?" Notice the for is taken for granted that this is a gift, and who did you make the gift for, is it a gift for your husband or a gift for the other man. The women are somewhat incredulous, "Of course it is for your husband. The other man is just like a bull; doesn't your cow wander and mate with another bull from the next field? When the cow gives birth, is the calf yours or is the calf the owner of the other bull? Of course it's yours." All the women join in. It's a wonderful kind of little story.



In this the women are kind of incredulous that Susan Watkins herself does not have any cows. They sort of presume that in their answers that she does. It's also pretty obvious how sort of matter of fact the women are about men's limited biological role, as one might say. There's no romanticization of the relationship, none of the Western fetish about biological paternity.



Not only is extra-marital fertility not frowned on in the same way that is, at least officially here in the West, but premarital promiscuity is reasonably acceptable. Maybe not surprisingly, you all know about truck drivers going around spreading AIDS from village to village, guess who else spreads AIDS? School teachers; so a school teacher is someone who has an education, has been perhaps in the capital or some big city, has actually been to some sort of secondary or college education, and has an income, a white collar job, a steady income from the government--teachers are in much demand. This is a very high status person and he's assigned--finishes college, he's assigned to some village in the bush. He's maybe the--the only--the highest status person, so what do the parents of all the eligible daughters do? They bring their daughter to them and offer him, 'try out my daughter,' and which sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. The statistics are now very clear that these teachers have picked up AIDS in the city and they are one of the roots of spreading AIDS in the villages.



Along with this loose attitude toward paternity, toward who is exactly the father, the children then are held a lot to a large degree in common. The idea of a nuclear family, we have a mother and a father of well defined pair, their children no question about who are their children, an idea of a nuclear family is not common there. 30% to 50%--when they survey, 30% to 50% of the children are not living in the compound with their biological mother or father in either case. Nuclear family is--very, very simple things define a nuclear family. How frequently does he eat his main meal--does a man eat his main meal with his wife? This gets studied. How often he eats his main meal with his children? These are things that we take just absolutely for granted. How frequently does his wife go with him when he visits friends? How frequently does his wife go with him when he visits relatives? How much of his free time does he spend with his wife and children?



The studies of this over the years, there's a good study in Kenya for instance, and the answer to all these are "rarely". There's a very low degree of nucleation of the families. Again, this is changing and families are becoming more and more nucleated and one of the things that's studied is the percentage of people in marriages that are considered nuclear. The last statistic that I saw was 21%--only about one-fifth of families were what we would call nuclear families. Just that idea of a tight-knit family, exclusive in many ways, is just not a common sort of thing.



Another result of this attitude is what we might call quasi-prostitution. In that traditional system the father, the husband, is not necessarily required to provide economic support to the children. He is probably a rich man or has some land, he gives that to his wife, if he has several wives he divides it up among the wives. They then grow the food on the land; they also have to do some work on his land because men don't want to work, and so the wife has the responsibility for the children.



She must get the money for health, she must get the money for education, she does the farming on her land. This puts the women in difficult strait and they're always needing resources and if another man can come in and provide some resources for her and her children, well that's okay. And so a fair amount of sex involves, shall we say, a gift from the person. It's certainly not considered prostitution in that culture but we might use that word for it. It's a very necessary part of the whole system that resources can come into the mother/child family other than from the legal husband who may or may not provide very much.



Now all of the--the whole way this society is set up favors having a large number of children in many different ways. For instance, consider land tenure. The idea of private property that one guy owns one plot of land, it's a new idea there and traditionally the village or the community held a bunch of property. They would defend this against other villages, so in a sense it was some communities' property, and there was constant raiding and constant contestation, but they would try to defend their territory. Within the territory the land did not belong to any individual and this was totally rational because again very high death rates, hard to keep people alive, so one family would die out, have no descendants, another family would have many children. So each generation the land just gets redistributed; more or less equal amounts of land per child, however many children that you have, and again land is not especially limiting.



The result is that if a male wants to be powerful and have a lot of land, which means that if one part of land goes fallow for some reason, he has other land, so he wants to have a lot of children. They all are guaranteed land, and the more children he has, sons usually the case, the more his financial security, his hunger security, and his power goes up. The society supports this by giving land to whatever children there are. This is now breaking up because it's becoming impossible, and again, there are studies in Kenya that in 1981 the average land holding was 5.1 acres. The agronomists say, and the local people are aware of this, that about 4 acres of--with their technology of farming at that time, about 4 acres of good land are required, and intense cultivation you have to really work it, were required to support a family of the size of the father's generation.



Even at that time the system was to divide the land more or less equally among the sons. Well if you take 5.1 acres and the average number of children was four you get down to about one acre, which is way below the amount of land that can support a family. A crisis has eventuated and a variety of things happened that when the economy is good in Kenya, which is occasionally, there are jobs in the cities and everyone hopes that one of their sons, at least one will go off to the city and get a job and send back remittances, but a lot of the time the economy is bad and the sons have to stay on the land, or migrate to the city without a job and become this kind of urban proletariat.



Under the influence of this pressure the number of children that of--the average males wants has gone down from five to about three, but still if you have two or three acres and you divide it up three ways it's an impossible situation. The sons cannot live on the land that you have given. So while everybody is aware--there's no ignorance or stupidity involved--everybody is aware of the situation, the cultural prodding is so strong, the history is so strong that the father's don't want to reduce their desire for sons. What has actually happened is the number of sons desired has shrunk but from 4.5 to three, and currently, if they divide up their land each child gets a half an acre, whereas four are necessary to support the family.



In respect to the work on the farm, that the man will usually own it, that varies in different parts of Africa, own it in some sense while he's alive. It goes back to the village on his death. In this slash and burn agriculture that really pre-modern people use, the women do almost all the work. The only thing that the men do is work that women are basically physically incapable of doing, which in this case if you're living in the forest, is clearing the land, chopping down the trees, hauling away the logs, and this the men do. It's heavy labor but it lasts about two weeks out of the year and the whole rest of the year it's the women doing the work.



This--and men don't like--in traditional these--I mean traditional--every period is traditional, some period it is traditional, but whatever period you're talking about is traditional to some later period so it's not a great term. Giving you a comparison in 1784 when the United States was being settled, there were 6,000 Iroquois spread across New York state but they were competing for land with 240,000 New Yorkers of European descent; 6,000 versus 240,000. One tribe, the Oneida from upstate--and I was actually born up there, had only 600 members to the whole tribe, but they inhabited 6,000,000 acres of land. This is what's talked about by population--low population density, 600 people on 6,000,000 acres.



As in Africa, the women did most of the farming, they had a kind of slash and burn agriculture also, and the women did most of the farming. Well some of the colonists were friendly to the Indians and wanted to help the Indians so they would suggest repeatedly that why don't you take up farming, that with your hunter and gatherer culture you're never going to have enough people to resist the Europeans. If you want to resist the Europeans and maintain some of your land you have to increase your population, and the only way to do that is you've got to go to agriculture. The men refused to do that and they--one quote one of the Iroquois, "Farming is women's work. Man was not made to go to work in the earth like a hedge hog, but to go to war and hunting."



Given that women are doing the work in many cultures, they are very valuable, and so bride price comes from this idea that--in some sense you're buying a woman and she is going to work for you and there is a very rough generalization that in cultures where the women do the work, and the farming work especially, the man--the bride price will go from the man to the woman's family. In other places like India, many places in India where the women do not do the work but are sequestered and kept at home maybe covered up or something, but only do internal household work, then it reverses. Then the man is taking care of the woman and the woman's family must pay the man or the man's family, a dowry situation. The issue of dowry and bride price is extremely complicated and cultures handle it very differently, but that's sort of the rough generalization.



Polygyny results from this; since land is traditionally not limiting but the number--you need women to work the land. Men of course want as many wives as possible, possibly also for sexual reasons of course. Again, comparing North Africa with Sub-Saharan Africa, in North Africa and the Middle East about 1% to 7% of men are polygamists. It happens, it's condoned, but it's kind of a rare thing in the Mediterranean zone. Even in the nineteenth century, Mormons, again desert people in the United States, less than 10% of the men were polygamists. The maximum of course is 50%, polygamy can never go beyond 50% of the men because if one man have two wives, then another man has no wives, so 50% of the--maximum 50%--if they're limited to two wives and maximum 50% of the men can be polygamists. And if some are allowed more than two wives, or can manage to get more than two wives, then that maximum goes down.



In Sub-Saharan Africa, and this is 1989 data, in different places 12% to 38% of the African men are in polygamous marriages. If they're limited to two and 50% is a max, those places where polygamy is 38% of the men, means that most of the women are in polygamists relationships. Again, as we saw in New Guinea, now a widow is very valuable, again the women are doing the work for you, and so in Senegal, for instance, 95% of the women who are widowed remarry within five years and 75% of these widows are married polygamously to a man that already has wives. Compare that to an equally poverty stricken culture like Bangladesh this almost never happens, that widows don't get remarried in Bangladesh.



Polygamy, contrary to the way we often perceive it as an abuse of women, it is not usually considered an abuse there, and women will often choose a polygamous marriage over a monogamous one. Because what they want is a man with resources, and such a man will probably already have some wives. The other wives act as a safety net and a support group, so if the woman gets sick, or her farming doesn't go well that year, or for whatever reason she can have a group of other women who will help her in a mutual kind of aid society. When a woman gets sick, and again sickness in pre-medical societies, their sick a much greater fraction of the time then we are, and it's a big part of their lives and they have to prepare for it. They have children to take care of and yet they're sick, the other women can come in.



Also if they're circumcised and not--in some of the severe ways and not say enjoying sexuality; the burden sometimes in many of these cultures the idea of female pleasure, in some case it's known, in some cases it's not known, and it may be very painful if she's had a circumcision operation, so the burden--so sexuality can be considered a burden on the women, but if there's many wives that burden is spread around. In many ways polygamy is an advantageous situation for a woman to be in.



One anecdote here: in Kenya a white French woman anthropologist married an illiterate Maasai warrior. She said, and she wrote a biography, she said that despite their cultural differences she and her Maasai husband, as well as his other wives, got along famously. She wrote this memoir and it was originally entitled, The Six Wives of My Husband. In a later edition it was amended to The Nine Wives of My Husband. In between he took three more wives.



I think you get the idea of what goes on in a society where land is not limiting, people are limiting. Now to contrast this whole system to that--in the temperate zones; agriculture is much more productive in the temperate zones. The key switch is where a single man can, by his agricultural efforts, or a woman depending, can produce more food then he and his--whatever his family unit is, can consume so that there's an agricultural surplus. In hunter/gatherer societies there's basically no surplus and a lot of the early traditional African societies, there's basically no surplus. With this surplus, of course, they have more children, the children are kept alive; there's enough food for the children, and the population starts growing, and eventually you fill up the land.



In this Lesotho story that I'm--this history--there's several books on the history, the Bantu people, who again, I mentioned this, started in West Africa, move east to just under the Sahel and then come down the east coast of Africa, and at the period in the 1700s they're sort of moving into southern Africa where conditions are pretty decent. Who's there? The Bushmen. And they are kind of pushing the Bushmen out of this part of Africa in the 1700s. The land is, as they see it, is open because the Bushmen are very, very sparse, they're not a threat of any sort and mostly the Bantus seem to take the Bushmen's wives. They don't seem to bother to kill the Bushmen, just take their wives.



Later on, by the 1800s, the land starts to get filled up and then not only do the Basotho of Lesotho, the people call themselves Basotho, start having conflicts among themselves but the neighboring groups, another Bantu group the Zulu--a big group generally called Zulu start getting politic--they start getting politically organized, they try to get land and you have tremendous wars in Zululand which also slops over into the Basutoland and tremendous destruction, tremendous dislocation. Again, eventually the land fills up when you have the kind of decent agriculture that you have--you can have in the Lesotho, which was again temperate zone and that south enough in Africa to be below the desert zone.



The land fills up and all kinds of things change. People come into conflict, and because individuals can produce more children than are needed to work the land, each individual can produce more food than is required, the excess children must go off and become basically landless peasants looking for scarce work or go into some villages, which eventually become cities, and become landless laborers, and the urban poor. Meanwhile, since there is this excess, now it becomes worthwhile for some people to get control of others, because that surplus, in a situation where each man just produces enough for himself and his wife and children, if it's the man doing the work, then there's no sense capturing him and enslaving him politically--controlling him politically because he doesn't have any surplus to give you, for you to take. Once agriculture is productive enough so that he has surplus then he has something worth taking and you start getting the chief--the chief's want to become kings and they want to take over your land, and they want to control you, and they want to get your surplus.



Actually civilization starts that way because with the surplus they buy luxury ornaments, and they have craftsmen, and they have trade, and they have scholars, and they have priests and all this kind of stuff because not every man is needed to farm the land. You both have, as a result of an increasing population density, the rise of civilization and the rise of a lot of the horrors of civilization in these massive wars and massive poverty.



This understanding of the dangers of overpopulation have been perceived for a long time, surprisingly early in history, when local regions got filled, but even surrounding them there could be lots of empty space. Here's a Greek epic from around 700 B.C. "There was a time when the countless tribes of man oppressed the surface of the earth, of the deep bosomed earth," deep bosom meaning deep soil, deep soil earth, "and Zeus saw it and he had pity on the earth, and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Trojan War, that the load of death might empty the world." Again, this is his explanation for the--whoever wrote this epic--explanation for the Trojan War, that it was a Malthusian thing, that the earth got too crowded, people couldn't support themselves anymore and they had to be cleaned off.



About 900 years later, Tertullian, a Roman [Christian] theologian echoes this; 200 A.D. "The earth is currently more cultivated and developed than at early times. Now all places are accessible, all are full of activity; everywhere there is a dwelling, everywhere a multitude, everywhere a government, everywhere there is life. We are burdensome to the world. The resources are scarcely adequate to us, and complaints are everywhere while already nature does not sustain us." Tertullian continues, "Truly pestilence and hunger, and war, and flood must be considered as a remedy for nations like a pruning back of the human race becoming excessive in numbers." That's quite lovely.



Of course the Europeans are not the only ones to worry about population. In China, in 500 B.C., Han Fei Tzu complained, "People at present think that five sons are not too many, and each son has five sons also, and before the death of the grandfather there are already 25 descendants." The women aren't counted. "Therefore, people are more and wealth is less. They work hard and receive little." This growing population density is well understood to be causing problems.



One of the problems that happens at population density is that communicable diseases--there's many, many problems. As the population gets denser, the wars become larger, maybe not as a percentage of the population but you have these enormous wars with enormous numbers of deaths. Another thing is disease starts spreading, communicable disease because the population is dense enough that the disease does not die out.



Again, this is local even though at the time of the Peloponnesian War in Greece, about 420 B.C., it was written about in 420, a lot of that world was not crowded, but Athens--the Athens area was indeed crowded, and Athens itself was crowded, and during the war they had a--everybody had to get into the city and the city was blockaded and the population density in the city was large enough that a plague, some sort of plague, we don't know what the disease was, broke out. This is Thucydides describing this, "Words indeed fail when one tries to give a general picture of this disease." He's writing The Peloponnesian War as--how many of you read The Peloponnesian War or some pieces of it? A few; it's very interesting.



"Words indeed fail when one tries to give a general picture of this disease, and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. People were dying like sheep, they died like flies, the bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets, or flocking around the fountains in the desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them." He goes on to describe the result of this plague which is the people going through emotional despair, civil society just collapses, and all kinds of lawlessness breaks out.



In later Europe, Europe underwent huge vicissitudes of population. In the classic ages, up through Rome, through the whole Roman Empire, the population of the Mediterranean world was clearly increasing; whatever data we have always points to that. Then starting with the Dark Ages, maybe as early as 300 or 400, Europe gets invaded by all kinds of "barbarian hordes," as they are perceived by the Romans. First, it's the Germanic tribes, then it's the Huns, then it's the Saracens, then it's the Vikings. By the year 1000, European population is extremely cut down; European civilization is cut down, and we don't really have good ideas of why all these invasions stopped. One history that I particularly like says the reason they stopped, there was nothing left worth taking in Europe.



About 1000 the invasions stopped and then civilization started recovering, and it only took about 200 years for Europe to basically repopulate itself. When you have land, when you have space, people then have a lot of children, and keep them alive. In these good years, it was good climate at that time also, life expectancies in the 1200s were between 35 and 40 years old, which is very good for this very early era.



Then around 1250 the population stopped increasing, and for another 100 years or so, it was more or less level. When you find a level population that means there's something limiting, some block, and they can't grow beyond this block. Historians attribute it to the whole sort of a state of culture there, so the land was not owned by peasants. So the peasants--if you your own land you'll have a lot of interest in farming it maximally and improving it, and doing stuff and when someone else owns the land, you don't have much interest in that and the worse the conditions you're under, the less interest you have in improving the land for the landowner because he's going to take as much as he can away from you and leave you just the bare amount that you can live on.



At this time the Catholic Church was by far the biggest landowner in Europe, and they owned 30% to 50% of all the productive lands in Europe. The peasants on the land were serfs and lived in this extreme poverty, and they were not allowed to leave the estate; they were stuck to living in that kind of condition. The ones that--well the church itself got very rich. This is a period of the tremendous dominance of the church. The income from church lands, going to church nobility and to Rome, was ten times larger and all the church lands--you had all the crown lands of the crowns in Europe. The church got ten times as much income from their lands as did the so-called civil authorities.



The civil authorities controlled what was left of the land, the kings and so forth, and it turns out that the serfs on the civil land had somewhat better conditions, somewhat more rights than on church lands. On church lands they were really the lowest of the low, but on civil lands they had somewhat better situations, but they were still deep in poverty. Because of this serfs just continued, they were totally uneducated and totally illiterate, and so they continued to farm the small plots just as they had done for centuries, and so the productivity of the land did not increase and the population could not increase.



Europe was full so there was no place that a serf could just get away and start his own farm with someone else because that land was owned already by someone else. In the cities which were beginning a little bit, the Guilds were trying to keep members away, they were closed, they only took children of the members of the Guild, there was no way for someone to rise up and become a craftsman.



Historians describe this in about 1300 as a Malthusian situation that it's--we'll talk more about Malthus later, but a demographic and economic situation where you just can't support more people. The productivity of your system is just not enough to provide for any more population then you have and that if population rises something is going to come--happen to knock it down again.



The thing that happened in Europe in this era is the plague. The plague first hit Europe in Sicily in 1347, the previous time it had been there was six to seven centuries ago, in what's called the Justinian Pandemic, near the end of the Roman Empire. The plague spread throughout Europe killing millions and millions of people. There was wave after wave of this and there was a wave in 1347, as I said, the biggest and initial wave. Then again in 1360, 1371, 1381, 1388, 1398, and every few years the plague would come through again and kill lots of people. Numbers are hard to come by, most estimates say that about 1/3 of Europe was killed by the plague. Numbers can range from 1/6 of Europe to 1/2 of Europe, but massive, massive death and brought Europe back down to below what you might call its carrying capacity with the then current technology.



Plague--they don't know why the plague came into Europe at exactly this time, and it may have been a random event but the--one of the more reasonable ideas is that plague kills, and plague is endemic in Asia, but it has to get from Asia to Europe, and if someone were traveling from Asia to Europe they would be dead--before this period--they would be dead long ago from the plague. But in the early Middle Ages, travel--shipping and all kinds of travel were getting better and faster, and so one of the things the plague may have been able to get to Europe because a ship leaving the Black Sea is where they caught it from, could get to Sicily before everyone who had the plague--everybody on the ship was dead. That's one hypothesis.



It took from this nice high level in 1250 and so forth, stagnant period, and then it was knocked down. It took hundreds of years, minimum 200 years before the population of Europe recovered to its 1300--1340 levels--and some historians think it didn't really recover until about 1715, so 400 years or something to recover from this. The plague continued for hundreds of years and more than 300 years after the plague started, it killed more than 70,000 people in London alone; one city. This is Daniel Defoe, The Journal of the Plague Year; some of you have probably read that, really horrible, so that's 1664 and 1665, more than 300 years after the plague starts.



One of the reasons it's persisted is they--the people had absolutely no idea what was causing the plague, absolutely no idea what to do to protect yourself from the plague, no real idea of contagion or contamination and there was no science whatsoever. This was before the enlightenment, before rational attitudes towards all these things. What would someone believe back then not having any sort of real understanding of the whole disease process and infection process? Pretty obvious, it's God's punishment.



Humans are sinful, we all know that and so God is punishing you. Well what do you do if you've been a bad boy? You have to get punished. Penitence. And people would whip themselves, they're called the flagellants and--have any of you seen The Seventh Seal? Ingmar Bergen; this is a great movie, it starts--it's set at this time in Europe and the opening scene is sort of a bleak, barren European landscape with a long line of Pilgrims going through each one with a whip, beating the guy bloody, the guy in front of him. This is atoning for their sins and this was a way that they intended to try to stay alive. What was the actual result of this? They're weakening themselves, they're cutting holes in their skin which is a barrier to penetration--flea bites; flea bites carry plagues--so these were sick, desperate people and they were going from town to town. They would pick up plague in one town, carry it to the next, carry it to the next, carry it to the next, so the very mechanisms by which they were trying to keep the plague away was exactly one of the major mechanisms of the spread of the plague.



You read the history at the time, there are all kinds of crazy--what we consider crazy things that they tried. So syphilis was introduced to Europe at about that time from the new world, so we're talking 150 years later, and while it was a new thing on the horizon and a number of doctors somehow got the idea that syphilis would protect you against the plague. One of the standard cures was to get infected with syphilis as a form of protection from the plague. As far as we can tell, this was a remedy taken up only by rich people; whether it's true or not I don't know.



The plague, being a very major demographic event, knocking the population of Europe way down, was one of the seminal landmarks in European civilization and marked a complete change in how European civilization developed. I described medieval Europe as having this sort of Malthusian kind of land lock, that things were unchanging and couldn't change because no one was allowed to do change, and then all of a sudden you get the Black Death, and then immediately after the Black Death you get the renaissance.



What happens is a lot of fluidity, people can leave the church estates, can leave their lords' estates, there's plenty of empty land, they go out there, they can farm themselves, the Guilds don't have members, they can join Guilds, they can do technology, they can move around, all kinds of things turn up. The first and most virulent wave of the plague lasted from 1340s to 1400, and the next generation was the core of the renaissance. So 1420, Brunelleschi designs the Great Dome over the cathedral in Florence, Ghiberti is creating the Great Bronze Doors for the Door of Florence's Baptistery, and Donatello makes the first David. I don't know if you ever--you know Michelangelo's David, but Donatello made a very delicate one before him which is sort of very different but equally beautiful. Da Vinci, Michelangelo all worked in the 1400s, Machiavelli, the Medicis, all of this century and at the end of the century, 1492, Columbus discovers America.



You have--you go from this extremely tight, locked in medieval thing lasting hundreds of years where basically almost everybody is miserable unless you were a lord or a bishop and then boom you reduce the population pressure and the world explodes in creativity. Now that's--not everybody had to agree that that was the seminal event that caused the renaissance in some--nothing is that simple, but it clearly was one of the major things that one has to consider in describing why did the Renaissance happen. There were of course antecedents to the renaissance before that, and as I've said, European civilizations started recovering in the year 1000 well before the plague. There's a simplistic explanation but certainly an important part of what was going on.



Now we're almost out of time, but even after the renaissance, and continuing up into surprisingly modern times, people still lived very badly. Better than before but still badly, so from the time of the Black Death until the industrial revolution started making things better, we're talking something like 1350 to maybe 1850, we can push that back to 1800 if you want. We have about 500 years, again, where the population pressure is not great, civilization is improving--is making great advances in terms of art, or culture, exploration of the world, but the common man doesn't really see much improvement in the situation at all.



The population is still overwhelmingly made up of peasants, just living on the edge of existence, and this is a description, a typical house in Europe in the late Middle Ages is made of wood or various scraps of vegetable material, mixed with mud or clay. The roof is of straw or reeds, the floor is of dirt, and there's a pit in the middle for fire. If it is winter the family huddles cold together around the fire in semi-darkness, with the animals nearby for warmth; one of the reasons for living with the animals is for the warmth that the animals produce. They don't understand ventilation and in ventilation you bring in cold air, you heat it, and you let it go out so they don't want the cold air coming in so they close themselves up, but they need a fire to keep from freezing, so the room is filled with smoke with maybe a small hole for the smoke to go out, so they're not breathing fresh air.



This is a description of the late Middle Ages, 300 years later there's little progress. One of the great French historians, George Huppert has studied a village in France in the 1600s, and there's a village about 500 to 700 people. "One-third of the babies died in their first year, another third died before adulthood, thus only one-third survived to reach their reproductive ages." Remember I showed you that graph from Roman times, same story, 1500 years and basically no progress. "The little children who managed to survive were good looking but, if they reached the age of 10 or 12, they had already assumed the generally unpleasant appearance of adults. The people tended to be stunted, bent over, and of a yellowish complexion. They did not look healthy. Their bellies were distended," lack of protein, "They moved slowly, they had poor teeth, their growth was retarded." He has village records from this era, "Of the 350 births only 145 would reach adulthood and marry in turn, but of the 75 female survivors marriage was almost universal," again if a woman managed to survive she was going to be married and start childbearing.



Since they were unhealthy, they didn't have good nutrition, the girls did not reach menses until about the age of 18, and finally they started menstruating and became fertile, and so they married late about age 23, they just weren't healthy enough to engage in a marriage before then. Childbearing was almost universal--marriage and childbearing was almost universal and we'll see this again in China, but maternal death severely cut short the period of childbearing. Having a child itself was extremely dangerous and of the third--of the one-third that reached marriageable age, most couples had only one or two children before either the husband or the wife died. So again the limitation on the number of children is poor nutrition, late maturity, leading to late marriage, and then early death and they have only one or two children.



The end result of his statistics isthat, by the time 100 female children of the preceding generation had died or finished their reproductive years, they had produced only 70 daughters. The population was not replacing itself. This is one of those situations where, if no one comes in from the outside, that village is going to go extinct. There were other places with apparently somewhat better agriculture that did produce a surplus of children and they wandered around looking for some home and the village made up this deficit by marrying excess people. Maybe the daughter of--daughters of transient artisans or laborers, and again, as we saw in the under populated areas of New Guinea, when a man died leaving a wife, no time was wasted. The widows and widowers remarried right away.



If--since land was so scarce that a lot of the marriages, and another reason for the late marriage, was they had to wait until the father died. That was important for working the land that there was so much that could support so many people, and you had so much labor that was required to work that land, the father died, that's one--they die fairly young, when they're still being able to work, so that labor is gone, you have to take in a wife to replace the labor of the dead father, then the children come on and the generation keeps repeating. This situation in France was characteristic of France for 400 years, and during that time the population just hovered around 20 million. It came out of the Black Death and it rose to 20 million and then they were not able to get over that for the ballpark of 400 years.



In--I think--I'll just tell you that the population started to recover then late in this period, and by 1560 it had really returned to the 20 million before the Black Death; this is France, but then religious fervor starts up. In the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and you know -- the wars between the Catholics and the Protestants in Europe, and previously, the Christians had religious wars always against Islam. They were--that was the main enemy, the Turks were very strong and much more advanced then the Europeans and they were battering at the doors of Europe. They surrounded Vienna, and so all of the military activity was of religious origin was against the Turks.



That threat receded and now you have the reformation and now you have two--both Christian religious groups in Europe and they start going after each other. About a quarter to half of the German speaking people of Central Europe were killed in this period, it was really most severe in Europe. In France it was sort of stamped out that early on in this period Protestants were doing very well in France. They had a large fraction of the population. Have you heard of St. Bartholomew's Day? On that day the--it also had to do with the royal succession--the Catholic forces got together and just slaughtered all the Protestants they could find and that sort of stopped the reformation in France. Europe again went through then 130 years of this Catholic/Protestant bloodletting before they finally realized that this was not a wise thing to do. We'll continue with what happens to European civilization after these slaughters--the religious slaughter dies down. See you on Tuesday.



[end of transcript]

Course Index

Course Description


This survey course introduces students to the important and basic material on human fertility, population growth, the demographic transition and population policy. Topics include: the human and environmental dimensions of population pressure, demographic history, economic and cultural causes of demographic change, environmental carrying capacity and sustainability. Political, religious and ethical issues surrounding fertility are also addressed. The lectures and readings attempt to balance theoretical and demographic scale analyzes with studies of individual humans and communities. The perspective is global with both developed and developing countries included.



Course Structure:

This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 75 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring 2009.

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