Habits of Empire, the book by Walter Nugent:
Many years ago as a child I was visiting Washington DC with my father.  It was obvious that the entire city had been laid out as a single unified plan, the largest work of art of any kind the world had ever seen, and one of the most beautiful.  This incredible accomplishment was a monument to the power and the dream that were America.  I pointed out to my father that the capital was quite proper in its size and ambition for the country it served.  He agreed.  I then said, rather puzzled, that the city was very old.  He agreed guardedly, making I now realized some reservation for the fact that there were other world capitals much older.  Then I ventured that when the city was started the United States did not have anything like the status it now had.  Seeing where I was going with this, he acknowledged that the men who built it had dreams of grandeur that had not at that time been realized.  I would say delusions of grandeur, and he might have said it himself, except that subsequent events proved them to be absolutely right.

I have now read a book (Habits of Empire.  Walter Nugent.  Alfred A. Knopff.  New York.  2008) that indicates that this intimation of glory was many years old when George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol Building.  The book traces the diplomatic successes of the seceding colonies and the expanding nation.  The book is one of official brazenness and skullduggery.  These men of the revolution, I am given to understand, started out rich and by and large ended poor.  They started with a group of colonies that had no representation in the limited monarchy that owned them and left behind the first great republic in a thousand years.  One is disposed to regard them with awe.  The book seems to paint them as power mad.  And yet the thing that stands out is their audacity, their willingness to make demands of territory and influence that seem outrageous and yet make those demands stick.  This pattern of seemingly invincible diplomacy continued until the nation teemed along the Pacific coast and beyond.

Their anything but secret weapon was the American birth rate.  Even the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was impressed.  This man postulated that population growth was exponential, that a population would double over a period of time and then double again after the same lapse of time.  No economic system could feed such a process forever.  And yet he specifically made exception for America.  That land would never run out of resources. 

As the pioneers swept westward, Nugent attributes their success to “Love and lust.”  Averaging 10 babies per couple, the settlers utterly overwhelmed the natives, who could barely manage to replace their own numbers.  He implies that there was simply so much sex going on in the log cabins and lean-tos that the population was an irresistible torrent. 

Everybody knew it.  Everybody was impressed.  Nobody could match it.  The world stood in amazement and would concede anything. 

But remember our composite graph of the world’s birth rate, following three major economic regions of the world over the past 50 years as if it were a single synchronized population. 

Composite graph of least developed counties from 1950 through 2000, less developed regions excluding least developed countries from 1975 through 2005, and more developed regions from 1970 through 2005.  The vertical axis is number of offspring per woman; the horizontal axis is discontinuous, but each bar represents a five year increment. 

Now the mystery is resolved.  The settlers were at the top of the curve, just as the third world was in the 1950’s or even beyond that.  (The average shown obviously conceals local areas growing faster.)  The American Indians were at the bottom of the graph like the developed world over the past couple or three decades. 

The reason is that the Indians were an old, matured and highly diverse population with a lot of genetic diversity and resulting low fertility.  The settlers were the offspring of a much smaller recent seed population.  As each settlement grew up, a group would move on, reducing the genetic diversity each generation more or less balancing the natural increase in diversity and any increased diversity from recruits from outside of the settlement. 

If a mischance happened to wipe out half the population, the settlers would replenish their numbers in 10 or 15 years.  The natives would never recover.  The “white man’s diseases” that are blamed for the Indian decline would have had an impact lasting exactly one generation, after which both populations were in the same boat as far as their experience with disease. 

The “better agricultural methods” of the settlers were incapable of supporting a single family in Long House Valley where Anasazi Indians had flourished for centuries.  Technology is no explanation.  The “better weapons” of the settlers may have been important later in the expansion, but the process began long before the 1860’s when gunpowder, when administered with a breech loading rifle, finally fulfilled its centuries old promise of being a better battlefield technique than  Napoleonic bayonet charge.  The Indians already had sharpened sticks, thank you. 

If you want to have children, having sex is a big help.  Having sex will raise your birth rate to somewhere between 1 and 2 children per couple, which makes for a pleasant life all around but is incapable of maintaining life in the long run.  Look back at the UN numbers and see.  But having sex between the right partners, ah, now the children number about 6 or 7 per couple according to the UN numbers, 10 among the pioneers according to Nugent, and 12 in colonial New England according to Fischer (Albion’s Seed.  David Hackett Fischer.  Oxford University Press.  Oxford 1989).  In other words, the right partner is more important than sex itself numerically, although obviously both are necessary. 

Ideal, in order to escape the doom of Malthus, we should have a birth rate that is potentially higher than 2 per couple and which is deliberately controlled.  Right now the developed world is in the plight of the Apache facing white men, unable to maintain a population and not knowing the day will come for the rising populations as well. 


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