January 28, 2011

John L. Casti
c/o Kenos Circle
Schottenring 17

Dear John Casti:
I am writing you and posting the letter soon on my web log nobabies.net, so you can consider this a plug for your new book Mood Matters, John L. Casti, Copernicus Books, New York 2010. 

Your basic thesis is that the mood of people drives momentous events rather than the other way around, and to this you bring to bear an enormous amount of evidence.  You point out more than once that this is contrary to most thought, which takes the position that mood is determined by “outside” factors, meaning events, but that there is in fact no outside.  Everything that happens to society comes from within that society itself.

The one point on which you show that things are not straightforward is the issue of birth rates.  Mood does not seem to have a clear effect on fertility, even though everybody “knows” that fertility among humans is a matter of “choice.”  How odd.

My own interest is in prejudice, specifically the prejudice against cousin marriages.  With modern genetic screening, there is no rational purpose served by this prejudice but it is very intense.  As it turns out the only way to have enough fertility to survive in the long run is to have cousin marriages, just as was standard throughout 99% of human history.  It had to have worked; else we would not be here.  What we are doing now is not working. 

Take Austria, for instance.  I go to Google’s Gapminder.com and set the coordinates of the graph with total fertility (it’s the first thing on their list, so I guess they think it’s important) on the horizontal axis and age at first marriage (it’s the last entry under the “population” button) on the vertical.  The data start at 1947.  For a while women were marrying younger and having more children, peaking in 1964, at which time as it turns out I was in Langenschonbishel looking in a somewhat ironic way for the Holy Grail.  I didn’t find it then.

In case you have forgotten, the story of the Holy Grail is the story of a curse.  The land is depopulated.  Arthur’s knights didn’t have any better luck than I in finding the cure. But as it turns out that very year the curse struck Austria and birth rates started into a rapid decline to below the rate needed for survival from which they never emerged.  The birth rate stabilized but the average age at first marriage rose from about 23 in 1982 to 29 in 2005 or six years rise in 23 years, 1: 4.  But it has been accelerating.  At the present rate, let’s say the ratio is about 1:3.  12 more years in increase in marriage age and the age will be about 40.  In effect there will be no more marriages and no babies from then on.  That will take, conservatively 36 more years.  Those girls are now among us aged 4.  It’s worse than that of course.  The data are 5 years old.  The girls are 9.  Within 5 years they are going to fall in love.  They may change boyfriends, but they will always be trying to duplicate their first love. 

So that is the maximum you seem to have in order to fix it.  If they fall in love with cousins, there is a chance. 

This pattern of fertility and age of first marriage is no fluke.  It is quite typical.  Load up Gapminder and look at Sweden.  For them the five years have already gone by.  There are exceptions.  China has had rock bottom fertility for many years.  No it’s not the one child policy.  The birth rate had already fallen before that went into effect.  But the age at first marriage has not risen.  I suppose it is idle to say that there are serious social differences between Austria and China that could be masking the effect. 

You can see how birth rate affects mood.  At the extreme, what will happen once there are no people?  Well nothing will be worth anything.  What will happen when there are no babies?  In economics one speaks of an interest rate.  You offer me a promise to pay me 100 dollars a year from now.  What will I pay for that assuming that I am sure you are good for it?  I would pay you in excess of 90 dollars.  Suppose your promise is to pay me nothing at all.  For that I would not pay you anything unless there were other considerations.  So on the day the last baby is born nothing is worth anything.  Nobody expects that to happen.  Not even I believe it.  I think we are going to fix it.  But the market can see far ahead.  Those barren women are already alive.  The market has an unsentimental ability to integrate information on a global scale; the market begins to look very grim.

On a less abstract level, look at American history.  Compare the grim Indians with their tragically low birth rate and the ebullient settlers with their sky high birth rate.  Their gene pool was restricted because of sequential founder effects as they expanded westward.  The Indians, falling back and regrouping had the opposite experience. 

If you look at the Black people in the US today, they are not grim in demeanor, but my grandmother used to take a walk down town from time to time just to listen to the Black people laugh.  It cheered her up.  She called it a “black bath.”  It is not like that now.  Their birth rate was much higher then. 

So I agree with you that there is nothing outside the system, but there may be things in the system that are beyond our ken.  I think this is one.  Children improve the mood of the society, maybe not always that of the exasperated parents, but on average. 

Yes there will be exceptions.  You say Sweden is optimistic although their birth rate is low.  When I was there I found them utterly delightful, but from time to time they would go gloomy even then. 

Let me know what you think.  Maybe there is a book in it for you.  Feel free to go over nobabies.net.  The piece I posted on December 24, 2010 is my most recent summary. 

Thank you for a marvelous read. 


M. Linton Herbert MD

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