That doesn't explain why people choose to have small families.

No, but that explains why that choice exists.

Not really. Humans have exercised control over family size for thousands of years via all sorts of different mechanisms. Modern birth control is certainly more convenient than the vast majority of ancient mechanisms, but it's not clear that the increase in convenience is why the modern world is a lot less excited than the ancient one about the command "Go forth and multiply."

Would you seriously argue that people choose to have children as a reasonably optimal selfish way of guaranteeing that they continue to have enough to eat once they're no longer capable of working?

Yes, seriously, I find nothing outlandish about this assertion. Why are you so surprised?

It's not a totally unreasonable argument, it's just very contrary to my personal experience. I don't see humans commonly engaging in a lot of decades off long-term thinking, and child-creating/child-rearing typically seems to be dominated by a lot of deep instinctual emotional cues. Parents often devote significant resources to caring for special needs children who are unlikely to grow into good providers. Parents seem to derive a lot of satisfaction and to compete for status based on the way that their children perform in school or child sports or other competitions, even though these are very weakly linked to any sort of economic productivity. Hutterite communities practice common ownership and thus have a more extensive social safety net than even modern societies, but traditionally have large average family sizes.

It's not obvious to me that humans reproduce for reasons substantially different from the reasons that other animals reproduce, and it's very obvious that most creatures aren't having children in order to secure their retirement. The tendency of parents to take exceptional risks in order to protect their offspring is also better explained by these traits being promoted by genetic self-interest than the idea that children are a rational agent's retirement plan. It seems profoundly weird to me that all the other animals reproduce because their genes tell them to, but humans just so happen to make the same exact decision for a completely different reason.

It's also not totally obvious to me that children are a particularly good investment from a long-term wealth or even a guaranteed income perspective. I feel like if most people directed the same amount of resources into securing their retirement via other means that they typically direct into child-rearing they would often end up better off. It's an interesting thesis though, and it has some neat fits to the data. The falling birthrate, it could be argued, is due to the fact that there are more long-term investment opportunities now than there were in the past and people have chosen to diversify their investments. At the same time, modern decreases in child-mortality and death in child-birth might make children a more attractive investment than they were in the past, so there are definitely some issues.

Because if you're managing the number of your children, you're managing the number of children who'll grow up to adulthood.

But why choose to have fewer children grow to adulthood rather than more? If my children are more likely to survive to adulthood then I should have more children, not fewer, since child birthing and raising is now a better investment than it was before.

Clearly, people are interested in more than that and on a very regular basis choose NOT to maximize the spread of their genes.

But why is that even an option? What evolutionary advantage is so adaptive that even though it leads to obviously maladaptive behavior like choosing not to have children that you could easily support the adaptation is still a net-positive on average?

I'm not sure what the difference is between [Women have attractive alternatives to just being a mother] and "achievements other than sex and children have become markers of status".

The difference is you're talking solely about status and I'm talking about a much wider context.

I think the more fundamental difference may actually be that I'm talking about population level processes and you're thinking about things on the level of individual decision makers. I think most human decisions are constrained fairly tightly by the culture that they find themselves in and that copying high status individuals is one of the driving forces of cultural change. I think cultures that have family size as a primary marker of achievement and status don't create the opportunity for people to support themselves by going to graduate school to study science or math instead of raising a family. Social status is very much about having a place in the community, and cultures don't create good attractive places in the community for occupations with low social status. An individual may choose to pursue a Ph.D. in math rather than a more conventionally high status career in finance, but a society that doesn't see educational attainment as a mark of status isn't going to have a career track for graduate students at all.

Would you seriously argue that people choose to have children as a reasonably optimal selfish way of guaranteeing that they continue to have enough to eat once they're no longer capable of working?

I don't see humans commonly engaging in a lot of decades off long-term thinking,

This isn't exactly long term thinking. If you live in a culture dominated by extended families, you see your grandparents in your home, and later you will see them die and your parents become the oldest generation in the home. You see the same thing in your neighbor's homes. You se... (read more)

1Lumifer5yYou probably live in a first-world country with a social safety net and a (more or less) guaranteed pension of some sort until you die. The chances of you literally starving in your old age are pretty low. Now imagine yourself as, say, as a peasant in Mozambique. As you grow old, you can't work your field any more. What will you eat? No particular need. First, it is what happens by default if you don't take heroic birth control measures (remember, no pill or effective condoms), second, it's culturally ingrained, that's what everyone does, and third, I don't think examples of old childless people are rare. Anyone can look at that broken-down hut at the edge of the village and see that it's much better to live with your family than alone. You're a peasant in Mozambique. Or in XII-century France. What are your other options? Because humans are not slaves to their instincts? You seem to be surprised that what evolutionary psychology says must happen does not happen in reality. I would like to suggest that this a problem for the theory, not for the reality. Which cultures are these? Family size is a low-level marker of status, it basically says "I'm not a loser and I can provide for a large family". Once you get to upper classes, it no longer works -- their games are different. Yes, more or less, but I don't see what does it have to do with family size. Status markers are not exclusive, any society has lots of them.

Why people want to die

by PhilGoetz 1 min read24th Aug 2015175 comments


Over and over again, someones says that living for a very long time would be a bad thing, and then some futurist tries to persuade them that their reasoning is faulty.  They tell them that they think that way now, but they'll change their minds when they're older.

The thing is, I don't see that happening.  I live in a small town full of retirees, and those few I've asked about it are waiting for death peacefully.  When I ask them about their ambitions, or things they still want to accomplish, they have none.

Suppose that people mean what they say.  Why do they want to die?

The reason is obvious if you just watch them for a few years.  They have nothing to live for.  They have a great deal of free time, but nothing they really want to do with it.  They like visiting friends and relatives, but only so often.  The women knit.  The men do yardwork.  They both work in their gardens and watch a lot of TV.  This observational sample is much larger than the few people I've asked.

You folks on LessWrong have lots of interests.  You want to understand math, write stories, create start-ups, optimize your lives.

But face it.  You're weird.  And I mean that in a bad way, evolutionarily speaking.  How many of you have kids?

Damn few.  The LessWrong mindset is maladaptive.  It leads to leaving behind fewer offspring.  A well-adapted human cares above all about sex, love, family, and friends, and isn't distracted from those things by an ADD-ish fascination with type theory.  That's why they probably have more sex, love, and friends than you do.

Most people do not have open-ended interests the way LWers do.  If they have a hobby, it's something repetitive like fly-fishing or needlepoint that doesn't provide an endless frontier for discovery.  They marry, they have kids, the kids grow up, they have grandkids, and they're done.  If you ask them what the best thing in their life was, they'll say it was having kids.  If you ask if they'd do it again, they'll laugh and say absolutely not.

We could get into a long argument over the evolution of aging, and whether people would remain eager to have kids if they remained physically young.  Maybe some would.  Some would not, though.  Many young parents are looking forward to the day their kids leave.

A lot of interests in life are passing.  You fall in love with a hobby, you learn it, you do it for a few years, then you get tired of it.  The things that were fascinating when you were six hold no magic for you now.  Pick up a toy soldier and try to play with it.  You can't.  Skateboarding seems awesome for about five years, and then everyone except Tony Hawk gets tired of it.

Having kids might be like that for some people.  Thing is, it's literally the only thing humans have evolved to be interested in.  Once you're tired of that, you're done.  If some of you want to keep going, that's an accidental by-product of evolution.  And there was no evolutionary pressure to exempt it from the common waning of interest with long exposure.

The way to convert deathists isn't to argue with them, but to get them interested in something.  Twist them the way you're twisted.