Friday, April 8, 2011

The African outlier

While birth rates fall everywhere else, sub-Saharan Africa remains an outlier of high fertility (2009).

Throughout most of the world, the demographic transition has played out as predicted. Fertility rates have fallen to replacement level and even lower, first in Europe and North America and more recently in East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The exceptions are societies where religious fundamentalists exert a strong influence on childbearing: Mormons and Amish in the United States, and Islamists in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

There is, however, an area where the demographic transition seems permanently stalled for reasons unrelated to religion. That area is sub-Saharan Africa. How come?

This puzzle caught the attention of anthropologist Patricia Draper back in the late 1980s. Sub-Saharan Africa had become an outlier of high fertility, even after adjustment for those factors that were lowering birth rates elsewhere. This excess fertility seemed to be due to a different social environment for mating and reproduction:

[…] in much of Africa, not only among country people but among urban populations as well, there persists high fertility and a pattern of parental investment in which both mothers and fathers invest, by Western standards, relatively little in each offspring and pursue a pattern of delegated parental responsibility (Draper and Harpending 1988). Coupled with low investment parenting is a mating pattern that permits early sexual activity, loose economic and emotional ties between spouses (Potash 1978), and in many cases the expectation on the part of both spouses that the marriage will end in divorce or separation, followed by the formation of another union (Aldous 1962; Lowy 1977; Oppong 1974; Mair 1953; Gibson 1958; Hunter 1961; Tuupainen 1970). Polygyny, still widespread in Africa, inhibits high male parental investment in children […] (Draper, 1989, p. 145-146)

In sub-Saharan Africa, parenting is assumed primarily by the mother and her kin. The parents, especially the father, are thus under much less pressure to limit family size. As Draper notes :

[…] people do not scale down expectations for large numbers of children precisely because their understandings about available resources take into account reservoirs of surrogate care among their kin. […] African men may see no urgency in reducing the numbers of their progeny precisely because a characteristically African set of socioecological circumstances permit many children to survive despite low father contribution to child support. (Draper, 1989, p. 147)

This is in contrast to the situation of parents elsewhere, particularly in modern urban settings, where a larger family perceptibly reduces the resources left over for the parents.

Will things change in the near future? Much depends on whether African families adopt the Eurasian marriage system, i.e., monogamy, long-lasting marital bonds, and high parental investment in children (including high paternal investment). To date, despite the efforts of missionaries and government authorities, there has been little change in this direction.

African men, in particular, are reluctant to assume a more active parental role:

Much of rural African subsistence is based on the work of women in their gardens; men make only modest contributions. Typically, rights in land are held by men by virtue of their membership in kinship or village units. A man who wishes to add another wife is under few constraints (provided his kinship group has the land and bridewealth), since women, in effect, pay their own way. They produce food, and they rear children. In rural areas, when a man marries an additional wife, he is awarded additional fields for this woman and her children (Bryson 1981). The importance of male labor to support such households is reduced. In former times, before colonially imposed peace, the male role in defense was important. But since central governments have been present, men who remain in rural villages spend their time in leisure, in management of household labor, or in local political affairs (Potash 1978). More recently, men absent themselves for long periods in migratory labor. They send remittances home that help to pay school and medical fees and to buy clothing. Nevertheless, the work of feeding people remains with women (Hafkin and Bay 1976; Vaughan 1983).

[…] Many efforts have been made to induce African men to increase their agricultural labor. The more successful of such ventures have followed the introduction of cash crops and the development of markets. Men are more willing to work at raising cash rather than traditional subsistence crops. However, since most cash crops are not food crops, women continue to do the subsistence farming, for which cash conversion is less possible, and they work even harder, since the men are busy with cash crops and have even less time for periodic help in the family gardens at clearing and harvest time (Obbo 1980; Whiting 1977; Kelley 1981). Characteristically, men do not return their earnings from cash crops to the household economy. This money is held separately and spent by men on their own projects (Vellenga 1983; Abu 1983; Bryson 1981). (Draper, 1989, p. 152)

As Africans migrate to other parts of the world, they tend to recreate the African marriage system in their host countries by using local people and institutions as “surrogate kin” Draper describes the situation in England, where young African couples often place their children in foster homes:

As might be expected, the outcome for all concerned does not work in the way it is expected to in West Africa. The foster parents interpret the infrequent visiting of their wards’ “real” parents as signs of parental neglect and become strongly attached to the foster children. This sometimes results in legal suits for transfer of custody to the foster parents (Ellis 1977). Meanwhile, the African parents make no comparable assumption that the delegation of care means they have surrendered formal rights in children. They consider that by having made safe and reliable arrangements for the care of children and by regular payment of fees, they are dispatching their immediate responsibility. (Draper, 1989, p. 164)

Ironically, when infertile Western couples go to Africa to adopt, as is increasingly the case, the adopted child evokes a degree of parental attachment that it would not normally evoke from its natural parents—even in the best of circumstances.


Draper, P. (1989). African marriage systems: Perspectives from evolutionary ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 145–169.


JL said...

Yet the fertility rates of Westernized Africans, such as African Americans, are not much higher than those of whites and others.

Anonymous said...


UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Anon...if you are asking JL for proof here it is:

Further, the majority of African American fertility is in the ghettos, where about 20-25% live, the other 80-75% have fertility rates similar to their white neighbors, which creates a demographic problem, the poor are replacing themselves, for every kid that becomes middle class, some other woman produced 3 more poor ones who likely won't make it out. the people with the highest fertility rate are Hispanics (mestizos from Mexico and Central America).

This is mostly cultural and not genetic. Culture is organic and changes faster than biology to environmental pressure. The issue is why would African fertility rates need to change.

Compare Africa to India, they have a similar population (India slightly more), but unlike India, Africa is the size of Europe and North AMerica combined, and the population density is lower than the United States in most countries. There are areas of East Africa that look almost empty 10 minutes drive outside a major city. As long as one can expand subsistence agriculture, there is no reason to change strategy. Africa has more land open (despite the deserts), and Africa does not have as many people living in poverty as India.

For Africans who do expand out (the number is increasing by year) heating to Europe, the Middle East, and even East/Southeast Asia looking for work...I would imagine their remittance helps (as alluded to in the article).

I would also think that E1b is the fastest growing Y Haplogroup in the world. LOL

Beyond Anon said...

Natural Selection in action in Sweden?

Vitamin D deficiencies among dark-skinned immigrants.

Use google translate to verify.

Max said...

Dragon Horse:

Africans are not going to be happy with subsistence agriculture indefinitely. Millions of them are going to want the kind of life that they can probably only have outside Africa. Though I wouldn't rule out pockets of development within Africa (aside from South Africa), which might absorb some of the migration.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


I agree. I think that "want" will only increase as mass communication increases, especially movies and television. Most of those folks will be headed to Europe I imagine, a lesser extent to Asia (including the Middle East).

Beyond Anon: is not natural selection if does not prevent them from breeding. This issue is as much "natural selection" as skin cancer is in the United States. LOL

As far as the sunlight issue in Northern Europe it is easily remedied with one capsule of Vitamin D-3 1000 IU in the winter and fall. I know I'm quite dark skinned and I will be moving to Switzerland in a couple of months. I've spent time there before, and my doctor recommended this on top of my normal daily vitamin. No big deal.

Anonymous said...

Ah! But how long before they turn Europe into Africa?

Peter Frost said...

JL, Anon, Dragon Horse, Mark,

Yes, African-American fertility is close to the replacement level. The same is true for much of the Caribbean (except for Haiti). In Cuba, the fertility rate is well below replacement.

So does this mean that the African system of mating and reproduction is not hardwired? Well, at least it means that key parts are not hardwired. African fertility seems to collapse in the presence of (1) universal old age pensions; (2) access to reliable birth control, including abortion; (3) active discouragement of polygyny; and (4) dissolution of kinship networks.

JL said...

Peter, I would suggest that the fertility of any population will collapse in the presence of those things.

Beyond Anon said...

Dragon Horse says:

Beyond Anon: is not natural selection if does not prevent them from breeding. This issue is as much "natural selection" as skin cancer is in the United States. LOL

Well, over time, we can expect them to become more like the Swedes, those that survive, that is, because insufficient vitamin D can cause real problems.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Beyond Anon:

All due respect, but I think you need to improve your understanding of natural selection.

That's the point, not necessarily. The only way they will become more like the Swede is if they intermarry with Swedes.

The reality is that Vitamin D deficiency is easily treated with vitamin pills, which anyone can get from a doctor in Switzerland for free. Right? And these pills are only needed in the non-Summer months.

What you are saying is like me saying white Americans will get naturally darker and more like Native Americans if they stay in America long enough. Lol That is not the case. There is a little invention called Sunscreen.

So neither of these conditions will "kill people" or even make them "seriously ill" before they are old enough to have children. So there will be no natural selection.

Peter Frost said...


I disagree.

In North America and Europe, the fertility decline began well before universal old age pensions, modern birth control, and abortion on demand. In the 1920s, fertility rates were already below replacement in much of the Western World. Yet abortion and contraception were illegal. Nor were there old age pensions at that time (other than relief provided by local churches).

The postwar baby boom was a temporary reversal of this long-term trend.

Dragon Horse,

I wouldn't worry about becoming vitamin-D deficient. The indigenous peoples of northern Canada, Alaska, and northern Asia have brown skin, and yet they develop vitamin-D deficiency only when they eat Western diets.

If you're really worried about vitamin-D deficiency, just cut back on your consumption of antacids and commercially processed bread. Modern diets immobilize the body's intake of calcium and phosphorus, thus artificially increasing your need for vitamin D.

Tod said...

The figure usually given for the population of Nigeria is said to be a considerable underestimate. There are political implications for tribal/regional/political or religious groupings in reducing their fertility so no government is likely to seriously try and reduce the fertility of that part of the population which is their own power base.

However, masses of young men with no position in society are a social time-bomb so the African governments will increasingly encourage the emigration of their surplus young men to Europe. said...

Emigration of the surplus is not an answer. They are only a little minority. At the end, it will not make any difference.

If the Africans don't stop to grown in numbers, they will be increasingly unable to increase their individual wealth. If you look at what is happening in the M.E. you will understand what will happen.
Wealthier Europeans and Asians will outbid the Africans for food and commodities. So, in case of a major peak of prices, they will unable to feed themselves.

If Europe (or the US or whatever) become africanized or islamized, the foreign aid will stop and the good will too. Economy will tank and they will be out of needed products (drugs for example). Then their numbers will tank for famine and disease.