Cause and effect

Personality can predict fertility.

An interesting paper came out recently in PNAS.  In it, the authors claim that, in a human population where large families are the norm, there are certain personality traits in both men and women that are indicators for having larger-than-average families.

In men, they find that the more extraverted the father, the more children he will generally have.  This seems sensible to me, though it doesn’t clearly indicate whether he has more children because he is outgoing, or whether having a lot of children of necessity makes him more outgoing.

Worryingly, the strongest personality indicator of large families in women is not extraversion but rather what they call “neuroticism,” or anxiety, depression, moodiness, and a smorgasboard of other mental disorders.  They also find that the (many) children of these mothers tend to be malnourished and attribute this to increased neglect.  Now, I’m not about to dispute the data – it is what it is.  But I think it says some rather worrying things about the Senegalese society the researchers studied, and some particularly worrying things about human society as a whole, if their findings apply beyond those little villages.

Is it possible that, even today, women are still conditioned to believe that their worth and happiness are dependent on their ability to produce offspring?  One way to look at the results is that these “neurotic” women were either bullied into having more children that they were perhaps unprepared to deal with, or that they were trying to make themselves happier by having more babies.  That’s bad enough.  But if you turn it around, it makes you wonder about the real feasibility/advisability of having large families at all, if these mothers’ “neuroticism” was caused by dealing with their large families.  Either way, it says some troubling things about mental health and motherhood.

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