Friday, September 12, 2008

East coast elitist liberal rhetoric or the truth?

I'm having trouble with the chapter I'm editing at the moment. I feel like the author has left out a lot of good points, but when I write out what I'd like him to add, it sounds like propaganda. Is it propaganda or is it the truth?

The chapter is on population, and it's for a non-majors intro biology textbook. The author's goal is to equip students who will probably never take another biology class with enough understanding of biology that they can make educated choices for the rest of their lives. He wants it to be relevant and exciting. So he writes this chapter about how the rate of population growth is affected by the birth rate and the death rate, he throws in the math and the carrying capacity, and then goes on about it for 5 or 6 pages. It's like he's taking the safe route and never talking about anything that really matters!

The part that really bothers me is about demographic transition. The principle is that in undeveloped countries people die earlier (from disease, accidents, whatever) because they don't have such good health care. To make up for the high death rate, they tend to have lots of children. (Parents are supposedly motivated to have children to take care of them when they get old.) As the country goes through an economic transition and becomes industrialized, they get better health care and people start living longer. (Fewer accidents and diseases are fatal.) For a while, they continue having lots of kids, but eventually something happens and the birth rate goes down.

My problem is this: the author doesn't explain why very well. I have a hunch that good medical care is not inextricably linked with industrialization. But even more troubling is the reason people stop having so many babies. He says it has something to do with a better economy. I'm not an expert on this, but I always believed that women's rights and education had something to do with it: when women have the chance to do something besides stay home and make babies, they often do it. When they have the choice whether to have a baby or use freely available birth control, they often make that choice.

If a poor family suddenly had more money, and nothing else changed, wouldn't they logically want more kids, not fewer? After all, they can now provide for more. What happens in a wealthy family doesn't believe in birth control or that a woman should work outside the home? They have 18 kids. Wikipedia lists the following countries among those with a low drop in fertility (compared to other countries in the same stage of industrialization): Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan. What do those countries have in common? Oppressed women.

This side of the issue changes the way we look at everything. Wouldn't students who might go on to study politics, history, or sociology, benefit from even a short discussion of how a society's laws and practices affect its population? Wouldn't someone who may exercise their right to vote benefit? Don't we owe it to them to at least introduce them to these concepts?

Or am I simply trying to spread the propaganda? Am I infusing my own beliefs (the opposite of truth) into a textbook?

Or perhaps I'm overreacting. Maybe there are history or economics or politics classes that cover this sort of thing, and a biology class needs only to be concerned with the effects of a growing population on the environment?

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