The Reproductive Ecology of Industrial Societies, Part I: Why Measuring Fertility Matters


Is fertility relevant to evolutionary analyses conducted in modern industrial societies? This question has been the subject of a highly contentious debate, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to this day. Researchers in both evolutionary and social sciences have argued that the measurement of fitness-related traits (e.g., fertility) offers little insight into evolutionary processes, on the grounds that modern industrial environments differ so greatly from those of our ancestral past that our behavior can no longer be expected to be adaptive. In contrast, we argue that fertility measurements in industrial society are essential for a complete evolutionary analysis: in particular, such data can provide evidence for any putative adaptive mismatch between ancestral environments and those of the present day, and they can provide insight into the selection pressures currently operating on contemporary populations. Having made this positive case, we then go on to discuss some challenges of fertility-related analyses among industrialized populations, particularly those that involve large-scale databases. These include 'researcher degrees of freedom' (i.e., the choices made about which variables to analyze and how) and the different biases that may exist in such data. Despite these concerns, large datasets from multiple populations represent an excellent opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses in great detail, enriching the evolutionary understanding of human behavior.

In Human Nature