This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Friday, February 23, 2018

Neanderthals Are Back in the News!

I don't think most of us give much thought to our very distant relatives--the Neanderthals. But they are back in the news because scientists have discovered ancient art on the walls of caves in Spain that seems to have been put there before Homo sapiens ever arrived in Europe. BBC News has a summary of the paper just published in Science.
Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists. A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years. They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery.
Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins. The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles. They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain.
These discoveries bring back to light the fact that we Homo sapiens used to share the planet with other human species, even if we prefer not to think about our roots. One person who has been thinking about these things is Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian who has written a best-selling book titled "Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind." I just finished reading it and while I'm not sure that I agree with everything he says (more on that in subsequent blog posts...), he writes well and obviously knows a lot. Here's his quick summary of where we fit into history (from pages 5 and 6):
Homo sapiens [modern humans] belong to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history's most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents, but that's just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother. 
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is 'an animal belonging to the genus Homo', and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
He then points out that humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago and that our human siblings include Homo rudolfensis (East Africa), Homo erectus (East Asia), Homo neanderthensis [--"man from the Neander Valley" (in Germany)]--(Europe and Western Asia), and a few others. However, for reasons about which we can only speculate, for the past 10,000 years Homo sapiens have been the only humans on the planet--still around so that we can enjoy the art of the Neanderthals.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

American and French Women are Delaying Births

A few days ago I commented on the finding that American women were having fewer children than they said they wanted. The ink was scarcely dry on that post (so to speak...) when Pew Research reported that their analysis showed that American women were, in fact, just delaying births.
Not only are women more likely to be mothers than in the past, but they are having more children. Overall, women have 2.07 children during their lives on average – up from 1.86 in 2006, the lowest number on record. And among those who are mothers, family size has also ticked up. In 2016, mothers at the end of their childbearing years had had about 2.42 children, compared with a low of 2.31 in 2008.
The recent rise in motherhood and fertility might seem to run counter to the notion that the U.S. is experiencing a post-recession “Baby Bust.” However, each trend is based on a different type of measurement. The analysis here is based on a cumulative measure of lifetime fertility, the number of births a woman has ever had; meantime, reports of declining U.S. fertility are based on annual rates, which capture fertility at one point in time.
The same thing seems to be happening in France, according to this week's Economist. As I've noted before, France's pronatalist policies have enabled the country to avoid the very low fertility levels of several of its European neighbors. The birth rate has dipped a little of late in France, but it may be another case of delaying babies, not necessarily of avoiding them altogether.
It could yet be that, in the coming years, older motherhood in France will make up for the recent fall. As Gilles Pison, a French demographer, points out, this is what happened after a previous child-bearing dip in the 1990s. Despite the sharp recent drop, the French remain among the more enthusiastic procreators in Europe. If the country can revive this breeding instinct, France will be on course, post-Brexit, to overtake Germany as the most populous country in the European Union by the mid-2050s—and for the first time since Bismarck.
Will that thought create a competitive spirit amongst German women? We'll have to wait and see...