Subscribe to my Substack - Unsupervised Learning

A WEIRD society and the extinction of informal alloparenting

Today I saw a Twitter thread where the issue of raising children came up, and how best professionals can manage the challenge when public schools are not available in the same way as they were in the past with distance learning (this is all due to COVID-19). All sorts of “culture war” topics get entangled into this.

For example, many groups of two-income families are entertaining the possibility of private instructors. This raises objections from those who assert that this exacerbates inequalities. It probably does. But what are the options right now for such families? Nothing I can see on the horizon.*

On a recent podcast, I asserted that my politics today begin and end with the question: “But is it good for the nuclear family?” I am not interested in a long philosophical inquiry into this question. Society is perpetuated by people who have children. Humans are a good. They are the ends. Not the means. I do not think reproduction should be incumbent on anyone, but neither do I think it is healthy that children are viewed now by some as a luxury consumption good.

The brittleness of modern child-rearing practices brings to mind something highlighted in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: in both our historical and evolutionary past “alloparenting”, where someone who is not the mother or father takes care of the child, has been ubiquitous. It is in developed WEIRD societies that alloparenting has faded. And, I believe that alloparenting has diminished the most in college-educated professionals, who often live far from their relatives, and exist in communities where independence and some level of self-containment is expected. Rather than informal and customary alloparents, children are taken care of by professionals.

Alloparenting has been rationalized. Made efficient. Transformed into economic units of exchange. Unfortunately, it seems this sort of alloparenting is more brittle to an exogenous shock.

This is I think related to the arguments in Joe Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. The collapse of kindreds, the rise of atomized nuclear families, and the organic development of civil society generated the economic bounty and innovation we see around us today.

But reading Henrich’s book I began to worry that WEIRD individualist societies were fragile. And their equilibrium was meta-stable at best. Without growth, the frontier, and economic bounty, I am skeptical that the WEIRD way can maintain itself, as society retrenches back to the traditional social arrangements of kith and kin.

* One option is that one parent stays at home. That’s how we do it. But most people plan on a certain level of income, and some people are single-parents. So it’s not feasible to imagine millions of people shifting their lives so rapidly.


17 thoughts on “A WEIRD society and the extinction of informal alloparenting

  1. I asked pretty much the following question a few weeks ago in an open thread about the time I first ran across an expression of your belief in the centrality of the nuclear family for the development of modern, materially wealthy (my phrasing) or economically developed societies. I don’t recall that you addressed it, so I ask again.*

    Exactly where do you draw the boundaries around the nuclear family? Does it include only a family that is (or was at least initially, before, say, a death) 2 parents of the opposite sex and their biological and adopted children? Polygyny with separate households? Etc., etc.

    *I don’t have a hidden agenda here other than understanding your beliefs (in much the same way that an honorable teacher will lay out their beliefs so that students can intelligently discount what they are about to hear). I don’t think my politics begin and end with this, but certainly central to them is “What policies and institutions are best for children, for allowing them do grow up to be adults who can lead decent lives?“. I suspect this is more informed (relatively) by values & morality and less informed (absolutely) by knowledge of history than yours is.

    I may be projecting my own framework on you by stressing “economically developed”, but I believe and suspect you do too, that a minimal level of material wealth is a prerequisite for most people to live a decent life, and an economically developed society is required for most people to attain this. I am not going to go into what is a decent life. Comments have to stop somewhere.

  2. I don’t think that most people in WEIRD societies are ready for the consequences of reverting to older social forms, including the erosion of personal freedom and falling under the authority of a broader group of “elders.”

  3. I’m not 100% sure if it’s consistent to value individualism and a more open society for growth, and also be concerned that they will lose that edge. Still mulling that over.

    But, if individualism and the open society were decoupled from econonomic and scientific growth (the less kin and personal relationship oriented societies no longer held the materialist advantage), would they still be worth arguing for and championing? I’m not sure a kin and friendship oriented society isn’t arguably really the superior for human emotional flourishing, compared to one where social relations are oriented towards ever more fractionalized groupings of shared class, education, conspicuous consumption, fashion, pop culture etc., if economic growth were equal.

  4. But what are the options right now for such families? Nothing I can see on the horizon.*

    I can report a massive increase in interests in homeschooling. Both my homeschooling curriculum provider and co-op have received an enormous number of inquiries since the pandemic began. We’ll see how much those translate to actual enrollment this fall, but already the numbers are much greater than over the same time last year (bulk of the registrations are made in August usually).

  5. “It is in developed WEIRD societies that alloparenting has faded. And, I believe that alloparenting has diminished the most in college-educated professionals”

    Aren’t nannies alloparents? Aren’t they fairly common among the college educated professionals you mention?

  6. The other popular gripe about school is that it is indoctrination rather than education, and the other goal of the school-reopening activists is to get rid of those teachers who believe in COVID and the wider leftist agenda, replacing them with the new generation of teachers who would be more in line with the parents’ religious, cultural and conspiratorial beliefs.

    A part of the nuclear-family shift is due to marketing (once splintered, the extended families consume more goods and services). So the recent push for private tutoring is just a natural extension of the decades-old consumerist approach to child and elder care.

  7. Matt: “I’m not sure a kin and friendship oriented society…”

    A “kin oriented society” and a “friendship oriented society” are different things – perhaps even opposite things.

    A quasi-personal note – I know some persons who, living usually in Portugal, spent some time in the USA; and what they say about the USA is that people help more each other, and the neighbors are more available to take care of each other kids when someone has/want to stay the night out; I suspect that in USA friends and neighbors partially occupy some functions that in Portugal are performed by the extended family.

    Another quasi-personal note – my parents lived some years in Portuguese Mozambique, until 1975; my father sometimes say that the friends were more close in Africa than in Portugal, and his explanation was that the families were in (European) Portugal, and the friends replaced the family.

  8. @Miguel, to certain degree there would be a trade off between them, ultimately.

    But they’re no in absolute zero sum competition with each other, and I think many societies could have more of both than the West, and I suspect most traditional societies do. At least based on some data I posted in the open thread suggesting greater preferences for friends in a bribery game in one of those societies labelled as being more kin based (Iran), than one which is WEIRD (Canada)… while interestingly showing no greater preference for kin.

    While I get your anecdotal, I’m not sure I really believe friends really replace kin in WEIRDer societies – I may have a bleak perspective on this, but it seems more like people just substitute both kin and friendship with institutions, group loyalties, clubs, markets and other kinds of impersonal socialization, etc.. “Bowling Alone”.

  9. You can have a functioning society and well being population which is largely individualist on a kin group level, if the state is strong and cares for it. If you let private, unrestrained Capitalist interests rule everything, including the media and education, what you get is not just a WEIRD, but a deeply rotten and corrupted society, which is no longer able to defend, reproduce and keep up itself on the long run.
    Basically it makes people a mean and children in the Western style developed societies are expensive and the people demanding, both on the material and political level.
    This means importing people which seem to be cheaper and easier to control is preferred and the inhabitents of such a state grow up with the belief that their own people and “reproductive work” in general is of low to no value in comparison to “making money”, “performing” and “doing self-actualisation”. Its at best a second level lifestyle choice.
    This makes whole people and generations to birds which always dance, always build nests, play around with sexual partners, but never lay eggs and raise their offspring.

    Its amazing how the modern people, which know so much about evolution and natural selection, can largely ignore all actual consequences of these basic rules. Cultural Marxism really did a great job in blindfolding whole societies.

    Like you can listen to nonsense like a BBC documentary about “evolutionary winners” visiting the graves of people which got 100 years old. As if those are the actual winners – they could be, but their age doesn’t prove anything. If a person has 20 surviving children at the age of 42 and dies, but the kids, or at least most of them, survive, she’s is in the winner cohort. If somebody is a monk or professor, or anything else, it doesn’t matter, getting 100 years old but having no offspring at all, he or she is simply a dead end.
    And with this person which dies childless, don’t just die the way the looked superficially, but also genetic and cultural traits which were running in this family, probably for many, many generations before.

    The differences are actually the most pronounced in poorer families. Poor German pastor’s families produced some of the most outstanding people in all of German history, for all fields of society, from officers, politicians, scientists to businessmen. Some of them had not much more money and material wealth than small farmers or simple workers, but they had not just genes, but also the attitude.
    Now with so many individualist people throughout the world just sacrificing their life to careers and consumption, they burn quite oftne what was build up for many generations before and can’t just be replaced by anyone. That’s a lie.
    Almost everybody can be easily replaced, but if we are talking about trends in demographics changing populations throughout the world, and those with a higher level, as a rule, getting less to no children, this is a landslide.
    And it matters, both genetically and culturally, where the children of the next generations will come from. Because even a good pastor, to come back to this example, can rarely do as much with foreign children as with his own. His own are just more likely to be like him, whereas foreign ones are more likely to differ.

    In the same way as families and villages, all societies, populations and culture will change their character according to the people which constitute them. That’s just common sense.
    A high level, high tech society, which keeps a degree of freedom and participation can’t be equally successful with any kind of human contributors. If people repeat that mantra, that everything is about education and nothing else matters, they are just preaching, they are just lying, but they don’t tell you the truth. Whether they themselves know it or not doesn’t really matter for the debate, they are just wrong.

    Like if you want a feminist society, to bring a simple example, you can’t import people which are “anti-feminist” and expect “feminist values” to stay the same in the society as a whole. That’s idiotic. Even more idiotic it is to import anti-feminist oriented people, but to blame your own, already largely feminist indoctrinated males for the outcome and ignore the immigrants attitude on the issue. But that’s what countries like Sweden do more often than not.

    On a worldwide scale, Capitalism is still the main factor, because I was shocked that even a country like Taiwan has such a low birth rate:

    Obviously such low birth rates are unsustainable and suicidal, because they are much below what could be accepted as a “healthy population density reduction”. This could only happen slowly, by let’s say a fertility rate of 1,9 p.w.
    Such rates like in Taiwan can only lead to collapse or population replacement. And on a worldwide scale people which are more “higher level Western culture affine” are demographically in decline, probably with a handful of exceptions.

  10. @Obs it’s the fall of Rome all over again. Unless developed nations solve the demographic implosion problem for real (not with immigrants with incompatible values and aptitudes), they are doomed to collapse. Maybe it will be a few generations, or a few centuries, but history will repeat itself.

  11. I agree with you, but its not all about the immigration alone, because I have the impression that currently the Western states are like badly maintained buildings in which different interest groups just pick out stones for their very own experiments, the financial Oligarchy with its world domination dreams, the exteme left with their totalitarian experiment and even some which resist it or have religious delusions. All of them just pick out stones from the buildings wall and try to construct their very own structures, WITHIN THAT BUILDING and think it won’t collapse.
    And they are all wrong, and that’s where we are so close to ancient Rome: The ancient corrupted oligarchy and religious zealots did a lot of crap without ever thinking the civilisation. They butchered their remaining true Roman soldiers in meaningless civil wars and social experiments, while everything was going down.

    The mass immigration and negative selection within Western style communities is the single most important factor probably, but its just one out of many which go awry. In the end all of this groups, especially the Plutocracy and the (for now) allied Cultural Marxists might take one stone after the next until the whole building crashes on them. And they don’t seem to care or even realise it.

    Rome did fall, in the end, because too few of its citizens remained which were ready and able to defend it. Many preferred to fight with the invaders instead. And part of the reason was that the system and its “elite” were so rotten that nobody cared enough to be ready to fight or die for it. We are approaching a similar situation, because which warrior is ready to fight for a Plutocrat or Cultural Marxism/Political Correctness? If the goals of this society become apparent, being shown off as they are, and we’re getting closer for even the feeble minded to realise it, only people which being paid well or can use their position for their very own interests will be ready to move even just a finger for this “elite”. Patriots and idealism won’t be a thing any more, things are damaged.

  12. My son is a techie in the Bay Area living in a group home (owned) with young kids. Not our lifestyle (boomers), but it works well for them and provides a fair amount of help with parenting.

  13. I can’t remember where, but I recall reading that the longhouse culture of the indigenous European peoples, that were eventually conquered by the PIEs, practiced what sounds a lot like alloparenting: the mother, along with other women and older people, would parent the child. It was also an incredibly violent culture, with frequent killings between the men and often against the women as well. Also highly xenophobic towards outsiders. Makes sense that the men, effectively relegated to a pointless existence of hunting and foraging while the women and elders handled the “business” of the culture and the passing of values, frequently lashed out in displays of dominance or resentment.

  14. but its not all about the immigration alone

    On another blog, someone asked me this:

    Obviously East Asian fertility is affected by many of the same things as white fertility in the West – urbanisation, consumerism, mass education, high rates of tertiary education – but there must be something else that has caused fertility to drop even lower (much lower) than white fertility. Do you have any personal theories as to the reason for the truly spectacular nature of East Asian fertility collapse?

    And the following was my response:

    Lack of vibrant, high fertility immigrants? 😉

    Well, I could speculate, but it would be just that, a speculation. I’ll give it a shot. First is education for women. South Korea has the highest college entrance rate (c. 80%) in the industrialized world, and their women attend university at higher rates than men do. Most young South Korean women want a career and, if married, only 0-1 child.

    Second, the private cost of education is burdensome. Although public education is free or nearly free and university education is very low cost, the private household spending on education is the highest rate in the world. So children are deemed extremely expensive.

    Third, social atomization. South Koreans have taken to the online world with a vengeance (“the highest rate of broadband internet penetration in the world!”), and this has radically changed a society that was even in the recent past quite communitarian. As you can imagine, this is not conducive to a fertile family life.

    What this demonstrates is that, even absent mass immigration, advanced societies are highly prone to demographic contraction and other associated ills. Don’t get me wrong – I strenuously oppose immigration – but I think mass immigration exacerbates rather than cause these issues.

    Of further note, South Korea now has an “international marriage” rate of 16% or so. In rural areas (where farmers have trouble attracting wives), that rate is about 35% – many such wives are mail order brides from Vietnam and other poorer countries. Over 40% of such marriages end in divorce and 20% of the offspring of such marriages are absent from the education system. So South Korea is beginning to have their own ethnic demographic issues.

  15. (A somewhat tangential comment)

    I can offer examples of upsides and downsides from my own “alloparenting” experience. I grew up in a multi-generational (“joint”) family in India, which was the norm until a generation ago and is still a very common household arrangement in the country. I was quite literally raised both by my parents and my paternal grandparents. My grandma was a true co-mother for me.

    And I had a great childhood! I learned a range of lessons and got a range of emotional support I probably wouldn’t have in a nuclear family. Yet, as I grew older, I realized how much my mom and grandma didn’t get along with each other and how painful it often was for them to live under the same roof. (They were from different generations and had different ideas about womens’ roles.)

    Perhaps there are other “alloparenting” arrangements that cause less friction and minimize the downsides without eliminating the upsides? But my belief is that there are tradeoffs at a family and community level: some gain while others suffer.

  16. @Mekal, I would think a society where men engage in frequent violent warfare, yet political control of the society and all role in the family rests with women, and yet men who engage in high degrees of violence don’t use violence to change their position in society would be almost unprecedented in the historical record.

    As a general moan, people generally seem often pretty overconfident in what we “know” about “Old Europe” European pre-IE societies (which were all different from each other); at least with the IE proto-society, you’ve got these David Anthony sort of things where he can purport to reconstruct IE society and beliefs from language and myths (whether that’s actually correct or not!). But with pre-IE it seems like we have people drawing very wide ranges of different conclusions almost randomly from sparse physical evidence of figurines, forts, claimed substrate traces in languages and myths! (They’re completely non-violent, they’re ultra-violent, etc.) Perhaps this stuff is fun to talk about but not very solid.

    @Numinous, other alloparenting arrangements could arise that aren’t as focused on sort of fixed relationships, like the general sort of cooperation between two mothers who choose to work together to share child rearing more broadly? Those would probably have the general tradeoffs that more mobile and chosen and less fixed and involuntary relationships generally have (Relational Mobility). More personality and goal compatability and so, more satisfaction in those that do match and better communication etc between those that do match, but… less overall matching, less reasons to be tolerant in the relationship and more relationship breakdown, more competitive forces in maintaining relationships (which can encourage pro-social behaviour but also mean more conformity, lest the relationship get “cancelled” to use the current term), etc.

  17. @Twinkie: I think the reasons for the highest level East Asian societies having even less children are largely the same as in Europe, but there are, percentage wise, probably more people which are introverted, satisfied by distraction (virtual reality) and of course, the social pressure and rational behaviour choices are even higher too. Like I said above, people being raised in the belief that self-realisation, education, career, material wealth are what really matter, what define success. Even a long life and personal health are more important, while children and family are, in the ultra-feminist and Capitalist world, at best, just a lifestyle choice for those which truly internalise that nonsense.
    And as we know, by culture and probably genes as well, East Asians on average are more group and norm oriented, while the social security and support for families in the densely populated urban areas in particular is rather low, even lower than in e.g. Europe. The more disciplined people are, the more they internalised Capitalist logic, while keeping down instincts and traditional viewpoints, the less children they will get.
    I often wondered about East Asians telling a plain truth very directly and openly, much more so than European Westerners, which often mask their true intentions and motives, or are not even aware of them. The bad thing is, the Capitalist society kills the people with a practical logic. Its like it is with teenage pregnancies, its not like those getting it are the most discipined and logical thinkers in the current environment. I’m not saying its bad per se, its just bad in the current socio-economic context for most (there are exceptions) to get early pregnant and break off an education.
    But the same applies now for many women up to their mid-30’s! And many of them are infertile when they get their “Mr. Perfect” and think about the missed opportunity of founding a family. Its a ruined generation. And many of those which say “its better for the environment” are in fact those failures which have now a better excuse.

Comments are closed.