Infanticide and Population Control
The Oxford English Dictionary defines infanticide as the custom of killing newborn infants, perpetrated by or with the consent of its parents, especially the mother. This act prevailed in primitive societies and was common in the ancient world. Some have said that infanticide is a form of adaptation, the only method available to control the size of any given population. Across species, except for the rare pathologies, infanticide is found under specific ecological and social circumstances, and its impact in these circumstances is an increased lineage success for the killer, even when the killer is a parent. For example, human offspring require a considerable amount of parental effort, therefore a deformed offspring or a mother’s poor health could be reasons for terminating an “investment”.
There may be examples of situations where the killing of a person may be justifiable, although they are by no means universally consented to, such as killing in self-defense or as a form of capital punishment. But taken in isolation, the general thought is that killing is wrong. In the situation of infanticide, the mere thought is especially horrifying in the modern mind. This has not always been the case.
Murder has had its place in many cultures. The Inuit Eskimos practice infanticide as well as the killing of elders. The elders are too feeble to contribute to the group, but they still consume precious food, which is scarce. This practice is necessary for the survival of the group. The males within the Eskimo tribes have a higher mortality rate because they are the hunters and food providers. Female-biased infanticide helps keep the necessary equilibrium by trying to match the number of males to local prevailing sex ratios, keeping daughters when the local sex-ratio is male biased, and killing them when females are overabundant. So, this infanticide and killing of elders does not signal that Eskimos have less compassion for their children, nor less respect for human life; it is merely recognition that murder is sometimes needed to ensure that the Eskimos do not become culturally extinct.
Thomas Malthus, an English demographer and political economist, published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. In this essay, Malthus states that population is necessarily limited by means of subsistence. Also, population invariably increases, where the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by some very powerful and obvious checks (i.e. abortion, infanticide, prostitution, war, plague, famine, and unnecessary disease). If all persons were provided with sufficient subsistence, and these checks removed, the relief would be only temporary: for the increase of marriages and birth would soon produce a population far in excess of the food supply.
Even though early humans might not have fully understood the ethics or morals behind infanticide, they understood the surrounding environment. They recognized the need for a small population size, as to not overtax the resources of their ecosystem. In order for a population to survive with any sort of ease, size had to be maintained. If no form of birth control was instituted then populations would have exceeded the limits of the environment, requiring new forms of obtaining food. Clive Ponting, in A Green History of the World, points out that the most widespread social custom was infanticide involving the selected killing of certain categories such as twins and the handicapped. In this way the demand for food and the pressure placed on the hunters and gatherers to provide this food was reduced. This in turn diminished the burden placed on the environment.
The environment during the period of early humans was not conducive to a growth in population. These initial tribes acknowledge this fact and instituted practices that would allow the continuation of their lineage. Infanticide, as tragic as it sounds, was a necessity. Since these groups did not have the technology for agriculture and therefore an increase in population, population control was a necessity. Infanticide as a form of population control is hard to accept; yet support for this practice comes from its historical context.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1993.
Low, Bobbi. Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Malthus, T. R; Edited by Patricia James. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Essay by Jackie Khan. http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2003/Jackie/envsweek1.htm
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