Human Husbandry

Domesticated chickens that escape to the wild rarely survive more than a generation. After thousands of years, hens have all but lost the instinct to hatch their eggs.

See, broodiness is an undesirable trait on egg farms. Battery hens average six eggs a week, and the last thing Foster Farms needs is a bird that takes time off to set on eggs. Breeders select for the absence of broody behavior, and propagate chickens with the least desire to reproduce.

Over the course of civilization, humans have undergone a similar self-domestication process. Rather than promote traits that lead to reproductive success, we propagate traits best suited for the current social environment. As with livestock, the most attractive traits are those that maximize productivity.

Domestication is a rather unnatural form of selection. As a population’s per-capita GDP increases, average fertility decreases. This phenomenon has been termed the demographic-economic paradox, but it’s really not paradoxical at all. Raising children carries a huge opportunity cost – remove this cost and the population has way more productive capacity. It’s no coincidence that San Francisco, home of the most advanced civilization in the world, also has the lowest share of children out of any major city in the country.

Just as a broody hen negatively impacts a farmer’s productivity, a gravid human poses a significant inconvenience to her employer. That’s why companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple pay for female employees to extract and freeze their eggs. It’s great to see tech companies empowering women the same way that factory farms empower their battery hens!

BUT! While farmers can breed chicken offspring in artificial incubators, it’s trickier for a human population to regenerate without assistance from our keepers. Most tech companies allow dogs at work — Google even provides on-site doggie caretakers! – they could go a long way towards securing the next generation of workers by simply expanding their dog runs to accommodate children. In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to hire illegal immigrants undocumented citizens to caretake kids on the cheap. Just ask Arianna Huffington and Meg Whitman!

We can outsource the burden of raising one’s spawn, but we’re still faced with the problem of making them*. This is where technology gets really exciting: Artificial wombs have successfully brought a baby lamb to term; eventually, these Biobags will be available to humans as well. Just like chickens, people will be able to procreate without ever interacting with their offspring.

Human progress revolves around specialization and the division of labor. We don’t raise our own livestock or butcher our own meat; it’s absolutely preposterous that we still bear and raise our own young. Come to Silicon Valley, where you, too, can live in a battery cage while surrounded by free food! Isn’t civilization great?

* Marc Andreessen and his wife hired a surrogate to carry their biological child. While not scalable, it’s always heartwarming to see billionaires take time out of their busy lives to reproduce like the rest of us mere mortals. Even if it does involve some outsourcing.

2 thoughts on “Human Husbandry

  1. I’m not sure I agree that domestication isn’t a natural form of selection; after all, it was biological entities that selected the desirable traits! So, I’m curious to see what data that you have to pursue that claim given the fact that humans seem to be eating the planet. And, perhaps it is time we reduce the population of humans (?). But, seriously, while I agree with most of what you say about employers being really pleased to defer reproduction, the conclusion that some of these unnatural methods are *completely* undesirable is IMHO mostly a result of the youthful perspective of the author. Why is a woman not allowed to say, “I want more life, father!”?

  2. “remove this … and the population has way more productive capacity.“

    Gary Becker, Nobel Economics 1992, may beg to differ.

Leave a Reply