Well, not really. However, with recent reports that the US birthrate has fallen to a level not seen since 1920, one starts to speculate. As Pew’s research organization reports:

“The U.S. birth rate dipped in 2011 to the lowest ever recorded, led by a plunge in births to immigrant women since the onset of the Great Recession.

The overall U.S. birth rate, which is the annual number of births per 1,000 women in the prime childbearing ages of 15 to 44, declined 8% from 2007 to 2010. The birth rate for U.S.-born women decreased 6% during these years, but the birth rate for foreign-born women plunged 14%—more than it had declined over the entire 1990-2007 period. The birth rate for Mexican immigrant women fell even more, by 23%.”

Pew makes the point (and the pundits have amplified) that the timing of the drop, as well as drops in earlier economic downturns, suggests a direct connection between birthrates and economics. It might be reversed — at least somewhat — if the developed country economies improve, but if we have a “lost decade” or decades, then it will certainly have demographic impacts on the composition of the American population.

Earlier this week, Andrew S started a discussion that, among other things, touched on how changes in cultural views about children within the goals of marriage seem to be leading to drastic differences in American demographics. And to the extent that demography is destiny, we can anticipate very different challenges for the future than we spend so much time debating today.

The emphasis of Mormonism on “multiplying” may have a lot going for it as an evolutionary strategy; New Scientist had a special issue on humanity’s future in deep time some months ago that suggested that evolution doesn’t care about quality of one’s offspring as long as lots of them survive to have offspring of their own. The future of humanity may not belong to either the smart or the powerful or the righteous as much as those who have many children.

And Mormons are having many children, as noted by Lee Davidson in a 2001 article:

WASHINGTON — Utah women again labored to the highest birthrate — by far — among the states in 1999, according to federal data released Tuesday…

That may result from values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which a majority of Utahns belong. It puts a premium on family life and keeping child-bearing within marriages…

The new federal study reported that Utah’s “fertility rate” — the number of live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 — was 93.1. That is 41 percent higher than the national average of 65.9. The next highest fertility rate among the states was 81.1 in Arizona…”

However, I’m less concerned with that long a view of the future here as much as I am concerned with looking at things over a couple of generations. And here I am struck less by the cultural choices that influence societal evolution than I am in the persistence of economics and technology evolution that also drive society’s path.

Many Mormons are somewhat familiar with Mayan archaeology because of its relationship to the Book of Mormon historicity debate. One thing scientists know about the Mayans is that there is a distinct pattern of cities rising and declining on time scales less than a couple of centuries. For example, post-classic cities tend to appear well to the north and east of the great classic sites.

What is interesting to me is that the same kind of shift can be seen in the United States census data, so that major cities grow and decline in as little as 50 years. Wikipedia summarizes this data in a list of the ten largest cities in population by decade. It’s useful to compare the list in 1960 to 2010:

City                1960 Pop in thousands        Rank            2010 Pop        Rank    2010/1960 Pop

New York             7782                                 1                    8175             1                 1.05
Chicago               3550                                 2                    2696             3                  0.76
Los Angeles         2479                                 3                    3793             2                  1.53
Philadelphia         2003                                 4                    1526             5                  0.76
Detroit                 1670                                5                      707            18                 0.42 (2011)
Baltimore               939                               6                       621           24                  0.66
Houston                 938                               7                     2099             4                  2.24
Cleveland              876                               8                       394            47                 0.45 (2011)
Washington           764                               9                       618            25                  0.81 (2011)
St. Louis                750                             10                       319            58                 0.43


It is clear from the chart above that these changes in city fortunes are occurring on scales too short to reflect changes in birth or death rates, but too long to reflect even prolonged freezing of normal modern business cycles. Four of the largest US cities in 1960 have lost at least 1/4 of their population by 2010, with two more nearly there, despite an explosion in US national population concurrently. If we look back to 1860, only New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago then held top 10 status, and St. Louis and Chicago didn’t have it in 1810.

If we look back to the Maya, we see that migrations occurred as economic bases for the cities changed due to external factors, whether climate, access to or demand for resources, or some other factor. Mormons ought to appreciate the value of migrations, even if there is an expectation of not having to do it in hand carts. It may even be that the ability to pack up and transplant oneself into a pre-existing community of like-minded people will turn out to have more benefit for the thriving of Mormonism than the raw numbers of children “born in covenant”.

Because it certainly seems that the ability to migrate within or across the administrative boundaries set by governments seems to explain a lot about which cities thrive and which do not. (In anticipation of later comments, I note here for the record that it is not easy to explain the different fates of cities like Baltimore and Houston over the past 50 years by focusing on who moves in; it might be more a matter instead  of who gets trapped behind when the technological/economic bases for the city’s explosive growth are OBE.) This does not always imply migrations to other regions; migrations to the suburbs, or even into urban enclaves of compatible ethnicity, race, or class can instead be important if they are accompanied by separation of economic and political power bases so each enclave can hold its own.

We often postulate that many of today’s urban problems are due to “white flight”, but as I noted here, this is a more complex issue that has been repeated with different characters — like a Battlestar Galactica riff that “has all happened before and will all happen again.

“Families retaining the financial means to do so sold out and moved elsewhere. Those left behind saw their upward mobility blocked by events for which they could not be blamed and probably didn’t understand. Then, in addition to local geography turning against them, great social movements both in the United States and in Europe conspired to magnify their pain. With property values collapsed, the Five Points became a magnet for both the honest poor and for those who saw opportunity to prey upon them. As slavery was ended in New York by1827, newly liberated African-Americans flocked there. They were joined by a growing number of Irish emigrants in a wave that reached its peak in the 1840′s during the Great Potato Famine that killed a million Irish and led a million more to flee Ireland.

“Even by 1832, population density, poverty, and lack of sanitation had made the Five Points a source of a cholera epidemic. Not understanding the disease’s connection to sanitation, cholera was attributed in the popular mind largely to vice. And the vice certainly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence within the “community” became unimaginably savage as it splintered into anti-Catholic “nativist”, Irish immigrant, and African-American factions of competing agendas and shifting alliances. Gangs formed around strongmen who could offer some protection because of their capacity to organize violence or deliver voting blocs to political machines such as that of Boss Tweed. The machines, in turn, were seeking control of the larger city and even drew power from the state and the national agendas.”

Just as it happened in New York during the civil war, it happened in New York when I lived there in the 1970s. Generosity in the 1960s without the “rainy day” savings to pay for promises led to financial collapse for the City and a Federal bailout. The city did recover, but the hardships were again concentrated on the poor in places like the South Bronx. I will always remember having a visiting Seventy come from Independence to “help us” (all 8-12 of us who were the RLDS congregation in Manhattan then) in building up the church there. Although I am sure his heart was in the right place, I told him I’d be happy to listen to his programmatic plans if he’d first take a subway ride around the city with me. As we rode the elevated lines past block after block after block of boarded up or burned out buildings surrounding block after block after block where the buildings had been razed to the ground, he began to realize that the soil was a bit hard for planting seeds of the gospel there through any organized program. Through following the Spirit, one might be led to opportunities for ministry if you were willing to pay sufficient price of sacrifice, but your heart would be consumed before the needs were satisfied.

To this day, I believe there are special crowns in heaven for those with the spiritual strength to keep making such sacrifices for any significant length of time. And I believe there is a special place in a much less, um,  prominent glory for those who prey on the hopes of those trapped in the crises of collapsing societies by claiming to “do good” when their real interest is in “doing well” in terms of economic, political, or personal power.

I can give examples for several of the declining cities in the top 10 list above of the extent of corruption there as elites fight for their shares of the cities’ declining resources, but for restrictions on length, let me simply pick the city in most rapid decline and in which I was born: Detroit.

As summarized by Walter Meade here:

“Few readers will be surprised to learn that decades of incompetence and entrenched corruption in Detroit’s government have not only helped wreck the city; firms linked to former Democratic mayor Kwame Kilpatrick also looted the pension fund…

Kilpatrick’s partner in slime is his ex-college frat brother Jeffrey Beasley, who is accused of taking bribes and kickbacks as he made bad investments that cost pension funds $84 million.  Overall, a Detroit Free Press investigation estimates that corrupt and incompetent trustees appointed by Democratic officials over many years in Detroit are responsible for almost half a billion dollars in investments gone wrong…

The ultimate victims of the crime are Detroit’s poor and the middle class and lower middle class, mostly African-American municipal workers who may face serious financial losses in old age.

The 41 year old Kwame Kilpatrick may well be the worst and most destructive American of his generation; his two terms as Mayor of Detroit are among the most sordid and stomach churning episodes in the storied history of American municipal corruption. Now under federal indictment for, essentially, running Detroit City Hall as a criminal enterprise, Kilpatrick reportedly turned down a plea bargain that included a 15 year prison term. Insiders say that since the maximum time for the charges he faces was 18 years, the offer from the prosecutors indicates strong confidence in their case. Indicted with him was his father; it’s nice to think that father and son will have some quality time in the can.”

Having lots of children like Mormons do may not always be a winning evolutionary strategy. But becoming a parasite so virulent that you kill all your potential hosts before you can reproduce yourself is definitely an evolutionary dead end for both the parasite and for hosts who don’t learn to flee the parasite. Think of evolution as God’s justice in action.