Musings on Science and Pop Culture

Jen and I have been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu since it started. We’re midway through season two, and it’s starting to look at the pre-Gilead world that led to the creation of the handmaid system. The show has hinted that declining fertility rates and a desire to control access to birth control were factors in Gilead’s creation. Since both topics are hot-button issues now, it gives the show an immediacy that can be hard to watch at times.

I’m not going to get into a detailed analysis of the show’s handling of those topics. Nor am I going to delve into the scientific studies of these issues. I don’t have the expertise to discuss this topic in detail.

But I do find myself wondering about the causes of the worldwide trend toward having fewer children. Some of the articles I’ve read mention that industrialization and increases in urban living lead many countries to see lower birth rates. Some experts say that’s because it’s more expensive to raise and educate children in a city than it is in rural areas. They also note that families in cities don’t need as many children as those who farm for a living do.

Others worry that declining birth rates mean economic hardships are ahead because there will be fewer workers to create goods, food, and so on. Some articles talk about the demands for healthcare from older populations and how delivering the needed services will be harder with fewer young workers. They note that these issues will fuel future debates over immigration in many countries.

I find it interesting that the sociologists, economists, and other experts studying the topic of birth rates don’t seem to be talking with their colleagues in biology, human fertility, and biochemistry. I wonder if bringing those experts into the discussion might find physiological reasons for the decline? Could we be seeing evolution in action, as a response to a planet that is struggling to support our species’ demands for food, water, and raw materials?

Again, I don’t know enough about the topic to say. And I don’t ask these questions to dismiss the concerns of the sociologists and economists. I just wonder if interdisciplinary research might bring about greater knowledge.

I find myself hesitant to speculate on this topic. I know that people struggling to have children face painful, expensive, emotional rounds of fertility treatments with no guarantees of starting a family. If they choose adoption, the application process is also expensive, emotionally fraught, and without any certainty of having the adoption approved.

Since I never wanted children, I cannot fully understand what these people face. I worry that speculating about an evolutionary shift to smaller families might be seen as disrespectful of their struggles, and that’s not my intention.

I’m a writer. I think each writer defines what that word means to them. To me, being a writer means I ask hard questions and search for answers. I understand that others might find my habit of asking “Why?” or “Why not?” or “But what if?” questions rude or hurtful. That’s never my intention, but I know even someone with the best of intentions can cause pain in others. I speculate because I’m ever-curious about the world around me.

And the world of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems… frighteningly prescient at times. Is anyone else watching the show? What are your thoughts?

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