In my opening lecture on evolution to undergraduates, I give a concise definition of natural selection and then elaborate on what is meant by reproductive success and how it is measured. I note that it is measured in populations, and that as an example one might consider all Caucasian Americans a population, of which I am obviously—if you’ve ever seen me—a member. Were I to have four children at the present time, and in addition six grandchildren, I would be quite successful. But the success is relative, relative to all other members of this population as I have defined it. Were the population expanded to include Hispanics living in America, I would be, in a purely biological sense, less successful, because of the high reproductive rate of Hispanics in America.
Because of the very large number of Asians in this undergraduate class of some 350 students, I ask the students to imagine that I have been included in a population of Filipinos, and specifically those that not only live in the Philippines, where large families are the norm, but in a particular population of Filipinos, those who come from the islands of Samar and Leyte. Here it is not at all uncommon for there to be upwards of seven or eight children in a family, and there are plenty of families of twelve or more children, and often all with the same mother and father. Since I have been arbitrarily included in this reproductively very active population and only have had, in fact, two children (forget my grandchildren), I am, on the evolutionary stage, a failure. It matters not that I have a couple of advanced degrees and have written some books and have a nice home and drive an expensive car; in the long stretch of time that is life on earth, I have done a quite poor job when it comes to passing on my genes, as measured of course in a relative sense within the particular Filipino population I have identified.
By way of noting my failure, and yet my successes in terms of educational achievement and income and material wealth, I give the students some idea of how poor by just about any measure Filipinos are who live in Samar and Leyte. They are fishermen who catch little. They are farmers who harvest coconuts and produce rice and vegetables and perhaps on rented land, and their returns are meagre, often only enough to feed the very large family and with little or nothing left to sell or barter. The people often live cramped in tiny cement block houses, or lined up on mats like sardines in a can in nipa huts made of bamboo and thatch and with a dirt floor and no indoor toilet, the toilet a crude outhouse or a nearby stream. The father and mother may well be illiterate, or possess only the most minimal education. Many of the children do make it through high school, but the education they get would not be much more than they’d get out of a grammar school in the U. S. Books are non-existent and material possessions are few in households: perhaps a bicycle, some cooking utensils, a few changes of clothes, a few toys, maybe a cell phone or two, for some time now high on everyone’s priority list.
My students, then, if they have been paying attention and I have been sufficiently clear in my message, and repeated myself enough on several key issues, will get the point that while on the one hand I am enormously successful not only compared to what one finds in Samar and Leyte and the Philippines generally but also by Third World standards, on the other hand, in the greater scheme of passing on my genes to subsequent generations I am a thoroughgoing failure.
It is at this point in my opening lecture of an hour and twenty minutes that I invariably move on to another topic, and do not return to the idea of reproductive success until I get to examples that illustrate different aspects of evolution. Perhaps in future classes-- since the great majority of my students are nonmajors and from the social sciences--I should say more about an odd kind of consciously made morally sanctioned trade-off that is made in places like Samar and Leyte in the Philippines.
Samar and Leyte not only have some of the highest birth rates in the Philippines, extraordinary by any measure, but these small over-populated islands are every bit as poor as I’ve already suggested. To elaborate a bit more for the students, I might note that this means that the vast majority of the population is living at the economic edge, and each mouth to feed makes life harder and more precarious, arguably only marginally harder but harder: there are smaller portions of rice for each person; the needed clothing for one or more of the children or parents is postponed; medical problems simply do not get addressed; and the small once-a-week treat at the local sari-sari store is foregone or only occurs once every two weeks. One result of all this lack of jobs and jobs that give more than the most meagre incomes to these very large families is that over time Samar and Leyte have come to literally be in the business of exporting bargirls to the nation’s whorehouses—those for foreigners and those for Filipinos, the latter probably much more numerous than the former. In addition, a lot of the young women have gone abroad to work as domestics and dancers and in other capacities that don’t pay all that much but pay more than one can get in the Philippines—if she has a job. In Hong Kong and Japan and Dubai and the U.A.R., some of the young women have become, or been forced to become, prostitutes. Not all who work abroad in this way by any means, but the numbers are not trivial.
The problem of very large families and the negative payoffs is brought about and further exacerbated because condom use in the Philippines—thanks to the Catholic Church and a derelict and corrupt government—is nearly non-existent. Filipinos—boys and girls alike--have never used one, often have never seen one, and more than a few believe that using a condom goes against church doctrine and for this reason alone is to be avoided. This means that young girls often get pregnant as young as fifteen and sixteen, and almost without exception once they get pregnant they never see the father again. He provides no money for the girl or the child, he begins a new family with another young girl, and he doesn’t care one whit for the first girl with the child that he got pregnant. The result is that right away the young girl gets pressure from parents, and even older siblings, to find a means of support for the child she has just had. This also means, since there are virtually no jobs in Samar and Leyte for anyone, that even if the young girl did not feel pressure to become a prostitute away from home but in the Philippines, or abroad, she now feels that pressure, because as she will quickly learn prostitution is one of the few jobs that requires no skills that can be called such and for which she will be paid more than anything else she can do at her age and with her background. She will find out about and pursue this option of being a prostitute not only because of the child she now has, and identifies with even more than she does with her siblings and parents and feels an enormous obligation to support, but also because she has so many cousins and sisters and others around her who have already gone north to Manila and other places to make their young bodies available to Filipinos and foreigners. Everyone around her in her age group tells her that becoming a dancer, i.e., prostitute, is the best of all the options that she or any of those around her can imagine. And they are right.
In the big, the very big scheme of things, then, the Filipinos from Samar and Leyte are the “winners.” They’re doing the best job that just anyone is doing to maximize their reproductive success, and not only in the Philippines. But the irony here—if that’s what it is--is that not a one of these girls and no one in their families has even done what they have done in the reproduction arena because they were aware of being a player on the grand evolutionary stage, and, as Richard Dawkins would have it, doing the best job anyone can do of “immortalizing” himself—passing genes on to future generations and into a future that while uncertain is more certain than that imagined by the most convincing religions. That is if you’re not a religious believer.
The other piece of this brief foray into the biological realm of reproductive success and what it means is that while all the poor with their large families in Samar and Leyte are winning a game on the evolutionary stage they know absolutely nothing about it and in all likelihood wouldn’t care about it if they did, it is their very successes in this reproductive arena that are adding to their most fundamental worries: getting more economically for themselves and their offspring. To simply keep their small lives intact in the smallest ways they have had to resort to something that Catholic or not they do not find desirable: allowing, even encouraging, their daughters to become prostitutes. This is, of course, not something that they had ever really imagined doing when they began having large families, or as family size increased, but as history has shown it is nonetheless a rather direct result of too much reproductive success in an environment without sufficient resources and where, in a large but quite accessible environment, there has always been a demand for young women’s bodies. Why there is this demand, and one where more will be paid for access to these young Filipinas than will be paid for anything else that the women can do is all part of another piece of the story of evolution and the human tapestry, one about the different strategies that males and females use—often no more consciously so than they are conscious about the underlying evolutionary rationale of reproducing—to be successful. But this is another essay…
In recent travels in Leyte and Samar I have been awe struck by what I have seen. Or rather didn’t see. I saw children everywhere, and I saw women caring for them. But I did not see more than a very small handful of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. All the young women, and not just the pretty and shapely ones, had, as I had come to understand, gone north and perhaps abroad, in their own small way to perpetuate and keep alive one of the great “success” stories (speaking as an evolutionist) in human populations on the planet at this point in history. In the most infamous prostitution area in the Philippines, rivalled only by Pattatya, Thailand, there are an estimated 11,000 registered prostitutes. A rough but good estimate—one that I have heard no one contest--is that 80% of them are from Leyte and Samar.
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