Family Size Control by Infanticide in the Great Agrarian Societies of Asia*

Article excerpt


An important issue in demography is whether there is evidence for premodern population control, especially control of family size. In an earlier paper we have argued that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Palaeolithic society consciously practised population control; its approximate long-term population equilibrium is probably adequately explained by non-infanticidal mortality balancing fertility (Caldwell and Caldwell, 2003a). Certainly babies were often killed when deformed or in times of crisis but not on a scale to constitute a demographically significant impact.

This was not necessarily the case in the preindustrial agrarian societies of Asia where we have copious references to infanticide in governmental, legal, religious and literary texts (House of Commons, 1824; Hanley and Yamamura, 1977:233; Ho, 1959:58). Some demographers have identified a parallel between preindustrial Western European societies, where deferred or forgone marriage allowed a balance of fertility and mortality at moderate levels, and the situation in Japan, China and probably Korea where supposedly massive infanticide lowered the effective level of reproduction ensuring reduced death rates for those older than infancy, and less population pressure on the environment (Macfarlane, 1976:309ff; Wrigley, 1978:135-136; Das Gupta, 1995:486ff). Wrigley argued that this could be the result of "unconscious rationality" which particularly characterized the period immediately before industrialization (called by others "proto-industrialization" and roughly describing the situation in East Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). We aim to explore recent research to see if it supports these descriptions. But first we must document why the West reacted so strongly to Asian infanticide and was so keen to detect and record its existence.

The reasons that infanticide was likely to be practised were that it did not endanger the mother's life as did premodern abortion, it allowed selection for sex unlike contraception and premodern abortion, it was effective unlike premodern contraception, and its performance required neither special skills nor esoteric knowledge (see Skinner, 1993:251). These were not arguments in favour in Europe, nor those now increasingly accepted by officialdom anywhere in the world, a situation explained by colonization, social and economic globalization, and the domination of contemporary international agencies by Western ethics. This is an area perhaps best explained by the unusual evolution of the West. There is a parallel here with the proposition, encountered later in this paper and put forward by Cornell (1984:338), that there is no need to explain the absence of spinsters in historic Japan, but, on the contrary, any explanation must be in terms of the peculiar Western situation where spinsters were common. This is an analysis of Western attitudes rather than practices, although it seems that the West practised abandonment much more often than direct infanticide (Boswell, 1988:44-45.)

The peculiar attitude to infanticide of the West, or rather of the People of the Book--Jews, Christians and Muslims-lies in their common religious evolution, its origin being in Judaism. That the Jews did not always abhor infanticide is brought out by the need felt by their prophets to oppose it. They "bitterly denounced the heathenish Israelite practice of child sacrifice [and] therefore opposed a religious custom which was in strict accordance with the deeply ingrained social tenets of all the powerful and ancient civilizations--surrounding the lands of Israel and Judah" (Patai, 1959:129-130). The condemnation of infanticide was solidified by the Jewish thinkers of the diaspora, especially in Alexandria where Philo early in the first century A.D. opposed it, together with abortion and exposure, on two grounds, first that it was murder and second that it showed that sexual intercourse had taken place solely for pleasure (Noonan, 1970:6). …