A Life of Independent Thought and Advocacy
F. Roger Devlin
Virginia Abernethy, Born Abroad: A Patriot’s Tale of Choice & Chance, Arktos Media, Ltd. 2023, 225 pages, $17.95 paperback
Arktos Media has just brought out Born Abroad, a new book by scholar and activist Virginia Deane Abernethy. Cast as an autobiography, it also summarizes her thinking on a number of issues of interest to American Renaissance readers. The title is a punning reference to today’s gender madness, as well as to Dr. Abernethy’s birth in Havana, Cuba, in 1934. Her first words are said to have been in Spanish, but after an early childhood visit to relatives in Maryland, she responded to her father’s Spanish greeting by saying simply: “I speak English now.”
Between the ages of four and nine, Virginia lived in Buenos Aires, where her father had been sent by his employer, Standard Oil of New Jersey. As an American, she reports, she was suspected of “crass materialism, being noisy, and lacking manners.” Upon returning to the United States in 1944, the family settled in Riverdale-on-Hudson, where she completed her secondary education. “I started fairly early to stake out loner positions,” she recalls. When first made familiar with the then-popular tabula rasa theory that “environment incises babies’ personalities and intelligence as though on a blank slate,” she instantly disbelieved it.
A first encounter with racial issues came in her junior year of high school. Someone got the idea of establishing a scholarship for a “minority” student, and her class approved the project by a vote of 15 to one. When her homeroom teacher asked Virginia why she was the only holdout, she explained that “establishing a fund for a specific group amounted to differential treatment by race, which seemed to violate the principle of equality.” She later learned that the Supreme Court of that time was using nearly the same argument: “Not bad for a fifteen-year old in 1950, I still think.”
At summer camp one year, Virginia experimented with going against her contrarian instincts by consciously courting popularity. She achieved some success, but the effort left her exhausted and convinced that the benefits were not worth it.
At age 16, she matriculated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She did well, but did not yet discover her scholarly vocation or area of specialization. She recalls disliking the college’s motto non ministrari sed ministrare (not to be ministered to but to minister), finding its spirit of idealistic self-abnegation unrealistic. Summers she spent travelling, meeting her future husband in the process. She married on graduation day in 1955 and spent the next nine years in Sheridan, Wyoming. Here she took part in cattle roundups; she was given the task of branding the calves, she explains, because it was the “least skilled” job. More importantly, she bore four children. The author is living proof a woman need not postpone motherhood to combine it with a successful career.
By 1964, she wanted to return to academic work and moved back to New England, winning a scholarship to study anthropology at Harvard. Not having done academic work for ten years, she suddenly found herself “handed assignments totaling 1000 pages a week. I was the only one in our cohort of five to have not had an undergraduate anthropology course. This time, I really did have to come from behind.”
British “structural anthropology” was an influential current within the discipline at that time. Under this approach, “all persons referenced by the same kinship term can be treated as on an equivalent footing with respect to culturally and legally recognized sets of reciprocal rights, responsibilities, privileges, and duties.” Dr. Abernethy believes this approach owes much to colonial governance: “from an administrator’s perspective, emphasis on categories of people is an efficient way of dealing with a partially understood, foreign society.”
The author herself was won over to the competing view of John and Beatrice Whiting, according to which “biological realities carry meaningful psychological weight” regardless of kinship terminology. She mentions a fellow student from Nigeria who told her of the disadvantage he had suffered after losing his mother at a young age; it did not matter that, in accordance with Yoruba custom, he referred to all his father’s wives by the term “mother.”
Most compelling to the author was her introduction to primatology under the guidance of Prof. Irven DeVore, “a trailblazer in studying primates in their natural habitat”:
Primate studies are a portal into sociobiology. One sees how natural selection predicts prevalence of behavior that increases the probability of one’s offspring, and therefore one’s genes, surviving into future generations. By responding in ways that protect turf and their own young, and by cooperating with a group, both non-human and human primates increase the chances that their genes remain in the genetic pool and that their particular culture and society will persist. Allowing others to disadvantage one’s own reproductive chances and ability to protect offspring is a path to extinction.
The author now believes she also picked up a number of mistaken and harmful ideas while studying anthropology at Harvard — early versions of what later came to be known as “political correctness” or “Cultural Marxism.” These involved attacks on family authority and tradition as well as advocacy of cultural relativism and globalism. Dr. Abernethy now sees herself as a “recovering relativist,” but notes that certain foreign customs deplored by Westerners may be useful or even necessary in societies very different from our own.
On receiving her doctorate from Harvard in 1971, she learned that her political opinions — or even lack of them — would have an effect on her career prospects. When considering a position at her old alma mater Wellesley, she discovered that she would be expected to share the department head’s enthusiasm for the Biafran side in the then-ongoing Nigerian Civil War: “My attitude that refereeing the ethnic, gender, and religious conflicts in other people’s countries is not my business emerged as a central obstacle to pursuing anthropology.”
In a perhaps surprising result, she ended up accepting a post-doctoral fellowship at a psychiatric hospital, where she found herself interviewing women for studies on their decisions regarding birth control and abortion. But this is not as radical a break as it may seem, for reproductive behavior was one of Dr. Abernethy’s primary interests within the field of anthropology.
She developed a strong intellectual interest at this time in George E. Vaillant’s research on psychological defense mechanisms, which the author defines as “ways of adapting to and coping with life.” These include “denial,” or blocking perception of realities that need to be addressed, and “reaction formation,” or deliberately doing the opposite of what one’s emotions suggest (i.e., acting solicitously toward someone one dislikes). Although the author learned much from Dr. Vaillant, she disliked his value-laden terminology, such as his labelling altruistic behavior a “mature” defense mechanism:
Sociobiology defines altruism as actions beneficial to individuals who are not genetically related, actions performed without expectation of a reciprocal favor, and actions that have a cost to oneself or one’s own kin. In my view, an action that has a net cost to oneself and one’s gene pool should not be labelled mature. On the contrary, it is in some degree suicidal. . . . Repeated often enough and in non-trivial situations, altruism destroys a gene pool.
Dr. Abernethy cites evidence that the practice of disinterested gift-giving hardly exists outside Western/Christian society. In the rest of the world, gifts are suspect because they are seen as a way of exercising power over the recipient. The result is that Western behavior traceable to Christian ideals of generosity is widely misinterpreted by outsiders, and may be taken advantage of.
One intellectual current of those years that would have a decisive impact on Dr. Abernethy’s future work was a growing awareness of the dangers associated with continued rapid growth in the earth’s human population. An important landmark was the Rockefeller Commission Report of 1972, which concluded that:
the United States national interest would not be served by further US population growth. Citing considerations such as energy and mineral resources, fresh water supply, arable land, outdoor recreational resources, and limiting pollution, the Commission asserted that “[n]either the health of our economy nor the welfare of individual businesses depends on continued population growth. In fact, the average person will be markedly better off in terms of traditional economic values if population growth slows down than if it resumes the pace of growth experienced in the recent past.” The Commission Report closed with the recommendation “that the nation welcome and plan for a stabilized population.” The late Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) founded Earth Day in support of the Rockefeller Commission with the dual goals of conservation and stopping population growth.
Unfortunately, Earth Day’s original goal of population stabilization was soon replaced by an emphasis on consumption — specifically, on making the West feel guilty about consuming more than its “fair share” of the world’s resources (fallaciously imagined as a fixed quantity). Today’s environmentalists are more interested in governmental subsidies for wind turbines than grappling with the more difficult issue of continued population growth.
In 1975, Dr. Abernethy moved to Nashville, where she still lives, to accept a position in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurology. She recalls that her first assignment was to oversee an elective course in Human Sexuality, where she made something of a splash by inviting the madam of a Clarksville brothel to address the class and take questions.
Her own research came to focus on fertility rates, which soon brought her into conflict with an important aspect of that era’s social scientific orthodoxy, namely, the demographic transition model (DTM). Those who originally developed the DTM in the 1930s observed that family size was shrinking in the West in tandem with modernization, urbanization, a reduction in child mortality, and an increase in education for women. They hypothesized that a similar reduction in family size would occur in other societies under similar conditions. In Dr. Abernethy’s view, this still-influential theory is a classic instance of wrongly inferring causation from correlation. The developers of the DTM neglected to take note one of the most obvious circumstances of the 1930s, namely, that the world was in the midst of a severe economic depression. This, in the author’s view, was the true cause of declining family size at the time, not modernization.
As the author explains, the popularity of the DTM is partly attributable to its comforting nature. It “implies that making everyone healthy, educated, and prosperous will help the world avoid disastrous overpopulation. . . . I threatened those professionals whose careers depended upon appeal to humanitarian sensibilities. Globalists whose raison d’être includes distribution of taxes paid in rich countries to fund projects in poor countries became hostile almost immediately.” And however good the intentions behind the DTM, its partisans can be as nasty as anyone else when their pet theories or interests are threatened. One scholar with the Population Council assured readers that Dr. Abernethy “is widely ignored and deserves to be.” So strong is the hold of the DTM on demographers that some cling to it even when their own data contradict it.
Dr. Abernethy’s research led her to conclude that perceived economic opportunity was the decisive factor affecting fertility. Humans, like other animals, produce more offspring when resources appear abundant; where they perceive scarcity, they delay marriage and limit reproduction. The latter situation obviously prevailed during the 1930s; by the postwar era, the future looked bright and the baby boom naturally ensued. Yet the aspects of modernization highlighted by the DTM theorists remained unchanged.
The author first addressed these issues in Population Pressure and Cultural Adjustment (1979), then with expanded empirical support in Population Politics (1993). Between 1989 and 1998, she edited the peer-reviewed journal Population and Environment, influencing demographic debate in the U.S. and internationally. In part thanks to her work, the economic opportunity model has recently gained a lot of ground at the expense of the DTM.
Dr. Abernethy retired from academic duties in 1998, but this did little to slow her down: “for the first dozen years or so of retirement, I went to the office almost every day.” She continued to produce new articles and in 2016, published a collection of essays from across her career: The Vanishing American Dream.
Dr. Abernethy is a strong opponent of the notion that an economy can continue to “grow” indefinitely. Humans, like other animals, are limited by the carrying capacity of the territory in which they live, meaning the number of individuals who can be supported within a given area without stressing the environment through overuse. To some extent, human carrying capacity can be increased through technological progress: The author cites the example of recent improvements in the desalinization of water. However, the process requires the consumption of natural gas, which is itself of limited quantity. All technological progress involves similar trade-offs: sooner or later, humanity will always run up against the fact of natural scarcity.
Two early ecologists, working independently, arrived at an estimate of 200 million persons as the approximate carrying capacity of the United States, a figure we exceeded in the late 1960s. The author comments that we had better pray those experts were “wrong; not just a little bit but a lot wrong. I think, however that the ecologists are probably right. . . . [T]he material demands of the American . . . people are not satisfied by domestic production. The balance . . . is met with imports, using up other countries’ carrying capacity.”
It is not through reckless procreation that Americans are exceeding the carrying capacity of our environment. In fact, the native birth rate now stands at about 1.7 children per woman, well below the replacement level of 2.1. For over half a century now, the driver of American population increase has been immigration. Most of this has come from poorer countries. Since new arrivals usually experience an improvement in their standard of living, they perceive resources as plentiful and respond by having large families. Studies have shown, for example, that Mexican women who immigrate to the U.S. average more children than those who remain at home.
But this improvement in the immigrants’ own standard of living comes at the expense of those here already. The author quotes a 1997 estimate that “each legal or illegal immigrant without a high school education imposes a net lifetime cost (after subtracting all taxes the immigrant pays) on taxpayers of $89,000 in direct services. With a high-school diploma the average is still a negative $31,000.” A 1996 estimate indicated that “immigrants would cost taxpayers an average of $93 billion annually through 2006, net of any taxes paid.” A quarter of a century and a great deal of inflation later, the figures can only have gotten much worse.
The false belief that mass immigration is good for the American economy is in part due to the short-term benefits companies derive from cutting labor costs. In the end, however, a working population with little purchasing power is hardly likely to drive continued prosperity. Cheap labor also enables companies to defer technological improvement. Under these circumstances, one might expect unions to favor limiting immigration, as they used to do. But today’s labor leaders seem more interested in expanding union membership (and thus increasing their own power) than in doing anything to improve members’ lives.
In the absence of mass immigration, low native fertility would put us well on the way to reducing our population to the probable carrying capacity of the United States without sacrificing our standard of living. Exceeding the carrying capacity of one’s territory makes a reckoning inevitable at some point, and nature’s methods are brutal, including famine and pestilence. Even before we reach that point, diminishing resources per capita increase competition for what remains, corruption becomes more widespread, and traditional American freedoms cannot survive. The author writes: “I am strongly of the opinion that population pressure is itself a contributor to authoritarian government. Sheer numbers and density of people demand top-down organization. The slide into tyranny can be gradual and for long periods may proceed with only the best of intentions.”
Dr. Abernethy’s work offers a unique demographically informed perspective on the many issues facing our people, and Born Abroad is an entertaining and useful introduction to her thinking.