Yin and Yang of Fecundity

Is life just a series of death? If we know things will die, why do we produce them? Annie Dillard explores these kinds of philosophical questions in the chapter “Fecundity” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard uses fecundity to drive her opinion that nature “loves death more than it loves you or me”. Before I reflect on her application of the word, I’d like to get into the ecological definition of fecundity to get a deeper understanding of the concept.

In simple scientific terms, fecundity is the number of offspring an individual produces in their lifetime. It is usually applied to female organisms and can talk about both individuals or entire populations. Fecundity is used by researches for a variety of reasons. It helps predict population fluctuations, calculates maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for fisheries, and can be used to help rebound suffering populations.

Dillard makes a valid argument about the seemingly careless nature of fecundity. I’d like to explain her opinion a little more by providing background and examples from nature. There are species, usually insects (like the moths she wrote about) and marine organisms, that produce tens of thousands of eggs in their lifetime and only 1% of them will survive. However, it is not always the parent’s fault. Animals with high fecundities (like insects and fish) usually broadcast spawn which means the females release their eggs over a vast amount of space and hope they get fertilized. This in itself is a risk with little payoff and accounts for the large majority of the eggs not surviving. However, those that are lucky enough to be fertilized typically do not have parental care. This means they have no one to teach them where to find food, who their predators are, or where safety is located. The spawn are born into an unfair world.

This is what I believe Dillard is taking issue with. She is assuming organisms know only a few survive, so why not change reproduction so that more live? It does seem cruel to continue reproducing with no intent on helping the young but that is what these species have evolved into. If all of those tens of thousands of eggs were to survive, for every individual female, there would be a ginormous increase in population size. This would result in predation issues, food web alterations, habitat changes, etc. There is a reason organisms have evolved the way they have; it works.

Nature can seem dark but it keeps balance. There is balance between good and bad. I can agree with Dillard that some aspects of fecundity seem immoral however it is something we can’t control. We cannot force every species to produce healthy spawn every single time they mate. It’s impossible. Species evolve and figure out what works best for themselves and their population, and for some species high fecundity works. I don’t think it deserves to be labeled as grotesque and sinful, because if we didn’t have fecundity at all, none of us would be alive to debate about it.

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