Explaining why fertility declines as populations modernize is a profound theoretical challenge. It remains unclear whether the fundamental drivers are economic or cultural in nature. Cultural evolutionary theory suggests that community-level characteristics, for example average education, can alter how low-fertility preferences are transmitted and adopted. These assumptions have not been empirically tested. Here, we show that community-level education accelerates fertility decline in a way that is neither predicted by individual characteristics, nor by the level of economic modernization in a population. In 22 high-fertility communities in Poland, fertility converged on a smaller family size as average education in the community increased—indeed community-level education had a larger impact on fertility decline than did individual education. This convergence was not driven by educational levels being more homogeneous, but by less educated women having fewer children than expected, and more highly educated social networks, when living among more highly educated neighbours.
The average level of education in a community may influence the social partners women interact with, both within and beyond their immediate social environments, altering the reproductive norms they are exposed to. Given a critical mass of highly educated women, less educated neighbours may adopt their reproductive behaviour, accelerating the pace of demographic transition. Individual characteristics alone cannot capture these dynamics and studies relying solely on them may systematically underestimate the importance of cultural transmission in driving fertility declines. Our results are inconsistent with a purely individualistic, rational-actor model of fertility decline and suggest that optimization of reproduction is partly driven by cultural dynamics beyond the individual.