*Unnatural Selection*

The author is Mara Hvistendahl, and the subtitle is Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.  It will make my best books of 2011 list, excerpt:

A recent paper in the journal Reproductive Health Matters states, “For women attempting to have a son and experiencing pressure to fulfill their ‘womanly duty’ by having a male child, sex-selective abortion can be extremely empowering.”  The other, more tragic factor…is that women know best just how difficult it is to be female.

…Liao Li also tells me she prefers daughters.  “Girls are very good,” she says.  “They’re soft.  And they take care of you when you’re older.”  But she aborted two female fetuses, she intimates, because having a son is crucial to keeping up appearances: “If you don’t have a boy, you lose face.”

Women have become, in a sense, their own worst enemies.  Development, remember, was supposed to improve the lot of women — and in many areas it does.  But when it comes to reproduction, the opposite happens: women use their increased autonomy to select for sons.

Here is one good review.  I also learned from this book how prevalent the sex imbalance problem is becoming in some parts of the Balkans.


I disagree, I find that to be a pretty poor review. The reviewer first of all unnecessarily complains about the term "one-child policy" because there are certain well-defined exceptions (in rural areas, ethnic minorities, and so forth). Yet it's silly to hold that that makes the term misleading.

The reviewer also apparently holds it as a contradiction that some people (in the West) hold the sex selection as "part and parcel of government policy" even though it is in contradiction to the official government view and propaganda of how the one-child policy should be implemented. This tension is easily resolved by noting that the sex selection is an unavoidable unintended consequence of the government policy. Indeed, the idiom "part and parcel" is frequently used to attack unintended but unavoidable consequences of a policy, so it's quite appropriate, contra the reviewer.

That conclusion may be wrong or overstated, as evidence from elsewhere in Asia may show, but it's far from a contradiction.

With less complaint, I note that the review is aimed at a liberal, pro-choice audience who is horrified by the idea of female infanticide but thinks of abortion (and the advanced scientific techniques that make sex-selective abortion possible) as a positive, progressive, and modern thing. There are many (including from a different direction Peter Singer) who would find this too less of a shock or contradiction.

I confess I'm failing an ideological Turing Test here, but while I well understand why Western pro-choicers would be horrified by the cultural attitudes and devaluation of women that lead to sex-selective abortion, I must admit I'm a little confused as to why they'd be upset at the abortions or the gender imbalance per se. I guess I see that the argument that this increases trafficking in brides and so forth, but it also seems like it could eventually increase the status of the now rarer women. It seems to me like people (including the review) complain and explain that sex-selective abortion occurs because women in rural societies are a financial burden to their families-- but then turn around and complain when the result of the sex imbalance is to make those women a financial boon (by replacing dowries with bride prices). The complaint, properly speaking, thus seems to be about the underlying negative attitudes and values towards women that show up (albeit in different ways) regardless of policy or exact sex ratio, not the sex ratio or sex selection itself. Without sex selection, there would be one form of discrimination and ill treatment of women; with it, there is another.

Contra the reviewer, I don't think many were really confused that modern technology was being used to produce these sex imbalances. The argument I've seen far more frequently is that these countries got modern technology before getting modern attitudes.

For example, the book notes that the sex imbalance is causing girls to be sold off by their parents to marry men that they don't like. Certainly horrible, but isn't it the case that without the sex imbalance the girls were still forced to marry men that they didn't like, only in that case the girls were sent off with expensive dowries? Isn't it the case that those expensive dowries are often cited as a reason why the sex selection occurs in the first place? So if the girls were forced to marry against their will regardless, then then the only change is dowry changing to a bride price, which may remove some of the motivation for sex selection.

Rarer women just makes women more valuable; it only increases the status of women in societies where women already have effective autonomy over themselves - say, the more developed parts of China. Otherwise it increases the status of the people who wield power over women (fathers, brothers, husbands), as is more likely to be the case across Central Asia.

Note too that a bride price is not a negative dowry; cultures can and do practice both. Historically, the bride price is paid by the husband to the wife's family, whereas the dowry is paid from the wife's family to the husband's household, i.e., the wife and ensuing sons. Suppose that women become rarer; both the bride price and the dowry may increase, with the wife's autonomy to select a husband decreasing but material autonomy within the husband's household increasing, with the latter effect being larger (dowries are generally greater than bride prices).

If they were only allowed to have one child, more Americans would prefer it be a boy rather than a girl, a new survey finds that 40 percent said they'd pick a boy, 28 percent said they would want a girl, and the rest didn't mind either way or weren't sure. However it is only men that had a preference for boys, It would seem that the US also got modern technology before getting modern attitudes.

You are not really failing ideological Turing Test here, I am a Western pro-choicer and I am not upset by sex-selective abortion. per se. It is allowing men to make the choice that bothers me.

"It is allowing men to make the choice that bothers me."

So the fathers should have no say over their children?

As they say, feminism is the radical notion that men are not people (note : neither I nor Emil are putting words into Joan's mouth : pro-choice by definition means only the woman has the choice; it doesn't even mean both have choice with higher priority for the woman's choice).

Also one has to treat the survey Joan mentions with caution : the surveys I have seen show considerable preference for girls among parents who are adopting, and a slight preference for boys among those who are going for biological children.

Also, most well-educated I have talked to have the attitude of Liu quoted above : baby girls are soft, cute, nice etc. baby boys are just recalcitrant. Technically these folks may not consciously discriminate against baby boys, but them being human, it is very likely they would show greater affection to the female child, given child cuteness etc. are factors impacting our treatment of children.

So why does this seem to contradict the general populace's preference for male biological children? Here is my theory : I think it has something to do with how education and development interferes with the parental instincts. In underdeveloped societies parents don't need to invest much in their children, so children are mostly an asset. With development, the amount of investment in children needed increases considerably, while parents' obsession with their own careers etc. decrease their child-rearing instincts. So especially in European countries, the child is on the way to becoming a liability. In such a situation, the traits valued in a child are related to ease of managing, and compliance with academic pressures. Thus, the more educated tend to prefer girl children.

Finally, I keep getting amused why TC links to such low-nuance articles because (i) they promote a position he likes (ii) they give a false impression of nuance.

Does "pro choice" mean abortion-choice? Or sex-selection choice? I think these matters need to be treated differently.

Rahul : it means abortion-choice, but at an individual level, this implies sex-selective-abortion choice. And as far as I understand, Americans who support this as a fundamental right will be against banning it due to society-level-considerations, since they are far too individualistic for that.

"I am a Western pro-choicer and I am not upset by sex-selective abortion. per se."


"It is allowing men to make the choice that bothers me."


Ah, the subtle ad hominem to shame people who would prefer a son. If you'd rathe have a boy, you're a backwards caveman.

"you’re a backwards caveman." even more subtle reflection of basic attitudes here. The first female voice to chirp into the discussion has five males within the thread challenging her, concluding with your quip.

I apologize on behalf of myself and the other four presumed males. We must have missed the memo where we're told to pedestalize females and their opinions.

It is ideologically incoherent to be pro-choice and horrified at all those female fetuses who "don't get to exist." Katja: http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2009/08/12/abortion-views-sexist/

Um, no it isn't. The author doesn't understand the "pro-choice" set of arguments and looks foolish assuming these two are on the same plane.

What are those?

I've never heard a pro-choice person say "because the government sucks ass" generally. That's my argument, not "the government sucks ass only when they attempt to micromanage childbearing."

Have I mentioned my recent girl baby who never left my presence during the labor and delivery and hospital stay and got none of the "required" bullshit that Krugman thinks I'm incapable of deciding? Fuck 'em.

One argument would be that a victim impregnated during an act of rape or incest ought to have the right not to bring to term her fetus. Another would be that in cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy the option of abortion should be available.

A person who puts these instances on the same ethical level as selective gender abortion is being disingenuous.

I'd extend it more. What about a teenage mom for whom its either that or school? Or a ghetto mom on welfare with 3 kids and no way to support a 4th? Should we worry more about the fact that she has 4 kids or that these litters might be gender unbalanced?

Ok. you might argue about not getting into these situations in the first place. Fine. If you can credibly achieve that.

Krugman has taken a position on what medical care you're required to receive during childbirth? Link please

There’s a terifirc amount of knowledge in this article!

As an aside, are there any mammalian populations where the natural Male-Female ratio isn't 50-50? Assuming males are more promiscuous than females; could it be possible to sustain a stable society with a non-parity sex ratio. Or would this be unstable over generations?

deer popultations tend to be heavily female, so it can be stable.
i think this is the result of hunting pressure on males though more than sex ratio at birth being different than 1:1

I'd expect natural selection to have deviated from 1:1 at least in some cases; to me it's a mystery why nature sticks to 1:1. I suspect there is some generational math that I don't see.

Can an environment that is lacking in boys/girls somehow trigger men to produce more/less Y-chromosome sperm, or women's eggs to be more/less accepting of these sperm? It would seem like a very useful adaptation, since any significant variance from the 1:1 ratio would mean the relatively rarer sex is likely to be more successful at procreating.

Right. Let's take humans. A male can, literally, impregnate a woman a day. OTOH pregnancy ties down a female for 9 months.

Even with fertilization probabilities factored in, a male for every female seems wasteful from an evolutionary standpoint. What gives?

If there is 1 male for every 9 females, a new male (whether introduced through immigration or birth) is likely to produce far more offspring than a new female. A female's reproductive success should be fairly consistent regardless of the sex ratio, whereas a male's depends heavily on the sex ratio. A random female is better off than a random male in the race for progeny whenever there are more males than females, and visa-versa. So this would tend to move the relevant inter-breeding population towards 1:1, right?

(Assuming that some sort of combined environmental-genetic mechanism exists that could alter the sex ratio at birth in response to the sex ratio in the population.)

Turkey Vulture, you got it. The mathematics for this were worked out by RA Fisher, I think sometime in the 1930's.

Given genes that affect sex ratio (which are known to exist), those genes will be selected to produce a 1:1 ratio at procreation age. Because whichever gender is rarer at that time, is selected.

I read a claim that some western-hemisphere population (I think it was mayans) used to heavily practice female infanticide, and probably because of that their sex ratio at birth was over 1.1 female to male, while for most of us it's a little bit in the other direction. I don't have a link to that and my memory is not completely dependable.

Rahul, I recently started reading Sex Wars by Michael Majerus. It has quite a bit of stuff on this subject. If you're interested you can read it here:


Thanks! Very interesting. Maybe this will have the answer to the 1:1 puzzle.

The human sex ratio at birth is 105 males : 100 females. I understand (living room fact) that this is because men tend to make riskier decisions, so the sex ratio settles down to about 1:1 by mid-adulthood.

I'm not sure if it is all about riskier decisions or at least partly compensation for a genetic bias towards higher male morbidity and mortality.

The more appropriate term would be "Artificial Selection"

Monsanto is surely behind this.

When actors with only bad options are given additional bad options, those not in their situation may be horrified at the actor's selection of least bad outcome.

First we aborted the girl Down's baby, then the gay male baby, we figured third times the charm and kept the healthy girl baby.

I think it's a mistake to have women as an undifferentiated category. If a girl's mother and/or father force her into a marriage she doesn't want, there's a generational element.

A short term market imbalance that will work itself out over time.

What's the supply adjustment mechanism?

Cultures are limited in their reproduction by the number of women. Cultures that limit the number of women will reproduce at a slower rate than cultures that do not. Hence over time, the practice is reduced.

1. Cultures only spread by inheritance.
2. Cultural attitudes to reproduction will remain constant over enough generations for this to take effect.
3. Cultures will not interbreed, mix, and affect each other.

We know all assumptions are untrue.

Note that this would NOT apply to a culture that selected against male children. As has been pointed out, even a 1% rate of males is sufficient to maintain population growth.

From my two data points, girl babies are much easier. Bryan Caplan would say "have more girls!"

Well of course, he's a dude! :-P

My observation is that boys are more trouble until both reach puberty. The girls will then be more trouble until... well until her children reach puberty.

Michael Shermer would call this "cultural selection". That's all I have to add.

America is becoming a 3rd world nation so this should happen here as well.
Tyler will find an upside to this I hope.
Good thing NY just passed gay marriage.

In a village, women bear children until they have a son, and then stop reproducing. What is the expected sex ratio of this village?

MR to the rescue:


I this why it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell men and women apart?

I liked this review of the book from the Wall Street Journal - http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052702303657404576361691165631366-lMyQjAxMTAxMDIwNzEyNDcyWj.html

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