Sunday, August 07, 2011

Mara Hvistendahl: "Unnatural Selection": the cumulative effect of preferring males in a low birth-rate environment

Author: Mara Hvistendahl

Title: “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men

Publication: New York: Public Affairs, 2011. ISBN 978-1-58648-850-5. 314 pages, hardcover, indexed. 4 Parts, 15 Chapters, with Prologue (roman pages) and Epilogue.

Probably the most important benefit of this book is the way if makes us think about individual rights, in a way that extends how we used to think about abortion.  Decisions made for individual or familial personal benefit, when incentivized in certain ways, have enormous global consequences for future generations. Call this a concern about ‘generativity”.  In fact, late in the book she speaks of a balance between the rights of parents and the unborn, not just in the usual sense, but in right of a child to be born with an “open future”, not encumbered by previous familial goals.

The book, of course, deals mainly with the cumulative effects of population control along with social customs in many countries, mostly in Asia, resulting in parents trying their best to have boys.  There are many reasons, of course, based on custom, such as the expense of paying a female dowry.   Many countries have been involved, most visibly China with its one –child policy.  Many techniques are tried by parents, most of all gender-specific abortion, but more recently PGD, or preimplnatation gender diagnosis, for parents who cannot conceive.  Although usually sex selection favors men, there are counter trends: gay and lesbian couples are reported as preferring daughters.  Many countries are trying to make prenatal gender determination illegal, and South Korea has actually become the first country to reverse the trend for too many males. She mentions the group called “Generations Ahead” (link)

Sociologists, going all the way back to conservative writer George Gilder, have written about the dangers of too many unmarried men.  The author goes over ancient history in this regard, as well as conventional anthropology.  She also discusses some interesting biology that I had never heard. Married men, and men with children, generally have been found to show lower testosterone levels than bachelors and/or childless men, even when relatively young adults.  I can remember the jokes about this in Army barracks back in the late 60s. When men got married, they gained weight and grew pot bellies, and maybe even lost some body as well as pate hair, so the conventional bachelor wisdom read. “You’re going to lose hormones”, one guy said.  I still remember that moment.  He may have been right.  I can remember, when growing up, thinking about future emasculation as one of the worst things to fear.

She has a chapter on prostitute and then trade in young women overseas, which increases if there are too many men, as does HIV infection through a process that she calls a “bridging population”. Her work here seems to overlay the effort by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to fight human trafficking ("real men don't buy girls"). 

On Aug. 7, 2011, the New York Times has an “Economic View” article in Sunday Business, p 4, by Robert . Frank, “Supply, Demand and Marriage”, link here. Chinese bachelors need to how that they have three-story homes to attract brides, and often construct unused attics to show they have spaces for families (which are still to be small).

I could not find a YouTube video by Mara Hvistendahl on the topic, but here is a similar one on sex selection  in China (“Infanticide in China”) by Talia Carner (“Jerusalem Maiden” and “China Doll”).  Try also her report on this in PDF format here

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