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

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men - Mara Hvistendahl Fascinating examination of sex selection, abortion and family size. Hvistendahl does a good job in poking a flashlight into the different, murky corners of the issue, thought there aren't any obvious answers. I was taught, like a good geographer, the solid old model of demographic transition:


...and the teacher or professor occasionally adding on that squiggly line at the bottom right as an aside. Now, with most of the world well over into the right half of the graph, it looks like we might need to zoom into that line, because weird stuff is going on there, particularly in regard to gender.

Theres a tangled mix here - on the one hand, it's possible to draw a broad socio-technologo-economic continuation to the model, as inexorable as the tide - rising affluence, easy availability of high tech ultrasounds, shrinking families, a preference for boys - voila, a predictable pattern on the graph. It returns to normal as the transition into prosperity is completed (see: South Korea, the only place on earth known to have gotten back to a normal sex-at-birth ratio.)

But then there are the conscious-human things, with people recognizing the problematic choices they make but making them anyway, and laws and propaganda and celebrity endorsements and what have you. Did the one-child law affect things? Vietnam doesn't have a one-child law, and it's fertility has dropped even more sharply than China. (So has Iran.) Why DID South Korea balance back? Why hasn't Taiwan? How does lowest-low fertility, which many of these countries are heading to, affect things? Whats going on in Eastern Europe compared to the Caucauses? What's with the slight anti-boy-selection phenomenon in the USA?

In short, the book raises more demographic questions than it answers, but they're very good questions.

And then theres the politics - there is the long (and often unpleasantly racist) history of western involvement in Asian demographics, wearing seemingly benign but utterly creepy hats, hyperventilating about the world being overrun by the Eastern Horde, (I used to do environmental workshops, back in...2012. The attitude among infallibly liberal 20-something students who really, really care about the planet to the possibility of rising standards of living in the developing world was often not particularly far off from the World Bank or Republican Party in the 70's.) Then there are Asian governments themselves, cooperating with a genuine eye to economic growth, that together went a long way to normalizing abortion in the first place. The way this runs into anti-abortion politics is complex and, unsurprisingly, unpleasant. Clearly, women being forced to have abortions in the 70's means they should have less control of their bodies today.

The part that should have been most interesting, but felt a little underdeveloped to me, was the question of the future though. Hvistendahl dedicated a chunk of the book to asking what the world looks like - and will look like - with this already extant and unreversible overly-male generation alive and well into adulthood, but she doesn't go nearly far enough. Maybe it's because there aren't any good answers yet, only the ability to take a very narrow look at a few inevitable phenomenon on the small scale, with no ability to step back and ask But What Does It Mean - but maybe that's because i'm a Science Fiction reader, actually. (An Ian McDonald future-India short story does get a passing mention.) Speculate, people, speculate!

Anyway, very well written, in that engaging journalistic way but without being shallow. Hvistendahl lays out her agenda front and center and never tries to hide it or her own personality and background, and gives room for a personal story, a bit of scene setting or a character sketch whenever things threaten to get bogged down in buereaucratic history or too many statistics.

The book ends up being a bit depressing, of course, like all the books about global warming, peak oil, viral immunity and genetic modification and whatever else is threatening us. The future will be bleak, but we already knew that - I suppose it won't just be hotter, poorer and slower, it will also be harder to get laid. Then again, who knows, maybe we'll deal. One way or another, it's going to happen.