Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Sex Selection Desirable?

Here's an odd quote (ht) from an Australian bioethicist:
"I don't think we're seriously looking at a world of only girl children just yet, but I do think that when philosophers start talking about using medical technology to achieve things that aren't about health, so increasing people's IQ or life expectancy for example, you have to ask why we shouldn't all be girls," he said.

Why do you have to ask that?
"There are significant restrictions on the opportunities available to men around gestation, childbirth, and breastfeeding, which will be extremely difficult to overcome via social or technological mechanisms in the foreseeable future. Women also have longer life expectancies than men," he said.

Increased life expectancy would be nice, for sure. I'm not so sold on childbirth, etc., especially when you factor in the whole menstruation thing. (Sounds more like a net negative, if anything.) So it's not at all clear to me that being a particular sex is an advantage in the way that increased IQ, life expectancy, etc., are. (I would wish high IQ on my future children; I wouldn't wish any particular sex on them -- I'm sure they could do perfectly well with either.) Am I missing something?

Apart from intrinsic costs and benefits to selecting a particular sex for one's child, there's also the social milieu to consider. The more of one sex in the general population, the greater the benefit to being of the opposite sex (assuming we haven't also designed out heterosexuality). Some in China are just beginning to notice this.

Finally, apart from individual costs and benefits, we might consider the interests of humanity at large. See 'Gender as Cultural Specialization'. Even if women do better on average, the greater variability in men might make their extinction a notable loss to society at large (assuming the benefit of having more geniuses outweighs the costs of all those delinquents). What do you think?


  1. I find Sparrow's argument completely idiotic, if not outrageously myopic to the situation of women today. As if the main differences between the quality of life for men and women can be encapsulated in these biological "advantages" that women supposedly enjoy! Does he think that relative life expectancies would remain the same in a world where this sort of genetic selection were available for children of the very-rich? Isn't he assuming that prospective parents would fail to notice the huge reproductive advantage enjoyed by men in this hypothetical female-dominated world — not only as sexual partners for women (as you pointed out), but also for progenitors of children who will not have to bear the burdens of childbirth, breastfeeding and so on? You don't even have to bring in menstruation to clinch this one. Menstruation is just a small hassle in comparison to the burdens that Sparrow lists as advantages.

    In a nutshell, I think Sparrow's commentary on the advantages of being female may be taken (at best) as observational humor. And it shows (at best) that he is not very observant.

  2. Hmmm... I would agree with Duckrabbit that childbearing isn't an advantage, though it means that an all-female society will be technologically feasible before an all-male one is. One thing we know for sure right now is that cloning is damned hard, and since sperm do so little, most of the trouble is likely on the egg/womb end. However, you still need to get the epigenetics of the sperm cell right. Probably the shortest route to a one-gender society is to develop a way to create artificial sperm that can be given egg cell nuclei and then microinjected into a target egg. Being able to engineer lesbianism would be the main thing needed to make the option attractive.

    If anything pushes us in that direction, it would probably be not biological advantages of being female, but psychological ones, in the higher median academic performance. Parents may decide that a small chance of having a genius isn't worth the larger chance of having a delinquent. With artificial sperm and engineered lesbianism, that could be what provides the catalyst for a self-reinforcing trend towards an all-female society.

    One wrinkle, though: what happens to gene frequencies of behavioral genes? What happens to the genes that make women inclined to resist this trend with their children, what happens to the genes that make men inclined to be gay sperm donors?

  3. Sex/gender is one of the most complex features of biology -- the great John Maynard Smith analysed it for much of his career and in the end he admitted he still didn't have its evolutionary origins figured out to his satisfaction.

    I really don't think the future of gender can be encapsulated by such a simplistic (and I agree with Duckrabbit, idiotic) analysis.

  4. I quite like Sparrow's argument, at least for what I take it for, a reductio of the simplicity of various arguments for the obligatory nature of human enhancement.

  5. I'm not so sold on childbirth, etc., especially when you factor in the whole menstruation thing.

    Ha, join the club! My first thought was, "Why don't I have my uterus removed and sent to Sparrow, if he wants the damn thing so damn much?" (On reflection, I decided that this was a bit hasty.) In the Glorious Transhumanist Future, children will be gestated in artificial wombs. (We've already got some decent methods for dealing with menstruation, for those who don't get or don't mind the side effects.)

    I have what is probably a very evil thought about Sparrow's alternative universe: selecting only girls has the potential to vastly decrease the incidence of rape and warfare. While I love the actual men in my life and wouldn't wish them out of existence for anything, it's not obvious that more merely possible men should be actualized in the Glorious Transhumanist Future. I'd strongly support other ways of eliminating rape and warfare, of course. I also think a future without men would be a great aesthetic loss, but (a) who wants my aesthetic opinion about a distant future I won't inhabit (b) if I'd grown up on Whileaway I'd probably have completely different standards anyhow.

  6. But David, how is it any kind of 'reductio' if the absurdity doesn't actually follow from transhumanist premises? I'm all for making the future a better place (though I'd be more cautious in throwing around 'obligation' claims, granted). The absurdity in Sparrow's proposal is precisely that it achieves nothing of the sort. It's just stupid.

  7. Saw this linked on Chris's blog.

    It's not so much the sex itself as the traits linked to that sex, and some traits aren't even sex-linked! For example, being long-lived, having academic success, and being less impulsive may occur more in women, but that's partially a factor of society.

    We need to examine to what extent intrinsic maleness - hormones, sex-linked characteristics, et cetera - influences men against what society says!

    Also, societies in which women are far outnumbered hardly are better; think about India, China, and other countries.

  8. A few random thoughts:

    1. We are still evolving. It's only recently that civilization has developed to a point where women's evolutionary traits give them an advantage. This advantage is quite small now and will get smaller as we continue to evolve.

    2. Once we get off this little rock and start establishing small outposts in harsh environments elsewhere in the universe, men's advantages may become more useful.

    3. If there is sex selection, might it be useful to allow it only where parents already have a majority their children of the opposite sex? This would significantly reduce the risk of one sex becoming predominant and might still satisfy many parents who would want to make the choice.

  9. I agree with David, that Sparrow's argument appears intended to be a reductio, though I too have doubts about its validity. I have written more on the practicalethics blog today.


    It is not clear that allowing parents to use technology to select the best children would lead to an all-female world. But, if it did, and the lives of those in that world were significantly better, we need to ask whether our objections to it are rational, or based upon a partisan preference for our own existence and the status quo.

  10. Whether or not you think child-bearing is an advantage, surely the point is that women can choose whether or not to bear children, but men are denied this choice? So if more people were women, more people would be in the position to choose whether or not to bear children - an argument I thought would appeal to you, Richard. I agree that the whole 'menstruation thing,' as you put it, might outweigh the benefits of having more choice when it comes to reproduction, but menstruation is entirely unecessary - if you go on the contraceptive pill you can skip periods if you want. There's no medical reason to have them.

  11. Sure, more options don't hurt, but the degree of benefit depends on the value of the option. So my suggestion was that Sparrow was highlighting a very negligible benefit here, one that is possibly even outweighed by the costs of menstruation (incl. the costs of medically overcoming it).

    It's kind of like saying everyone should be men because they have the option of peeing standing up. It's true that it's an additional choice. But it's not clear that it's such a great one that it is going to have any significant impact on the final "all things considered" comparison. Obviously there are a host of minor differences between the sexes, so pointing to one or two additional options either way is hardly going to be decisive.

    So really Sparrow's argument presupposes that these are extraordinarily valuable options he's pointed to.

  12. I think the options actually do hurt. Heterosexual intercourse, even if it's fully consensual, often comes with a risk of unwanted pregnancy for women. And heterosexual intercourse that happens under various degrees of coercion is made a lot worse by the (often greater) risk of pregnancy. Some abusive husbands and boyfriends will actively try to get their females partners pregnant to make them more vulnerable.

  13. Gender selection is a reproductive right and should be allow as long as private funds are used to perform it. In the US, about 80% of gender selection is to have girls. It is interesting that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that gender selection is almost always unethical but supports the right of a woman to have an abortion on demand through the second trimester for any reason at all. The embryos are subject to sexual discrimination. Therefore, the embryos have more right that the fetus. This does not hold water.


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