»  The New Criterion

September 2011

  Demographic Dilemmas

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men
by Mara Hvistendahl


One of history's more curious encounters occurred in early March 1766 at a country estate in southern England, near Dorking. The estate belonged to Daniel Malthus, a gentleman of independent means and wide intellectual interests. The philosophers David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were traveling in the neighborhood, seeking a house for Rousseau, who had just recently arrived in England under Hume's patronage after having been driven out of Switzerland.

Daniel Malthus was known to both philosophers, at least by correspondence, so they paid him a brief visit, in the course of which they saw his son Thomas, then just three weeks old. So there, presumably in the same room, were Hume, Rousseau, and the infant Thomas Malthus. It was an odd grouping: the serene empiricist, the neurotic social optimist, and the future oracle of demographic doom.

Hume had actually dabbled in demography himself some years earlier. He had been one of the first to argue against the belief, common until his time, that the ancient world was more populous than the modern world. Demography, along with its cousin discipline of economics, was "in the air" during the later eighteenth century, waiting for the grown-up Malthus to cast his cold eye upon it in his momentous Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

Of these two cousin disciplines, it is a nice point for argument which better deserves to be called "the dismal science." I would vote for demography. It must be hard to maintain a cheerful composure while scrutinizing the ceaseless, often inexplicable ebbs and flows of nativity and mortality.

It is a strange thing, too — and a depressing one for anyone of an empirical temperament — that what ought to be the most exact of all the human sciences has such a sorry record of prediction. What, after all, could be more certain than that a nation with number N of five-year-olds today will have N fifteen-year-olds in a decade's time, give or take some small margin for attrition and migration? The human sciences don't come any more precise than that. Yet large-scale predictions by demographers have been confounded again and again, from those of Malthus himself to that of Paul Ehrlich, who told us in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb that "The battle to feed humanity is over … Billions will die in the 1980s."

Ehrlich's book was very much of its time. The third quarter of the twentieth century was dogged by fears of a Malthusian catastrophe. Popular fiction echoed those fears in productions like John Brunner's novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and Richard Fleischer's movie Soylent Green (1973). It was assumed, reasonably enough, that populous poor countries were most at risk, being closest to the limits of food supply. Governments and international organizations therefore got to work promoting birth control in what we had just recently learned to call the Third World, with programs that were often brutally coercive.

Birth rates soon fell; though how much of the drop was directly due to the programs, and how much was an inevitable consequence of modernization, is disputed. The evidence is strong that women liberated from pre-modern subordination to their husbands, and given easy access to contraception, will limit their pregnancies with or without official encouragement.

There was, though, a distressing side effect of the dropping birthrates. Many countries have a strong traditional preference for male children. So long as women in those countries were resigned to a lifetime of child-bearing, the sheer number of offspring ensured that the sex ratio at birth (SRB) would be close to its natural level of 105 males to 100 females. The post-natal ratio might be skewed somewhat by local traditions of female infanticide and by the loss of young men in war, but a rough balance was kept. China in the 1930s had around 108 males per 100 females.

Once the idea of limiting births settled in, however, people sought assurance that one of their babies be male. If a mother gives birth twice, there is a 24 percent chance neither baby will be male; the chance of no males in three births is twelve percent; the chance of no males in four births, six percent. Female infanticide continued to be an option, but not an attractive one — nor, in most modern jurisdictions, a legal one.

Technology met the need by providing methods to determine the sex of a fetus. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, amniocentesis was used for this purpose. Then high-quality second trimester ultrasound became widely available and took over the business of fetal sex determination. It caught on very fast all over East and South Asia, allowing women to abort female fetuses. The consequences showed up in last year's Chinese census, whose results are just now being published. They show an SRB of 118 males per 100 females.

These unbalanced sex ratios and their social and demographic consequences form the subject matter of Mara Hvistendahl's book Unnatural Selection. An experienced journalist who has lived for many years in China, Ms. Hvistendahl covers the history, sociology, and science of sex-selective population control very comprehensively. She has organized each of her book's fifteen chapters around the experience of some significant individual: "The Bachelor,"  "The Parent,"  "The Economist," and so on.

Her book's scope is by no means restricted to China: "The Student" of Chapter 6 is an Indian who commenced his medical training at a big hospital in Delhi in 1978, when sex-selective abortion was just taking off in India. We get a side trip to Albania, whose SRB is treated as a state secret, but seems to be at least 110. We also learn that sex-selective abortion is common among couples of Chinese, Korean, and Indian descent in the U.S.A. The subjects here are not just newly arrived immigrants, either. A research team from Columbia University found that:

If anything, mothers who were U.S. citizens were slightly more likely to have sons. Sex selection, in other words, is not a tradition from the old country that easily dies out.

South Korea makes a particularly interesting study. That country's governments were more foresighted than most in spotting the problems that might arise from sex-selective abortion. They outlawed the procedure in 1987, and followed up with rigorous enforcement. South Korea's SRB is now at the natural level.

There is more here than meets the eye, though, as Ms. Hvistendahl uncovers. As elsewhere, sex selection was mainly resorted to for second or subsequent births. The SRB for first births is essentially normal worldwide. And first births is wellnigh all the births there are now in South Korea. Our author tells us that: "In 2005 Korea bottomed out with the lowest total fertility rate in the world, at an average of 1.08 children per woman." Things have since recovered somewhat. The 2011 estimate for total fertility rate is 1.23. That still makes for a fast-declining and aging population, though — surely not the ideal solution to the problem of sex ratio imbalances.

What of the issue of angry young surplus males unable to find wives? Ms. Hvistendahl takes a less alarmist view than the one put forth by Hudson and den Boer in their 2004 book Bare Branches. That there is a causal relationship from excess males to political despotism, as those authors argued, is not well supported by historical evidence. As Hvistendahl notes: "Adolf Hitler came to power at a time when Germany had over two million more women than men as a result of the toll taken by World War I." (She might have added that the most authoritarian episode in recent Indian history was the 1975-77 "Emergency," instigated by a female Prime Minister at a time of normal adult sex ratios.) One feels intuitively that a surplus of sex-starved young men will generate trouble, but on the evidence so far, things may not go beyond domestic disorders of the containable kind.

Ms. Hvistendahl seems to be of conventionally feminist-leftist opinions, but she has visible trouble keeping those opinions in order when writing about sex-ratio imbalances. She of course favors "reproductive rights," yet cannot but deplore the fact that those rights, extended to Third World peasant cultures, have led to a holocaust of female babies and the trafficking of young women from poorer places with low male-female ratios, to wealthier places with high ones.

She works hard to develop a thesis about it all having been the fault of Western imperialists terrified of the breeding potential of poorer, darker peoples, in cahoots with opportunistic Third World dictators hungry for World Bank cash, but she cannot quite square the ideological circle. As she points out, abortion was frowned on throughout Asia until modern times. (Chinese people used to consider themselves one year old at birth: older Chinese still reckon their birthdays in this way.) Where would "reproductive rights" be in Asia if not for those meddling imperialists?

These blemishes are minor, though, and probably inevitable in any book written by a college-educated young woman of our time. If you skip over them, you will find a wealth of research and much good narrative journalism in Unnatural Selection. The occasional feminist, leftist, and anti-American editorializing aside, this is a rich and valuable book on an important topic. David Hume would have admired Hvistendahl's respect for the data, even when it leads to conclusions that make hay of her prejudices. Rousseau would have applauded her egalitarian passions. Thomas Malthus, had he read the book, would have been tearing his hair out.