Richard Dawkins: Sex selection and the shortage of women: is science to blame?

Discuss

161 Responses to “Richard Dawkins: Sex selection and the shortage of women: is science to blame?”

  1. Saltine says:

    I think some are rushing too fast to say that science and technology have a null ideological value or are neither good nor bad. It’s much better to throw out the too-easy good/evil, 1/0 values and think about specific values.

    Science is a product of choices about what to consider. Technology reflects choices made of how to apply our knowledge. A firearm, for example, may be used for good or evil, but its raison d’etre is to kill, and that reveals something about its makers’ attitudes toward the value of life.

    • blueelm says:

      Actually no, it’s this simple. Allow women to control their own bodies without coercion. Value and educate women, then trust them to make decisions about their own pregnancies.

      Wow.

      • Gulliver says:

        Actually no, it’s this simple. Allow women to control their own bodies without coercion. Value and educate women, then trust them to make decisions about their own pregnancies.

        I think Saltine meant that generally scientists have a moral responsibility to endeavor not to make it easy for their discoveries to be abused. I actually agree. But I do not think this can be accomplished by hoarding knowledge. It can only be accomplished by striving to make certain everyone has access to the knowledge and everyone is informed about the risks. Where I part company with Saltine is that I do not believe scientists should avoid discovering knowledge because not all possible uses and designs it could be put to are good. The same chemical that can become an addictive drug could cure a disease. We scientists and engineers are not the sentinels of knowledge, we are the teachers. Our job is to illuminate nature, not partition it off.

        • Saltine says:

          I’m a bit surprised by the responses to my post. I think I spend too much time in the ivory tower. (Actually red brick and reinforced concrete and no windows.) I didn’t say anything about what scientists should or should not do. I am addressing only the idea that science or technology has a null value ideologically. I chose a firearm because in almost all cases it is a device meant to kill. Gulliver’s discussion of the point is built on the assumption that it is acceptable to kill in some circumstances. Yet for absolute pacifists that is unacceptable. I’m not sure that blue elm and I are on the same page at all, but his/her political/ethical views are the same as mind, though that has no bearing on the point I was making about how ideology is embedded in cultural artifacts. (For example, the panoply of medical devices making selective birth control possible were inspired by ideas about the value of intervening in human bodies, making choices about reproduction, etc.)

        • Saltine says:

          I’m a bit surprised by the responses to my post. I think I spend too much time in the ivory tower. (Actually red brick and reinforced concrete and no windows.) I didn’t say anything about what scientists should or should not do. I am addressing only the idea that science or technology has a null value ideologically. I chose a firearm because in almost all cases it is a device meant to kill. Gulliver’s discussion of the point is built on the assumption that it is acceptable to kill in some circumstances. Yet for absolute pacifists that is unacceptable. I’m not sure that blue elm and I are on the same page at all, but his/her political/ethical views are the same as mind, though that has no bearing on the point I was making about how ideology is embedded in cultural artifacts. (For example, the panoply of medical devices making selective birth control possible were inspired by ideas about the value of intervening in human bodies, making choices about reproduction, etc.)

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Allow women to control their own bodies without coercion. Value and educate women, then trust them to make decisions about their own pregnancies.

        In China and India, the decision isn’t going to made by the woman; it’s going to be made by her in-laws, because they’re the ones that own her. Marriage, for women, is frequently a euphemism for indentured servitude to their new mother-in-law.

        • blueelm says:

          This is also my point though. The issue is the lack of trust of women, and the treatment of them as anything but individual human beings who have ownership of their own bodies.

          It really doesn’t matter if the woman is being forced into birth no matter the circumstances or forced into having an abortion… forced is forced.

    • Gulliver says:

      Science is a product of choices about what to consider. Technology reflects choices made of how to apply our knowledge. A firearm, for example, may be used for good or evil, but its raison d’etre is to kill, and that reveals something about its makers’ attitudes toward the value of life.

      Yet the same knowledge that enables parents to know gender before birth also enables many medical benefits. You could perhaps argue that specific designs have a narrow function, but even that is tricky. A firearm is built to be able to kill or incapacitate. But where one person might use it to commit murder, another might use it to stop a murderer from wholesale slaughter, and still another might use it to feed a family off an ecologically deleterious excess game animal population. Regardless of whether you agree with the moral calculus of the person taking the action, it is your or their values, and not the tool itself, that determines how it is put to use. Knowledge of a technique or of how something works is not equivalent to utilizing it in a particular way. So while the path to knowledge reflects choices about what to study, those choices do not determine how the knowledge is ultimately used.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It is all very easy for us “civilized” citizens of the west to judge. However, I wonder how many people here would choose female infanticide if they were mired in poverty and feared been saddled with a dowery that they could not pay or better yet selling their daughters to pay for food(what actually used to be fairly common in civilized countries such as japan). Clearly once a country develops a social security system and a females net earnings become equal to that of a male these issues all disappear. I would argue that the current situation is a economic and class issue. However, for many people out there it’s much more advantageous to use it to support their own colonial discourse and assert the superiority of western liberal ideology, which i find onerously hypocritical.

  3. majdal says:

    This is fascinating – This is the age old question that comes with every technology.

    There is a great book by Amin Maalouf titled The Last Century after Beatrice that imagines a world where this imbalance is spread worldwide, and the political, social, and economic implications of the imbalance. Great read and i highly recommend it.

  4. bigbluemeanie says:

    There are cultres in Afghanisttn which have adaped to the shortage of women (historically, not due to using the technology that Dawkins talks about). They have adopted polyandryy: a woman will marry several brothers. The existing social relations and role of women in society and in the houshold is not challenged.

    With regard to the question raised about the neutrality or otherwise of science in allowing people to select against having daughters: I notice that Dawkins framed the questtion in a particular way. He asked us to consider the scientists who invented the technology. This draws our attention away from the many scientists who are implementing the technology and assistting parents to select against girls. When we think about the invention of a new tool, rather than it’s practical applicattion, we will tend to see the inventor as being neutral. When we think about the people applying the tool we will tend to think about the “mad scientist”. I was interested therefore that Dawkins framed the question in a way that already places the scientist in a more neutral position.

    • billstewart says:

      bigbluemeanie #110, fraternal polyandry is more common over in Tibet and Nepal than in Afghanistan (where it wouldn’t get along well with Islam), and it’s not a reaction to shortages of women; it tends to result in excess single women, who tend to become Buddhist nuns or stay at home caring for elderly parents or whatever.

      The commentaries say that it has a lot more to do with land ownership and inheritance rules in an environment with limited arable land than with supposed gender imbalances – a set of brothers jointly inherit their fathers’ land, instead of splitting it up N ways or giving a bigger share to the firstborn or other solutions in other societies, and the population stays more limited because there’s only one wife having kids, and many women don’t get to be wives.

  5. x_cookie_x says:

    Regarding societies making women “extinct”, there is a most disturbing Indian film made with that premise as its base: “Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379375/
    Highly recommend it.

  6. continental says:

    Nice piece, Mr Dawkins. One can never know every possible outcome of a technology or idea. That kind of thinking leads to paralysis, and we as humans are dynamic creatures.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Interesting article, however this is not a new event. The scale and level of detailed documentation is greater, but child sacrifice has been around for a very long time. The tools have advanced but our actions have not. We as a species have not evolved; our tools simply allow us to be a little neater in dealing with some unsightly/unpleasant aspects of human nature.

  8. Anonymous says:

    RTOFA. Unfortunately, in some cultures, when women become more valuable, they are exploited more through child marriages, etc.

  9. Ugly Canuck says:

    OTOH, come to think on it, to be addicted to the search for truth, or the improvement of one’s own or the general social welfare, should not be accounted a bad thing.

    I suppose I’m committing the same sin (so to speak) which I accused Noen of – the use of the word “addict” as a perjorative , and thereby hiding a pre-existing value judgment within it; rather than using the word “addict” as the perfectly neutral descriptive word that it is, which denotes one who is devoted to, or given over to, something or other – it matters not what.

    To be an addict is no shameful thing: whether or not being such is so, depends upon what precisely one is addicted to – be it virtuous, or be it perfidious?

    And who gets to make that latter call? And why?

    And is not that question at the heart of this “sex-selection” debate – who gets to make that call, now that it can be made? And why?

  10. quicksand says:

    So the point of this article is
    “Confronted with a social evil, we can take solace in the fact that
    a) evolution will sort it out; and
    b) you can’t blame the scientists.”

    okay. Glad you cleared that up. Because the biggest issue in all of this was people talking about how bad scientists are for inventing ultrasound.

    Dawkins: “I’ll refrain from gloating over the possibility of Taliban-inspired woman-hating societies going extinct for lack of women.”

    This is puerile.
    Not only is it not a guaranteed event, that’s like gloating over the fact that North Korea will socially implode in our lifetimes. That is, not something to gloat over at all, because human misery is involved in the meantime.

  11. noen says:

    “Should scientists have refrained from developing useful techniques, for fear of how they might be misused by others?”

    Yes, scientists should consider how technological advances affect society. The reason why is because science simply is not a neutral, passive observer who’s discoveries are then exploited by them evil religious folk for their nefarious evil doin’ deeds.

    Perhaps before Hiroshima it was possible to live in Dawkins’ ivory tower and sneer at the dirty proles for misusing your “gift” to mankind. Today it takes massive amounts of arrogance to take so blinkered a view. Something Richard has in spades.

    “the general question I want to raise is whether the evils of what Mara Hvistendahl calls the XY generation should be blamed on “western governments and businesses that have exported technology and pro-abortion practices without considering the consequences.” Or whether they should be blamed on the cultural and religious practices that despise and discriminate against women in the first place.”

    Well I guess we know who the Whig Party as represented by Richard Dawkins seeks to blame. It should be obvious to everyone by now that inferior cultures are always to blame for whatever befalls them. It simply could not possibly be the case that western governments and businesses bear any responsibility at all. Shit just happens. No one could have predicted that introducing the ability to select a child’s gender would have any measurable affect on traditional cultures whatsoever.

    • tim says:

      Yes, scientists should consider how technological advances affect society. The reason why is because science simply is not a neutral, passive observer who’s discoveries are then exploited by them evil religious folk for their nefarious evil doin’ deeds.

      Well guess what – scientists *do* consider such. What they dont’ – can’t – do is calculate precisely how every particular nugget of knowledge that they might dig up will be used. Are you really going to blame, say, Pasteur for starting us on a path of understand the germ theory of disease and ending up with knowing how to make bacteriological weapons? If so, then you are an idiot and should please stick your head in a bucket of water.
      Science *is* a neutral process. Scientists are often not entirely neutral because they are *people*; they have passions, interests, needs, urges, political and religious opinions and all those other untidy things.
      On second thoughts, considering your various comments above I suggest you head for that bucket anyway.

      • noen says:

        tim said
        “Well guess what – scientists *do* consider such.”

        Dawkins didn’t excuse science, he sought to excuse “western governments and businesses” which is why I called him a apologist for the Whig Party. Isn’t it odd how the leading New Atheists have all managed to be pro western imperialists, pro torture, pro war, pro cultural imperialism, anti free speech and anti freedom of religion?

        I don’t think it’s odd at all. I think it flows directly from their belief system.

        “Science *is* a neutral process.”

        No, actually, it isn’t. Maybe in the fifties one could say that and not get laughed at but not so much today.

        “Are you really going to blame, say, Pasteur for starting us on a path of understand the germ theory of disease”

        No I would not but I would join Oppenheimer in lamenting that a bit more reflection could have been invested into whether or not to build weapons that could annihilate all life on Earth. I remember crouching under my desk. I remember living with the daily knowledge that everything could end in a flash. I remember an entire generation living in terror, and that terror was justified and on several occasions nearly materialized.

        If you are too young to remember you should really pause and think really really hard. There were several times when fingers were seconds away from pushing buttons. Not the pretend buttons with the pretend nukes and the pretend aftermath in the movies. But real buttons and real extinction a hair’s breadth away.

        If you were a biologist would you work on developing an ethnic bomb? Imagine it is possible to create a virus that is nearly 100% fatal… but only for “undesirable” ethnicities. What could possibly go wrong?

        Is it *really* a good idea to be able to select the desirable traits of one’s children? Ever see the move Gattaca? Are you really sure you want to live in such a future?

        Richard Dawkins is a glib and superficial intellectual. All he has is his knee-jerk science fan boi boosterism and equally knee-jerk hatred for religion.

        “Scientists are often not entirely neutral because they are *people*”

        All the more reason why we should question it’s purposes and goals and whether or not they are what we want. Simply blaming religion because you want to use science as the justification for indulging in one’s imperialist desires is just childish.

        • travtastic says:

          Oppenheimer, weapons designers, germ warfare specialists, and all the rest of them are and were engineers, not scientists, at least in their role during the project. They figured out how to apply the science, in the same way that a company who makes air conditioners isn’t staffed by scientists studying the bleeding edge of thermodynamics and electrical theory.

          You’re very thoroughly arguing against yourself here. The idea of an atom bomb predates Oppenheimer’s work by forty years or more. Leó Szilárd figured out the fission chain reaction in 1933.

          • saurabh says:

            Ah, you mean, they’re not TRUE Scotsmen – err, scientists. The engineer is a greasy worm, willing to do the worst if someone pays him. Whereas no scientist acts from anything other than the purest motives. It’s not like research policy is developed by government committees to achieve specific economic and social goals, or anything. Nooo, it’s the search for truth!

          • travtastic says:

            We can play with semantics all you want to. Scientists and engineers are not the same thing, any more than structural engineers build houses.

            Here’s something to mull over. Bad people, the kind who do bad things, will do those things regardless of what tools are available to them. On the smaller scale, if someone doesn’t want a baby girl? They won’t have one. It’s just a matter of when they take action to prevent it.

          • saurabh says:

            Here’s something to mull over. Bad people, the kind who do bad things, will do those things regardless of what tools are available to them. On the smaller scale, if someone doesn’t want a baby girl? They won’t have one. It’s just a matter of when they take action to prevent it.

            This is incorrect. Some things (mass murder via bombs, playing computer games over the Internet) are ONLY possible if the tools exist. Also, there is plenty of empirical evidence (there was a prominent Lancet study exploring this in India a few years ago) that as access to tools (i.e., prenatal ultrasound) increases, so does the gender discrepancy, because infanticide is more difficult, morally and legally, than selective abortion. That is, it is precisely the fact that the tool is available that enables people to actuate their perverse desires. The idea of “neutral” technology is a fiction. All technology encodes a set of ideals. Pick up a hammer sometime and tell me it doesn’t make you want to hit things.

          • noen says:

            travtastic spake thusly:
            “Oppenheimer, weapons designers, germ warfare specialists, and all the rest of them are and were engineers, not scientists”

            FAIL! — “Julius Robert Oppenheimer[note 1] (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley.”

            “ou’re very thoroughly arguing against yourself here.”

            Nope, please try to concentrate. Dawkins is saying this:

            “But the general question I want to raise is whether the evils of [insert technology here] should be blamed on “western governments and businesses [...] Or whether they should be blamed on the cultural and religious practices …”

            I thought I was pretty clear that I think western governments and businesses and their lackeys (We’re scientists. We do what we’re told!) bear much of the blame and that it is illegitimate to fob off one’s responsibilities to religion.

          • Jonathan Badger says:

            People *trained* as scientists may act as engineers and create technology, as Oppenheimer and colleages did, but that doesn’t change the fact that science and engineering are very different things. The Manhattan Project didn’t aim to answer any fundamental questions. It just aimed to make a big bomb.

          • noen says:

            “science and engineering are very different things”

            The point is moot. Nobody cares. Dawkins quite clearly says that *governments* should not be blamed and you are naive indeed if you think that science can be done any more without public funding.

            You act as if you need to keep science pure. It has long since sold it’s soul to big government and big business. I am saying that if we are paying the piper we get to call the tune and that governments and business are very much responsible for the technologies they develop and implement.

          • Jonathan Badger says:

            I’m responding to you, Noen, not Dawkins. Governments fund science reluctantly; obviously they are hoping that the science will spawn useful engineering applications, with the definition of “useful” meaning profitable or powerful in war. Governments don’t really care about the fundamental questions of science and fund basic research on the basis that this basic research often leads to unexpected applications. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between science and engineering.

          • noen says:

            “Governments fund science reluctantly”

            LOLZ! And you said that while using [strike]Arpanet[/strike] the internet too!

            “This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between science and engineering.”

            Which doesn’t mean I give a rat’s behind. The difference is irrelevant to Dawkin’s question at the top. His claim was that governments and business are not to blame for the harm they cause by developing certain technologies. I and Kurt Vonnegut say he’s full of shit.

          • travtastic says:

            What does the invention of the internet have to do with science? You might as well have mention the Hoover Dam, or my car.

          • Anonymous says:

            LOLZ! And you said that while using [strike]Arpanet[/strike] the internet too!

            So the war on science continues, but it doesn’t matter because the government once funded the military network ARPANET that had nothing to do with it.

          • travtastic says:

            Sure, it can be a ‘FAIL!’, if you want to go ahead an intentionally misquote me, by leaving out the rest of the sentence:

            at least in their role during the project.

            It was worth a shot, though.

        • delt664 says:

          I was eagerly looking for your citations when you following this mind-blowing first paragraph. Obviously, I must have missed something when reading about my favorite New Atheists.

          And then you said “I think it flows directly from their belief system.” at which point it became immediately obvious you are here with an agenda.

          Go ahead, attack the “belief system” which demands all claims be continuously challenged and verified. Ill be sitting here with my popcorn, and enjoy watching you embarrass yourself…………unless you really do have some decent citations for me to go read.

          • Scurra says:

            It obviously flows directly from their belief systems because, as has been repeatedly pointed out, that’s what being a human being entails. We continuously make judgements about things based on our belief systems. Science is an entirely neutral thing (as, indeed, is Religion, come to that.) It’s what we – as human beings – make of it that challenges things. And that’s the part that comes loaded with political, sociological, economic, moral etc values – our belief systems – and inevitably these distort the “purity”.

          • travtastic says:

            Maybe if we’re talking about religion 10,000 years ago, I would believe that. But to say that any religion since then is neutral is farcical. Whether it tells you to harm others or to care for them, its entire purpose is to tell you right from wrong. Hardly neutral.

          • noen says:

            delt664 spoke
            “I was eagerly looking for your citations when you following this mind-blowing first paragraph.”

            It is a bit off the topic. Though on the other hand it does go to the general point that when one holds the belief that you alone possess the one Truth bad things ensue.

            Do you want a list? Sam Harris – support for the illegal war in Iraq, provided a philosophical justification for torture, supports denying freedom of religion and freedom of speech to traditional religion.

            Christopher Hitchens – support for the illegal war in Iraq, support for torture until it was demonstrated on his person. (I did not need to be tortured to know it was morally wrong, amazing!) legitimized known Holocaust denier David Irving, has made numerous sexist and male chauvinist claims.

            Richard Dawkins – has previously in BoingBoing advocated purging religious scientists from the ranks of professional scientists on the theory that only atheists can do science properly, advocates taking children away from religious parents on the grounds of child abuse, believes that people like him, “The Brights”, are innately superior to lesser humans.

            All of these are serious violations of basic human rights all in the name of atheism and science. It flows directly from the New Atheist dogma that it alone can determine what is true. If religion isn’t simply an opinion, but *error*, then it follows that we have not only the right but the duty to correct error.

            “True evil does not reside in the object perceived as bad, but in the innocent gaze which perceives evil all around”.

            “Go ahead, attack the “belief system” which demands all claims be continuously challenged and verified.”

            Truth claims can never be verified. To believe they can be is the fallacy of positivism, also called scientism. Evidence can never confirm a theory, it can only dis-confirm it.

            Science can never tell us what we ought to do and if that is so then I think that people and not “western governments and business” should have a say about what technologies we invest in.

          • Anonymous says:

            If religion isn’t simply an opinion, but *error*, then it follows that we have not only the right but the duty to correct error.

            What a strange straw-man. That doesn’t follow at all, and as few people would say it does. Hitchens and others, atheist and not, have advocated fighting Muslims based on the xenophobic belief they are all out to kill us. Incidentally, this is stupid.

            Many other people, atheist and not, have advocated some sort of intervention in Muslim countries based on poor human rights records – problems with religious persecution, women’s rights, and the like. Incidentally, this does not seem like unreasoning dogma to me, it looks like saying individuals are more important than customs.

            But who on earth has ever suggested that we should intervene in Muslim countries where young-earth beliefs are common, because they are a geological error and we have a duty to correct them?

        • quitterjunior says:

          Ugh. Conservatism is not the new punk. Get over yourself.

        • Anonymous says:

          “Isn’t it odd how the leading New Atheists have all managed to be pro western imperialists, pro torture, pro war, pro cultural imperialism, anti free speech and anti freedom of religion?”

          If that were true, it would be odd. I’m a hardcore Atheist, and I’m against at least four of the things in your list, and depending on what you actually mean by them, probably against all.

          There is no justification for torture at all, and certainly none that is significantly supported by the belief that gods do not exist.

          • noen says:

            shorter any-mouse:
            “I’m a hardcore Atheist, and I’m against policy X therefore it cannot possibly be true that Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins etc. are for policy X.”

            That’s logic!

            Annnnnnd I’m gonna guess that the one item you do agree with is the last one. After all, freedom can only be entrusted to those who are right.

            “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,”

            That’s a loverly inquisition ya gots goin’ on there. Mind if I join in on the fun?

    • travtastic says:

      Forbidden knowledge? Cool!

      I used my laptop to bash a dude’s face in when I was mugging him a couple of weeks ago. Let’s go after those darned engineers for once.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is nuts. It’s the infanticide which is rampant in all but the western world.

  13. Purplecat says:

    This highlights a worrying trend.

    I speak, of course, about the rise of the rather annoying phenomenon of “Headlines in the form of a question where the answer is ‘No’”

  14. Anonymous says:

    If you want to learn more about both the causes of son preference and the consequences for society, get a hold of “Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World” (NewSouth Books, June 2011) – or visit http://www.robbrooks.net

  15. noen says:

    The easiest way for invading aliens to conquer the Earth would be to hand out phasers on every street corner. Inside of a week every major city would be a smoldering ruin and the few bands of humans left would be easy pickings.

    Then the galactic ruling council would immediately blame our clearly inferior culture for it’s inability to absorb their wondrous gifts. Galactic Dawkins could then cluck his tongue at the dirty apes and so reassure his own natural superiority.

    I just love the Brits’ gift for slurs. Dwkns sn’t jst wnkr, h’s tssr.

  16. Bodhipaksa says:

    Science doesn’t kill people. People kill people.

  17. parhelion says:

    Frankly, I find the idea of somehow trying to suppress, divert, delay, or mediate scientific discoveries absurd for a fairly simple reason: humans are absolutely awful at predicting their cultural future. There’s an assumption in this idea of technological governance that somehow humans can anticipate all the social consequences of new theories and technologies that isn’t born out by history at all, and this includes the good unintended consequences as well as the bad ones. (There’s an excellent case to be made, for example, that the increasing degree of social equality between some groups in many cultures is an unintentional side effect of reproduction technology.)

    How often have you seen an old book or movie where they got the gadgets right and then put them into a social background that was either a reheated version of what was happening when the work was created or predicted all the wrong alterations? I believe that’s much more common than not.

    This applies just as much to the groups of supposed overlords who want to shape the world for themselves as day to day people. I doubt they can do it, and often their attempts to do so only make things worse for them in the long run.

  18. Anonymous says:

    My memory goes back to the moment when I was listening to Margret Mead at the Mosque in Richmond, VA in 1977 on the announcement of the ability to determine prenatal sex with genetic testing. She totally predicted this result. Science is not psychic, it is not halucinatory … Wilhelm Riech’s ghost will tell you all about it

  19. peterbruells says:

    What book do you refer too? I’d guess you refer to the Vorkosigan saga, but I I’ve read ‘em all and I don’t think that any of them fits your description.

    • Anonymous says:

      @peterruells: it’s a segment in one of the later Vorkosigan books where a Vor lord chooses to incubate double digits of girl babies in hopes of attracting men to his county; his plan it to grow his daughters to marriageable age and use them as bait, effectively selling them. This is countered by one of the main characters legally requiring him to provide dowries for all of them, effectively bankrupting him and killing the scam; but in a real-world scenario I don’t see it being just one person coming up with this sort of idea, and I don’t see it being so straightforward to prevent/remediate.

  20. zoink says:

    Our primary claims seem to be:

    1. Science is just knowledge; it’s the responsibility of those who use it to do so ethically.

    2. Scientists ought to consider the ways their work may have negative consequences.

    I’m not sure these are incompatible. I fully agree with those who point out that science as practiced and on the whole is decidedly non-neutral because it costs money and therefore advances significantly faster in the areas that those with money wish it to advance. However, it’s not clear how an individual scientist deals with that broad statistical bias (as long as they are not independently wealthy and can fund their own research) other than simply not working on things that appear to lead to bigger negative consequences than positive ones.

    One can bring up atomic bombs as an example of scientists who should have just stayed home. However interesting this line of argument may be in the abstract, it is hard to see how it applies to the problem at hand. I sincerely doubt that the folks who developed ultrasound technology would find an argument that women-undervaluing societies might use this to skew their gender balance very persuasive weighed against the certainty that this technology would be used to save the lives of mothers and to prevent the suffering of those born with fatal deformities.

  21. cjp says:

    On a related note: More than twice as many girls than boys are being born in a community near Sarnia, Ontario. This is a place surrounded by industry and chemical plants. There is concern that prenatal exposure to metalle0strogens may be to blame for the radical imbalance.

    http://www.aamjiwnaangenvironment.ca/News%20Archive/Mystery%20of%20the%20Missing%20Boys%20041107.pdf

    • Nadreck says:

      A lot has been written about the flood of estrogen look-alike molecules flooding the environment. This seems to me to be a good explanation of widespread areas where 11 is getting to be the age where girls need bras and tampons and the boys are increasingly displaying female characteristics. I know of at least two 36-24-36 14 year-old girls in our area who, at first glance, seem to be women with the IQs of little girls: which they, in fact, are.

      • DoctressJulia says:

        ‘The IQs of little girls’? What IQ is that, pray tell? /s

        Seriously, WTF are you talking about? /headdesk

        • Anonymous says:

          I think it’s 100 on average. Note to others: IQ is generally scaled for age, so girls, women, boys, and men all have about the same IQ unless you’ve done it incorrectly.

          • travtastic says:

            Very true, but from my personal experience and what I’ve heard from others, the scaling can be a little tricky, and less accurate. My IQ score when I was 12 was higher (scaled) than it is now, and I don’t think I’ve gotten stupider since then.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            I’ve lost a point a year over decades. It’s just a question of whether it’s from dropping acid or living in California.

          • travtastic says:

            Drugs make me smarter! YMMV.

        • Gulliver says:

          Seriously, WTF are you talking about? /headdesk

          I believe Nadreck was saying that the girls’ physical maturity may be being artificially accelerated by the increased ambient estrogen in the environment, and this leads to girls (who are by definition mentally and emotionally at the developmental stage of children) expressing physiological traits more like those of women. He also indicated he thought the chemicals may be having an effect on the development of boys as well. Since “boys” and “girls” are common terms for the children of our species, I saw no insult inherent in his comment to either gender.

          At least that is how I read his comment. YMMV.

          • chgoliz says:

            FWIW, I agree. Nadreck’s post seemed to talk about how the addition of significant amounts of estrogen into the environment is affecting both boys and girls: the girls are undergoing secondary sex changes at an earlier age, when they are mentally and emotionally less mature, and the boys are undergoing secondary sex changes that are thwarted by having the wrong balance of hormones (not enough testosterone to make up for all the additional estrogen). Both sexes are negatively affected, but differently because of how that particular sex hormone affects males vs. females.

  22. phisrow says:

    In the sufficiently long term, prenatal selection against females will likely end up eroding some of the cultural practices that drive it.

    Customs that hold women to be less valuable, or even of negative value, are going to have a very hard time holding up when they become comparatively scarce, and the place is crawling with people’s precious selected-sons who have no real shot of getting married and setting down and start turning to dangerous hobbies like crime and politics.

    On the minus side, though, the intermediate period is likely to be deeply ugly. Human traffickers and the like will definitely respond faster to demand than cultural mores will…

  23. ursa says:

    It doesn’t seem that Mr. Dawkins has even read Ms. Hvistendahl’s book. If he had, he would not have said, “But is she right to blame Western science and governments for making sex selection possible?” I have read the book closely and nowhere in it does Ms. Hvistendahl blame science for the phenomenon she discusses. This is a book about a difficult and nuanced issue; it is also meticulously researched – which is not what I can say for Mr. Dawkins’ post. If he can draw such conclusions through merely reading a newspaper article, then it makes me wonder who the true scientist really is.

  24. JohnnyOC says:

    “Quite the opposite. Women are in high demand, suddenly. They can set terms. I’m pretty sure the age of marriage is rising, not dropping, in China.

    Also, in a country with many men and few women, where marriage is considered fundamental and necessary, men (and their families) must supply a dowry, essentially. The reverse of a warlike society of the past. All of my wife’s friends (she’s Chinese) just expected a furnished condo (much nicer than I, as a middle-class westerner, could afford) and a flashy new car, immediately after marriage.”

    Are her friends Shanghaiese? My wife is also Chinese and she talked about how in Shanghai females are pretty demanding and the males very compliant (I know there is an article about it floating somewhere on the net).

    Ex: Most Shanghai women expect the husband or fiancée to have a house (paid off), car (BMW or above), and a great paying job. They are pretty brazen about it too. There was a game show scandal where one girl said that from picking two suitors “I rather be miserable and cry in a BMW then be happy on a bicycle “.

    Also, the men of Shanghai most likely grew up in very female dominated households so they were expected to hold to all of these expectations, included ALL of the household chores while the women lounge around or go shopping.

    Many women in other parts of China consider themselves hitting the jackpot if they have a husband from Shanghai. :)

    “So, I think that, after a rough spot, societies will adjust. You’ll start to see the opposite. Have a boy and work like crazy, with the definite possibility that he’ll never find a wife, or have a daughter and look forward to many grandchildren?”

    I agree. I think there is going to be equilibrium somewhere down the line, maybe even an overcompensation at first. My wife goes to China on business and she’s starting to see now more of the “Little Empress” syndrome more than the “Little Emperor” one.

  25. Anonymous says:

    It should be pointed out, that in the west, sex selection is most commonly used to select for girls over boys. he points this out in her NPR interview, and states it is just as bad. But she doesn’t seem to understand it isn’t really the same. This is because the most common use is to avoid certain genetic diseases that are only expressed in the male.

  26. Anonymous says:

    This is all really heavy stuff, so I am simply going to indulge in some devil’s advocacy and semantic hair-splitting:

    Though science, in its ideal form, is the disinterested search for truth, those in scientific fields and professions can be as good or evil as any other human being. As a result, the avenues of scientific inquiry that receive attention and funding will not simply be disinterested searches for truth. They will, for better or worse, be framed in the contexts of various cultural, institutional, and personal goals and expectations.

    Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that the scientific research that lead to the development of technologies like amniocentesis and ultrasound scanning was undertaken with malevolent intent. I’m actually more inclined to agree with Dawkins’s conclusions here. I just wanted to get this distinction, between the ideal pursuit of science and the human flaws of actual scientific institutions, off my chest.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting!

  28. mraverage says:

    On a planet with 7 billion people, headed toward 9 or 10 billion, the best selection for everyone’s next baby’s gender is NONE.

    That couple of hundred million single men that the article talks about will not just be fighting for access to mates. They will be killing for food.

    The farther we exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth, the more precarious our modern societies become.

    • noen says:

      “On a planet with 7 billion people, headed toward 9 or 10 billion, the best selection for everyone’s next baby’s gender is NONE.”

      I’m going to guess you haven’t thought that all the way through. I suspect that there is a significant downside to everyone choosing not to reproduce. Can you guess? Actually, the very best solution is to convince other people to choose “none”. That way you don’t have to seriously alter your consumption of limited resources.

      Cause in a life boat, the moral thing to do is throw the others out leaving more food and water for you.

      Right?

  29. kwnewton says:

    It seems to me the scary part of a China or an India with not enough women is, if the conditions that led to male preference don’t change, the most likely outcome is girls getting married at younger ages to men who are much older. The underlying reasons for the undervaluing of women need to get better for things to change. Look at Japan, where traditional gender roles make it difficult for women to be married and work, and force men to assume sole responsibility for supporting a family. People are delaying marriage, and the nation’s birth rate is sinking fast. I have never heard of gender selection being widespread in Japan, but on the other hand, they took a long time to make modern birth control available. It isn’t just science that affects things like the birth rate or the gender ratio; societies pass laws that impose rules on using science and technology.

    • chgoliz says:

      It seems to me the scary part of a China or an India with not enough women is, if the conditions that led to male preference don’t change, the most likely outcome is girls getting married at younger ages to men who are much older.

      I think you’re right.

      The end result, or at least the result for quite a long stretch of time, is likely to be that females are even more commodified, not less.

      • DoctressJulia says:

        I really think that language contributes to that commoditization. For example, referring to women and girls as ‘females’. That is dehumanizing language, and it only contributes to the idea that women are property- not human.

        It’s just plain creepy.

        • chgoliz says:

          I chose the term “female” specifically because the definition of “woman” (i.e., of marriageable age as opposed to a “girl”) has a very different meaning in different cultures, and because the term highlights the fact that the biological sex determination is the primary/only identifying aspect that is valued.

          I’ve spent enough of my life dealing with feminists who have the need to prove they’re better than other feminists. Not here, please.

        • Brother Phil says:

          Got to agree with you here – I was starting to think that I was the only person that noticed this disturbing trend.

          Of particular note is the tendency of police forces to use male and female as nouns in general use, rather than as adjectives to describe people. I think dehumanising precisely puts your finger on it; in much the same way as the army “engages targets” rather than shooting people, this enables / encourages them to view us as objects to be controlled, rather than as people to be helped.

    • Anonymous says:

      Quite the opposite. Women are in high demand, suddenly. They can set terms. I’m pretty sure the age of marriage is rising, not dropping, in China.

      Also, in a country with many men and few women, where marriage is considered fundamental and necessary, men (and their families) must supply a dowry, essentially. The reverse of a warlike society of the past. All of my wife’s friends (she’s Chinese) just expected a furnished condo (much nicer than I, as a middle-class westerner, could afford) and a flashy new car, immediately after marriage. A boy’s parents must begin saving pretty much from his birth, not (just) for his upbringing and education, but to eventually, er, acquire a bride for him. No such demands are placed on the female’s family.

      So, I think that, after a rough spot, societies will adjust. You’ll start to see the opposite. Have a boy and work like crazy, with the definite possibility that he’ll never find a wife, or have a daughter and look forward to many grandchildren?

      Still sucks for this generation, where traditional cultural mores ran directly into modern technology.

      • Anonymous says:

        I am living in China, and the government has made it technically illegal to show the parents the sex of the baby – during pre-natal checkups. If you go through a public hospital they don’t let you see the screen of the ultra sound.
        It very important to Chinese people to have a son, to carry on the family name.
        The girls here in Shanghai, have now become very choosy indeed. As a generalization, they won’t even look at a young man if he doesn’t come with an apartment and a nice car :P

  30. Nadreck says:

    It’ll be even more fun when we get the drugstore kits to test for 0.0003% chances of your kid being either gay or autistic: even on a charlatan basis. Then we’ll have a shortage of people with brains too.

  31. Julien Couvreur says:

    Interesting read. I wonder how long it takes for such imbalances to correct themselves. At some point, it seems parents would start to value girls more, as they would be highly demanded. Anyways, the problem is with people’s choices not the scientific means they use towards those ends.

    As a side note, the wild west may have been not as wild as we thought. Read on The Not So Wild Wild West.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Don’t blame the tool.

    We are not even at step 1 on solving most of the problems humans face on this planet. The problem is that we are not making the right choices on a lot of things due to all the human baggage we have in society.

  33. saurabh says:

    Science is the disinterested search for truth. … Should scientists have refrained from developing useful techniques, for fear of how they might be misused by others?

    The fact that many, many scientists believe this kind of thinking is a huge problem for society. For the reductio ad absurdum, let’s think about developing “useful techniques” such as thermonuclear bombs, neutron bombs, cluster munitions, chemical weapons, and other instruments of death, which might be considered the chief product of science and scientific effort in the past hundred years. But, of course, the thousands of scientists who work every day to perfect weapons that others might “misuse” are acting purely in the disinterested search for “truth”, which it seems may be found only on the other side of death.

  34. delt664 says:

    Science / technology itself has no inherent ethos, just as a rock has no inherent ethos.

    A rock may be used to grind flour to make bread to feed a village, or it may be used to stone a woman accused of adultery. Neither the stone itself, nor the geologic process which produced the rock is to blame; it is merely a tool to be used.

    The responsibility lies in the hand that holds the tool, rather than the process that created the tool. Suggesting otherwise is offensive, as it attempts to alleviate the hand wielding the tool of either partial or full responsibility for its actions.

    • zoink says:

      The responsibility lies in the hand that holds the tool, rather than the process that created the tool. Suggesting otherwise is offensive, as it attempts to alleviate the hand wielding the tool of either partial or full responsibility for its actions.

      This is so wonderful that I wanted to find the book you were quoting so I could buy and read it. But no! You appear to have coined this fantastic pair of sentences yourself. You restore my faith in blog comments entirely.

    • DoctressJulia says:

      THIS A MILLION TIMES

  35. Magnus Redin says:

    One significant effect of selecting millions of boy embryos before girl embryos is that it limits the population growth during the next generation.

    • Anonymous says:

      Which population reduction could be part of the reason the government isn’t cracking down on it more.

      Although I’m thinking the population won’t necessarily drop in exact correlation to the numbers born/not born, since there will be some importation of outside brides from other countries like Korea & the Philippines and even Russia, I’d guess. I’m thinking this will have significant genetic diversity impacts on their society in the future.

    • saurabh says:

      Not necessarily. Societies that favor women’s rights tend to have much lower fertility (since women, given the choice, probably don’t want to have eight babies); a society with a male-child bias might also mean higher fertility for the surviving women.

  36. Felan says:

    “Science is the disinterested search for truth.”

    Laughing/crying so hard.

    • Anonymous says:

      “”Science is the disinterested search for truth.”

      Laughing/crying so hard.”

      Only as far as the truth is valued more highly than what that particular truth may be. I’d say it’s an extremely interested search for truth, with a built-in system for filtering out bias, even though the filter is not 100% reliable. But it’s still better than any other system for finding truth we’ve yet to find.

  37. MollyNYC says:

    Aside from everything else, if women are in short supply, then their value as breeders goes up compared to their value as anything else.

    So what happens to their opportunities to be scientists and presidents and such, or just to live by themselves, or with another woman, or not to have kids, or any other feminist-won option, if everyone is pressuring them to reproduce?

  38. Anonymous says:

    Fascinated by this post, I Googled up Hvistendahl’s book and came across this, from the WSJ (not noted for a liberal opinion page, but still):

    “Ms. Hvistendahl also dredges up plenty of unpleasant documents from Western actors like the Ford Foundation, the United Nations and Planned Parenthood, showing how they pushed sex-selective abortion as a means of controlling population growth.”

    Dawkins doesn’t address this (maybe he didn’t read the book), he’s focused on science and its application; but the above does sound like it implicates Western political institutions to an extent. I agree with his statements about science, but it seems breezy to close with a condemnation of “cultural and religious practices that despise and discriminate against women in the first place.” These no doubt play a role, I think Hvistendahl is suggesting that it’s just not that simple.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Forget oil, food and water. Our future wars will be waged to harvest the rare uterus and ovary?

  40. mraverage says:

    a semi-related web comic installment:

    http://www.thebadchemicals.com/?p=399

  41. Anonymous says:

    Maybe Wolbachia plays a greater role than people understand in these places.

  42. Anonymous says:

    >The end result, or at least the result for quite a long stretch of time, is likely to be that females are even more commodified, not less.

    Especially in China – between two generations of one-child-per-family, and the fact that only having one child is now culturally normalized even if you are permitted more, China is facing a population implosion in the not-too-distant future. Stuart Brand has some interesting commentary on the over/underpopulation issue in “Whole Earth Discipline” (excellent book & worth a read even though I don’t agree with 100% of what he says).

    If China wants racially chinese babies, chinese ovaries will be in high demand. The alternative is mass importation of either workers or (once it is decided that really the paternal bloodline is what matters) ovaries-with-women-attached from overpopulated areas such as africa, which would be a culturally complex issue in China and would likely lead to human trafficking.

  43. Kimmo says:

    I’ve only read up to post #84, so maybe someone’s addressed it by now, but there’s a lot of argument about whether science is neutral that just seems like a waste of time to me.

    You guys are conflating the Scientific Method with science as practised.

    The Scientific Method is a glorious achievement that humanity can be justly proud of, and is pretty thoroughly neutral. As such, IMO it’s one of the few things that actually work as an ideal (Zen Buddhism is nifty too, in stark contrast to pretty much anything else you could call a religion). It’d be nice if we could somehow port it into the social realm… oh wait, that’s been done – it’s called utilitarianism.

    You can lead a horse to water…

  44. Nichol says:

    The solution where men marry (much) later than girls is what is already used in countries where richer older men are allowed to marry more than one women. This tactic works so ‘well’ that you even hear the obviously false argument that the number of men is less, so polygamy is necessary.

  45. Gulliver says:

    Science is merely the extension of knowledge. The word literally means “to know” things. So either humans are better off knowing things or better off ignorant. The more humans know, the more choices they give themselves. As the cliché goes, knowledge is power, or at least the potential for power. So the real question boils down to this:

    Are humans, individually and/or collectively, better off weak and blind, or are they better off with the power of sight?

    If the answer is no, then every piece of science and technology, from modern medicine to the written word, has to be regarded as an evil artifact whose cost – knowledge – outweighs its benefits. That is the very essence of Luddism.

    Your quote of Mara Hvistendahl…

    western governments and businesses that have exported technology and pro-abortion practices without considering the consequences.

    …offers some insight that makes me think that her position is not that science, and hence medicine, are themselves the problem. Nor do I think she is blaming the cultures that learned modern medicine from us. Rather, she seems to imply that the cultures that discovered these things first – i.e. us – are to blame for not withholding certain discoveries before the scientifically less advanced cultures were “prepared” to use them in non-harmful ways. In effect – and I’m going from just that quote in your article and no additional context – she seems to be laying the groundwork for an argument propounding a kind of Prime Directive among Western medicine (and perhaps science generally) regarding the developing world, or at least those developing nations with less progressive gender politics.

    I can see a number of problems with this, but the most obvious one is that – as you would know better than most given the global scope of your particular field’s contributors – modern medical science did not originate from insular Western research. The developing world has produced a host of brilliant minds that have helped to advance the state of empirical science. Placing a barrier between the two cultures might slow the developing world’s scientific advancement and, to a lesser but obviously indeterminable degree, our own, but I doubt it would slow either by much. We were not that far ahead to begin with and the gap has only narrowed throughout the course of the Enlightenment.

    Perhaps I am being unfair in my interpretation of Hvistendahl’s position. Perhaps she is arguing that Western science and the cultures that developed it have a responsibility for trying to alter the cultures to which we export our medical knowledge, with the objective of fostering societies that won’t misuse that knowledge to their own detriment. If that is her argument, then I’d have to agree with her. But we cannot force new memes to take root. We can only strive to convey our understanding of why it is in their best interests, as it is those of any wielder, not to misuse that knowledge.

    Okay, how uber-cool is it to have the author of the Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker and a Faraday Prize winner as a guest contributor to BoingBoing?!

    Thank you for this and many other thought-provoking writings over the years, Dr. Dawkins. The two books I mentioned helped to steer me toward my career in evolutionary computation.

    • chgoliz says:

      I think the KISS principle suffices here:

      pro-abortion

      That term tells us all I need to know about Hvistendahl’s underlying position.

      It’s not about the West, or science…it’s about controlling women’s bodily autonomy. If society/government does not control women by forcing them to gestate any fertilized egg that makes it to their uterus, then all hell breaks loose and we’re back to lawless, hormone-addled men roaming the countryside looking for trouble. See?

      *headdesk*

  46. spool32 says:

    Just for clarity, Dawkins has glossed over a point worth mentioning:

    He compares “non-sexing science” families like ‘girl girl girl girl boy stop’ with what the families might look like had clear selection been available – ‘girl boy stop’.

    The correct construction should have been ‘girl abortion abortion abortion boy stop’. Readers may or may not care about that, but Dawkins has a duty to be clear about what he’s suggesting rather than sanitizing his argument.

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      And what exactly is wrong with that strategy? I mean objectively. That seems like a perfectly reasonable way to get the desired gender ratio. Of course come people may think that their imaginary man in the sky has some objection to it, but that’s Richard’s point.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        That seems like a perfectly reasonable way to get the desired gender ratio.

        It’s an invasive procedure with risks and complications.

        • chgoliz says:

          It’s an invasive procedure with risks and complications.

          Hang on, there. At every moment during a pregnancy, an abortion is statistically safer for the woman than continuing the pregnancy. Obviously, in the case of a wanted pregnancy, the risk is considered acceptable. But for a woman who does not want to be a life support system (or is in increasing medical danger), a legal abortion done by a medical professional is actually very safe.

          Having to wait for months to make enough money to afford the trip to another state (or country, for some women) because everyone in your region is too terrorized to provide that particular medical service…well sure, that increases the risks.

          • blueelm says:

            But it is invasive and it does have risk. Yes, some times the risk of pregnancies outweighs it and therefore women should have access to safe, legal, abortions at *their* discretion.

            However, it is still invasive and has risk. This is compounded tremendously when women who do not want an abortion, or who are not even allowed to consider their own bodies are subjected to an abortion due to social pressure or outright force. The issue here is that these women need to be able to have control over their bodies which are more than baby factories…

            it’s this idea of “reasonable solutions” that involve making decisions about the insides of other people’s bodies that is disgusting and chilling.

            Science is only one small thing in that legacy though.

          • chgoliz says:

            Ah, well yes, of course when you’re talking about a woman NOT wanting a medical procedure being done to her against her will, that’s an entirely different situation than what I was describing.

            We agree: bodily autonomy for women.

        • Jonathan Badger says:

          There could be less invasive ways with less risk to the mother, yes. But most objectors to it are worried more about the “sinful” nature of it than any risk to women.

  47. sirkowski says:

    While sad for China and India, I think it might be good for us.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps I’m being overly simplistic, but to me this sounds like little more than yet another argument for making abortion (and eventually contraception) illegal. If you come to the table with your conclusion already prepared, you spend all your time looking for arguments that will converge on that conclusion.

  49. Anonymous says:

    Don’t forget the importance of globalization. These male heavy societies can lead to males leaving in search of wives. As exmigration gets more affordable, more males will seek wives elsewhere. An eastern diaspora.

    RGB

  50. Anonymous says:

    Evolution works just as fine on stupid voluntary behaviours as it does on unhelpful animal instincts. People that are least adapted to the environment (even if that is an environment heavily modified by their own species) will die out, the adapted will prosper.

  51. petsounds says:

    It’s interesting that DoctressJulia is parsing and criticizing gender language choices in BB comments, and yet said nothing about Hvistendahl’s stance that societies without many women are “bad places to live” and that the testosterone of men leads to excess crime and violence. Stereotype much, Mara?

    Crime and violence has much more to do with poverty and lack of education. Hopefully this lack of women will result in less people being born, as overpopulation is also a big contributor to poverty.

  52. d913 says:

    I haven’t read Ms. Hvistendahl’s book, but did listen to a one-hour radio program devoted to this issue last week on NPR (WBUR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook”: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/06/08/gender-selection). There was very little mention in that discussion of “blaming science.” Clearly this is much more an issue of political policies for population control implemented decades ago in countries where growth had to be curbed (China, India), and specifically China’s one child policy.

    China had a 3% annual increase in population growth in the 60s and 70s. Had they done nothing, I’d bet the problems resulting from overpopulation would have far exceeded the problems they’ll encounter from a society with too many men.

    It may be true a society with that many more men than women will not be a nice place to live. The American old west was cited as an example, although the analogy probably isn’t applicable to the 21st century. The old west also had little structured rule of law, was sparsely populated, and an extractive, undeveloped economy. Everyone walked around with guns on their hips as well.

  53. Skidds says:

    The sex ratio begins to balance out in the U.S. when the population reaches their mid to late 50’s. My guess is the competition for the extreme lack of women will cause testosterone levels to surge to a point where men kill themselves off until the ratio reaches a sustainable level.

  54. Anonymous says:

    Richard Dawkins – has previously in BoingBoing advocated purging religious scientists from the ranks of professional scientists on the theory that only atheists can do science properly, advocates taking children away from religious parents on the grounds of child abuse, believes that people like him, “The Brights”, are innately superior to lesser humans.

    Well, I guess it wouldn’t be a thread that mentions atheists without you here slurring them. But I happened to be here for the first one of these, and your descriptions are only about as true as saying “the pope promotes child abuse” – sort of accurate but with any qualifications, nuance, or context erased to the point of misleading.

  55. Daemon says:

    “science” isn’t to blame for anything, it has no agency. it’s just a name for knowing how to do stuff – all the blame for bad stuff (and credit for good stuff) that people do applies to the people who actually do it.

    • blueelm says:

      Misogyny is the name of this particular problem, FWIW. Sadly, I don’t think science can do much about it one way or another… it’s a social problem.

  56. Anonymous says:

    Do you want a list? Sam Harris – support for the illegal war in Iraq, provided a philosophical justification for torture, supports denying freedom of religion and freedom of speech to traditional religion.

    In other words, acts the same as many people from traditional religions, except with the last bit aimed differently. How does coming up neo-conservative possibly count as flowing from atheism, when it’s more common from theism?

  57. OldBrownSquirrel says:

    Consider the Persian Gulf states that practice polygyny. There’s an excess of single men, mostly young, and a relative shortage of single women. The social outlet currently in use is the export of excess sons abroad to fight in foreign jihad, with the expectation that few would ever return. It’s too dangerous to society to keep those excess young men around at home. That’s one of the major factors leading to unrest in Afghanistan, even before 9/11: it’s been used for decades as a dumping ground for excess young Arab men.

    It’s enough to make monasticism look like a good idea, in comparison.

    Other than providing transportation, science hasn’t done much to contribute to this version of the problem. It’s purely cultural.

  58. chgoliz says:

    On the subject of: how wild was the Wild West?…here’s an interesting tidbit from Newsweek magazine:

    Consider the case of Tombstone, Ariz., which lies 70 miles southeast of Tucson. When Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp shot up the O.K. Corral in 1881, civilians weren’t allowed to carry guns in town; a local ordinance required visitors to check their weapons at the Grand Hotel or the sheriff’s office. But today, Tombstone residents are free to pack concealed firearms pretty much wherever they want, without a permit. The state is now wilder than the Wild West.

    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/03/13/2-405-shot-dead-since-tucson.html

  59. MaraHvistendahl says:

    I’d like to respond to allegations in the above post that my book is critical of science. It is not.

    Richard Dawkins bases his conclusions on an article by Ed Pilkington in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/17/sex-selection-rise-generation-xy). Unfortunately, that article highlights some of the more shocking details in my book without providing context or background, misrepresenting my message.

    Mr. Dawkins writes that I “blame Western science and governments” for the spread of sex selection throughout developing countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. As a science journalist, I find the allegation that I target science on the whole perplexing. I am a correspondent for Science, a journal that publishes papers by the world’s most preeminent scientists, among them Mr. Dawkins. I have also contributed or worked for several other respected science magazines.

    More specifically, Mr. Dawkins seems to believe I fault the scientists who developed amniocentesis and ultrasound in the disappearance, via sex selective abortion, of tens of millions of females from Asia’s population. I can understand how he may have drawn this conclusion from reading Pilkington’s article. My comments in publications ranging from Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/life/feminism/?story=/mwt/feature/2011/06/12/unnatural_selection_interview) to Maclean’s (http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/06/14/how-sex-selection-of-babies-has-led-to-a-huge-surplus-of-men-and-why-that%E2%80%99s-bad-for-all-of-us/) to Time (http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/06/why-the-worlds-women-are-dwindling-in-number/) tell a very different story. Unnatural Selection has also been featured on the websites of science-driven organizations like the Council for Responsible Genetics (http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=339) and Center for Genetics and Society (http://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=5742).

    What do I actually say in my book? I point out that early research into sex determination techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasound went ahead for various reasons. With amniocentesis, scientists were intent on helping couples at risk of passing along to their children sex-linked disorders like hemophilia. With ultrasound, the focus was on monitoring high-risk pregnancies. But beginning in the 1960s a separate group of scientists proposed pushing along research into sex selection—not simply using existing techniques, but actively funding new work—for a reason that had nothing to do with avoiding disease or improving maternal health.

    These scientists were interested in sex selection’s significance in the developing world, where studies had shown that many couples wanted at least one son. The idea there was not simply to help parents achieve the family composition of their dreams; it was to stop couples in countries like South Korea, India, and Taiwan from continuing to have girls until they got a boy. To quote from just two of the papers and books mentioning this approach at the time:

    “A type of research which would have a great effect on population control would be that related to the discovery of methods for sex determination. It has been suggested that if one could predetermine that the first offspring would be a male, it would have a great effect on the size of the family.” – William D. McElroy, BioScience, 1969

    “[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.” – Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, 1968

    Around this time the Population Council sent representative Sheldon Segal to India to found the department of reproductive physiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which would later inaugurate sex selection trials resulting in the abortion of hundreds of female fetuses. Segal trained the institute’s doctors in an early sex determination method—and, upon returning to the United States, stood before an audience at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to extol the use of sex selection in curbing population growth.

    I included this background in my book to show that the causes underlying the tragedy sweeping through Asia include more than what Mr. Dawkins alludes to as an “ancient culture of despising women.” While Western science is not to blame for the disappearance of tens of millions of females from the global population, some Westerners did play a role in bringing sex selection to Asia. It is this role I hope we can discuss.

    • Anonymous says:

      You make many very good points throughout your book. Unfortunately statements about The Wild West and such are pure fabricated nonsense spun to generate shock and lend a rather disingenuous impact to the work.

      Once again the book is really quite good but maybe the negative reactions from your colleagues are due to the more sensationalistic aspects of your work.

      Best regards

    • planchette says:

      How funny that the big bad scientist scolding the science journalist is getting his info from a secondary source. Go MHv.

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      Ms. Hvistendahl, thank you for that! A nice surprise at the end of a long and unfocused thread.

      I’m late to the party, but my own reply to Dr. Dawkins’ question is that we cannot solely apportion blame to only one of either meddling Western outsiders or mysognistic “cultural and religious practices”.

      It took both forces working in concert to create these situations – and as you’ve pointed out, many of the Westerners were specifically trying to attain this outcome and were willing to use any scientific/cultural/religious tool at hand.

  60. Anonymous says:

    At least we’re not Gerudo…

  61. chgoliz says:

    I forgot to mention:

    The quote is referencing Tucson because of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (in case that wasn’t obvious to everyone).

  62. ocschwar says:

    ‘The IQs of little girls’? What IQ is that, pray tell? /s

    Seriously, WTF are you talking about? /headdesk

    IQ is not the right word, but I’ve had the experience of being flustered with a girl who looked 19 and was acting 14, to discover afterwards that she was acting 14 because she was 14. This early puberty phenomenon is awful.

  63. EMJ says:

    Silly me – here I was considering societies in which girls were “valued” more as they were scarcer.

    Instead, I have to ponder the pros/cons of a testosterone laden future…

    • Gulliver says:

      Silly me – here I was considering societies in which girls were “valued” more as they were scarcer.

      Tragically, valued by society for reproductive capability does not always translate into valued by society as an agent in society; which is why, in some societies, parents have a greater incentive to produce male offspring. Without that stark imbalance, the parents’ selfish genes would have a better chance to assert themselves (a la the parental instinct) and innate discourage abortion of girls disproportionately more than boys.

  64. Johanâ„¢ Strandberg says:

    Anon writes:

    Only as far as the truth is valued more highly than what that particular truth may be. I’d say it’s an extremely interested search for truth, with a built-in system for filtering out bias, even though the filter is not 100% reliable. [...]

    I like to think of this way:

    Science as a collective iterative process to get closer to The Truth. This goal is never attainable as such, but we can get arbitrarily close to it over time. Science in this sense is neutral and judgment free. In retrospect, it might also be wrong.

    Scientific Investigations are not value neutral — although the best ones strive to be.

    Applications of Science is by default to be considered biased and with selfish motives — but sometimes it rises above that. This should in no way reflect on the value of science itself, only on the entity who is [claiming to be] applying science. Sometimes the claimed use of science is based ignorance or other motives [e.g., homeopathy]. This should only reflect on the entity making the claim, not on Science itself.

    You will never know for sure. The very essence of Science is that is a collective refinement over time. At best you later discover that some particular part of Science was wrong. However, once consensus — based on a large set of opinions — has been established, it is OK to assume that that particular piece of science is “true”.

    Get used to never knowing for sure, and be very suspicious of people claiming to be.

    • noen says:

      “Science as a collective iterative process to get closer to The Truth.”

      Yup, that’s scientism alright. There is no “Truth” to get closer to. In the 19th century people thought that mathematics and the laws of science were God’s own language. Today many people still believe this. They’ve just substituted Nature for God. So pervasive is this that we have prominent atheists like Stephen Hawking talk with a straight face about how laws of nature created the universe. He also makes the laughably bad claim that “god created the integers”.

      God sneaks in through the back-door of our assumptions. So if you assume that math exists prior to experience in some abstract platonic dimension, sooner or later you’ll end up where everyone making the assumptions does.

      Once you have that you’re off to the races. If science isn’t just our best guess, but a doorway to The One Truth, then all manner of horrors become not just possible but *necessary*. And before you know it you’re chucking babies into the ovens.

      • Jonathan Badger says:

        If you believe that the universe exists, there certainly *is* a Truth to get closer to; it works in one way and no other. The fact that modern theories work better than older ones implies this. There’s no need to postulate a god writing said Truth for it to exist; the mere existence of the universe is quite enough in itself. Emergent Truth is still Truth.

        • noen says:

          “If you believe that the universe exists, there certainly *is* a Truth to get closer to; it works in one way and no other.”

          Well Jon that is your faith. It tells you that your god, The Truth, simply *must* exist. I don’t share your faith in your god. I think it’s perfectly possible for the world to exist *and* for there not to be some absolute truth about the world.

          Case in point, what is “The Truth” about the position and velocity of an electron before it is observed? Answer, there is none. It is simply not the case that there is any fact of the matter *at all* that can be said about an electron’s position or velocity without interacting with it. This was the same conundrum that Einstein could not over come. He believed in Spinoza’s god, the god of maths and science, the same god that today’s New Atheists believe in even though they’ll never admit to it.

          Kurt Vonnegut talking about his novel Cat’s Cradle. As fine a counter argument to Richard Dawkins as you’ll find.

          Is developing Ice Nine a good idea or not? (assuming it is possible)

          Would a scientist who was indifferent to his role in creating Ice Nine behaving morally?

          Is a neutron bomb a good idea?

          Were the scientists who helped create the neutron bomb acting responsibly?

          • Johanâ„¢ Strandberg says:

            Well Jon that is your faith. It tells you that your god, The Truth, simply *must* exist.

            That much willing incoherence hurts my brain. I’d love to debate the issues, but rigid noensense doesn’t bring the discussion forward. Sorry, to give up, but I’m going to find a more constructive forum. Best of luck.

          • Anonymous says:

            Case in point, what is “The Truth” about the position and velocity of an electron before it is observed? Answer, there is none.

            That’s the probably the truth about it right there. It is a mathematical consequence of principles developed by people like Schroedinger and Heisenberg, as a better description of the universe than the Newtonian one. To call it an example of how there is no getting closer to truth about the universe is disingenuous.

            Saying that we’re getting closer to some kind of truth is another example of an empirical hypothesis. We keep making revisions, but as per Relativity of Wrong it reasonably looks like they might be converging on something. So you can take it on faith (and some do, just as some take the opposite on faith) but there’s no need.

          • Jonathan Badger says:

            It ain’t faith if there’s evidence. In my own career as a biologist I’ve seen improvements in theories yielding testable results superior to previous ones. I’m not a physicist, but even I know physics has progressed beyond the 1920s obsession about the uncertainty principle, although pop culture seems to still be stuck there.

            As for Vonnegut, although I love the man, Cat’s Cradle is, well, dated, and was so even when first published. Every scientist alive today knows all about the Manhattan Project and is not as naive as Oppenheimer and friends were (with the benefit of hindsight of course). The sorts of people who work on weapons today quite knowingly prostituted themselves, just like those who chose to work for tobacco companies.

            Although to be fair to the book, I did like the honesty of Bokononism. If all religions admitted they were just lies to make the believers feel better, I’d have less of an issue with them.

          • Ugly Canuck says:

            Noen ‘s mind seems to be addicted to religious ways of thinking about things.

            Only the religious are so hung up about the concept of “truth”, while being utterly dismissive of evidence gathered by or in any particular investigation undertaken by science.

            Noen retreats to generalities, if Noen is losing the particular point under discussion.

            As I said, Noen is addicted to a religious way of thinking about things: for Noen, morality always and ever must precede, and sometimes must even forbid, science…why? “For the good of society’s soul”.

      • Johanâ„¢ Strandberg says:

        Wow. I’m stunned. That certainly convinced me of my errors. Now I have to go back and ask Odin for forgiveness, or I surely won’t make it to Valhöll.

      • Anonymous says:

        He also makes the laughably bad claim that “god created the integers”.

        Right, he certainly meant that title to be taken literally and wasn’t simply quoting a famous phrase from Kroenecker. Because any time it looks like an atheist is saying something silly or wrong, you can assume they are.

  65. Muneraven says:

    I have never experienced any extended situation where men vastly outnumber women. However, I have had many men tell me that having mostly or exclusively men in a long-term social situation is simply awful. I have had working class men tell me this, former military guys, college students, graduate students, teenagers, and so on. These guys weren’t bullshitting me. In every case they brought it up, not me. Further conversation revealed they weren’t saying this because such situations produce a lack of available het-sex partners for them. None of these guys could fully articulate why such situations were distressing. Some said “Guys are pigs.” Some said “In all-guy situations, nobody talks about anything important.” Some actually said “Women are just better people than men” (a statement I disagree with).

    I’ve always found these conversations interesting, if puzzling. I never hear a similar tale from women. Women might complain about one another but they generally speak of having a great time when in all-female situations, even extended ones like attending a women’s college. It seems to be quite different for men. This, for me, lends some credence to the idea that a society skewed heavily male would not be a happy place. Like the Wild West? Maybe not. But I suspect that human males forced to live in a mostly male environment might look a lot like those disconsolate bachelor seals.

    • Anonymous says:

      Read The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s a YA book but it gives in my opinion a very good look at what an all male society would look like. Summary: it ain’t pretty

    • Gulliver says:

      I have never experienced any extended situation where men vastly outnumber women. However, I have had many men tell me that having mostly or exclusively men in a long-term social situation is simply awful. I have had working class men tell me this, former military guys, college students, graduate students, teenagers, and so on. These guys weren’t bullshitting me. In every case they brought it up, not me. Further conversation revealed they weren’t saying this because such situations produce a lack of available het-sex partners for them. None of these guys could fully articulate why such situations were distressing. Some said “Guys are pigs.” Some said “In all-guy situations, nobody talks about anything important.” Some actually said “Women are just better people than men” (a statement I disagree with).

      I’ve noticed this too. When I’m participating in a social group sans women, guys will often express the sentiment that it has become a “total sausage fest” – this is never an endorsement of the situation. I too am puzzled by this sentiment. I personally would not want to live in a society with a substantial mate imbalance either way. The biological imperative to reproduce and the human tendency for jealousy are simply too strong on average for me to believe that would turn out well. But in individual social settings my satisfaction has much more to do with the general level of intelligence than the gender of the participants. I can have a good conversation with anyone who uses their little grey cells. Perhaps for some guys it has to do with some subconscious psychological unease at the prolonged lack of women in a social group. I could see this evolving eusocially since, in prehistoric tribal packs, the prolonged absence of women might have boded poorly for the pack’s linage.

      Hmm…where’s Jane Goodall when you need her? :)

      • Nialee says:

        My boyfriend has also observed that it’s awful to live for a prolonged time without a single female around. He observed this personally when camping in Boy Scouts and has heard similar things from guys who served in the military. The topic came up twice–both times, we were watching TV (in one case, the film Aliens) and I expressed disbelief that men would react as depicted to the sight of a woman. My bf responded that depictions were not unrealistic–that it’s stressful living without a female and when a female finally appears (as one did on one of his camping trips), it’s calming or elating (like he and his camping buddies could breath easy again), though if guys were criminally inclined like the prisoners in Aliens, they might react violently.
        I attended an all-girls high school (with some male employees) where a handful of girls would get giddy if similar-aged boys were on campus, but I can’t say that I or most females I know ever felt relieved of a deprivation by the sight of a man. We were never long deprived of the presence of a man in the first place, but the book Herland suggests women wouldn’t perceive a prolonged lack of any man as a deprivation.

  66. noen says:

    Or another way to put this….

    Just as libertarianism winds up benefiting the wealthy so too science boosterism ends up benefiting the powerful. “Taxation is theft!” disproportionately rewards the rich, “Science bioooootches!” preferentially rewards the powerful. Why? Because science cheerleaders tend to dismiss those who question the direction research is headed. Which serves the interests of those who already determine that direction. It can be a way of silencing debate.

    If we ever solve the aging problem do you *really* believe it’ll ever be given to YOU?

    • Ugly Canuck says:

      Your anti-science posiition on this thread goes well with your outlaw-marijuana-those-who -use-it-insult-and-harm-society”” position on this thread here:

      http://www.boingboing.net/2011/06/15/marijuana-a-1968-gov.html

      Quote: “HAHAHA! Addicts never change do they? ”

      Marijauna addicts, are what Noen is referring to in that line.

      • noen says:

        “Your anti-science posiition on this thread goes well with your outlaw-marijuana-those-who -use-it-insult-and-harm-society”” position on this thread here:”

        I am not anti-sicence, I’m anti-scientism and anti New Atheist. I advocated medicalizing marijuana and other drugs. So… if you get picked up for heroin you get charged and sentenced but your penalty is to go to mandated treatment. Your addiction is treated as the medical condition it is rather than simply ignored as you would prefer.

        I am against the scientism of Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists and some of the common-taters here.

        “Scientism is the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life.”

        The New Atheism and it’s god Science are not “science”. When you take any world view, such as atheism, and elevate it to god like status where it can do no wrong and it is the final and absolute authority on life, then very bad things inevitably follow. If you believe that you have the one authoritative understanding of how we should live then it makes sense to inflict all kinds of horrors on those who do not agree.

        And of course, there are the lies.

        Richard Dawkins LIES and misrepresents the article in order to promote his own anti-religious bigtry and hate. Here is his LIE.

        “But is she right to blame Western science and governments for making sex selection possible? Why do we blame science for offering a method to do bad things?”

        So, does the article linked to actually blame the process of scientific exploration? Why… no, it does not. But Dawkins needed an object on which to direct his bile so he simply creates it from what is not the there. Either that or he is the poster boy for cultural imperialism.

        “Hvisten dahl lays the blame squarely on western governments and businesses that have exported technology and pro-abortion practices without considering the consequences.”

        So all the posturing above about how science isn’t the same as engineering misses the mark.

        “Hvistendahl claims western governments actively promoted abortion and sex selection in the developing world, encouraging the liberalisation of abortion laws and subsidising sales of ultrasounds as a form of population control.”

        Richard Dawkins wants the “western governments and businesses that have exported technology and pro-abortion practices without considering the consequences” to remain blameless. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT! Just because it took millions of dollars and political pressure to get third world countries to use abortion as a means of gender selection, just because any student of anthropology could have told you what the effect would be on traditional cultures. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT!

        Sorry, it is our fault. We acted from a place of cultural dominance and hegemony because, well, just LOOK at all those dirty tribal people with their dirty tribal beliefs and dirty tribal practices. WE KNOW BETTER. Our god science is better than theirs. Our governments and corporations just can’t be to blame. Our corporate governmental hands may have wielded the hammer but IT’S THE NAILS’ FAULT.

        If one takes a cynical view one could even lay the charge of genocide at Richard Dawkins’ feet. The political policies he advocates here would have the direct predictable consequence of eliminating entire cultures.

        That’s genocide.

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t want to pile on, since you’re clearly alone against the hordes here, but don’t you think any reduction in female abortion would be immediately met with an increase in female infanticide (ie. the old way they handled the same issue)?

    • Anonymous says:

      Yet oddly enough, “don’t trust the scientists”, “we simply can’t be sure”, and the like are also messages the rich have been promoting so they don’t have to respond to concerns like global warming, pollution, medical hazards, and so on.

      It turns out that when the rich set the agenda, then whether they go with science or anti-science, they’ll pick something that benefits them.

  67. Anonymous says:

    There’s an interesting author named Lois Bujold, who tells a series of sci-fi stories of a gender-imbalanced society. One thing she postulated was the backlash-style development of a mercenary attitude towards women when there aren’t enough wives to go around: girl babies will, by some, be highly prized commodities. Wives will be status symbols.

    This is not a good thing, as the girls will likely be sold in a dowry-like fashion to the highest bidder, regardless of their personal preference. I’d expect to see slavery-like conditions, heavy increases in prostitution with a lot of girls imported from other places like the Philippines and Korea, women being regarded as something to be protected in the sort of enclosed quarters associated with the middle east and the historic Asian societies, etc.

  68. TharkLord says:

    I think it may be too easy to assign these differences to “cultural” factors. This tends to translate into “a bunch of ignorant, weird foreigners”. What about economic and political factors? Chinese and Indian people who move to the US bring their culture with them, but they don’t seem to be aborting their daughters on a regular basis. So is this really the outgrowth of culture? If there was something like Social Security in China and India would parents feel they would not need the superior earning power of sons to support them in thier old age?

    • Gulliver says:

      Chinese and Indian people who move to the US bring their culture with them, but they don’t seem to be aborting their daughters on a regular basis. So is this really the outgrowth of culture?

      I suspect it’s more an outgrowth of parents being reluctant to raise a second-class citizen. Politics and culture and intertwined. Immigrants tend to assimilate into the culture to which the immigrate. They bring their culture with them, but they also adapt it to the culture(s) they must among. Which is to say, culture is an emergent phenomenon, not a well-regimented paradigm for categorization. Politics is an epiphenomenon of culture.

  69. Anonymous says:

    The funny thing about nuclear weapons is that the scientists were thinking about the consequences, at least until they got going. Many were aware of the problems with developing weapons, but thought the threat from Nazism was worth it. Scientists are people, and when you ask them to think about the social consequences of their work, they’re not necessarily better than the policy-makers at foreseeing things.

  70. Anonymous says:

    In China baby girls are trafficked and sold to families to be brides for only sons.

    http://www.humantrafficking.org/updates/304

  71. felagund says:

    Try Frank Herbert’s “The White Plague,” wherein a scientist driven mad by grief at the death of his wife at the hands of Irish terrorists devises a plague designed to kill all the women in Northern Ireland in revenge for his wife’s death. The plague spreads, and the overwhelming majority of the world’s women die. The results are not pretty for the remaining women.

  72. Anonymous says:

    The ultraviolent Wild West is fictional, you know. Does that damage the thesis?

  73. Anonymous says:

    “whether they should be blamed on the cultural and religious practices that despise and discriminate against women in the first place.”

    That.

  74. Joey_Brill says:

    The greater number of men born means that there will be more gay men.

    I believe we gay men and women help the species survive in times of venereal plague. We also serve as an auto-correct function of population evolution.

    And, yeah, this is why we will have net freedom in China and India.

    Baby mos need to know gay’s ok.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Except the countries that are going to end up 75% male are also the most homophobic.

      Note to self: buy stock in Fleshlightâ„¢.

      • Quiche de Resistance says:

        “Note to self: buy stock in Fleshlightâ„¢.”

        Can you invest specifically in the anus model?

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