BOOK REVIEW: 'Unnatural Selection': Choosing Boys Over Girls -- and the Consequences Too Many Men

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Unnatural Selection': Choosing Boys Over Girls -- and the Consequences Too Many Men
Two images of cats -- my favorite animal  -- were burned into my brain when I finished reading Mara Hvistendahl's "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (PublicAffairs, 336 pages, notes, index,  $26.99). One was of Puneet Bedi, a medical student in India, seeing a cat "bounding past him, a bloody blob dangling from its mouth." Stray dogs and cats were common in Indian hospitals in 1978, but what Bedi saw in that cat's mouth turned out to be an aborted fetus of a girl that was treated so casually -- left on a tray where any stray animal could find it  --  "because it was a girl," a nurse told him.

The other cat image was that of Canadian geneticist, Dr. Murray L. Barr, one day in 1949 peering into a microscope  at the cells of a female cat. What he saw was a tiny, previously unnoticed cellular body. "A quick survey of cells from other cats revealed only females had the body; males lacked it entirely." Barr quickly realized the substance could be a shortcut around the sex chromosome problem. "Like sex chromosomes, the cellular body indicated the sex of an organism. But  unlike the chromosomes, it was relatively easy to detect...."

Mara Hvistendahl
Mara Hvistendahl

 The discovery netted a nomination for a Nobel prize for Dr. Barr. It also was an easy way to determine the sex of an adult whose sex was uncertain, including masculine female Soviet athletes in the Olympics. But even more significant, it led to procedures that enabled doctors to determine the sex of a fetus, which in many cultures led to an abortion of the kind Dr. Bedi saw in that Delhi hospital.

Beijing China-based  science correspondent Hvistendahl writes that Lianyungang, a booming port city, has China's most extreme gender ratio for children under four: 163 boys for every 100 girls. These numbers don't seem terribly grim, but in ten years, the skewed sex ratio will pose a colossal challenge. By the time those children reach adulthood, their generation will have twenty-four million more men than women.

One of the consequences has been a gigantic increase in wife tourism, with men from Taiwan traveling to Vietnam to "buy" brides, she writes. A world with too many men will be a frightening place, a statement even men should agree with. Historically, eras in which there have been an excess of men have produced periods of violent conflict and instability.

The prognosis for China's neighbors is no less bleak: Asia now has 163 million females "missing" from its population. Gender imbalance reaches far beyond Asia, affecting Georgia, Eastern Europe, and cities in the U.S. where there are significant immigrant populations. The world, therefore, is becoming increasingly male, and this mismatch is likely to create profound social upheaval.

Hvistendahl interviews doomsayer Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb." He popularized the idea that ensuring that couples had sons was an effective means of curbing population growth. But, writes Hvistendahl, Ehrlich "was not the first to propose it and he would certainly not be the last....Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s a number of influential U.S. experts sounded their approval for sex selection everywhere from the pages of major scientific journals to the podiums of government-sponsored seminars."

Those experts, she writes, contributed to China's draconian one-child program, which contributed to aborting female fetuses since boys were preferred in China, as in many cultures. But not in the U.S., where techniques pioneered in the greater Los Angeles area lead to the conception of females, preferred by many Americans.

Mara Hvistendahl has written a stunning, impeccably-researched book that doesn't flinch from examining not only the consequences of the misbegotten policies of sex selection in places like India and China and Taiwan and the former Soviet bloc but Western complicity with them. It's an important book from a publisher with an impeccable record of publishing just the right books at just the right time. There is no better publisher of factual books in the world than New York-based PublicAffairs.

About the author

Mara Hvistendahl's writing has appeared in Harper's, The New RepublicScientific American, the Financial Times magazine, Popular ScienceForeign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times. A correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and former contributing editor at Seed magazine, Mara has won an Education Writers Association award and been nominated for the Newswomen's Club of New York Front Page Award. She first lived in Asia over a decade ago, when her studies took her to Beijing. She has spent half of the years since then in China, a base from which she reported extensively from around the continent. "Unnatural Selection" is her first book.
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