ParentingScienceSkepticism

I unwillingly support your right to make stupid decisions…

As a skeptic, one of the hardest things to do is watch someone make a bad decision. Of course, as a skeptic I know that ‘bad’ is a subjective term that is individual to me, based on my culture, upbringing, friends and various other personal biases.

Plus, I know that freedom means that everyone gets to be free to make whatever decision they want. Even stupid people. When it hurts even more is when people use science to implement stupid decisions.

Take, for example, this couple in India. At 72, she claims to be the oldest woman in the world to give birth. She had twins after a series of fertility treatments which cost her and her husband their entire life savings. It was a very difficult pregnancy; she had to be on bed rest for a full 8 months. Delivery was no piece of cake either – the babies were born a month premature, had low birth weight, and riding full-sized rickshaws.

The couple already had two children, so why was this pregnancy so important? Find out, and read much more after the fold.

For the couple, the desire to have a son was most important because they wanted to carry on the family name. They know that their son may never be able to care for them in the traditional way because of the age gap.

This couple is basically using science to fulfill a tradition, not thinking about the welfare of their own child. Even if they do survive to raise these kids to adulthood, they can’t afford to do it.  They certainly can’t afford two.  I think I feel sorriest for the female twin.  She was basically an unwanted surprise in all this.

Unfortunately, sex discrimination is rampant in India, and it starts in the womb.  It’s actually illegal in India to learn the sex of an unborn child because of the high rates of abortions of female fetuses.  A couple of years ago, Lancet published a study which talked about low sex ratio in India. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Prenatal sex determination followed by selective abortion of female fetuses is the most plausible explanation for the low sex ratio at birth in India. Women most clearly at risk are those who already have one or two female children. Based on conservative assumptions, the practice accounts for about 0.5 million missing female births yearly, translating over the past 2 decades into the abortion of some 10 million female fetuses.

Wow.  Ok, so that’s messed up.  And this is with sex identification being illegal.  If you’re going to have a kid anyway, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s a girl or a boy.  It shouldn’t.  Unfortunately, it does.  Culturally, socially, financially, having a female child has a different impact in India than a male child.  (There are a lot of spiders that need killing in India, I think…) And as much as I hate it, I have to agree that we have to allow those families to make their own decisions.  I mean, would it really be better to force people to have a female child they didn’t want?

I think the Indian government is wrong to deny people the ability to find out the sex of their child, but I’m not happy I feel that way.  First, it’s not working.  People are still figuring it out, in spite of hefty fines for individuals and the risk of suspension for doctors.  Second, before it was technologically possible to find out the sex of a baby, it was very common for parents to kill a daughter after birth.  Better to abort an unwanted fetus than to murder an unwanted baby.

It’s tough for me to support the 70-something couple to have twin kids that they can’t afford to raise. But it’s their decision to make. The other option is letting the government (or, worse, the church) decide who can be allowed to have kids.

The answer is education.  Yes, it’s wrong to discriminate against female children.   But suppressing knowledge or denying them access to the technology to keep them and their children safe and healthy isn’t the answer.  Continuing education about women, about women’s rights and blowing away the ancient cultural biases through knowledge is the only way this problem goes away.  Plus, provide women opportunities for work outside the home. Giving women the ability to earn money serves the dual purpose of providing additional income for the family and making them more than just dowry-needing brood mares to the family.  Less Ganesh, more Green, maybe?

What do you guys think?  

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Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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33 Comments

  1. i find it amazing, considering different types of evolutionary mating strategies and the like, that this type of system could have developed at all. it’s bizarre. evolutionarily speaking, men are essentially the ones who are expendable. only a few men are necessary to keep a population going, while the number of women is the limiting factor on growth. one would expect to see men’s families paying for brides, and not the other way around.

    it just goes to show that human culture is a very strange and powerful thing.

    i think you’re right–education is probably the best solution. government enforcement of rules that run counter to well established traditions will only serve to drive these practices underground (or change infanticides for abortions, as you said).

    but seriously, having a kid at age 72…wow…

  2. Yikes, that’s a depressing story. I think you’re right in the end though. Trying to force people to change their behavior won’t change their minds and probably won’t succeed in changing behavior anyway. Education is the only way to fix the problem but can be a painfully slow process and people will suffer in the meantime. I hope that globalization and international education will help speed things up.

  3. Yeah, I know it’s not contributing much to agree with the same thing everyone else said, but education seems to be the answer to a great deal of the world’s problems… Sadly, there are a lot of people with a vested interested in keeping the masses uneducated.

  4. Yes, Car2d2, you would think…but when having a son means you have an advantage (because ultimately, yeah, it only takes a few males to populate, but the whole deal with all males ever since ever has been ensuring that their maleness makes the males of tomorrow), nobody thinks about taking one for the team.

    In other words, it’s logical when you think about that you would need females, but every prospective parent would want THEIR genes to be the ones passed to the fewer of the gender necessary in order to be more prolific in the long run.

    One female can only be preggers like once a year…one guy can spread his seed, well, wouldn’t you rather be Genghis Khan’s dad than Genghis Khan’s wife’s dad if the name of the game is “who’s going to have a higher DNA in the general population index in 1000 years?” ya know?

  5. Hehe, scepticism meet feminism. When you have a patriarchal culture from years of subsistence farming and the devaluation of women to no more than chattel, the traditions engendered take a hell of a lot of work to remove.

    The same thing is happening in China, and I would assume in a quite a lot of other places.

    The interesting troubles of this are already beginning to show themselves. The vast majority of men in China for instance will never have a wife or girlfriend. Now homosexuality will bridge that gap a little, but won’t prevent a lot of men being very lonely.

    So, women are going to be in big demand, this could cause women some real problems if patriarchal traditions aren’t disposed of.

    There are very well documented examples of what happens to intrinsically extremely valuable people. If you remember the Greek/Roman myths, Hephaestus/Vulcan always walked with a limp, that’s because blacksmiths, who were the most valuable (not important remember, just valuable) people to a settlement routinely had their hamstrings cut so that they couldn’t run away, or be stolen.

    We’ve seen that happen to women too, foot binding in China only died out last century.

    We’ve got to do something to prevent the almost certain objectification of women in these countries, or we will see a return of foot binding, genital mutilation and laming, just to prevent women having the choice to walk away or have sex with another male.

    The Indian method is crude, and certainly not very productive, but they are at least addressing the situation. We really need to bring feminism to these countries and educate the women and men. Remember that in most cases, the mutilation is done by the mothers and female relatives to the female child. We have to break that cycle of abuse and tradition.

  6. It’s heart-wrenching. It’s completely natural to want to use force to right a wrong, but as you said it doesn’t work.

    Like carr2d2, I wonder what evolutionary misfiring (to lift a phrase from Dawkins) is going on here that places so low a value on female offspring. I’ve read that in ancient Greek culture and others, female babies would often be “exposed”—just left to die somewhere.

    I still think the answer to most of these problems is economics. With a better economy, western cultures became the first in the world to speak out against slavery, gender discrimination, class warfare, etc. There are many reasons why, not the least of which is it makes it easier to educate people. Reproductive control is another, which speaks directly to the issue here.

  7. These type of prejudices can exist even in economically advantaged cultures. I knew someone whose wife was pregnant, and she desperately wanted a boy. When they found out she was having a girl, she was extremely upset. She also apparently wanted to have another child, and have the sex altered in the womb if it happened to be another girl to make sure they got a boy. They now have a daughter, and I think are very happy with her – but I can’t help but hope they never mention to her the reaction when they found out she was a girl. Obviously, the pressures are not as strong in American society as in Indian, or Chinese, but there are still a ton of preconceived gender notions in place. Education is definitely the answer, but it will take a long time, I think.

  8. In this case the demographic gynocide is where tradition meets statistics. Everyone has “preferences”, and some will even use abortion or sex selection during IVF as a means to fulfil them. Where the tradition is strong, and the means is there, you’re going to have a demographic collapse.

    At least in the countries with a liberal bias, you won’t get this kind of “preference” making any real dent in the headline numbers.

    I don’t agree with the economic argument though, there are plenty of rich countries where there would be strong concious selection against females except for taboos on abortion.

    The only way out as I see it, unless you want to ban abortion and re-enslave women, is to raise the standard of living away from subsistence levels and have a thorough re-education drive emphasising equality.

  9. Dowries, is that where a husband pays his wife’s family for the privilege to marry her?

    or is that money/stuff she brings with her into a marriage?

    and if its the second one, and the sex ratios are that slanted, I wonder if we’ll see an abandoning/role reversal of that custom?

  10. Lox – Dowries vary in different cultures. In India, the woman’s family has to pay a dowry when she gets married. But in many African cultures, it’s the other way around and the man pays. But the dowry system in India is one of the reasons the female children aren’t wanted. They’re significantly more expensive.

    I didn’t mean for this to be quite the downer it turned into. There is definitely hope. These issues are happening in rural areas in India, which is still a large proportion of the country. In the cities, technology and the economy are evening things out a lot. Which is one of the reasons I support outsourcing – it’s been a huge factor in Indian economic growth.

    But that’s a blog post for another day, I think :)

  11. “In India, the woman’s family has to pay a dowry when she gets married. ”
    Take my wife, please!
    That’s funny…

    And there is hope for India –
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4402482.ece

    Well maybe there’s other hope – http://atheistcentre.in

    I think the other core message here is that having kids isn’t a very green thing to do. More people isn’t necessary or advisable at this point. Focusing parental instincts on the people already out there is far more beneficial, if nothing else than by adoption.

  12. To turn this around, the government in India should create educational and employment opportunities for women, and pay families to raise girls.

    Or we can wait for time to self-correct this behavior. Ian MacDonald’s book “River of the Gods” depicts life in India in 2047 where (Indian) women are so scarce it is the groom’s family that has to pony up the dowry, and it it is considered very lucky for a groom to marry within his caste and not below it.

  13. My thoughts are basically the same as previously expressed, but I have to chime in on this:

    carr2d2:“evolutionarily speaking, men are essentially the ones who are expendable.”

    Evolutionarily speaking, everyone is expendable. Individuals don’t count. Only populations do. In fact, evolution depends on all of us kicking the bucket in a timely fashion.

    carr2d2:“only a few men are necessary to keep a population going, while the number of women is the limiting factor on growth.”

    This is sort of true, but not really. Humans come in a roughly 50/50 sex ratio for optimal genetic diversity…and we need it since we are a very non-diverse species.

  14. Oh my gosh, somewhere Karl Pilkington is going “aha!”

    yes…except she didn’t die before giving birth, and there were two babies…
    all hail the round-headed one.

    “but, wha’ i mean is…”

  15. theczech:
    of course everyone is expendable, but a population cannot exist without a sufficient number of individuals to propagate it. the fact remains that, for purely logistical reasons, females are the limiting factor on growth. in the bigger picture, yes, a large and diverse set of males is a good thing , but it seems to me that natural selection should never create a system in which males are prized to this extreme (that’s where culture comes in).

    i haven’t heard this diversity argument for sex ratio before. i think fisher’s theory pretty much accounts for what we see.

  16. TheCzech: “In fact, evolution depends on all of us kicking the bucket in a timely fashion.”

    I think that depends…does longevity provide some evolutionary advantage? If yes, then evolution doesn’t care quite so much if we kick off in a timely fashion.

    I think it does, at least to a degree. It takes time to learn things, knowledge is a survival trait, so…evolution rewards longevity.

    At least to a point.

    carr2d2: “but it seems to me that natural selection should never create a system in which males are prized to this extreme (that’s where culture comes in).”

    Well…I would submit that natural selection *didn’t* create a system in which males are prized to this extreme. If it had, we’d see a difference in the biology, in the ratio of boy/girl embryos…which we dont’ see. It’s roughly 50/50. Or maybe I’m exibiting a GCE re: natural selection.

    I think the case can be made that once we became sufficiently advanced tool users to modify our environment, natural selection took a sidestep to cultural selection, if there is such a term.

  17. carr2d2: As appealing as the idea is that it might be evolutionarily optimal for me to have a harem, the fact that evolution has produces a 50/50 ratio in our species would indicate an advantage.

    I can’t remember where I heard the argument for genetic diversity favoring, but I did hear it somewhere. I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to come up with that kind of crap on my own.

    I thought Fisher’s principle primarily explained the mechanism which restores balance in sex ratios, but that’s just my Biology 100 struggling to resurface…

    Josh K: Ah, but dying isn’t just a matter of being an evolutionary advantageous trait, it is part of the very mechanism by which evolution takes place. Species adapt through the repeated effect of a new generation replacing the previous one. If we didn’t die, there would be no replacement.

  18. Since I *just* saw the proshest bebeh kittehs crawling out from the neighbor’s foundation, I thought of the kittens that my cat had last year (she was preggers when I took her in – everyone got spayed and neutered, and I have designs on the feral mom and bebehs next door…in case anyone thinks like me and was about to admonish me for letting my kitty get knocked up!)

    Anywhoo – cats have a more genetic diversity than us, yeah? Well,there were four females and two males in her litter…and I’ve heard similar ratios for other litters. so..fascinating.

    I think I just actually wanted to mention the tiny little mewling kittens with teeny tails and eyes still blue..

  19. josh: you’re right…i think i was getting my natural and cultural selection ideas all confused in my head and that didn’t quite come out right…

    czech: you’re sort of on the right track about fisher. basically what his theory predicts is a pendulum swing between slightly more males and slightly more females, which, when averaged over an entire population for any amount of time creates a more or less equal balance. it is a correction, but it is a continuous correction that keeps the system from tipping too far in either direction.

    and actually, in species where harem polygyny is practiced, the ratio will still oscillate around 50:50 because the high risk associated with investing in a male offspring has the potential payout of hitting the jackpot of becoming the dominant breeder.

    whitebird: do you have any pics of the adorable bebeh kittehs?
    i don’t know much about genetic diversity in cats…i know i’ve seen some populations of farm cats in my lifetime that have been severely inbred (extra toes, etc). i think they practice a sort of territorial polygyny, where a male controls an area and all the females in it. it seems like this type of system would necessarily
    tend toward creating inbred populations.

    maria, i’m sorry i’ve turned your post into a discussion of evolution and mating systems.
    can you ever forgive me? ;)

  20. kimbo jones:
    i know, and you totally killed me with that comment. that hadn’t even occurred to me.

    next thing we know, they’ll be sending a monkey into space with a banana dispenser!

  21. carr2d2 – I love that you guys turned this into a discussion on evolution and mating systems. I’m learning lots! I have a question though since I don’t know much about this stuff. Is the concept of marriage/fidelity to a single person evolutionary or cultural? I’ve heard different people say different things but I never got the story from someone who actually knows this stuff.

  22. My understanding (please don’t ask me where I picked it up, I don’t ermember) is that there’s a hormone that nearly all monogamous animals have in elevated levels, and that humans have moderate amounts that fluctuate, making us physiologically wired to be more-or-less semi-monogamous with a tendency to change our minds/cheat fairly regularly… I guess part of the reason it stuck with me after I read about it was because of how well it fit with my own personal observations.

    …of course, the whole idea could easily be outdated/abandoned since I read about it. I’m a curious sort, but monogamy isn’t exactly my passion, you know.

  23. I think we humans are a bit mixed up on the monogamy thing. It’s hard to say if we really have a netural tendency either way, but we could take a look at our closest evolutionary cousins! Chimps are very promiscuous by nature, and with good reason. When a male chimp takes control of the… what? tribe? pride? pack?… whatever, he will basically kill off any young that are not his own. So, in the interest of protecting the children, female chimps have sex as often and indescriminately as possible, so the males never know which ones are theirs and which ones aren’t..

    At least this is what I picked up from my Evolution class last semester.

  24. maria:
    from what i’ve gathered, the basic idea at this point is that we are genetically disposed toward serial monogamy. because of our brain size, human babies have to be born at a very early stage of growth so the mother can survive the birth. for this reason, babies are very vulnerable for a very long time compared to other species. this makes having two parents almost a necessity (speaking from the perspective of our ancestors). what’s the best way to facilitate that evolutionarily? a monogamous mating system.

    i read something interesting recently offering an explanation of the so-called “seven year itch”. the argument states that seven years is sufficient time to bear and raise a child to a point where it could survive on its own, subsequently allowing the parents to reproduce with different partners in order to blend their genes in new combinations in order to increase the chances that they’ll go on.

    could be total bs, but it sounds intriguing on the surface.

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