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Asia’s Double Tragedy March 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, China, society.
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I apologize to my lone reader for the six day post hiatus. I was “vacationing” with said reader and our children in WDW, i.e., DisneyWorld. I could write ten different posts about WDW, and I might, but for now let me just say that WDW would be much less crowded and much more pleasant if entry requirements included the company of at least one child under ten.

I am half-way through my experiment of reading four books simultaneously: Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, John Brockman’s “The Next Fifty Years”, Max Brockman’s “What’s Next”, and Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball”.  “Next” is my nightstand book, “Basketball” is my bathroom book, “Next 2.0” is my travel book, and “Crowded” is my downstairs chair book. I was going to do a giant joint book review, but “Crowded” and “Basketball” are much longer. Also, I’ve spent more time traveling and sleeping the past few weeks than sitting downstairs (ostensibly working) or going to the bathroom. And so here is a mini-review of “Nexts”. Briefly, 1.0 is a collection of essays by the leaders of individual scientific fields (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Roger Schank, Rodney Brooks) about their visions for their respective fields in the year 2050. It was compiled in 2001. This being 2010, none of the predictions have come 20% true yet as far as I can tell. Although I did learn the fascinating fact that the human genome contains only 35,000 genes, fewer than the genome of a potato and many other “simpler” life forms. 35,000 genes? That’s all it takes to make a human? What the hell took so long? 2.0 is a collection of essays by scientific wunderkinds, 75% of whom received their PhDs after I received mine, about their current research. By the way, the editor, Max Brockman, graduated from Penn in 2002, a year after I started working there.  I learned several things from this book. First, there are many brilliant young people in this world (well, at least 20) and some of them spend their time thinking about truly nutty things. Second, dropping people from a height of 15 stories into a net is accepted methodology in neuroscience research. Third, humans would be much better off if we adopted the same caste-like eusocial structure that ants and bees do. And fourth, Max Brockman is John Brockman’s son. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall from the tree at all.

Speaking of eusocial societies, it appears that some Asian countries notably China and India are slowly moving towards this model with a small number of child-bearing women surrounded by armies of men, some of which get to mate but most of which perform work for the benefit of the colony. If you think this is a joke, you should read the lead article in last week’s The Economist. It is awful. But you should read it anyway. People should occasionally read awful things because awful things exist and should be acknowledged. Asian societies–and perhaps societies the world over–have long preferred sons to daughters. Sons can help more on the farm. Sons receive rather than give dowries. Sons stay with their parents and support them in their old age. Sons can grow up to play in the NFL. Historically, the only ways to affect this preference have been abandonment and outright infanticide. And these were morally objectionable enough that their incidence was low and the boy to girl ratio stayed about even. But increased availability of early-pregnancy sex-determination via ultrasound has opened up a much more morally palatable option–sex-selective abortion. In some northern India provinces there are now 130 boys born for every 100 girls, with doctors advertising “pay 5,000 rupees now (for the ultrasound) save 50,000 rupees later (for the dowry)”. In China, the ratio is 123 boys to 100 girls driven by boy preference and the “one child policy” and its variants. In some Chinese provinces, a couple is allowed a second child if the first one is a girl and in most provinces a couple is allowed two children if both parents are only children, effectively making “one child” alternate generations and strangely giving only children incentives to marry other only children.

I am pro-choice and certainly pro-family planning. But I consider the selective-abortion of hundreds of millions of girls to be a human tragedy. It’s actually a double tragedy. For every girl that never will be, there is a boy that will grow up alone. By 2020, there will be 30 million Chinese men age 20-30 with no prospects for marriage, family, or a path to social acceptance. In China, there is a name for these men–“bare branches.” There will be tens of millions more bare branches in India. South Korea. Singapore. Armenia. Georgia. And likely more to come in lesser developed country as ultrasound technology spreads there. In 10 years, there could be 100 million single young men in Asia. How’s that for a recipe for social unrest?  You think young Chinese men are frustrated and restless because they can’t perform politically subversive Google searches? Try seeing how frustrated they get when they can’t find anyone to have sex with! China is definitely going to have to uncensor porn then! Some way, some how, the cultural Asian boy preference has to end. Or eventually, they will have to reproduce by cloning. The good news is, it may be starting to. The bad news is, for this generation of “bare branches”, it’s already too late.

What’s a blog post without a P.S.? My cats’ “Temptations” treats have “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” Not just “Chicken Flavor.” “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” I don’t know whether to be amused or insulted. What premium am I paying for this luxury? And do my cats, who otherwise eat stuff that looks and smells like vomit, actually appreciate the difference?