Friday, February 04, 2011

The Sex Selection Puzzle

My friend Taxmom has two sons.  Taxmom with customary acerbity remarks: "leave it to me to have sons in the first generation in human history when it does not make sense to be a man."

Absolutely no disrespect intended here.  She is devoted to these two models of young manhood and she has every reason to be: they bright, charming, engaging, specimens of their kind.  Still, Taxmom is  remarking on the irony that today--more precisely, since 1963-- women have the potenteial to rule the (as it were) roost.  Mind you, I didn't say "actual"--there is still a bit of cleanup up to do.  But every evidence indicates that men are increasingly dispensable to the point of irrelevance and can easily look forward to a long-term (generations) fate of extinction.

So far, so good, but that leads to my immediate question.  Specifically--if men are so fast becoming redundant, why is it that in so many countries, we observe parents as they struggle to make sure that they spawn little boys?

This afternoon on the bike, audioreading The Economist's  riveting but horrific survey of the place of rape in war, for a moment I thought I had a theory.   That is: let's stipulate that rape is never a pretty business.  But there are some places where it comes close to being a fact of life.   And it occurred to me: maybe there are some parts  in the world where the life of women is just so awful that parents drown, or suffocate, or starve their beloved daughters  at birth as an act of (misguide) compassion, so as to save them the unspeakable horrors that lie ahead.

An elegant theory, or so I thought; the trouble is, the facts won't cooperate.  Look at the proportions: the world average male-female ratio at birth seems to run somewhere around 1.05.  But: China 1.14, India 1.1; hell, Albania, 1.23, Armenia 1.33.  The only counry I could find with a ratio of less than one is the tiny Dutch colony of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean (0.98).  All very well in itself.  The trouble is, I should think that China and India are hardly the worst places in the world to be a woman.  Were I looking for the real centers of cruelty to women, I should think I would look into Central Africa.  Yet what to we find here?  Consider: Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, all 1.03--that is, a smaller male advantage at birth than the world average.

I could do other measures.  Virtually everywhere, women tend to outlive men (if you are an older male, you will find yourself  more and more in the company of women).  But look at the 15-64 cohort.   We have Russia at 0.92 --by stereotype, the men just die drunk.  Yet what stereotype for Puerto Rico (0.93)--do the men all leave home to find jobs in New York?  Or Bangladesh at 0.89?  And what on earth can we say about Qatar, where the ratio is a whopping 2.44?  The Central Africans, by contrast, are all middling and equivocal.

In short, another nice theory sent packing.  But I'm not swayed by mere numbers.  I'm still inclined to believe there are some parents who convince themselves they are doing the girls a favor by their acts of infanticide.  Meanwhile, there seem to be some places in the world where we are just doomed to build up a surplus of underemployed, lonely, horny, testosterone-poisoned young men--never a good thing for any society.   I gather that blonde Russian prostitutes are already at a premium in the Middle East.  Maybe we should take all those unattached babushkas and just ship them to Bangladesh.

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