As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.

Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?


  1. Congrats on the media appearance! It must be exciting to see your views disseminated so widely.

    Sex selection made an unexpected appearance in my own life when I was investigating options for surrogacy and in-vitro fertilization- a prospective egg donor requested that the child be male. I have no preferences for my kids’ sex, so it’s no cost to me, but I have a few years to consider her request in the broader ethical sense. In-vitro fertilization illuminates the circumstances in two interesting ways. First, it’s a highly deliberate and technological act. I suppose that every pregnancy contains some mix of pride and gratitude, but when full genetic parenthood is a choice offered by devices and knowledge that I might not have had, the absence of sons or daughters is also a state for which I feel responsible. Second, most in vitro fertilizations are abortions of a sort. These programs culture multiple cell groups, each of which has the potential to develop in to a different human being with different circumstances and pressures towards particular choices in life. Most are discarded, and only one is chosen. Is a sexual basis for this choice ethically distinguishable from sex selection through the messier context of natural pregnancy?

    It’s hard to imagine that your resolution to these problems wouldn’t depend strongly on the moral status of those cells, and whether they reflect whatever inner spark it is that grants moral status to my own small bundle of organic matter. It is certainly permissible to screen a potential parent/lover for rare genetic disorders, or even aesthetic factors like height that may influence a child’s success in life. Is there a reason to halt this process after the act of conception, if we don’t grant that the resulting organism is necessarily a person? For a subset of these choices, there are utilitarian arguments to be made; in societies with severe sex selection, we'll probably see some of those play out in the next ten years. But for the general practice, I doubt it.

    And, just to turn the tables: suppose I used strong authority and force to prevent the “conception” of radical transhumans, and to preferentially favor human bodies as they would exist in the absence of technology and our knowledge of the universe. Would this, also, be a eugenics program?

  2. > If male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create
    > more of them instead of female lives.

    Of course, at some point those (presumably heterosexual) male lives will start becoming less pleasant because of the dearth of women. I suppose transhumanist technology might fix this by making all men (or at least the "surplus" men) homosexual. Or maybe making up for the deficiency of women by providing robot surrogates.

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