May 24, 2009

Equalizer or Terminator?

Athena Andreadis is guest-blogging this month.

Years ago, I saw a short in an animation festival. It showed earth inhabited by men who happily bopped each other and propagated by laying eggs. A starship crash interrupted the idyll. Presaging Battlestar Galactica, the newcomers proved miraculously interfertile with the men who handed them the job of propagation along with all other disagreeable chores. Things went swimmingly, at least for the men, until a rescue ship arrived. After the women left, the men were once again free to pursue manly things – until they realized they had forgotten how to lay eggs.

The short was a wry, science-fictional version of the animal wife tale. But it's interesting that we can program starships to ricochet from planet to planet and routinely use in vitro fertilization – yet if women want direct genetic descendants, they still have no alternative to pregnancy unless they are rich enough to hire a surrogate, an option burdened with ethical baggage.

Of course, a womb is much more than a warm sac of nutrients. The endocrine inputs alone would tax a medium-size factory, leaving aside those from the immune system. The complexities of its function have made an artificial womb remain a distant glimpse and attempts with mammalian embryos still fail at early stages. Yet cultural politics have been as decisive in this delay as biological challenges: think of the lightning speed with which Japanese officials approved Viagra versus their decades-long ban on oral contraceptives and you get the picture. And the upheaval brought about by contraception will be a mild breeze compared to the hurricane that will be unleashed if we ever succeed in creating an artificial uterus. Its repercussions may equal (and possibly reverse) those that accompanied the invention of agriculture.

Prior to agriculture, gatherer-hunters lived semi-nomadic lives in small groups of relatively flat hierarchies. Family configurations were fluid and quasi-egalitarian and children were few, spaced far apart and collectively raised. This persisted when the nomads first settled. The earliest agricultural communities show little social stratification: there are no ostentatious palaces or tombs. But with the ability to hoard food reserves, dynamics changed – and so did the status of women, now burdened with multiple children and deprived of mobility and the gathering skills and knowledge of their foremothers. Wombs became commodities and have remained so, with minor fluctuations, ever since.

If we succeed in creating functioning artificial wombs, they will remain luxury options (like surrogate motherhood) until/unless they become relatively cheap. At that point, it’s virtually certain that they’ll be heavily used for reasons outlined in many analyses elsewhere – primarily the sparing of both mother and child from the health problems associated with pregnancy and birth (1, 2). And if they’re used, they will have a predictable outcome: all parents will become fathers, biologically, psychologically and, possibly, culturally.

Women will be able to have as many children as men, even multiplets without the severe problems of extreme prematurity now inherent in such a choice. Additionally, women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men. And of course cheap working artificial wombs will also mean that women will become biologically redundant.

Having equally invested parents is standard in other species whose offspring have long periods of helplessness – birds are an obvious “nuclear” example, social insects an “extended” one. Adoptions in humans show that biological connections are not a prerequisite in forming kinship bonds, although adopted and step-children are often treated less well than biological ones.

If we go the friendly route, ending pregnancy may finally usher in true equality between the genders since women will no longer be penalized physically, psychologically, financially and socially for having children: many problems, from autism to bed wetting, will cease being automatically the mother’s responsibility or fault. Such a change may perhaps allow us to play with alternative family arrangements, from Ursula Le Guin’s Ki’O sedoretu to Poul Anderson’s Rogaviki polyandry.

If we go the other route, women could become extinct as soon as a decade after artificial wombs become widely available, except as trophies or zoo specimens. Those who think this is unlikely need only to be reminded that there are now regions of China and India where the ratio of boys to girls is two to one, courtesy of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. People may bemoan a potential world without women, but such pious thoughts didn’t stop us from extinguishing countless other species. Personally, I think that never getting born is preferable to a devalued life.

An all-male culture need not resemble a prison or an army barracks. Nevertheless, I suspect that such a society will have either slavery or indentured service even if it has advanced technology, as humans seem unable to avoid rank demarcations (although their natural ranking system is not the fixed rigid pyramid of canine bands). Their romantic Others may be transgendered men, or Wraeththu-like bishōnen boys in a revival of the erastes/eromenos scheme of Periclean Athens. But like the men in the cartoon short I described earlier, even with artificial wombs these guys will eventually bump into another wall: ovarian stocks.

Like wombs, ova are not passive nurturing chambers. For one, they select which sperm to let in when the hordes come knocking. Additionally, beyond transmitting half the nuclear and all the mitochondrial genes, eggs also contain organized spacetime gradients that direct correct formation and epigenetic imprinting of the embryo. Re-creating this kind of organized cytoplasm makes an artificial womb seem simple by comparison and if there are any trophy women left at that point their fate may be grim.

Wanting to hear another person’s views on this matter, I asked my partner, without any preamble or explanation, “What do you think will happen to women if we create working artificial wombs?” And he, proving yet again how much he deserves the title of snacho, replied without missing a beat, “Nothing. Women are the reason men want to get out of bed in the morning.” I couldn’t help smiling… and I reflected that, as long as even tiny pockets of such people continue to exist, we may get to travel to the stars, after all.

Starship Reckless


Anonymous said...

I agree with your partner whole heartily. I being a straight male can never imagine feeling any atraction towards another male. And trust me there were many times i wished i was gay because women can drive me crazy.

Athena Andreadis said...

To paraphrase John le Carré, who's Anonymous when he's at home?

Not Me said...

How does this make women "obsolete"? And even if it did, how would it make them virtually nonexistent?

2 Sperm doesn't provide everything needed to create a child. Granted, one could turn a stem cell from one partner into an egg, but then you'd still have to screen out any XX combinations that happen to result, because males do have X chromosomes.

And with technology gradually making males' supposed advantages (mainly, upper-body strength) mean less and less, there'd be little reason to favor men over women, aside from the "traditional" view that only men inherit. That tradition largely depends upon women, you know, existing to bear them children. So either they won't embrace it to begin with, which will affect nothing, or they'll effectively "go gay" (in marriage if not sex) and their culture as it exists will implode, in the long run changing nothing of significance in regards to this subject.

I've also heard people theorizing that artificial wombs would make men obsolete, for similar reasons. So the logic goes both ways.

Personally I think that if humans ever become an artificially monosexual race, they'll be either female or hermaphrodite, for reasons which have nothing to do with the availablity of artificial wombs.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how we jump from the theoretical availability of artificial wombs at some imagined future point to the assumption that most people would prefer to trade pregnancy for the use of an artificial womb. If they invent an artificial pancreas I'm not planning on trading in mine, because it is already functional. One serious problem with transhumanism overall seems to be the assumption that the rest of the planet would or should share the preferences of transhumanists when it comes to things of the body; I've seen zero evidence that these views are widely shared or even regarded with anything other than disgust by those outside that small group.

Athena Andreadis said...

Not Me, you're absolutely right about sperm. That's why a culture with no women would need ovarian stocks, and would eventually run into a serious problem. And, as you point out, they would need to abort all XX embryos.

On the other hand, technology has little to do with cultural preferences, and while our gadgets are Space Age, much of our worldview is still Bronze (or Stone) Age. Witness countries like Saudi Arabia.

Anonymous2, pregnancy is not quite the same as a pancreas. In particular, the human pelvic angle (because of the bipedal upright walking stance) and the size of human babies makes childbirth uniquely dangerous for our species.

However, I share your concerns about the contempt of many transhumanists for the body, as I wrote in my essay If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to Be Part of Your Revolution! which appeared a week ago both on this site and on my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to speculate how people might take to this. There seems to be a lot of biological forces at work that drive women to want to experience pregnancy that may be difficult for most to shed.

Giulio Prisco said...

One gender? How boring! Once reproduction is decoupled from sex, I want to see many genders, with easy options to switch.

Athena Andreadis said...

Odin, the forces that drive women to still desire pregnancy are the original biological drive and the derived cultural one. The fear of becoming redundant is strong -- think of the revolts at the beginning of the industrial era.

Giulio, Melissa Scoot postulated seven human genders created by effects of FTL travel in her very interesting novel Shadow Man. Following a point made by Not Me, the easiest way will be to start with an intesex hermaphroditic configuration and be able to tilt directionally to the desired extent. However, even if this becomes possible, switching would be slow. It would take a lot longer than the morphing of humans into werewolves or other creatures from dark lagoons shown on film.

As for boring, all monocultures are boring. But humans tend to adopt them as default solutions for the sake of convenience.

Athena Andreadis said...

Typo in my comment: Melissa Scott, not Scoot!

Stu said...

Really good article.

I would be more concerned about being superseded by robots or virtual reality than artificial wombs, men need women for sex and companionship, not procreation, now that evolution isn't driving us.

I also think that robots and VR will provide us with far more sex/gender options.

Unknown said...

How interesting to see things from this side! Having grown up with feminist parents and being male, the concerns I am used to seeing have to do with the eventual obsolesence of the male gender. I do think it is more likely with the progress made in cloning and stem cell research that we'll see the artificial creation of egg cells before we see a workable artificial womb.

I guess this is one area in which the inferiority anxieties remain vast and are shared by both genders.

Nato said...

In the nearer term, there were Australian fertility researchers who had some limited success fertilizing eggs with sperm injected with regular somatic DNA. This was intended to provide infertile men the means to father genetic offspring, but would work equally well for anyone with somatic cells. That is, everyone. That would mean that lesbian couples could have children together in the not too distant future, but all of their children would be female. Depending on how significant the genetic component of lesbianism is, this could plausibly lead very rapidly to an alternate all-female strain of humanity long before we figure out how to make effective artificial wombs. This is a little unsettling, but mostly I like to mention this scenario to make certain social conservatives' heads explode.

Nato said...

The research I reference was back in 2001, btw, so who knows how much more successful a second try would be today, almost a decade later?

Athena Andreadis said...

Stuart, robots and VR are alternatives, but my major focus here was on continuation of the species and what form that species may take as various technologies come into play.

Chris, although both genders feel insecure, the way these insecurities are expressed in the real world are different. I once heard a telling anecdote. In an interview series, high school boys and girls both said that their major fear was the other gender would react if their wooing failed. The boys said, "We're afraid the girls will laugh at us." The girls said, "We're afraid the boys will kill us."

Nato, a major problem with somatic cells is correct inactivation of the second X chromosome. Having a single X chromosome is no solution, since X0 people (Turner syndrome) suffer from a slew of autoimmune diseases and sensory/cognitive problems -- and are also infertile.

On the cultural side, anything that helps social conservatives' heads explode (or, better yet, expand to fit other ideas) is welcome.

heresiarch said...

I feel you're leaping rather rapidly from the artificial womb to the annihilation of womankind. Men like your partner aside, I think you radically underestimate the importance of women to misogynists. Women play an incredibly central role in misogynistic philosophy: they are the servants, the slaves, the status symbols.

Get rid of women? I think not--misogynists need women. No, the maximally misogynistic outcome of artificial wombs is an excess of women, without families to look after them. Children born from machines would be perfect slave material: no parents to defend them and protest their mistreatment. They could be raised to believe themselves no more than what misogynists imagine them to be: servants and sex toys. Every man could be a lord served by a number of women, all of whom are interchangeable--and therefore powerless. It is overabundance that poses the greatest threat to women, not elimination.

(Concordantly, the sexual imbalance between male and female babies in China and India might paradoxically end up working in the women's favor: with two boys for every girl, the girls will be in a position to demand much greater freedom and equality than they would otherwise.)

heresiarch said...

"As for boring, all monocultures are boring. But humans tend to adopt them as default solutions for the sake of convenience."I'm surprised to hear you, a biologist, make such a statement. Human societies have adopted monocultures because they are efficient solutions, and societies that adopted them tended to dominate and displace societies that did not.

Athena Andreadis said...

Heresiarch, it's true that misogynists need women for the reasons you outlined. However, people like that fundamentally want power and control and they will exercise it on alternatives, should the primary source disappear: if no women, then boys or "unusual" men. Misogynists are also usually homophobes -- it's part and parcel of the mindset.

Having too few women does not give them more power until/unless their intrinsic value changes in the society. Chinese culture, for example, decided that only men could worship the ancestors, and Indian culture considered a woman dead when her husband died (enforced by the suttee custom). Raj-era English travelers noted the rarity of women in regions like Rajasthan: being rare didn't improve their status one iota. These preferences have become hardwired cultural modes, and it won't be easy to shift them.

As for monocultures, they're efficient in the short run because they thrive at the expense of the total system. They are unstable, prone to catastrophic failures from single causes and a disaster for ecosystem diversity. I recommend Manning's Against the Grain for further reading on this topic.

Go Democrats said...

Yeah, that potato monoculture worked out great for Ireland in 1845. LOL

heresiarch said...

"people like that fundamentally want power and control and they will exercise it on alternatives, should the primary source disappear"

Sure, but they would never deliberately eliminate their primary source.

"Having too few women does not give them more power until/unless their intrinsic value changes in the society."

And an increased rarity can--not necessarily, but potentially--increase their intrinsic value. I cannot speak to India, but I am quite familiar with China. Women are integrated both educationally and professionally, and while there is a definite level of misogyny, women's aspirations are accepted as a matter of course. When the current crop of children reach maturity and start thinking about marriage, the women will have a great deal of negotiating power, and there is little reason to think that they will not exercise it.

"As for monocultures, they're efficient in the short run because they thrive at the expense of the total system. They are unstable, prone to catastrophic failures from single causes and a disaster for ecosystem diversity."

Yes--on the long run they are enormously destructive. Much like imperialism, they offer immediate and obvious rewards and distant, subtle dangers. I find neither of them good models for our society, but it's important to understand that they came about because people chose them for logical reasons, not because they were stupid or lazy. What you offered was a caricature, not criticism.

Athena Andreadis said...

Heresiarch, my post is a gedanken experiment, not specifically a criticism. I consider possible outcomes once humans have the option of artificial wombs. And I do so briefly because blogs are not the place for lengthy treatises and because it's easy to extrapolate once the alternatives have been stated. You're free to write your own essay on the topic.

And with this suggestion, I will end my replies in preparation for my final contribution to George's blog. As I said before, anyone who wants to continue the conversation can contact me off-list.

heresiarch said...

To be clear, my "caricature" comment was specifically about the monoculture sub-thread. Your original post was not a caricature of anything--very thought-provoking, in fact, though the thoughts were not necessarily of agreement!

midnightsun said...

"Additionally, women will not undergo the hormonal changes of pregnancy, which means they will be as much (or as little) emotionally invested in their offspring as men."

What does that mean for the many "mothers" (in quotes because I guess you would perceive them as fathers instead) who have adopted or become stepmothers to children they love as if they were theirs biologically? Quite a slap in the face to those who have raised others' children as their own, IMO one of the noblest things a woman could do. I would be interested in studies showing that adopted children are "often" treated less well than biological children, and that this is because those mothers have less "motherly" affection towards their children and act more like fathers.

"Those who think this is unlikely need only to be reminded that there are now regions of China and India where the ratio of boys to girls is two to one, courtesy of sex-selective abortion and infanticide."

That's for various reasons, including expensive dowry traditions, that don't exist in many, many countries and have absolutely nothing to do with future technologies like artificial wombs (if anything, it has to do with lack of technology on peasant firms and wanting a son to work on your farm). Ask a typical Chinese male in his 20s today if Chinese females have a lot of power despite their numbers and he will tell you how hard it is for the average Chinese guy to find a girlfriend and how women are really treated well by men there as a result. Since there are many countries in the world that have elected women as presidents or CEOs (occupations that theoretically women would be better at and have more of a shot at without taking a time-out for pregnancy), it seems beyond unlikely that women would become extinct-- not for the least reason that men like having women around if men do control everything as you seem to believe. Artificial wombs wouldn't control individual biology that's been selected for over thousands of years. Why fall all over themselves dressing men or young boys like women when it would be quite easy just keeping women around?

The idea that a solely male society would also automatically include slavery or indentured servitude is odd, to say the least, and offensive on the face of it.

Btw, your "telling anecdote" tells nothing more than it is an anecdote-- I feel fairly confident that most girls/women are not afraid that if men rejected them, they would be killed.

Athena Andreadis said...

Midnightsun, if you read the whole essay, you must have bumped into the phrase "Adoptions in humans show that biological connections are not a prerequisite in forming kinship bonds."

The anecdote was actually the result of a study conducted in US high schools a decade or two ago. For the rest, see my last response to Heresiarch.

huth said...

Who gets to decide who's male and who's female when there's millenia of subcultural developments and no biological experience to privilege one person's differentiations from anothers?