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Sex in the Future, by Robin Baker

This is a book I found while browsing in Powell's, and made a note of for later. Happily, the public library here had it, and I just finished it. The subtitle The Reproductive Revolution and how it will change us is pretty descriptive. It's a book published in 2000, describing various reproductive technologies and how their use might change society. This independent article has a useful short timeline of such technologies; I hadn't really appreciated that the first "test tube" (IVF) baby was in 1978. Surrogacy comes a bit later. Embryo screening in 1988; sperm manipulations I'd barely heard of before in the 1990s; first frozen-egg baby in 1997, who'd be turning 13 this year. The whole thing is science-fiction fast, and overlooked by most actual SF, important exceptions being the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold and Crest of the Stars by Hiroyuki Morioka.

There's a bibliography, mostly books with a few article, but there's no direct references for claims in the text, which is annoying when he starts making claims about homo- and bi-sexuality I've never heard of. No index, either. That aside, the book mostly talks about technologies that already exist and are in commercial use, with some reasonable extensions; the speculation, delivered first through fictional vignettes and then in direct expounding, is on how the social effects of those technologies. Something radical like artificial wombs -- Bujold's uterine replicators, Morioka's gestation machines, Transhuman Space's exowombs -- are barely mentioned, if at all.

The technologies he does talk about: paternity testing, child support laws (not a medical tech, but relevant), fertility testing, artificial insemination, surrogacy, IVF, increasing IVF capability (working with increasingly immature sperm, with an ultimately limit of making our own sperm or haploid cells from somatic cells), cloning, gene screening and therapy. The executive summary of what he sees happening is a trend toward single-parent families, possibly blended -- meaning there's a single commissioning parent responsible for a child's existence, 'blended' meaning two such parents might live together for a while. Other half of the child's genes (if not cloned) could come from any other human being in existence, with sex and relatedness not being barriers. Most (middle-class) people would bank their gametes in young adulthood and get sterilized, separating sex from reproduction, and reproduction from gamete aging. Finances... the main parent might pay some distant successful person for access to their genes, waiving child support rights, while others might have a more involved gene donor who shares in child support and child-raising.

It's very much like Morioka's Abh, except that Baker has to assume use of oocyte donors and surrogate mothers by single men or gay couples, whereas the Abh can use machines.

Before looking at the effect of technology, it's worth looking at what the baseline they're affecting. Unlike most species, female fertility in humans is hidden (Baker calls this "sexual crypsis"; his own book is the second Google hit for the phrase; he says all monogamous species have it, and first, which is the sort of thing it'd be nice to have references for). Humans tend to pair-bond, although anthropologists suggest the natural mode is separation 4-7 years after birth of a child, vs. marriage for life. As with almost all species, males can't be sure of the paternity of children unless the male has monopolized sexual access to the female. (Baker alleges this interacts with crypsis: if there's a short fertile period, the male can concentrate on guarding that time. If the female always might be fertile, the male has to guard all the time -- motivating staying together, frequent touching and sex -- but paradoxically such 'monogamy' can give the female more freedom to cheat, since the male can't be fully vigilant all the time.) Males risk less by having sex, being able to fuck and run, and have less reason to commit to raising a child; females have incentives to pickier, and sometimes to cuckold a mate, getting the lower status male who'll stay with her to raise the child of a more attractive male.

So what could happen with a couple of minor changes? Paternity testing lets a male (and everyone else) be nearly certain of who the father of a child is. Currently it's mostly used in cases of disputed child support, but suppose it were universal? That a newly born child got a free paternity test to verify the alleged paternity, or to find a database match for garnishing support? Or that a child got a free full DNA screening, with a side effect of being able to casually look for matches with the parental DNA -- or notice their absence? How would fathers behave if their doubts vanished? How would mothers behave if they knew they couldn't get away with cheating?

Child support laws, mandating support from a genetic father and former husbands unless explicitly contracted away (sperm donors) or trumped by a marriage (current laws, where a husband may be on the hook despite genetics) change the "hit and run" aspect of sex for males. Instead of having lots of sex and potentially leaving a trail of babies to be raised by others, the male is now on the hook for them all -- assuming, of course, that the male has any income to support them with. One effect could be inducing more 'female-like' behavior in males, more coyness and caution, at least for potentially reproductive sex. But there's another effect: some proponents of such laws probably thought they were supporting the nuclear family, punishing men for walking away from their obligations. The perhaps unanticipated effect is that the mother has less incentive to not walk away, being able to do so and still get financial support -- good, if that means being able to escape an abusive or exploitive relationship -- but perhaps not what the moralists had in mind. It also changes the female game somewhat: instead of the risks of a high-status mating and convincing another male to help raise the baby, she can mate with the high-status male and immediately garnish support from him. Which may also be easier if she can reliably identify her most fertile period (something still being worked on; though there's evidence that women are already more sexually active and more likely to stray during that period.)

Are any of these behavior changes actually happening? Baker doesn't discuss that, just puts them forth as logical consequences for the future -- 2030, say, or later for later technologies. And of course the effects of ubiquitous paternity testing would wait on law or society instituting such a thing, though he argues it's a natural complement to support laws. He does discuss the evidence regarding single-parenthood, saying what seems to matter most is resources, not the actual presence of parents or "role models". E.g. children of widows with adequate life insurance seem to do much better than children of single mothers due to divorce or lack of a father, and children of single fathers do a bit better than children of single mothers, with men tending to earn more being a simple explanation.

In-vitro fertilization is another game-changer if exploited to the hilt. It's thought of as a fertility technique, but if combined with frozen gametes and then sterilization, it can be the most side-effect free (apart from medical costs) birth control technique. Bank your gametes, tie your tubes, and go have sex as much as you want; when you actually want to reproduce, IVF will provide. Disadvantages: cost of medical intervention into a free natural process, risk of gametes getting lost or mixed up (or cost of redundant banking or more advanced fertility techniques). Advantages: free sex, being able to reproduce when older and wealthier but using one's young and healthiest gametes, being able to reproduce after major bodily accidents or some sterilizing diseases or inflammations. Today a 40-year old woman is on the edge of ferility, and using crappy eggs prone to Down's Syndrome, and her husband's sperm aren't the best either. But with frozen eggs she can use her best eggs, whenever, and not be slowed down by menopause -- a woman in her 60s has given birth thanks to IVF. Apparently the eggs age a lot faster than the womb.

Of course, there's the original purpose as well, fertility treatment; Baker writes about the various causes of male and female infertility, and how tech can increasingly get around that.

Once you have a massive network of banked gametes of both sexes, the prospects for single parents expand a lot. One might search the databases of sperm donors to find traits one wants. In an egalitarian development, one could search for egg donors as well -- there are a lot more eggs in a woman's ovaries than she'd ever be able to bring to term. Apparently sperm banks currently limit potential children of a donor to 10 or so, but potentially a high status person could have thousands or (women would need induced haploidy) millions of children. There's a lot more potential mate choice than whom you can have sex with, or even ever meet in your life; also potentially more rapid evolution, toward whatever traits give success in life. Being able to make haploid cells from skin cells would mean being able to 'mate' with anyone, no matter sex, ferility, or for that matter age. Gene therapy or embryo screening mean genetic incest could be safe, too.

Baker nods more than once to class issues -- the upper middle class will easily afford banking and tube-tying and IVF even with surrogacy if needed (or wanted); the lower class, at least in an American economy, might have to rely on traditional birth control and sex, and be the surrogate mothers for the well-off.

[Tangentially, Michael Pollan noticed a big gap between behavior and potential. Bill Gates could spend a billion and have 100 well-supported children -- $5 million for the mothers, $5 million for the kids to inherit -- and barely notice the loss. Our genes didn't anticipate birth control; they also didn't anticipate modern birth potential.]

I'd throw in a possible separation of sex and "sex-type" behavior. The average single parent would be more like a functional hermaphrodite, raising a kid and potentially siring others as well. 'male' behavior of spamming your genes around would become open to both sexes.

Reproductive cloning is certainly possible, though we haven't made it reliably safe for the child yet. Baker rightly notes that it's not actually that big a deal. A bigger deal which he doesn't talk about much is the Gattaca technique: make lots of embryos, screen them, pick the 'best'. This should be fairly doable even if direct genetic engieering or gene therapy is risky. It can also accelerate evolution, or at least local selection: instead of having at most a handful of children, who may die or have more grandchildren than each other, you can pick the best of 8 or 16 or more embryos. Unusual couples can avoid regression to the mean, by picking away from the mean of the distribution of their embryos.

So there's a possible future: one where everyone is potentially fertile with everyone else, but exactly only when they want to be; where some people try to be traditional couples, but there's far greater scope for unusual families and non-pair-bonding behavior; where successful women can have as many children as men, and both sexes converge on reproductively optimal behaviors; where evolution by selection can speed up greatly.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 6th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
In-vitro fertilization is another game-changer if exploited to the hilt. It's thought of as a fertility technique, but if combined with frozen gametes and then sterilization, it can be the most side-effect free (apart from medical costs) birth control technique. Bank your gametes, tie your tubes, and go have sex as much as you want; when you actually want to reproduce, IVF will provide.

I'd dearly love to see this become the norm - in addition to eliminating unintended pregnancy, this would firmly break the cognitive link between sex and reproduction and would thus almost certainly change social attitudes about sexuality directions that I would find very positive.

However, I actually expect the change to come from a different source. From what I've read about prenatal care, we're definitely heading down the road to uterine replicators. Once we get there, I can see a big advertising push to use them, with ads talking about the health and comfort problems with pregnancy. I'd guess that after a decade or two of such advertising, a large segment of the population will regard "natural" reproduction in approximately the same way that we now think of 19th century surgery.
Feb. 7th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
Yeah, from the college girl's perspective, it's interesting how we've been lengthening young adulthood as lifespans get longer... My friends and I didn't really start feeling like adults until 25-26. And serious relationships, for many of them, didn't start forming until after then. Major career changes are still happening, people are still getting settled down. And that's all fine...

Except the girls all have that deadline of 35 (if they want a good chance at a healthy kid), and that isn't getting lengthened any... and we're hitting our early 30's now. Some of my older friends and cousins I'm pretty sure are forgoing kids because they just didn't get everything set up in time.
Feb. 7th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
> lengthened

Huh, a google of [egg freezing] finds multiple clinics offering these services. You could go out and do it, if you had a few weeks and $10-12,000 to spare. (One clinic said about $9000, plus $1000 pre-screening, didn't mention storage costs; this says $12,750 for procedure and first year of storage, $600/year after that, $5500 for one IVF cycle.

Another webpage mentions the lifetime of frozen eggs isn't known, though younger women eggs have been vital for years; frozen sperm have decades, and I think embryos are fairly robust.

This has similar costs, embedded in much higher donor oocyte or surrogacy costs.

So you can do it, but it'll cost. Of course, if doing so nets you more years of professional income...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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