Monday, October 30, 2006


Today in science: Our Children as Luxury Goods

Often small news items have profound effects on our life which we do not realize until years later. Two items today on Drudge that will profoundly change the way humans live their lives.

-A male contraceptive that does not affect hormone levels.

It works by interfering with the way cells in the testes help nurture the development of mature sperm.

It blocks the normal bond which develops between immature sperm and tissue called Sertoli cells. This then stops the cells developing into mature sperm which are capable of fertilising an egg.

A study found that when given to rats, sperm production dropped to such low levels as to render them infertile.

However once the drug was stopped, the animals' sperm production soon returned to normal.

Lead researcher Chuen Yan Cheng of the Population Council in New York said this would be vital for any kind of pill to become acceptable to men.

"If you give the consumer the peace of mind that their fertility will be restored and that their hormones are not going to be affected, they may feel that it is safer to use this contraceptive," he said.

I know that other people are working on male contraceptives but those change hormone levels and I think no one wants that. Do we really need moody men?

-Liver tissue grown from stem cells gathered from umbilical cords. Stem cells from this source remove the ethical problems that embryonic stem cells, of course. This opens the door to reproducing organs in the laboratory. Organs that will be perfect matchs for the people who have their cord blood stored. (Attention parents, get that cord blood stored so your children can live to be 200!)

I have long believed that technology is the force driving changes in human society. I believe that the structure of human families will change remarkably in the not to distant future due to technological advances and to economics. For the past hundred years as agriculture has faded in importance in our society the role of children has changed also. From an economic point of view, children were a way of saving for the future when parents will be too frail to provide for themselves in the harsh pre-modern world. Now, there are a myriad of ways to save and life is much easier in a world when food is cheap and abundant.

So what is the future of children? They have become a luxury good. A consumable product that provides entertainment. I am not saying that having children is not also a way to ensure a more comfortable old age. Just that the child's role is much less important in that regard. This is obviously true in western society as birth rates and family sizes have fallen dramatically.

We have already seen the effects of this on families. Fewer children but more emphasis on perfecting children. Raising the importance of education and structured physical activity. Parents spending time on pushing ever younger children towards ever more complex goals. The sad part is the loss of childhood freetime spent in discovery to organized events. But we will have an increasing number of people who are smarter and more accomplished.

Where might this lead? The news about tissue grown in a laboratory connects to my vision in an obvious way. Priviledged people who have had a lot spent on their development will be able to afford artificial life extention. It will become as common as nose jobs. Our luxury children will live good lives well past anything we can imagine.

The male contraceptive is also important for another reason. For the past forty years the reproduction of our species has been in the hands of women. Prior to that men had set many of the rules. In fairness, I believe that our many religious and social taboos about reproduction were helpful to both sexes and society as a whole. There is no doubt that family life has changed dramatically since the introduction of female contraception. Well, now, men will have a say in when they want to become a parent.

Back to the economic analysis. Children will continue to be more of a luxury good than a way to save for old age. Our life spans will increase and the quality of our lives will increase. Men who do not want to have children will have an easy way to prevent them. What does this add up to? Wealthy people will have more children than poorer people and men will have control over the decision to reproduce so the nuclear family will make a comeback. In other words, back to the future.

Men are the weakest link in the family. We have traditionally been non-essential in the production of children beyond our capacity to provide an income. I am not saying that men are not necessary. We are and our removal from the family is evident in increased crime rates and poor adolescent behavior in general. Women can have children with a simple donation of sperm and are capable of bringing them to adulthood without a man in the picture. However, those children do suffer when they are not exposed to a decent male role model.

In the future, it will be wealthy men who control the decision to reproduce because they can afford children and because they will be able to deny their viable sperm to women. Women will not be able to find men who will father and, this is extremely important, support them outside of marriage. I know it is hard to believe but some women do look for wealthy men to father babies and support them for the effort of having a child. Men will be able to marry a woman and find out if she will be good mother material. More importantly, men will be able to refrain from having children until they are sure of the character of the woman they have married.

Children born out of wedlock will decline dramatically. Men have no interest in fathering bastards. They are removed from these childrens lives and reduced to the role of wallet. Divorce rates will fall. Women who divorce their husbands will not be able to find a man willing to marry or provide for them. Men will not spend their resources raising another man's child as the cost of raising a child increases. Single and divorced women will not be able to become pregnant in order to ensnare a man into providing for them. Neither will women want to marry men who are unable or unwilling to provide.

Wealthy men and women will have an interest in having children together. They will need each other to defray the costs of raising children while chasing the best education and social activities. Costs of time and money. Good men who are willing to have children will be at a premium. Assuming that the wage gap still exists, families with a male provider will have an economic advantage.

As you might be able to tell I am slightly optimistic about this future family. One possible danger is society becoming bifurcated between those that can afford to buy life extending techonologies and those that can't. Obviously, people who are living to be 150 will have many years to work and save and pass their inheritance on to their children. I do count on the fact that technologies always become cheaper and what was a luxury always becomes commonplace.

Please let me know what you think of my woolgathering.


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