Systems come back to equilibrium (eventually)

By Razib Khan | January 5, 2012 12:51 pm

The daughter’s return: A glimmer of hope in the sad tale of sex-selective abortion in India:

Now, however, comes evidence that India may in fact be succeeding. In a pair of articles in the Indian Express, Surjit Bhalla, an economist, and Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist, use a different set of figures to get a different result. On the basis of the national sample surveys (NSS), they calculate that India’s sex ratio at birth swung from 924 females per 1,000 males in 2004-05 to 977 in 2011, a stunning turnaround in favour of girls.


I hear about the problem of sex bias through selection (either abortion or greater neglect of female babies) a lot in the press. There are a few issues which the mainstream seems rather ignorant of, both theoretical and empirical. First, there is the Trivers–Willard hypothesis. It offers a strong theoretical rational for why high status lineages are going to exhibit a preference for males over females. It also is a reason to expect a shift toward male preference with economic development and elite emulation! Second, South Korea is not the only East Asian nation to switch from male to female preference of late. Japan has also done so, though nearly 15 years earlier. The fact that South Korea has followed the same social and economic track as Japan is highly suggestive that this is not a coincidence.

The issue of sex-selection is a big one. But before we talk about it I wish we could integrate the best theoretical models and empirical evidence. As it is, I hear constant “surprise” that economic development many lead to sex-selection, because of the prejudices that many have that economic wealth leads to greater sexual egalitarianism. In the long run this may be true, but as they say, in the long run we’re all dead.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
  • http://www.rationalpastime.com/ J-Doug

    “as they say, in the long run we’re all dead…”

    “they” are John Maynard Keynes, FYI.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, no shit. but thanks for behaving as if wikiquote didn’t exist :-)

  • melqart

    Keynes had a great quip and loads of people don’t know it’s his, nor that it’s even someone’s quote instead of just some trite phrase. Attribution is a good thing.

    I had often wondered why these sorts of parental preferences would exist, but it only took “high status lineages” to make me slap my head and say d’oh. I’m going to follow the link, but I think I could sketch the hypothesis without reading it. Funny how AFTER you get a hint, some things seem like they should have been obvious all along. Maybe I’m just daft.

  • Alam

    Besides the GDP per person, do we see some correlation with bride price or dowry?

  • Grey

    It seems to me the critical factor since farming began is that most human mating decisions have been made by the family of the individuals concerned. If so wouldn’t the most likely models be those drawn from stock-breeding rather the natural world?

    In stock-breeding you generally only need to keep a few males for breeding purposes and the rest are culled – why wouldn’t that be the case with family arranged marriages within a lineage – extra protection or labour might be a couple of possibilities?

    I wonder if there’s a case where the normal sex ratios of a bred animal is the opposite way round e.g. a draught animal where the males can pull more so the breeders produce excess males and only a replacement number of females?

    If so then things like tractors or office work might change the scales.

  • Jacob Roberson

    Razib Khan Says:
    #1, no shit. but thanks for behaving as if wikiquote didn’t exist

    He’s probably old, my pre-internet habits make me do this too. Are you not old? Maybe that’s the problem.

  • Jacob Roberson

    More seriously: First, there is the Trivers–Willard hypothesis. It offers a strong theoretical rational for why high status lineages are going to exhibit a preference for males over females.

    What mechanism are you thinking of? Automatically in the womb or parental planning? My first thought is “This is planned,” but then I’m forgetting the shape of disparity in India – the bottom dips deep into infant mortality territory. American disparity is huger but the bottom is higher.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, infanticide (now abortion).

  • Tom Bri

    #5 Grey, nowhere I know of is sex selection in working animals skewed towards males. Females are always valued over males, because the # of females is the limiting factor in increasing the herd. For farmers, that means more potential animals to sell. Besides, male draft animals are typically gelded, so they wouldn’t pass on the genes that might skew towards a higher male ratio. It would have to be through an indirect route, superior fathers or brothers which were kept intact for breeding. Anyway, females make good work animals as they are safer than intact males to work with.

    Racehorses are a possible exception, males run faster than females on average, so top male runners are highly valued, but average male runners have very little value.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    do we see some correlation with bride price or dowry?

    dowry is most common in obligate monogamous societies with social stratification. this results in a strong “demand” for high status males, and people “bid” over them. the spread of dowry has occurred in india from high castes across society over the 20th century. earlier on british record brideprice for tribal/low caste groups. brideprice is also found in societies where polygyny is common, so high status males can simply ‘buy’ more and more females.

    It seems to me the critical factor since farming began is that most human mating decisions have been made by the family of the individuals concerned. If so wouldn’t the most likely models be those drawn from stock-breeding rather the natural world?

    this depends. if you look at the marriage practices in peasant europe or in much of the low status third world the ‘arranged’ aspect is much less complicated than you’d think. you just marry who is around and feasible. the complexity of arranged marriages and all their social nuances are features of elite lineages where there’s a lot of community property at stake. this tendency has spread through many societies through elite emulation (e.g., in india). from what i recall in japan arranged marriage is most common today among wealthy aristocratic families, which is probably the pre-modern norm.

  • Tom Bri

    re Japan, life is pretty shitty for the average man there, and no too bad for the ladies. Might make a difference, if one were deciding whether to keep or to kill.

  • Jacob Roberson

    Quirk to throw in:
    -Higher calories for pregnant mothers
    —if girl -> taller grandkids
    —if boy -> not helpful
    -Lower calories for peri-adolescents
    —if girl -> shorter grandchildren
    —if boy -> taller grandchildren

    Gets me thinking about the interaction between this and investment/divestment, besides “whether” is there a “when” pattern?

  • Alam

    #10

    What I meant to ask is that if girls r getting fewer and fewer in a society, then bride price should go up, and dowry should go down. Does it not happen this way, in some polygamous countries in Africa (Kenya), and monogamous societies in India? I vaguely remember reading something about it, but with no real data. The Economist article has not mentioned this.

    Maybe, more than GDP per person, this dowry/brideprice variation might be affecting the girls/boys ratio in society?

  • free thinker

    Nothing enhances the status of women more than a shortage of them.

  • Tom Bri

    As of ten years ago or so, arranged marriages were still around 25% of all marriages, according the newspapers there. I knew several attractive young women who went that route, to the general disgust of all us single males…I didn’t hang out in a particularly high-status bunch.

  • Paul Rain

    free thinker: Well, it certainly enhances their value to their owners. I don’t know that it neccessarily follows that they get to own themselves and control that value.

  • John Emerson

    Systems come back to equilibrium:

    This is a quibble unrelated to the topic, but sometimes systems return to equilibrium and sometimes they break down and are replaced by new, different systems.

    In this case it looks like it really was a return to equilibrium, since the selection of males left a lot of families stuck with sons who could never marry and put a premium on daughters. Even though the discrepancy is only .924/1 , the bidding war at the margin would raise the market value of all girls.

    But one of the many problems with contemporary economics is that equilibrium and normal distributions are simply assumed. “General equilibrium” has been disproven for a long time, but it’s still used (with the help of kludges and shims and adapters of various sorts.)

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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