Tag Archives: famine

When Sex Is Divorced From Reproduction: The Possibilities And Implications

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Relatively speaking, it wasn’t that long ago in humanity’s history when finding food was a matter of survival. It wasn’t as simple as walking into the nearest grocery store and buying whatever was on sale. Individuals, governments, and societies dedicated a good chunk of their time and energy into securing a stable food source. Those who didn’t were usually the first victims of the next famine.

These days, getting a meal is less about survival and more about logistics. Thanks to major advances in agricultural science, including those of the late Norman Borlaug, we have so much abundant food that overeating is now a bigger problem than famine. Hunger is still a major issue for certain parts of the world, but it’s more a logistical issue than a resource issue.

Once food was divorced from famine and survival, it changed the way society approached it. Most people don’t even think about where they’re going to get their next meal. Their main concern is whether it’ll be a tasty meal.

With this critical need met, we can focus more time and energy on other matters. Even before science gave us abundant food, sex and reproduction was usually our second most pressing focus. It’s the other powerful drive that unites us all as a species. As a result, it’s subject to all sorts of taboos and has been central to multiple revolutions.

There’s no question that technology has impacted sexuality every bit as much as it impacted food production. Even advances unrelated to sex, especially anti-biotics, affected various attitudes and norms. However, even with these advances, sex maintains much of its primary function in that it’s still necessary for reproduction.

With that in mind, what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens to sex when it’s completely divorced from reproduction?

This isn’t another speculative thought experiment. This process is already unfolding. I would argue that it started on July 25, 1978 when the first baby was born from in vitro fertilization. Since then, over 8 million babies have been born through this technology. That is not a trivial number when we’re dealing with human lives.

Just take a step back to appreciate the implications of these lives. They were all conceived and birthed without sex. In centuries past, this was grounds for a miracle that could serve as a basis for a major religion. These days, it’s so routine that it never makes the news. Most people don’t think about it. It helps that these people are just as healthy and prosperous as those who were conceived with sex.

In the near future, this could change as well. Late last year, our technology went a step further beyond conceiving babies through in vitro fertilization with the birth of the first genetically edited babies in China. Now, it’s not just normal babies being born through this technology. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, children born without sex could be healthier and stronger than those conceived through sex.

Again, that is not a trivial detail. It’s one thing for technology to simply match a natural process, especially one as critical as human reproduction. Once it starts doing it better than nature, then that’s a huge paradigm shift. It might even be a point of no return. Having babies through sex is still a thing, but it’s no longer the most effective way to have healthy, strong children.

While this has generated plenty of controversy around topics like designer babies, there hasn’t been as much discussion about what this means for sex. If sex is no longer the primary method for reproduction, or the safest for that matter, what happens to our society? What happens to centuries of taboos, attitudes, traditions, and gender roles?

It’s difficult to speculate, but some have tried. In a recent article with the BBC, author Henry T. Greely laid out a general timeline. It doesn’t rely entirely on huge leaps in reproductive technology. It simply follows the trends that began with in vitro fertilization. In the interview, these are just a few thoughts he shared.

In 20 to 40 years, most people all over the world with good health coverage will choose to conceive in a lab. Like most things, there will be a fair amount of visceral negative reaction initially, but as time goes on and kids prove not to have two heads and a tail, the public will come not only to tolerate but to prefer reproducing non-sexually.

From a logistic and public health standpoint, this makes sense. Any healthy and prosperous society would want to promote the birth of healthy children in a manner that preserves the health of the mother. With technology like in vitro and CRISPR, it might very well be preferable because it means fewer diseases, lower health care costs, and fewer burdens on parents.

That doesn’t even begin to factor in the impact of more advanced reproductive technologies. With advances like artificial wombs in development, sex wouldn’t just be divorced from reproduction. Reproduction might not require any intimate connection whatsoever. At that point, sex for reproduction is akin to drinking unpasteurized milk.

Will people still have sex at that point? I believe they will. Unless we radically change our bodies all at once, the hardware for sex will still be present. The drive to do it will still be there as well, although some might opt to turn it off if that were an option. Regardless of any lingering attitudes and taboos, there’s no getting around it. Sex still feels good. It’s still a profoundly intimate act with many health benefits.

How people go about it will likely change. A great many taboos about sex stem from its role in reproduction. Much of the stigma surrounding promiscuity and traditional gender roles have a basis in highlighting the importance of sex in the propagation of our society and species. If are reckless about it, then that can spread disease, destabilize families, and create unhealthy environments for children.

Going back to the parallels with food, the same logic was once used to discourage gluttony. For much of human history, we had to be careful with how we consumed our food. If people consumed too much and were reckless with our eating habits, then they were ill-prepared for the next famine that inevitably came.

While sex and reproduction are still very different from consuming food, the influence of technology had a major impact on collective attitudes. We don’t look at people who overeat the same way we look at people who have lots of sex. Both may still draw scorn, but few will worry for the survival of the future of their community if a handful of people overeat.

At the moment, there are very real concerns surrounding falling birth rates and people having less sex than ever before. In some countries, the low birth rates are seen as an outright crisis that has also fueled ongoing debates surrounding immigration. Crisis or not, this situation is adding more urgency to the development of reproductive technologies. That, along with the decline in sex, could hasten this pending divorce.

Once it’s finalized, what form will sex take? It could simply become an act of intimacy or recreation. Humans might ultimately treat it the same way Bonobo monkeys treat it. It’s just an intimate activity that people do. Reproduction never even enters the conversation. People save that for when they want to design their baby.

It could also gain another purpose entirely. Maybe sex becomes less an act of intimacy and more an elaborate handshake, of sorts. It could be seen as a way of establishing trust or differentiating between casual acquaintances and close friends. In that world, friends with benefits are just friends. The benefits are implied by the friendship.

There’s also the very real possibility that people will just lose interest in sex. If there’s no reason to do it and it has no bearing on the growth of a society, then it just might be an afterthought. People might still do it, but those who do would be like the people who still have their own gardens in the backyard. It’s a quaint echo of our past that most have moved past.

These are possibilities. For now, there are no inevitabilities with respect to how we’ll approach sex once it’s no longer necessary for reproduction. It’ll likely be several decades before reproductive technology gets to a point where it’s preferable to sex, both for individuals and societies at large. Until then, this lengthy divorce is already at the early stages. It’s just a matter of how messy it’ll get in the coming years.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, futurism, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, Second Sexual Revolution, sex in society, sexuality, Sexy Future, technology

Overpopulation, The Black Death, And Why Thanos Is WRONG

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We’re living in a golden age, of sorts. If you’re fan of comic books, superhero movies, and complex villains, you’ve got a lot to appreciate. Between the emergence of complex villains like Walter White and the dominance of superhero movies at the box office, “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” being the latest, these are amazing times indeed.

It wasn’t that long ago that villains were barely distinguishable from a well-designed speed bump. Sure, there were memorable villains, but unless they came from the mind of George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola, they weren’t that memorable. They only ever existed to make the hero more heroic.

That all changed when Health Ledger raised the bar as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” That Oscar-winning performance, more than anything, proved that villains could be both compelling and have motivations that go beyond pissing off the hero. More recently, Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” has set a new standard that would make the Joker’s grin even wider.

As wonderful a time this is for fans of heroes and villains, alike, that added complexity comes with a few uncomfortable side-effects. In order for a villain to be compelling, they have to have some kind of motivation beyond just wanting to kill the hero. They have to have a goal or desire that ordinary, non-villainous people can understand and empathize with.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was an agent of death and chaos, but he found a way to make that seem right in the twisted, crime-ridden world of Batman. Thanos did the same with “Avengers: Infinity War.” What he did was on a much bigger scale than the Joker, but why he did it is actually part of what made him so menacing.

He didn’t want to wipe out half of all life in the universe out of sadism, hatred, or vengeance either. He didn’t even do it for the same reason he did it in the comics, which involved him falling in love with the female personification of death. I swear I’m not making that up. It’s one of those rare occasions that it’s good that the movie didn’t follow the comics too closely.

As the action-packed spectacle plays out in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Thanos goes out of his way to justify what he’s doing. It’s monstrous, brutal, and outright genocidal. At the same time, however, he really thinks he’s doing the right thing. He genuinely believes that the universe will benefit more than it loses by killing half of all life.

The way he goes about justifying such an atrocity is part of what makes “Avengers: Infinity War” such an incredible movie, as I made abundantly clear in my review. His motivations are presented so well that it’s hard not to ask the disturbing, yet pertinent question. Is Thanos right? Even if it’s only in part, is there some twisted merit to culling an entire population at that scale?

They’re deplorable questions with even more deplorable answers. Nobody who isn’t openly pro-genocide can condone Thanos’ methods. Even so, it’s a question that’s hard to leave unanswered. Even if that question itself disgusts us, it’s still one worth asking.

With that in mind, I’m going to make a concerted effort to answer it. Moreover, I’m going to try and answer in a way that doesn’t skew too heavily towards heroic or villainous biases. I’m just going to try and assess the merits of Thanos’ idea that culling life on a massive scale is necessary to save it in the long run.

The answer for such a daunting question is not simple, but it’s not as complex as those posed by other villains like the Joker, Baron Zemo, or Erik Killmonger. There’s a short and a long answer. To start, here’s the short answer to that daunting question.

Thanos is wrong, even if his intentions are right.

I think most sane people would agree with that. “Avengers: Infinity War” did an excellent job of giving context to Thanos’ action. He believed overpopulation on his home world, Titan, would destroy it. He turned out to be right. He saw, with his own eyes, his entire world destroy itself. In terms of raw numbers, he’s not wrong. Half a world is still better than no world.

There’s even some real-world parallels. Granted, they rely on immense amounts of suffering, but the implications are hard to ignore. It didn’t happen with the aid of infinity gems or talking raccoons though. It happened through an aptly named period called the Black Death, a period in history that I’m sure would fill Thanos with glee.

Most people with a passing familiarity of history know what happened during the Black Death. A wave of disease, mostly in the form of Bubonic Plague, ravaged Eurasia. It was so devastating that it’s estimated to have killed between 50 and 200 million people. In some cities, more than half the population died over a five-year span. Even by Thanos standards, that’s pretty brutal.

At the same time, though, the consequences of the Black Death had a few silver linings. Those lucky enough to survive inherited a world in which the flaws of the previous order had been shattered. Thanks to the Black Death, the old feudal order ended. A new middle class emerged. Old traditions and dogmas that helped spread the disease collapsed. From the ashes of that destruction, a stronger, healthier society emerged.

Thanos himself pointed that out in “Avengers: Infinity War” at one point. A massive onslaught of random, chaotic death has a way of getting society to reorganize itself. That kind of devastation makes it much harder to cling to the old order, especially if it relies on a mass of disease-prone peasants to do hard-labor for subsistence resources at best.

That’s the benefit Thanos sees. That’s also the danger that influential scholars like Thomas Malthus saw when he noted the dangers of overpopulation. Unlike Thanos, though, Malthus didn’t favor unleashing waves of death. He simply favored encouraging people to restrain themselves from having too many children that they couldn’t sustain. There was no need for an Infinity Gauntlet.

Both Thanos and Malthus saw overpopulation and strained resources as a problem, one that has to be solved by either restraint or mass death. However, the crux of their philosophy still relies on a series of key assumptions that are inherently flawed. This leads directly to the longer answer to that distressing question I posed earlier.

Thanos is wrong because his sample size is too small and justifying his actions requires assumptions that are demonstrably false.

I don’t think the answer needs to be that long, but it’s worth further elaboration. Not long ago, I cited a man named Dr. Norman Borlaug, a man who is basically the anti-Thanos. Rather than using death to fight hunger, he channeled the power of science, compassion, and good old grit to create new tools to improve food production, thereby feeding a growing population.

It’s worth noting that while Dr. Borlaug was hard at work, there were a lot of doomsayers out there like Thanos, warning that a growing population would lead to war, starvation, and conflict. Paul R. Ehrlich was probably the most famous with his book, “The Population Bomb,” which might as well have been written by Thanos.

Unlike Thanos, though, Dr. Borlaug and men like him helped prove that idea dead wrong. Ehrlich, Malthus, and Thanos all worked under the same flawed assumption. The carrying capacity of the world was finite. Once life approached that finite limit, it would lead to conflict that included starvation and war.

In the case of a species that could make weapons, like humans, that conflict could potentially destroy the entire world. That’s what happened to Thanos’ world. It almost happened to humanity on more than one occasion. However, there’s a fundamental flaw in that assumption. It’s the idea that humanity, or some other advanced species, is incapable of finding ways to transcending natural limits.

Part of what sets humans apart from other animals, who are very much at the mercy of a land’s carrying capacity, is their ability to make tools and modify the environment to improve survival and enhance resource management. As flawed as humans are, that’s still one of humanity’s greatest strengths. It’s part of what has helped us become the dominant species on this planet.

The human race, especially with the rise of modern civilization, has created amazing new tools that have helped us transcend the limits that once ravaged our species. Old limits like famine, disease, and even large-scale war have either been eliminated or mitigated. Even as our population increases, thereby straining our resources, we keep creating new tools that help us progress.

For Thanos to be right, humans and other alien species have to be incapable of making such tools. To some extent, Dr. Norman Borlaug proved Thanos wrong before Thanos was even created by Jim Starlin in 1973 . By then, Dr. Borlaug had already received a Nobel Prize for his work in helping to increase food production in places vulnerable to famine.

Maybe Thanos’ people never had a Dr. Borlaug to help improve their ability to prosper. From his perspective, someone like that is impossible. He goes onto assume that if it’s impossible on his world, then it’s impossible on every other world in the universe. It’s a flawed assumption, a sample size fallacy mixed with a faulty generalization fallacy.

Like a true villain, though, Thanos also works under the assumption that his world, Titan, is somehow representative of all worlds. It’s inherently egotistical, something that a lot of villains deal with. From Thanos’ perspective, though, he’s still doing what he thinks is right. He can’t possibly imagine that any other world could escape the fate of his.

There’s one more element he and other doomsayers like him have to assume that’s impossible to know. It’s also an element that undercuts many of the benefits that devastating events like The Black Death might foster. Even if killing half a population results in short-term benefits, those benefits are only justified if those killed weren’t going to aid in the progress of a society.

Think back to all those who died in The Black Death. Think back to those who’ve died in other terrible atrocities. How many of those dead might have gone onto become a Leonardo Di Vinci, a Martin Luthor King Jr., or a Nikola Tesla? Sure, there might have been a few nasty personalities mixed in, but they’re far less common than those with ideas, ambitions, and dreams.

It’s another significant assumption, believing that some of those lost in the atrocity might have gone onto solve the problems that Thanos foresaw. However, the fact that it’s every bit as possible as the contrary is further proof that Thanos’ logic, and that of other population doomsayers, is inherently flawed.

While I doubt these arguments would convince Thanos he’s wrong, seeing how he is still a villain and has a reputation for being mad, they’re still worth scrutinizing. Even if it’s possible to understand and even sympathize with Thanos to some extent, it’s refreshing to remind ourselves how flawed his assumptions are and how wrong he is in the grand scheme of things.

If nothing else, it reminds us why we should keep cheering the Avengers on when they take on Thanos again in “Avengers 4.” It’ll make that moment when they finally triumph that much more satisfying.

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A Tribute To Dr. Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

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Last year, I dedicated two days to honoring two unique individuals who literally saved the world. Those individuals were Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov. Between the two of them, they literally held the fate of the human race in their hands at one point. Their ability to rise to the occasion and make the right decisions are why we’re still alive and the world isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I strongly believe that people like that deserve recognition for doing the right thing during critical moments in our history. They embody a unique aspect of the human spirit that is worth honoring. Today, I’d like to honor another and like Petrov and Arkhipov, most people probably don’t know the name of the man I’m about to praise.

His name is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was born on, March 25, 1914. He’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist from Iowa and what he did to earn that prize may very well be the greatest over-achievement in history. That’s because what he did for humanity cannot be overstated.

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To understand why, you need only recall the last meal you had. Whether it was a fully-cooked turkey or a frozen burrito, chances are Dr. Borlaug is partly responsible for making that food possible. That’s because Dr. Borlaug was an instrumental figure in the Green Revolution, a culmination of various scientific advances that led to a massive boost in crop yields.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you need only take a cursory glance at history to see the devastation that famine has inflicted on our species. It has defeated armies, destroyed empires, and ended dynasties. On top of that, it does so through the prolonged torture that is starvation. No matter the time, place, or people, the pain of starvation hits everyone hard.

Dr. Borlaug fought that and fought it better than anyone in history, modern or otherwise. Do you remember the last time your entire community endured famine? It’s doubtful. Mass famines have been largely eliminated in modern societies. Those that use the techniques and advances that Dr. Borlaug developed enjoy a level of abundance that’s unprecedented in history.

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Sure, there are times when it’s difficult to get food to certain areas due to war, disasters, or just plain incompetence, but the inability to actually produce that food is no longer an issue, so much so that now that most of the food-related problems we face involving having too much of it. Sometimes we eat too much. Sometimes we throw too much away. It’s still a problem, but it beats the hell out of famine.

However, Dr. Borlaug did more than just sit in a lab and do science. This man actually went out into the world, got his hands dirty, and fought famine with the ferocity of a young Mike Tyson on crack. Armed with a potent blend of science and humanitarian spirit, the old forces of famine didn’t stand a chance.

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He started off as a microbiologist working for DuPont, crafting new pesticides and preservatives for food. Regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies like DuPont, that’s an entirely noble endeavor, protecting and preserving food. That just wasn’t enough for Dr. Borlaug. You don’t win a Nobel Prize just by thinking small.

First, he traveled to Mexico, a place that had been hit hard by major crop losses in the late 30s and early 40s. While there, Dr. Borlaug helped develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. That didn’t just make up for the losses. It more than quintupled the overall harvest by 1944.

Helping Mexico stave off crop failures was an accomplishment in and of itself, but Dr. Borlaug was just getting warmed up. In the early 1960s, he moved to India, which happened to be in the middle of a major drought, and helped them increase their yields by orders of magnitude. If that weren’t impressive enough, he did all that while in the middle of a war with Pakistan. Not one to take sides, he even helped them too.

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By the late 1960s, both India and Pakistan were self-sufficient in terms of wheat production. At that point, the Nobel committee finally took notice of Dr. Borlaug’s greatness and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Short of Tom Brady’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has never been a more obvious choice.

Unlike some recipients, there’s no question that Dr. Borlaug’s work contributed to furthering peace in this chaotic world. The man himself said it best.

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Even after getting that prize, he just kept raising the bar impossibly high. In the mid-80s while Africa endured a terrible famine due to severe drought, Dr. Borlaug came out of retirement to help the governments fix a broken agricultural system. Just as he’d done before, his techniques and know-how helped crop yields soar once more.

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When considering just how much he was able to improve agricultural output and how hard he worked to promote these techniques, it has been estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved over a billion lives through his work. That’s not a typo. This man, without superpowers or help from aliens, saved a billion lives by helping mankind produce abundant food.

Unlike Petrov or Arkhipov, Dr. Borlaug wasn’t just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. He worked hard for years on end, researching and cooperating with others to increase food production so that future generations need not starve like so many others before us. Rather than simply prevent ourselves from self-destruction, he gave us the means of prosperity.

I know everyone has a different definition for hero, especially someone who reads as many superhero comics as I do. However, such a title is almost lacking for a man like Dr. Borlaug. There aren’t many people who can honestly say their efforts saved billions of lives, present and future alike. Dr. Borlaug could make that claim right up until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.

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That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even Superman has plenty of villains to deal with and if Dr. Borlaug had a Lex Luthor in his life, it was those who believed that his advances were unnatural and potentially damaging to the environment. Even today, his reputation among environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts is mixed at best.

Most of those critics, however, are not poor farmers in third-world countries who are just one crop failure away from starvation. Many are affluent enough to afford the overpriced asparagus at Whole Foods. They’ll probably never know or appreciate the abundance that Dr. Borlaug’s work has given them and how many lives are saved every day because of it.

Then, there were doom-sayers like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote a best-seller in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” that said that the rapid growth of the human population was unsustainable. He claimed that there was simply no way food production could keep up, which would result in massive war or unprecedented famine. Even by 1960s standards, this was pretty scary stuff.

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Rather than despair, Dr. Borlaug just kept on working so that we did have enough food. With all due respect to Mr. Ehrlich, his predictions failed because men like Norman Borlaug confronted these problems rather than whined about it. That’s not just heroic. That’s an important lesson that’s more critical now than it has ever been.

Today, even without Dr. Borlaug among us, we face many challenges including war, disease, poverty, and unskippable video ads. However, as daunting as they may be, we can take comfort in the knowledge that more people than at any point in history need not do so on an empty stomach.

I’ve often commented on how survival and reproduction are the two key drives for humanity. While I tend to focus heavily on the latter, I don’t often have to mention the survival part because Norman Borlaug made that unnecessary. It’s because of this man’s work that we have more food than we’ve ever had before in our history.

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His spirit lives on in the work of other researchers looking to further improve our food production. From vertical farming to in vitro meats, the promise of abundant food and full stomachs will continue as our population keeps growing.

More than anything else, though, Norman Borlaug embodied a humanitarian spirit that helped improve the human condition for all. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world is better because of him. So at some point tomorrow, March 25, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of a man whose name you probably didn’t know before now.

The next time you eat and go to bed with a full stomach, be sure to thank Dr. Borlaug for his contributions to the world. Most importantly, honor the humanitarian spirit he embodied. That’s how we’re going to make a more peaceful world.

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