Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Equalizer or Terminator?

This post first appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments, where I’m his guest 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 packs). Their romantic Others may be transgendered men, or Wraeththu-like bishonen 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.

19 Responses to “Equalizer or Terminator?”

  1. Paul Gilster says:

    Count me in agreement with your partner on this:

    “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.”

    Agreeing completely, I suspect I can now call myself a ‘snacho’ as well? I hope so.

  2. Athena says:

    Need you ask? (*smile*)

  3. Walden2 says:

    A 35,000 to 40,000 year-old 2-inch statue of a woman was
    recently found in Germany, perhaps the oldest human art
    yet known.

    The reaction in the news because it shows a pronounced
    female body has been just as “interesting” as the find itself:

    While our ancestors were clearly interested in sex as we
    are, I have the feeling they didn’t see it through the ages
    of Puritanical repression we have had to deal with.

  4. TransAlchemy says:

    First of all I wish to thank you for a wonderful write up.
    Second this is a reconstruction of my original comment which i posted on IEE only to get censored.

    Ok here we go…

    After reading Postgenderism:
    Beyond the Gender Binary

    A single sex society is not where it would be geared towards, the entire need for individual genders may get in the way of creating the posthumans, which are neither male nor female and in fact would shift gender simply based on its own desires. I did not and will not dive into why I personally believe this is a bad idea.

    Instead I will actually argue that while these technologies can become threatening to the current biological nature of humanity, they can also be used to potentially propel us towards possible methods to seed worlds with humanity.

    Artificial wombs opens up the realm for humanity to spread through the galaxy like a spore. The ability to send cryogenic sperm and eggs out into deep space with the possibility that they’ll one day potentially land on alien worlds and give birth to a completely untainted human colony brings me joy.

    At the same time no amount of words can express my concerns with all of this therefore I shall be focusing my attention to creating a video that targets the unexplored and explored possibilities with postgenderism.

    Once again thank you…

  5. Athena says:

    Carlos, I also believe we need to go beyond earth, for reasons I discuss in Making Aliens 1- 6 (the series starts here) and in Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite! However, I think that sending just frozen gametes will not be enough: the resulting children will need adults to love and socialize them. They will also need entire ecosystems to go with them unless the planets they reach are sufficiently earthlike.

  6. Walden2 says:

    In addition to Athena’s concerns about who would raise the
    starship babies and what kind of planets might exist where
    they could romp around in unfettered, what do you mean
    exactly by “untainted”?

    Being human beings, do you honestly think that the same
    problems and issues would not arise in this new colony just
    because they did not grow up on Earth around other humans?

    I continue to see more and more evidence than current
    humans are not really suited for space, especially on
    interstellar missions. Maybe I am underestimating the
    levels of human endurance and adaptability, but there are
    so many issues and expenses just to get even a few people
    into Earth orbit for a few weeks that trying to loft and maintain
    an entire colony of humans seems daunting at this point –
    and perhaps not very practical.

  7. Athena says:

    Larry, there’s no question we’re not suited for space: we didn’t evolve there, it’s intrinsically hostile to us. I agree it’s not practical for the short run. But what of the long run?

    Think of the Polynesian migrations. Have you ever seen a map of the Earth from the Pacific side? It looks alien and literally awesome: all ocean dotted by isolated strings of islands, New Zealand peeking at the left bottom corner (under the long white cloud that gave it its Maori name, Aotearoa).

    That’s the closest analogy to long-term crewed interstellar missions, especially given the state of Polynesian technology at the time they launched their outrigger canoes: travel in a hostile element with limited resources, without compasses or map to their destinations, with food mostly what they carried.

    Undoubtedly many perished. But the rest reached every single island on the Pacific, dispersed though they are.

  8. ZarPaulus says:

    I agree that we should travel to space, even if we’re not adapted to it. Genetic engineering might provide a solution to the problems of microgravity and cosmic radiation. In addition, some form of suspended animation or hibernation would help save on life support onboard interstellar ships (cryogenics might still be a viable option).

  9. Athena says:

    ZarPaulus, I assume you have read my entry on this topic, Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite! Also, if you’re curious and have time, visit the stories section of this site and read the Double Helix article.

    By the way, I agree with you about animal uplifting and about people needing challenges in order to thrive. Not necessarily suffering, but the drive to explore and accomplish. I believe that if we’re engineered to be “happy” (ignoring for the moment how and by whom this is defined), we will dwindle and die like the Miranda settlers in Serenity. I intend to discuss this topic soon.

  10. intrigued_scribe says:

    Brilliant essay, once more.

    With additional concepts this brings to mind, it incisively points out that just as with other advancements, artificial wombs seem just as likely to be a detriment as a benefit (even keeping well in mind the glimmers of optimism as underscored by the words of your partner, and I fully agree that he absolutely deserves the snacho title. :)).

    Genetic modifications made for the purpose of extensive space travel, especially in the ways they can relate to all-male/postgendered societies also provide a great deal of food for thought. Thank you for sharing this.

  11. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the essay, Heather! It was really a gedanken-experiment. Most people discuss parthenogenesis and men being made redundant. But I think other outcomes are equally possible, especially given the power inequality between the genders that still prevails on earth. On the more general note of modifications, it’s something that we cannot avoid if we ever become serious spacefarers — but it will be very complicated on all levels, as we all agree.

  12. TransAlchemy says:

    I want to kind of put a tad spin on this conversation.

    The goal is to spread our species through the galaxy and maybe one day the universe assuming we don’t already exist out there.

    What ive seen so far when we talk about how we may achieve this goal is we apply our current understanding of space and time giving very little thought to what may be possible in this field, so when we view the astronomical amount of distance to just the nearest star we look at our biology and say no way. Yet as we explore the possibilities we seem to just be focusing on the human augmentations that would be needed as the only means to this end.

    I guess what im saying is that just like we theorize what we would turn into we must also theorize how new technologies may effect our concept of space travel.

    For all we know all of our physics may be archaic and the notion of traveling through space and time will be equivalent to driving to your friends house simply to tell them something when you could have used a phone.

    Besides going the path of augmenting ourselves to be able to travel through space and time would only mean that when we finally get to a new planet we would no longer be human.

    Sending the transhumanist out into space in search of new worlds does not reduce the existential risk for the humans, unless the transhumanist decide to seed the galaxy with us.

    I find that scenario unlikely considering there is very motive for a super intelligent species to create “dumb” creatures like us.

  13. Athena says:

    Actually, spacecraft propulsion has been a topic of non-stop heated discussion since the first launch: from extensions of present technologies to solar sails, Bussard ramjets, and such exotics as Alcubierre warp drives and stable wormholes. Some may eventually become technologically feasible; others (FTL, wormholes) may be intrinsically impossible, just like aspects of transhumanism.

    After reading through much of this literature, I decided that the biological side was lacking in the equation. So I’ve been exploring that angle and leaving the other side largely to the engineers, with occasional nudges to keep them grounded. My friend Paul Gilster has a great site, Centauri Dreams, where he investigates the topic along with discoveries in the other terms of the Drake Equation.

    I agree that if modified humans get to go to the stars, we (the progenitors) may not make it, a point I raise in several of my essays. Eric the Navigator never set foot on the galleys he launched. But the Portuguese fleet girded the globe, raw imperialists though they were. If our descendants get to go, I will count that as success enough. What will happen to them will be out of our hands, as is the case with all children.

    I saw your tranhumanist video, by the way. Well done, though the narrator could use more tone modulation!

  14. Suzy says:

    Why human birth is so difficult: The Evolution of Human Birth; Human Birthing Process – A Scar of Evolution? – makes artificial wombs all the more appealing! It’s the most dangerous ordeal a woman can endure.

  15. Athena says:

    You’re right, Suzanne. The upright walking stance combined with large brain size brought unique problems to humans. Some (most prominently Sarah Blaffer Hrdy) propose that this difficulty favored cooperative child-rearing, which was the first major impetus to human cultural development, rather than the more commonly promoted “Tarzanist” causes (hunting, war).

  16. Roko says:

    “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 bishonen boys in a revival of the erastes/eromenos scheme of Periclean Athens.”

    Can I offer a male opinion on this? Living in a society without women would be almost worse than death. No Liv Tyler?! Oh No!

  17. Athena says:

    Of course most men would miss women. It would be like removing the scaffolding from a building (to say nothing of attention and affection freebies or picking up socks)! Treating women well is another story. So be snacho, or we women may all board that starship!

  18. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    Fascinating essay! Very balanced and you raise some issues I wouldn’t have thought of. Plus I’m quite cheered by the general male response to your question.

    I’m also cautioned by some of the very plausible scenarios you mentioned. Real food for thought here. I’ll need to masticate upon it for a bit…


  19. Athena says:

    I’m happy it elicited thoughts! And I was also cheered by the male responses… up to a point.