Prefer Fem Babes?

People often talk as if they are extremely concerned about health, and would give up a great deal of everything else to get just a bit more health.  “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” This sort of justification is often offered for spending vast sums on apparently ineffective end-of-life medicine.

So I think it important to ponder our strong disinterest in big ways we could improve health.  For example, women very consistently live longer than men.  In the US, Australia, Japan, Spain, etc. they live 4-7 years longer; studies that control for many other factors typically find males dying about twice as often.

Yet we see almost no interest in preferring female children on the basis that they will live longer.  We see parents prefer to gender balance their kids, and in some cultures parents prefer males.  Do parents not care how long their kids live, do they think male lives are worth more per year, to compensate for fewer years, or what?

See also Bryan on gender imbalances less harmful than supposed.

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  • Castration is supposed to extend life. We don’t see a whole lot of interest in that.

  • Cabpainter

    In the interests of egalitarianism, some cultures preferentially abort baby girls, that way life expectancy at conception is closer to even for both genders.

  • Psychohistorian

    I do believe the title should be “Fem Babes” or “Fem Babies;” I thought you were talking about birth month when I first saw it.

    The most likely explanation is, “That just doesn’t occur to people,” or maybe “most people think of infant gender as exogenous.” A close second is, “Necessary interventions are perceived as being cost ineffective” – i.e. aborting male embryos would not be worthwhile, and investment in pre-implantation screening would be better spent on the kid’s college fund.

    There are a couple of factors that may mitigate the point overall, however. First, one could argue men have it better in modern society, so what if they don’t live as long? (I’m not advocating this position.)

    Second, those life expectancies are probably at birth. Life expectancy at, say, age 18 is probably rather similar. Since people don’t seriously consider their kid dying young (or don’t care as much if the kid dies in infancy), that may explain things.

    Third, it’s possible that families prefer male children, so even if Marginal Utility Child (Child is male) is lower than MUC(Child is female), MUFamily(child is male) may more than compensate.

    Fourth, it might be a collective action issue. If everyone took the view, “Let’s have female kids!” that generation would suffer pretty badly from a gender imbalance. Thus, at least in the West, any strong gender-preference meme is defeated by other social-stability/values memes.

    I might add that, while I’m generally quite critical here, I rather liked this post, and have rather liked a number of recent posts. The signaling purpose of this statement is left as an exercise to the reader.

    • bcg

      The signaling purpose of “The signaling purpose…exercise to the reader” is more interesting!

  • Grant

    Most parents probably don’t think about it. Weighing the worth of a male vs. female child isn’t something our most intelligent academics can do, let alone a normal pair of parents.

  • Ben

    Is there a mechanism for influencing your child’s gender? Or are you just suggesting parents should be happier when they have a daughter, on the basis that their new child will on average live 4-7 years longer? (assuming that technological development over the next 80+ years don’t change gender life-expectancy imbalances)

  • Jedermann

    To the extent that there is a preference for males this appears to be a preference for “block-headed risk taking behaviour” over longevity (which is a preference for health signalling rather than health per se?):

    “The ratio of male to female mortality, in the United States, starts to diverge early in life, and by the time one has hit late teenage and early twenties, the ratio of male to female mortality is climbing rather strikingly. This is from all causes; this is from external causes; this is from internal causes. And actually this divergence here is enough to account for the different life spans of human males and females, which differ by about four or five years. Now that is sexual dimorphism, and sexual dimorphism in mortality rates, and it appears to be associated with blockheaded risk-taking behavior. It appears that males behave differently at those ages than females do. Now we don’t know whether that’s evolved and genetic, or whether it’s culturally influenced.”

  • I do believe the title should be “Fem Babes” or “Fem Babies;” I thought you were talking about birth month when I first saw it.

    Yeah, thats not exactly what came to mind when I read “Prefer Fem Babes” I thought Robin was revealing something more personal.

  • Robert Koslover

    You are talking about population groups. The odds of one specific female child outliving another specific male child would not seem to be dramatic, compared to all the other factors that can influence individual longevity. Now, if women outlived men by perhaps a factor of 2 (i.e., twice as long) then I think you would see some significant impacts. But a handful of years? Nobody really cares much about that, IMHO.

    • Jess Riedel

      Robin Hanson’s point is that we spend vast sums of money extending life by a few months with end-of-life care, so the sex of our baby does have a comparatively large impact.

      The answer here is that almost no one operates on a simple, utilitarian morality. A running theme in this blog is to point out when people behave irrationally under the assumption that they should adopt such a morality.

  • Robert Laing

    I’m pretty sure there are no studies finding that males die twice as often as females. Like females, males die only once. Nor, unless the birth ratio is 1 female to 2 males, can males be dying in twice the numbers. Maybe you could clarify that?

  • If they thought about it, they might feel bad about creating gender imbalances in society in far mode – though the evidence is that they don’t mind doing so in near mode when there’s some benefit to them (as shown by selective abortions in Asia).

  • If you really want dopey utilitarian arguments, how about this: any extra years at the end of a child’s life will be invisible to the parents, who will likely be dead by then.

    The real answer is that such calculations have approximately nothing to do with people’s actual choices and behaviors.

  • gimli4thewest

    Any insights into the fact that most (all?) comments here are from men?

    • Doug S.

      That’s because Robin Hanson is a sexist pig.

      • gimli4thewest

        I knew it had something to do with pork or pork products.

  • andrews


    “any extra years at the end of a child’s life will be invisible to the parents, who will likely be dead by then.”

    Why would the utilitarian (or anyone) completely discount utility that accrues after his death?

  • Lord

    Females live longer, but males live stronger, with generally stronger immune systems and less illness while alive. Indeed females living longer is only a recent development brought about by improved public health. Healthier but shorter lives may be preferred.

  • Utilitarianism is usually defined in terms of the amount of happiness or pleasure vs. unhappiness or displeasure. Since the dead are beyond happiness or unhappiness, I don’t see how they can enjoy any utility.

    I suppose there are time-binding tricks that can map utilitarianism into having something to say about the postmortem world (ie, an author could feel some pride now at the thought that his works will survive past his death). Can anyone really believe that this sort of effect is enough to make a parent prefer one gender over another for the sake of 5 or so extra years of expected lifespan? It’s a stupid idea.

  • andrews


    Right, I should have spelled out the previous point better. The utilitarian takes into account everyone’s well-being, not just his own. So he will think he has a reason to bring into existence a longer- rather than a shorter-living kid, all else being equal, even if he himself won’t be around during the “marginal” years.

  • Hal Finney

    Suppose there were a drug you could take during pregnancy that would extend the life of the baby by several years. Don’t you agree that it would become popular, even mandatory? That would seem to argue against the possibility that parents just don’t care if their children survive a few more years.

    • Dave

      But the drug would lower their IQ 1% for each year it prolonged their life. Then what?

  • Violet

    Maybe people prefer different things in different situations.

    E.g. many people are afraid of death and thus prefer longevity for themselves.

    For children we may prefer for them to attain high status while we are alive (thus given us more status by proxy). And there is a stereotype of male success (parents don’t think about their children failing), and thus male preference.

    If we operated on purely on the longevity of the baby, the best path would be probably to have sperm (and egg) donors with certified quality, but people don’t like that.

    • Colonel

      “For children we may prefer for them to attain high status while we are alive (thus given us more status by proxy).”

      Do parents really want their kids to get high status for the sake of “status by proxy?” I always thought it was because they assume, rightly or wrongly, that a person with high status will probably have a more pleasant life.

  • MPS

    The simple matter is people are completely illogical about such matters.

    Here’s a related comment. If during any time but the last few months of someone’s life, you asked him/her what fraction of his/her lifetime income he/she would be willing to commit to being alive those months, I suspect the fraction would be very small. At least that’s the logical thing: the last few months of my life are less than one percent of the time I’m alive and I’d like to commit less than one percent of my resources to that time. However that’s not how we structure health care.

  • Greg Conen

    Haven’t we already established that people don’t really care about maximizing (healthy) lifespan? The public’s disdain for cryonics and general life extension research establishes this rather more strongly than failing to sex-select.

  • Dave

    Actions extending the last years of a child’s life are unimportant compared to other factors.Other methods of prolonging life such as forced exercise and forced caloric restriction are not employed,even though they work in animals. As parents you expect both boys and girls to live long past your death and don’t concern yourself their senescence.
    If it is medical costs you are worrying about, don’t women consume more resources?
    If it is pain and suffering,don’t women suffer more from,depression, osteoporosis and fractures than men? In terms of social equity,isn’t it unfair to burden the social safety net with too many additional old crones?

  • Pablo Stafforini

    Robin, common sense draws a fundamental distinction between prolonging the lives of those already alive and bringing new people into existence. This view may be mistaken–and I believe it is–but is at the basis of people’s decisions about health and reproduction. There is, accordingly, no tension between spending lots of money on end-of-life medicine and showing no preference for female children. In one case you are extending lives which existed already, whereas in the other case you are causing new lives to exist.

    • Is this why we shouldn’t give a pill to a kid that makes them living five years longer, because a person given a pill becomes a different person?

      • Pablo Stafforini

        I don’t know which pill you are referring to, but your example has the added complication the pill would not only cause some new person to exist, but destroy a person which existed before.

        Incidentally, Hal Finney above makes essentially the same point I made in my comment.

  • Jason Malloy

    Not only do males have lower life expectancies, but they also lower the life expectancy of their mother and siblings!