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Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men Paperback – May 1, 2012

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; Reprint edition (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1610391519
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610391511
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #583,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Review, April 15, 2011

"A hard-hitting, eye-opening study that not only paints a dire future of a world without girls but traces the West’s role in propagating sex selection…. Hvistendahl’s important, even-handed exposé considers all sides of the argument and deserves careful attention and study."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

Unnatural Selection is an important book and a fascinating read. Mara Hvistendahl is a delightful writer: witty, engaging, and acute. But the tale she tells is deeply disturbing. Asia alone is missing 160 million women and girls, a number equal  to the entire female population of the United States. According to Hvistendahl, the culprit is less deeply rooted cultural gender bias than rising wealth, elite attitudes, and Western influence and technology. Development, at least for the coming decades, will produce not only fewer children overall, but also many fewer girls. The result is a future for many parts of the world, from India to China, Azerbaijan to Albania, where brides are much more likely to be bought, women are much more likely to be trafficked, and men are much more likely to be frustrated. For the present, women who are pro-choice must confront the stark reality that the availability of ultrasound and ready abortion are sharply reducing the number of women in the world.”

Stephen J. Dubner, author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics

"Yes, it’s a rigorous exploration of the world’s ‘missing women,’ but it’s more than that too: an extraordinarily vivid look at the implications of the problem. Hvistendahl writes beautifully, with an eye for detail but also the big picture. She has a fierce intelligence but, more important, a fierce intellectual independence; she writes with a hard edge but no venom – rather, a cool and hard passion."

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide

"A fascinating and thoroughly researched book on a most important subject. The staggering population imbalances described by Hvistendahl should be of concern to all."

Judy Norsigian, Executive Director, Our Bodies Ourselves

“A critically important story of demographic surprises and skewed sex ratios, trafficked wives and mail-order brides. Thanks to the devaluation of females and misused technologies, sex selection has reached staggering dimensions in recent decades. Hvistendahl’s call to action is the most well-documented and compelling yet.”

The Wall Street Journal, June, 18, 2011
“Ms. Hvistendahl is a first-rate reporter and has filled Unnatural Selection with gripping details…. There is so much to recommend.”
Bloomberg, June 19, 2011
“Provocative, wide-ranging…. A thoughtful, smartly researched overview of medical developments, policymaking and cultural trends that combined to upset the global sex ratio.”
The Daily Beast, Eleanor Clift, June 22, 2011

“[Hvistendahl] approaches these sensitive subjects without an ideological ax to grind, whether pro-life or pro-population control, documenting how sex selection has taken hold thanks to technology, lower birth rates, and deep-seated cultural biases that require a boy to carry on a family’s lineage.”

New York Times, Ross Douthat, June 26, 2011

Unnatural Selection reads like a great historical detective story, and it’s written with the sense of moral urgency that usually accompanies the revelation of some kind of enormous crime.”

Marcy Darnovsky “Ms. Blog”, June 7, 2011
“An important contribution, disturbing but gripping, and challenging to all of us, perhaps especially to U.S. advocates of reproductive justice. It provides both a deep understanding of the staggering dimensions and consequences of sex selection, and an urgent prod to confront it.”
The Daily Brief, June 12, 2011

“Hvistendahl has a keen sense of detail, and her book is filled with lively encounters with the doctors, academics and bachelors who, she argues, all play a part in the changing demographics worldwide. Her research only gains in importance as these imbalanced generations, where men outnumber women by as much."

Globe and Mail, July 1, 2011

“Brave, well researched and imminently controversial…. From the distant vista of the West, where we don’t really consider what it would mean to have an only son who can never find a mate, the unbalanced sex ratio in Asia may seem like relatively small news. This remarkable book goes a long way to bringing the pain and the urgency of the issue home. Mara Hvistendahl is not just entering an important conversation, she’s starting one.” the dogged self-destruction of a braggadocio crippled by the conviction of his own superiority.”

Washington Post, July 3, 2011

“Massively well-documented…. [Hvistendahl] has written a disturbing, engrossing book.”


Evening Standard (UK), July 21, 2011

“A well-researched account of how a preference for boys has made sex selective abortion commonplace in Asia and parts of Eastern Europe… Hvistendahl makes a persuasive case for the West being complicit in the spread of sex-selective abortion.”

Economist, August 6, 2011
 “Ms. Hvistendahl is convincing in telling the little-known story of how Westerners helped create the conditions under which sex selection began in Asia…. Hvistendahl’s distinctive contribution is twofold. She provides a history of the modern practice of sex-selective abortion, based on new and detailed research, and she helps readers think about its possible consequences.”


From the Inside Flap

In 2007, the booming port city of Lianyungang achieved the dubious distinction of having the most extreme gender ratio for children under five in China: 163 boys for every 100 girls. The numbers may not matter much to the preschool set. But in twenty years the skewed sex ratio will pose a colossal challenge. When Lianyungang's children reach adulthood, their generation will have twenty-four million more men than women. 

The prognosis for China's neighbors is no less bleak: rampant sex selective abortion has left over 160 million females "missing" from Asia's population. And gender imbalance reaches far beyond South and East Asia, affecting the Caucasus countries, Eastern Europe, and even some groups in the United States -- a rate of diffusion so rapid that the leading expert on the topic compares it to an epidemic. As economic development spurs parents in developing countries to have fewer children and brings them access to sex determination technology, couples are making sure at least one of their children is a son. So many parents now select for boys that they have skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world. 

Sex selection did not arise on its own. Largely unknown until now is that the sex ratio imbalance is partly the work of a group of 1960s American activists and scientists who zealously backed the use of prenatal technologies in their haste to solve an earlier global problem. 

What does this mean for our future? The sex ratio imbalance has already led to a spike in sex trafficking and bride buying across Asia, and it may be linked to a recent rise in crime there as well. More far-reaching problems could be on the horizon: From ancient Rome to the American Wild West, historical excesses of men have yielded periods of violence and instability. Traveling to nine countries, Mara Hvistendahl has produced a stunning, impeccably researched book that examines not only the consequences of the misbegotten policies underlying sex selection but also the West's role in creating them. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Mara Hvistendahl is an award-winning writer and journalist specialized in the intersection of science, culture, and policy. A correspondent for Science magazine, she has also written for Harper's, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and other publications. Proficient in both Spanish and Chinese, she has spent half of the past decade in China, reporting on everything from archaeology to Beijing's space program. Unnatural Selection is her first book.

Customer Reviews

I highly recommend her illuminating book on this crucial subject.
William D. Walton
Particularly interesting is the possibility of the restrictive family size rules in communist China may have been caused by capitalists in the West.
Up from the Bottom
This is one of the best books I've read in the past decade -- and I read quite a lot of books.
William A. Weimer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By dear reader on June 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mara Hvistendahl's story of the worldwide horror of gender selection favoring baby boys is riveting. She has clearly traveled the globe to reach tiny rural pockets where this abuse thrives as well as its corollary issues of sex trafficking and bride buying for the generation of men coming of age with far fewer women to pair off with. The stories of the people affected are moving in a very human way, but her scope extends far beyond that to the complicated political history that engendered this problem, which involves the US in ways that are quite shocking. And she delves into the complex issues arising from a young, single male-dominated society, such as the one that flourished in the American frontier. This is a very thoughtful, multifaceted, and compelling book.
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45 of 57 people found the following review helpful By A Reader from LA on July 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The book was often one sided and superficial. I have no doubt that sex selection, male or female, is unethical and fraught with negative consequences, as partially outlined by Hvistendahl. I agree that it should be outlawed internationally, and that better enforcement of existing laws is essential. However, clearly there is more to reversing this phenomenon than simply making it illegal and punishing those involved. We need to address the reasons that boys are preferred in the first place. Hvistendahl did not offer a clear explanation for why parents prefer boys to girls in societies around the world and what we can do to increase the value of women. To me, that is the obvious solution.

The research was often lacking. I was left with more questions than answers. For example, I wonder what the fate would be of millions of unwanted children (girls). For the women who were sold into arranged marriages, what was their alternative? What would their lives have been like otherwise? Some idea of the other side would have been helpful.

I also wonder how much truth there is to the statement that "After years of penalties for out-of-quota births, incentivized sterilizations, and forced abortions, Korean women had finally given in and stopped having children." That seems like an overly simplified explanation for a much more complex social phenomenon. Births rates have fallen to similar levels in many countries without those forces at play. The birth rate in the Ukraine currently is 1.12 children per woman and in Greece 1.25 children per woman; these countries are historically and culturally different from each other and from South Korea.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Son Z on July 24, 2012
Format: Paperback
The widespread practice of sex selective abortion in Asia and other places is an important topic and this book deserves praise for creating awareness of it, but unfortunately this book falls short as a good overview of the issue.

First, she never explores the question of why people in India, China and the other countries examined have a preference for boys over girls, which you would think is the most important issue. Sex selection isn't occurring in many parts of the world, even though abortion is common. Despite her claims to the contrary, local conditions and choices made by individuals in these specific countries are central to this story.

Second, her decision to focus on the role of Western policies in lowering birth rates and promoting abortion overemphasizes the importance of the West and ignores other factors. The drop in birth rates and spread of abortion in Asia is not solely attributable to Western policies, but also has resulted from economic development, increased opportunities for women and local government initiatives. Misguided Western policies are only one part of the story, and probably not even the main part. I think this comes through if you read the analysis closely; an American official doling out $10 million dollars here and there, a Chinese government official reading Western population studies, and Western scientists exploring sex-selection technology in the 1970s do not really add up to Western policies playing a central role.

Finally, the last section on the consequences of large gender imbalance is very speculative. Again, the rise of militant nationalism and sex trafficking in China have many causes, and she describes these phenomena without making a convincing case that they resulted from the gender imbalance.

It is an important topic, but much of the book is anecdotal and speculative rather than driven by actual data, and I came away from this book without a great understanding of subject.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By David L. Danielson on June 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What is the result when combining the genes of journalism and literature? Answer: Mara Hvistendahl. Her first book, Unnatural Selection, is investigative journalism at its best introducing the reader to a world-wide problem with dire yet unimaginable consequences. The mined data than soars to the heights of literature as the reader accompanies the author on the back of a motor scooter into the Mekong Delta to visit with parents who have sold a daughter to be the wife of a stranger and maybe his brothers as well. The book is creating more than a stir as people come to grips with well intentioned but unforeseen consequences of the past. It is a book that won't be forgotten. Mara has emerged on the literary stage as an author whose further offerings are already eagerly awaited.
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