Thursday, 30 July 2009

Breeding for the future?

Humanity and one other member of the ape family, the Bonobo chimpanzees, are almost unique in their breeding practices. Humanity is probably alone in its expectation that every male will meet and mate with a female at least once. This is one of the reasons for the 'success' of our domination of the ecosystem that is the planet Earth. We have, quite simply, out bred everything else. But now comes the crunch - there are far too many of us and the promotion of having children as a "right" guarantees that we now breed far more children, each of whom will, we hope, also breed at least two children, than the world can actually sustain. Already food and water resources are overstretched, oil is under strain and so are many simple necessities, so, can we afford to continue to operate on this free for all, breed as you like, system?

I recently read a story that suggested a future world in which humanity is organised into "clans" in which only the Alpha Male was allowed to inseminate females and produce children. It skipped over how all other males would cope with this, but did point up the fact that the vast majority of the mammilian animal kingdom practice this system to control populations and keep them within the boundaries set by the available food supply. Hints that this practice may well have been followed in early human societies exist in a number of societies even now. The African practice of setting a "Bride Price" for any girl and the problem of "Street children" - usually unwanted boys for whom there is no "market" - is one such. Many early societies sacrificed boys, rather than girls, thereby reducing competition to breed and others simply exposed unwanted boys to the elements as infants, again limiting the number of breeding boys available. Some of our more primitive societies still practice this form of population control, though now, of course, Aid Agencies and UN organisations try to prevent it or gather these children and sustain them to adulthood. Early "civilisations" waged war on one another with two objects, territorial expansion and the acquisition of slave labour. Notably many emasculated captured men, castrated any preteen boys and sold the girls into the households of leaders and warriors. Even in Medieval Society (and in the Harems of the East!) the practice of "Droits de Signeur" or the right of the "Lord of the Manor" to have his dependents and peasants brides to his bed on their wedding night shows that some form of "Alpha" system operated until fairly recently in our history. There is eloquent testimony to the probability of an "Alpha" breeder in all early human societies in our genetic record - there are only seven key "male" genetic markers outside of Africa (45-plus in Africa) suggesting either that all humans are descendents of only those successful breeders who managed to get more wives than anyone else.

Humanity and the Bonobo Chimps share the use of sex for "recreational" purposes, but where the Bonobos limit their population (or have it limited by the stability of a "death/birth" rate) humans have interfered with this and slewed the balance. Ever since the introduction of modern medicine death rates have fallen dramatically among infants and at the same time life spans have extended. Populations have exploded since the 1940's and even the wars and the more efficient weapons we now deploy in them hasn't made a significant dent in the growing numbers of humans. Now I have to be careful lest this be taken in entirely the wrong way - modern medicine has overcome one of the key reasons for our early success. Defective infants didn't survive and if they did, they certainly didn't breed. Now transplants - in some cases of every organ in the torso - medicines to sustain us when we become "non-viable" and many more, sometimes quite simple, procedures which allow us to live far beyond the point our genetic programming starts to "shut down". We have removed evolution from our breeding programme and it now appears that we have done so to the overall detriment of every living thing on the planet.

Add to that mix the fact that we now expose large sections of our populations to chemicals that affect our genes, mutating them and damaging them. The result is that we are also having to find ways to deal with increasing incidence of disablities which in more primitive societies would have resulted in the infant being killed or exposed to the elements to die naturally. Morally and ethically such an approach is totally unacceptable in our society so we have no alternative but to look carefully at our attitude toward the whole issue of human breeding - a very sensitive and emotionally charged subject, especially for those most likely to find themselves excluded from the gene pool in future - which may well include something like 90% of males and possibly a large proportion of women as well.

Is it time to return to some form of "Alpha" male selection? It would seem so, but a key question which needs to be answered before anyone even thinks about implementing such a strategy. We need to have a very clear, and probably scientific debate (Excluding all politicians and all Civil Servants!), about what the selection should and should not include. And then we have to have a scheme for how we provide for all those boys who will not be allowed to breed! Is this a likely scenario? Not in a modern Western Society I am glad to say, but it could well be implemented in some future "socialist paradise" on the Marxist/Leninist model (And those always start with the sort of "soft" socialist idealists we currently have infesting universities and bureaucracies everywhere in the west). The worry there is that the selection process would then be based on a set of ideological criteria and not on genetics.

Of one thing I am certain, if humanity is to survive the changing climate and the threatened food and water shortages, we have to find some way to limit population growth. I am not suggesting that we should embark on some new form of "ethnic cleansing" or "Eugenics". What I am saying is that we have to put in place a responsible, moral and ethical system which does not involve force or mass extermination and does take account of the genetic diversity we need to keep the human population healthy - and we have to look at ways to reduce it from the 6-7 billion we have at present back down to the pre-1940's levels which were sustainable. We have proved that interference with natural selection threatens us all - now we have to find a way to work with it.

As I said, an explosively tricky subject, but one, I suspect, that is already being discussed by politicians behind tightly closed doors and in heavily screened rooms lest the slightest hint of the discussion leaked into the media. Can you imagine the uproar if it were discovered that our political classes were planning to ensure their genes were the survivors for the future (As their Bunker plans for the Cold War intended with only the politicians and civil servants guaranteed a place of safety reveal) and the rest of us were to be allowed to die out?

Quite. This is an idea that I do not think will find political endorsement (officially!) anytime soon. That still leaves us with three times the human population the planet can support comfortably. An interesting conundrum.

1 comment:

  1. *ahem* if I may draw the Gray Monk's attention to the euthanasia debate in the press recently, population control measures do seem to be in the offing...