Why, specifically, does each generation, on average, improve upon the design of the species rather than degrade it?

In every non-life example I can envision, a copy of a copy is always a degraded or less pure version of the original unless some outside influence acts to correct the copy back toward the ideal represented by the original. Photocopies get blurrier with each generation. Casts from a mold are distorted from the original from which the mold was made. In fact, each cast degrades the mold itself. When data is copied on computers or across networks, parity checks verify that no mistakes were made, but even then, every long once in a while, combinations of errors can cause a false positive in a parity check. So given enough time, the copies would degrade.

In eukaryotes, new individual organisms always begin as a zygote, so in all kingdoms, reproduction boils down to the genesis of a single cell. This involves correctly building the DNA as well as all of the other complex architecture of the cell. Why doesn't this cell degrade like every other example I can think of? In fact, cells are capable of such perfect reproduction that the system generally supports the introduction of additional randomness in order to promote the possibility of productive change. I can think of some probable contributing factors that make this work, but I must be missing something. I can't imagine that this model would actually work the way it does - so well in fact that the design actually improves over time. What am I missing or underestimating?

Contributing Factors (I guess):

Perfect Building Blocks: Cellular development follows a pattern at every level, and ultimately operates all the way down to the molecular level. At that level, nearly all building blocks are identical. Life is built of stable atoms, not something like plutonium, and in the rare event that an atom does change, the result is simply a different kind of atom, which still tends toward a stable form in the long term. Because the structures of life are ultimately made of stable components that are plentiful everywhere in the environment, the essential structures being copied are precise and can be copied precisely. Photocopies and casts are not precise to the molecular level, so copying them is more approximate by nature. Digital data propagation, however, is a very similar process. Bits are also theoretically perfect building blocks.

Fitness Correction: When mistakes do degrade the reproduction process, rather than maintaining or randomly improving upon it, there is a correction mechanism that removes the defects from the process. Those defects do not survive to reproduce. This evolutionary process acts to keep the reproductive pattern focused back upon a theoretical ideal which is independent of a specific physical form to be copied.This seems like the most essential element of the explanation, because it is ultimately only through progression that digression can be avoided, but it is also the part that seems the most dubious. Astronomical quantities of defects would have to be produced before developing just one advantageous feature. I would expect living creatures to be 99% defective with only 1% surviving to breed. I would expect 99.9% of zygotes to expire without being born or sprouting from seed. I would expect all sexual organs (ovaries, testes, stamen, etc.), if not the majority of the whole body, to be mostly dead cells, with just a few successes surviving to fertilization. I would expect 99.9% of the genome to be experimental, almost completely unusable liability to the species. Essentially, I would expect premature death to far outweigh successful life everywhere and at all times. And even so, I would still expect evolution to be even slower than it has been.

Mutation Management Mechanisms: I understand that there are mechanisms in reproduction that decrease the likelihood of mutation in more established and stable parts of the genome compared with sections that are more open for discussion - epigenetic structures, HOX genes, etc. Portions of all genomes have been established and functional for hundreds of millions of years, so I gather that there are mechanisms for protecting them (I suspect probably far more than we have yet discovered).

Note: The numbers I present are fuzzy and are based not on calculations but on general impressions I get of the magnitude of the numbers involved and the relative rareness of useful mutations. Is there any place where this kind of calculation has been performed with more realistic approximations of probabilities?

You have clearly given this a lot of thought. Unfortunately, as @adam.r said, you are laboring under certain misapprehensions. The quick answer is that each generation does not "improve" on the last. That is a common misconception. In a bit more detail:

  1. First of all, your copying metaphor is a bad one. There was no "perfect original", I expand on this theme at length in my answer here but, briefly, all species are constantly changing. They are not moving away from a platonic ideal of the perfect species (or towards it for that matter), they are simply changing in response to the world around them. What's 'good' today is not necessarily 'good' tomorrow.

  2. Your copy machine metaphor does hold for changes from one generation to the next though. Copying DNA is fraught with errors. There is a huge cellular machinery in place whose only job is to catch and correct those errors. Nevertheless, many get through and result in diversity that can then be selected for or against through the process of natural selection. So, the copies do actually degrade. That, in fact, is the very basis of how evolution works.

  3. Another important point is that most changes are neutral. They have absolutely no effect one way or the other. There are many reasons for this but the main ones are

    1. The vast majority of DNA does not actually code for protein. What it does do is an area of active research but minor changes in sequences that don't code for protein are extremely unlikely to cause a change in phenotype.

      Almost all of the information necessary to produce a viable organism is in the genes, and genes represent a very small (~5% in human for example) percentage of the genome. Changes that affect the fitness of an individual are almost invariably found in the coding sequences of genes. This means that of the ~30 billion possible sites for mutation in any given cell, 95% of them (even less actually since only exons count and they're ~2%) will not cause a phenotypic effect.

    2. The genetic code is redundant. Basically, DNA is "read" in "words" of three "letters", the codons. Since there are 4 bases in the genome (A,C,T and G) this means there are 64 possible codons. Each codon specifies a particular amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) and a given sequence of codons will result in a specific sequence of amino acids. However, there are only 22 amino acids, many of which are specified by the same codon:

      As you can see in the image above, in most cases, changing the third letter of the codon does not affect the amino acid that will be specified. This means that even for those mutations (changes) that occur in the coding region of genes, the chances are relatively high that they won't actually result in any phenotypic change. If you change the genetic code but the changed codon still codes for the same amino acid there will be no change in phenotype.

As for your contributing factors:

  1. Perfect Building Blocks: Nope, sorry this one is wrong. First of all there is no such thing as a minor change that involves changing an atom. Any change that happens at the atomic level is huge by definition. That kind of thing happens a the hearts of stars and in nuclear reactors. The chemical reactions in our body involve changing molecules not atoms.

    There is no such thing as a minor change really, if you replace one atom in a molecule by another, you are significantly changing the properties of that molecule (this is less true for large, complex macromolecules where some changes can indeed be minor). If you were to change, for example, a single atom in normal table salt ($NaCl$) from sodium to hydrogen, you would get $HCl$, hydrochloric acid and not something you want to put in your soup.

    There are no perfect building blocks, in biology nothing is perfect, that only happens in math.

    Also, the organism does not follow the same pattern from the organismal to the cellular to the molecular (never mind atomic) level. In fact, there are very different organizational principles at play at the different levels and the way that cells are organized (see here for example) has nothing to do with the way that a cell's contents are organized.

    Stability is overrated. In fact, our bodies contain loads of unstable (reactive) chemicals, oxygen being chief among them. By definition, chemical reactions involve changing molecules (not atoms, but we don't deal with that level, biological effects tend to be at the molecular, not atomic level). All reactions that go on in the factory that is your body involve the changing of one molecule into another.

  2. Fitness Correction: Actually, at the cellular level, the corrections try to faithfully reproduce the template they are copying from. When a cell copies itself, it will also copy its DNA. It does so by using its own DNA as a template. There is no "theoretical ideal", the cell has no information about the genome of its parent, only its own. As I mentioned above, there are various corrective mechanisms whose job it is to spot errors and correct them. They have no way of knowing whether a given change will be beneficial or harmful to the individual, as far as these processes are concerned, any change is bad and should be corrected. The only thing they do is try to make a daughter cell's genome identical to the parent cell's.

    When a change makes it past the cellular level, then it can be selected for or against based on whether it makes the individual carrying it more or less likely to reproduce. This, however, is not a directed process. It just happens. If a mutation makes a male blue whale stronger, it is more likely to be the one that catches up with the racing female and so more likely to reproduce. There is no direction other than the selective process itself. There is no one around comparing new individuals to an ideal and selecting accordingly. If you're better at reproducing than your peers, your genes will be selected.

    Actually, many many gametes are discarded. Many cells die. You just don't know about it because they die before you can see them. So deleterious (very bad) changes do occur.

    "I would expect 99.9% of the genome to be experimental, almost completely unusable liability to the species." In a way this is true. Despite recent findings, 98% of the human genome does not directly affect the phenotype. It is only the 2% that represents the protein coding parts of genes that has a direct effect on fitness. In fact, in the human genome specifically, there is a short sequence that does not code for any protein and does not (directly, though there are various theories about this) affect our phenotype, that has been making copies of itself and propagating in our genome for generations. Today, this sequence (Alu) represents ~10% of the human genome, that's twice as much as all our genes together!

  3. Mutation Management Mechanisms: The basic protection mechanism you mention in your question is quite simply death. Mutations that render housekeeping genes (like the HOX cluster) inactive kill the organism that carries them. That does not mean they don't occur, it simply means that when they occur, we don't see them because the individual carrying the mutation is dead (see point 3).

I'll add a slightly different perspective, although terdon's answer already contains the relevant facts.

The thing that makes DNA endure in the face of imperfect copying is that, like computer storage, it's digital. The relevant property of digital data here is that individual pieces of information aren't given on a scale, they're drawn from a strongly limited number of possible alternative values. That property allows error correction to take place: if possible values were continuous, error correction fundamentally wouldn't work.

This gives the appearance of error-less copying. In reality it's anything but, same as with computer storage and data transfer. Nevertheless, as you've noted, errors will accumulate, even with an error correction mechanism in place. And even though most of these errors have no influence on the outcome (due to downstream effects like the degeneracy of the genetic code), many more are detrimental than are positive. In direct contradiction of this we can see that species (but not individuals!) improve their adaptation in each generation.

Why? Because evolution. More specifically, because natural selection acts in a purifying manner to rid the gene pool of defects. This is a fundamental part of Darwin's and Wallace's argument. Less adapted individuals have an (ever so slightly) reduced chance at reproducing, and therefore prevent detrimental changes in the gene pool from accumulating.

Understanding Biological Evolution Through Computational Thinking

Computational thinking is a contemporary science and engineering practice that has been introduced to the US science classrooms due to its emphasis in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). However, including computational thinking into science instruction may be challenging. Therefore, for biological evolution (an essential theory within biology that spans across temporal and organizational scales), we recommend integrating computational thinking into evolution teaching to overcome misconceptions, reinforce the nature of science (NOS), and allow student embodiment (as students become emerged in their models, i.e., personification). We present a learning progression, which outlines biological evolution learning coupled with computational thinking. The defined components of computational thinking (input, integration, output, and feedback) are integrated with biology student roles. The complex nature of both teaching computational thinking and biological evolution lends toward a learning progression that identifies instructional context, computational product, and computational process and spans from simple to complex. Two major themes of biological evolution, unity and diversity have each been paired with both computational thinking and specific corresponding NGSS standards at levels of increasing complexity. There are virtually no previous studies which relate computation and evolution across scales, which paves the way for questions of importance, support, benefits, and overall student achievement in relation to the advancement of science in education.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

The biology of aliens: How much do we know?

Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.

MICHIO KAKU: I love to watch science fiction movies but I cringe, I cringe whenever I see a depiction of the aliens. First of all, the aliens speak perfect English.

ALIENS: Did you ever see such jerky looking creatures? And one head yet. Typical Earth men.

MICHIO KAKU: I mean, we have Hollywood special effects so why can't we get better aliens?

E.O. WILSON: I would admonish scriptwriters for Hollywood films that have space and alien monsters invading Earth. Don't give them claws. Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an ET. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization.

JONATHAN B. LOSOS: Some people have gone so far as to say that, in fact, human type organisms, humanoids will occur on other planets. So there will be intelligent beings that if we saw them they would be recognizable which, of course, is what Hollywood tells us. If you watch almost any science fiction TV show or movie the intelligent life form is bipedal, a couple of arms, a mouth. Maybe they only have three fingers and pointy ears and they're green but they're pretty humanoid. And so some people say yes, that's actually very likely that humans are a very successful life form here on Earth that we are extremely well adapted to our environment which ancestrally was occurring on the plains of Africa, but we adapted so exquisitely that we now dominate the world. So if this is such a good adaptation here on Earth it would similarly be a good adaptation on another planet and evolution would be likely to take the similar course. That is the argument that is being made in some corners.

KAKU: But when we look at aliens in the movies we're basically projecting our own consciousness in aliens. Our fears, our desires are projected and they are a mirror of who we are, not a mirror of who they really are. For example, if you take a look at a bat or a dog, the dog's brain is mainly interested in smells. It's swirling in a universe of smells while a bat's brain mainly is concentrated on sonar, on detecting clicks and echoes. The same thing with the dolphin brain. Their consciousness is totally different from our consciousness because they see things differently than us because of their evolutionary history. For example, when we see a cat and the cat comes up to us and starts to purr next to us we say to ourselves oh, nice cat. Cat is being affectionate. No, the cat is not being affectionate. It's simply rubbing its hormones on you and saying I own this human. This human is mine. I'm marking my territory. This human feeds me twice a day. I've trained him. So a cat sees the universe totally different than we do and yet we impose our thinking on an alien.

WILSON: ET is out there. There just has to be in that hundred million star system. Here's what I did. I looked over the many examples of the origin of whole new lines of animals that have occurred on the land since the early Paleozoic. Here is what they all have in common. First, it has to be on the land. It can't develop advanced societies and anything like civilization. Well, why not? Why no marine fresh water creatures? Because they don't have fire. In order to build tools beyond chipping some rock or stone away you don't have any way to create more advanced technology without concentrated power source that you can transport from one place to another. ET. I'm now drawing this again from the record of multiple origins of animal lines on Earth. ET has got a head and the head is up front and the head contains central organizing centers for all of the senses that are spread out through the body. ET has got a small number of limbs, multiple, maybe six. Who knows? Maybe eight like a spider. But not that many. Relatively few and ET has on these limbs fingers or tentacles, something with strength and flexibility that are free. You have to have soft, pulpy fingertips. Think about the primates you know. Old world and new world. That's a primate trait. Soft, pulpy fingertips. You need to be able to manipulate bits of food like plucking free a piece of fruit. Plucking seeds out of a fruit. Taking a flower and opening it and eating it and so on.

KAKU: Now some people say that we should not try to make contact with them because they could be potentially dangerous. [Danger Will Robinson. Danger.] For the most part I think they're going to be peaceful because they'll be thousands of years ahead of us but we cannot take the chance. So I personally believe that we should not try to advertise our existence to alien life in outer space because of the fact that we don't know their intentions. Then the other question is what happens if they're evil? Well, I think the question of evil is actually a relative question because the real danger to a deer in the forest is not the hunter with a gigantic rifle. He's not the main danger to a deer in the forest. The main danger to a deer in the forest is the developer. The guy that's going to pave the forest and perhaps destroy whole ecosystems. In other words, the aliens don't have to be evil in order to be dangerous to us. They might not care. They just may not care about us and in the process pave us over. And so I think that is a potential problem. We could be in the way of a very advanced civilization that simply is not evil but simply views us as we would view squirrels and deer in the forest. So, personally I think that we should not advertise our existence when we go into outer space. For the most part however, I do think they are going to be peaceful. They're not going to want to plunder the earth because there are plenty of planets out there that have nobody on them that they could plunder at will without having to worry about restive natives called humanity. And so I think they're not going to come to visit the earth to plunder us, to do all sorts of mischief. For the most part I think they'll just leave us alone.

BILL NYE: I don't think they're going to visit. However, very reasonable that we will in Carl Sagan fashion detect a signal from some other star system. That's very reasonable. I make no guarantees. It's the Christmas light problem, the holiday light problem where the lights are blinking. Our light of being able to receive electromagnetic wave from another civilization has to be on when another blinking civilization light is on so that we can cross paths not only in space but in time. We have to have both civilizations existing at the same time. And with a universe that's at least 13.6 billion years old it's not necessarily a given thing that everybody their lights will be on at the same time.

LOSOS: What would life be like on other planets if it is evolved? Would it be like the world today here on Earth or would it be completely different? This question has taken on some increased urgency or at least interest in recent years because we now realize that there are many planets out there that are like Earth. We used to think that Earth was perhaps unique and so perhaps life as we know it is unique because we're the only place that it could evolve. But quite the contrary. We've now discovered there are lots of what are called habitable exoplanets. Some people estimate millions, even billions just in our own Milky Way Galaxy. If there are really that many Earth-like planets many people think that it's very likely that life has evolved on them. And so the question is what will that life look like?

NYE: It's very reasonable, absolutely not proven. We may have the means to prove it, very reasonable that you and I are descendent of extraterrestrials. We just found liquid water on Mars. Super salty water on Mars that apparently flows every Martian year, every time Mars goes around the sun and gets warm enough in this one area liquid water flows for a while. Briny water evaporates. It's very reasonable that there's something alive on Mars or certainly that there was something alive on Mars. Then it's very reasonable that Mars was hit with an impact. You can show that Mars was hit with an impactor, a comet or asteroid, about three billion years ago. And some of the material of Mars was thrown off into space and some of it landed here. We find rocks on Earth that are clearly of Martian origin. I bought one online for kicks and suppose some especially robust Martian microbe, a Mars-crobe, was in this piece of material, landed on Earth at an especially fertile time here on Earth three billion years ago. And you and I are descendants of Martians. Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do.

Sex-Selection Abortion: The Real War on Women

Despite advances in civil rights and the recognition by most developed nations that discrimination on the basis of sex alone is inherently unjust, a very real and pervasive form of sex discrimination is still permitted and practiced in the world today. Prenatal sex discrimination crosses cultural, ethnic, and national lines. It is practiced with impunity in many countries, including the U.S., via sex-selective abortion – choosing to abort a preborn child based solely on the child’s sex. Prenatal discrimination can also be practiced pre-implantation by destroying embryos based on a pre-implantation sex determination. Undoubtedly, such practices constitute discrimination against a unique human individual based on sex alone, and thus constitute sex discrimination. In order to address this injustice, it is imperative that States and the Federal Government institute selection abortion bans – restrictions on abortions done for reasons of sex selection alone.

The Real “War on Women”

Sex-selective abortion is a well-known problem in China and India, where a cultural preference for sons, coupled with political and economic influences, has severely skewed sex ratios at birth (SRBs). Instances of sex discrimination perpetrated via abortion and infanticide are well documented and have resulted in millions of “missing” girls in some societies.[1] In China, for example, men outnumber women to the tune of 33 million.[2] “More than 20 years ago, Amartya Sen (1990) documented that 100 million girls and women were “missing” from the global population as a consequence of neglect, infanticide, and inequalities in care. The figure is now estimated to be in excess of 160 million, with sex-selective abortion playing a major role (Hvistendahl 2011).”[3] Such practices constitute a real “war on women” and have been widely condemned.[4] Those who claim to be concerned with women’s rights can no longer ignore the need to ban sex-selective abortion in order to protect girls from “gendercide.”

Prenatal Sex Discrimination

Research and personal testimony show that the practice of sex-selective abortion is prevalent across cultures and nations, including the United States.[5] Sex selection in favor of males is practiced in some Asian immigrant communities within the U.S. and other western nations such as the United Kingdom. Current research shows that just a generation ago, sex ratios at birth within certain ethnic communities (specifically “Asian-Pacific”) in the U.S. and UK were within the normal range. Within the last twenty years, the ratio has climbed sharply, resulting in highly unbalanced ratios in favor of males. Such a noticeable change in recent decades implicates the increased use of sex selective abortion.[6]

Sex ratios in the U.S. remain fairly balanced overall. Such a balance is not evidence of the lack of gender discrimination in the U.S., rather, it is an indication of a unique set of ethical dilemmas in the U.S. related to sex selection. Advanced medical technologies traditionally used to diagnose disease – preimplantation genetic diagnosis and noninvasive prenatal testing – are gaining popularity as tools to be used in selecting the sex of offspring. Such methods are generally used for “family balancing” by couples who have a child or children of one sex and desire a child of the other sex. [7] Currently, there is no prohibition on such technology for the purpose of sex selection in the United States. Such technology can easily be used to discriminate against either sex, which is no less ethically problematic.

The Unavoidable Question

The glaring policy question and moral dilemma we face when deciding whether or not to implement restrictions on prenatal sex discrimination practices is whether sex-discrimination should be permitted in any form, whether it affects one or one million lives. As Dr. David Prentice, Vice President and Research Director, Charlotte Lozier Institute, recently noted in testimony before the Indiana Senate Committee on Health and Provider Services, “Some opponents of prohibitions against sex-selection abortions state that such abortions are rare, but that is a tacit admission that some sex-selection abortions occur. Even one gender discrimination abortion is too many.”[8] The authors of a recent paper highlighting the growing problem of sex selection in the U.S. via noninvasive prenatal testing procedures agree with this assessment, noting, “We believe that aborting a healthy fetus solely on the basis of its sex for purposes of family balancing is a dubious practice and ethically objectionable… .”[9] As discussed in the next section, the American public overwhelmingly supports these conclusions.

Popular Opposition to Sex-Selective Abortion

Americans, as well as citizens of the United Kingdom, overwhelmingly oppose abortions performed for reasons of sex selection. A poll conducted by the Charlotte Lozier Institute in 2012[10] found that 77% of respondents opposed abortion in instances of sex selection (specifically abortion of girls). These results reflect the long-held legal traditions and mores of Americans in support of individual equality without respect to race, ethnicity, or sex.

A 2014 poll from the United Kingdom found that “80% of British adults agreed that ‘where it can be proved that an abortion was authorized on grounds of the baby’s gender, the doctor authorizing that abortion should be prosecuted.’” “The poll, carried out by ComRes, also found that more than four in five adults (84%) agree that ‘aborting babies because of their gender should explicitly be banned by law.’”[11]

American, British, and German citizens are similarly opposed to using Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD, also called Preimplantation Genetic Screening, PGS) technology for nonmedical reasons such as sex selection and selection of physical and/or personality traits of offspring. According to the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “A survey of public attitudes found that 68% of Americans disapprove of the use of PGS for sex selection only. A recent review article cites a German study finding that only 8% approved of the use of PGS for nonmedical reasons. In the United Kingdom, public opposition to sex selection has also been cited to override claims to reproductive autonomy.”[12]

It is a dereliction of duty for representatives in a democratic society to be silent on an issue that is of such grave concern to constituents. Although sex ratio numbers do not reveal the entire story of the complicated issues related to the use and ethics of sex selection, demographic data is often used by politicians and opponents of sex-selective abortion bans to make the claim that such bans are unnecessary, thereby avoiding the responsibility to act on the obvious injustice of sex-selective abortion. Additionally, there are no national mandatory reporting requirements for abortion data in the U.S., making it impossible to ascertain the true extent of the scope of sex- selective abortion nationally. The ideals of liberty and the desire of the American public to put an end to sex discrimination in the form of sex-selective abortion should transcend party lines.

The Data Dilemma

In countries where males vastly outnumber females, sex-selection via abortion is an obvious culprit. In the U.S., however, where the sex ratio at birth is statistically average (about 105 males for every 100 females), it becomes more difficult to ascertain the number of gender-selective abortions that are performed based on birth data alone. In order to determine a more specific number, studies of induced abortion data become imperative. The sex ratio at conception and birth remains almost 50:50 (with a slight male-bias) without regard to race or maternal age.[13] Because this number is so reliable, an analysis of induced abortions in the U.S. should shed light on whether or not a bias exists. However, the abysmal state of abortion data in the U.S. prevents us from making such an important determination.

As Charles Donovan and Nora Sullivan of the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) pointed out in 2012, induced abortion reporting is not mandatory in the United States, thus, it cannot accurately inform the national policy discussion on abortion procedure reform.

National and state abortion reporting laws and policies in the United States are a patchwork that falls far short of fulfilling the potential of this information to inform and guide public policy. The composite picture they reveal is at once impressionistic and incomplete, non-contemporaneous and of limited use in providing a true and timely rendering of the impact of public policies and attitudes on the reality of abortion in the United States.[14]

Additionally, as Clarke Forsythe of Americans United for Life elaborated,

The U.S. abortion data and reporting system, unlike many other countries, relies completely on voluntary reporting. No federal law requires the reporting of abortion numbers, complications or deaths. (Denmark, in contrast, requires mandatory reporting by providers of all induced abortions.)

Even the most basic statistics about abortion — for example, the annual number in the United States provided by the CDC — is based entirely on estimates, and is therefore vulnerable to human error. How reliable can the annual number of abortions be if California, which used to report approximately one-quarter of all abortions across the nation annually, hasn’t reported its data to the CDC for several years?[15]

Donovan and Sullivan go on to emphasize not only the necessity of obtaining more complete records, but also the relative ease with which it could be accomplished in this tech-savvy age:

In this era of Internet technology and nearly instant reporting of all sorts of data, this patchwork need not be the rule, nor need policymakers accept such incomplete information as a given. … Getting current and unfiltered information and having the advantage of multiple interpretations of its meaning should be a topic of the highest priority for state and federal attention. Moreover, in the age of the Internet, neither gathering nor disseminating useful, current, and patient-protective cumulative data need be a costly enterprise.[16]

If researchers and policy-makers are truly interested in obtaining more accurate numbers of abortions done for reasons of sex selection in the U.S., then rather than deny the need for bans on sex-selective abortion in the U.S., they would do well to make an effort to push for mandatory reporting of abortion data.

A Legal Perspective

The laws and policies we institute – or fail to institute – inform and educate our citizens about acceptable and ethical practices in society. Who would dispute, for example, that the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)[17] and “Jim Crow” laws shaped attitudes about racial segregation and discrimination? Those laws needed to change.

Just as with how our law now treats race discrimination, sex discrimination is likewise taken seriously in American jurisprudence because of our commitment to basic moral values involving human dignity. Sex discrimination violates a fundamental liberty guaranteed by the Constitution – equal protection under the law. The equal protection standard is applicable to gender-based classifications and “require[s] ‘an exceedingly persuasive justification’ in order to survive constitutional scrutiny.”[18] Sex discrimination is also prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[19] which addresses discriminatory employment practices, prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin.[20]

Opponents of sex-selective bans often assert that “sex selection” of a preborn child falls under laws protecting reproductive autonomy. However, the prohibition of sex-selective abortion is not a question that has been addressed by any U.S. court, thus, it is an issue of first impression. And there are reasons to think the Supreme Court might uphold a ban on sex-selection abortion.

First, the current standard applied to abortion regulation by the Court is that a state may not place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion prior to viability. Sex-selection bans do not violate that standard. A ban on sex-selective abortion is, for the state, an expression of respect for life and a mechanism by which it can protect a person from sex discrimination. Additionally, if a ban on sex-selective abortion were put in place, an almost innumerable list of other reasons/options for a woman to choose elective abortion remains available—including the reason that the woman simply doesn’t want to be pregnant whether or not the pregnancy was intended in the first place. When such myriad options exist, reasoning that a ban on a single discriminatory reason constitutes a “substantial obstacle” collapses.

This argument is strengthened by reference to Gonzales v. Carhart where the Supreme Court upheld a total ban on partial-birth abortion, even when it is performed prior to viability.[21] The Court noted that because there was one alternative procedure to the procedure that was banned by the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, the undue burden standard was not met. In the case of bans on sex-selective abortion, not only one, but many other avenues exist by which a woman is able to procure an elective abortion. Thus, a ban not only fails to meet the undue burden requirement, it also serves the important interest of the state in expressing its profound respect for life.

Second, the abortion right is balanced in light of the legitimate state interest in protecting the health of the mother and life of the fetus from the outset of pregnancy.[22] The state’s interest in regulation was highlighted in Gonzales v Carhart: “[r]egulations which do no more than create a structural mechanism by which the State, or the parent or guardian of a minor, may express profound respect for the life of the unborn are permitted, if they are not a substantial obstacle to the woman’s exercise of the right to choose.”[23] Sex-selective bans not only prohibit discrimination against a person based on sex – a compelling governmental interest – they also protect the pregnant woman from cultural or familial pressure to have an abortion by penalizing such coercion.[24]

Third, and on top of all this, construing the abortion right to include sex-discrimination abortion would take the Court and the country in the wrong direction. Aborting a child for reasons of sex alone is not an exercise of reproductive autonomy, but rather one of discrimination based on immutable characteristics. The real issue when it comes to aborting a child based on sex alone, as articulated by Barbara Katz Rothman in her book on prenatal diagnosis, is not whether or not to have a child, but rather, what kind of child to have.[25] The abortion right should not include the right “to bear or abort a particular child” based on particular traits such as gender.[26]

A Moral Responsibility to Act

The United States has a moral duty as one of the world’s most influential free societies to lead the way in protecting girls and boys from all forms of gender discrimination, even if the U.S. never sees “gendercide” on the scale of practices in India and China. The U.S. should be even more inclined to act as the problem of imbalanced sex ratios grows globally. Alarmingly disparate ratios exist in a number of nations outside of Asia. Highly skewed ratios exist in Europeans countries as well – particularly in the Caucasus.[27] These numbers belie the assumption that abortion for reasons of sex selection is a problem only associated with one culture. Rather, this is a human problem, not limited to borders, specific cultures, or races. As Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, confirms this phenomenon and notes in his research, “[S]ex-selective abortion is by now so widespread and so frequent that it has come to distort the population composition of the entire human species: this new and medicalized war against baby girls is indeed truly global in scale and scope.”[28]

Failure to address sex-selective abortion at home and abroad is a failure to address the role of women in society and the effect of sex selection on human relationships. Eberstadt’s research drives this point home, noting,

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. In populations with unnaturally skewed SRBs, the very fact that many thousands — or in some cases, millions — of prospective girls and young women have been deliberately eliminated simply because they would have been female establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.[29]

This is, and should be, a non-partisan issue, yet liberal organizations and politicians consistently oppose and challenge policies enacted to protect preborn children from gender discrimination. Organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum consistently concede the existence of sex-selective abortion and decry the practice in one breath and in the next condemn measures enacted to end the unethical practice. Excerpts from the 2012 floor debate in the House of Representatives over the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act (PRENDA) illustrates this point. Despite the fact that a vast majority of the voting public opposes sex-selective abortion and that gender discrimination is an egregious violation of fundamental rights, PRENDA was dismissed as a “Republican” issue meant to deprive women of their rights.

The Hill newspaper reported several comments on the bill by key Democrats, “‘We can all agree that women should not choose to terminate a pregnancy based solely on gender, but this bill criminalizes a legal procedure,’ Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) said Thursday afternoon.” “‘It is another Republican intrusion into a woman’s right to choose,’ said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).”[30]

Recently, in an interview on women’s rights and Middle East peace, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted, “…[I]t’s important that the United States — be a leader in continuing to promote women’s rights and women’s equality. It is in our interest, our security interest. It is a moral imperative. And it creates a better basis for us to — seek a more peaceful, prosperous, progressive world.” [31] Clinton also stressed this point in a 2009 interview with the New York Times in which she stated, “Obviously, there’s work to be done in both India and China, because the infanticide rate of girl babies is still overwhelmingly high, and unfortunately with technology, parents are able to use sonograms to determine the sex of a baby, and to abort girl children simply because they’d rather have a boy. And those are deeply set attitudes.”[32] Despite acknowledging the destructive and unethical nature of sex-selective abortion, Clinton and her policy allies have thus far been unwilling to address this issue legislatively. Truly, it is in the best interests of the citizens of the United States to establish laws that ban sex-selective abortion. In so doing, we will create and foster an environment where the worth of individuals is not determined by their sex and where women can be free from familial and cultural pressure to abort a child of a certain sex.

The elimination of girls prior to birth is a growing problem globally. Nobuko Horibe, the Director of the United Nations Population Fund’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office, addressed the seriousness of sex selection in her 2011 international forum speech on the issue.

“We must join forces to ensure that sex selection is understood as discrimination against women and girls and should end,” Ms. Horibe said in her speech to experts from 11 Asian, Eastern European and Caucasian nations. “We must accelerate our efforts and give priority to developing programmes and policies that foster norms and an attitude of ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, harmful attitudes and unethical practices, such as prenatal sex selection. Gender equality is at the very heart of each country’s successful development.”[33]

“Zero tolerance” implies that even one girl aborted for the purpose of sex selection is too many. If one instance of prenatal discrimination is not offensive to us as a culture, then why should our moral compass shift when multiple children are affected? And who will be the arbiter of how much sex discrimination via abortion is too much? The unjust practice of eliminating girls or boys based on gender in the womb is far too glaring a problem to ignore.

Prenatal Sex Ratios

The newest and “by far the most comprehensive analysis of prenatal sex ratios ever performed”[34] conducted by Orzack et al. confirms the biological fact that about half of all babies at conception are male. “Our estimate of the sex ratio at conception is 0.5 (proportion male), which contradicts the common claim that the sex ratio at conception is male biased.”[35] Austad, in his analysis of the Orzack et al. research notes, “The slight male bias, typically ∼51.3% of live births, is so consistent that when birth sex ratios deviate much from it, suspicions are aroused of sex-specific abortion or infanticide.”[36]

In fact, the Orzack et al. study includes a thorough investigation of all previous induced abortion studies regarding the sex of preborn children.

Induced Abortions. To our knowledge, there are only 41 studies of the sex of fetuses from induced abortion these data have never before been assembled and analyzed….[37] Analysis of Induced-Abortion Data. Our analysis suggests that female biased mortality causes the CSR [cohort sex ratio] to increase between 2 and 20 wk CA [conception age].[38]

The research also found that there is little to no variation in sex ratios in relation to maternal race or age.[39] The ratio of boys to girls consistently averages around 103-106 boys for every 100 girls (a ratio of 1.03-1.06) thus China’s 2014 ratio of 115.88,[40] for example, is too high to be explained away by non-existent “natural variations” or expensive pre-conception gender selection procedures.

It is well-known that cultural preference for male offspring in some countries results in abortion for the purpose of sex-selection.[41] “As The Economist recently noted in an article entitled, “The War on Baby Girls, Gendercide,” “In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons a modern desire for smaller families and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus.” Whatever the motivation, “For millions of couples, the answer is: abort the daughter, try for a son.”[42]

In a call to end “gender-biased sex selection,” the United Nations Population Fund notes,

Today, more than 117 million women across Asia are “missing,” and many others are missing in Eastern European and Caucasus countries as well – largely the result of gender-biased sex selection, a form of discrimination.

Gender-biased sex selection can be measured using sex ratio at birth, a comparison of the number of boys born versus the number of girls born in a given period. The biologically normal sex ratio at birth can range from 102 to 106 males per 100 females. When many more boys are born than girls, it is a sign that sex selection is taking place. Ratios as high as 130 boys per 100 girls have been observed.[43]

The Role of Preimplantation Sex-Selection

The existence of preimplantation sex-selection procedures (preimplantation genetic diagnosis [PGD] and sperm sorting) are often offered as proof that extremely biased sex ratios in countries like China and India are not the result of sex-selective abortion, but rather PGD. In Western nations, relatively pricey PGD and noninvasive prenatal testing procedures are gaining wider use and popularity, but those instances do little to diminish the existence of abortions performed for reasons of sex selection. Sperm sorting and other assisted reproductive measures do not always result in the desired gender and pre-implanted embryos of the “wrong” gender are likely destroyed, making PGD procedures no less objectionable because they pose the same ethical problems as sex-selective abortion.

The cost-prohibitive nature of preimplantation sex-selective procedures for citizens of the countries that exhibit such imbalanced ratios renders this conclusion suspect. IVF procedures cost tens of thousands of dollars (sperm sorting can cost around $1,000), whereas ultrasounds that determine gender are relatively low-cost and much more widely available globally.[44] Typical citizens of India and China (where gender imbalances are well above average) are likely unable to afford preimplantation procedures, and are, therefore, much more likely to be using post-implantation ultrasounds to determine the sex of their children.[45] Post-implantation sex selection necessarily involves abortion.

Multiple countries, including Canada, have banned the practice of in vitro fertilization for the purposes of sex selection. The commentary on two new Canadian studies that examined the incidence of sex-selective abortion among immigrant populations in Canada, suggests that people in countries that have banned the practice may be taking advantage of the lax regulation in the U.S. by traveling here to practice sex-selective in vitro fertilization.[46]

Sex-Selective Abortion is a Cross-Cultural Problem

Cultural son-preference is manifesting itself globally, and sex selection occurs in Western nations, like the U.S., in favor of both boys and girls. Thus, sex-selective abortion ban proposals are in no way motivated by bias against any particular race or ethnicity. As Eberstadt’s research shows, biased ratios exist cross-culturally and have a significant impact on human relationships and the role of women, globally.

Additionally, the Orzack study established that the consistency of natural sex ratios at conception transcends racial and ethnic boundaries. There is “no association between the mother’s race and the CSR.” “Analysis of limited data (n = 819) suggested that there is no association between mother’s race and the CSR.[47] Thus, studies that show a male-biased sex selection occurring in various Asian nations and Asian immigrant communities in the U.S. are not motivated by racial animus, they simply reflect the fact that CSR numbers have been shown to be consistent globally, without respect to ethnicity, and the extremely male-biased sex ratios in certain communities prove gender discrimination and present major societal and ethical concerns.

In 2013, The Economist highlighted the most recent studies which showed markedly distorted sex ratios in the Caucasus regions.[48] The numbers have risen dramatically since 1991, indicating that male-biased animus toward the female unborn is not diminishing with increased development. The numbers seem to have risen in correlation with the availability of ultrasound machines, whose importation from the West was banned prior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.[49] The correlation serves as further evidence that abortion is the primary culprit behind the rising male-biased sex ratios in these regions. Based on the studies and historical information, the author suggests that a long-held cultural preference for sons is again thriving in the absence of the Soviet regime. Most remarkably, however, based on a 2013 study, the author suggests that there is a much more pervasive “pent-up” desire for sons throughout the world.

A study by John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York think-tank, uses surveys in 61 countries to calculate the sex ratios that would result if parents had the number of sons and daughters they wanted. It turns out that in half the countries, the desired ratio is more than 110 (higher than India’s, which is 108). Armenia and Azerbaijan are among those with the highest rates, but all over the world (especially Africa) parents say they want more sons. As Mr. Bongaarts says, “there is a large pent-up demand for sex selection.” If the Caucasus is a guide, that demand can pretty easily be met.[50]

If the desire for sons is prevalent across cultures and the demand for sex selection via abortion is easily met, there exists an even greater urgency for sex-selection bans. By highlighting the fact that countries outside of India and Asia are demonstrating a propensity to abort females at even higher rates, we must conclude that 1) no culture is immune to gender discrimination in the form of sex-selective abortion, 2) support for sex-selection abortion bans is not motivated by ethnic bias, and 3) immediate action is needed.

Addressing Sex Discrimination through Regulation

Global sex-selective regulations involve not only abortion bans, but more often bans on assisted reproductive technologies, most commonly preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), when used for purposes of sex selection. Such bans consist of explicit prohibitions (for any reason) and prohibitions with qualifications, such as bans containing “medical” exceptions. A 2009 memo from the Center for Genetics and Society presents a comprehensive chart of countries with prohibitions.[51] The Center states that, as of 2009, Austria, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, and Vietnam[52] explicitly prohibit sex-selection, while 31 other nations prohibit the “social” use[53] of sex-selection, including China, India, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.[54] Dr. Sunita Puri, one of the authors of a well-known study on sex selection in the U.S., noted that “more than 30 countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have already banned sex selection on the grounds that it reinforces gender inequality and sets a precedent for legitimizing eventual selection of traits ranging from eye color to intelligence.”[55]

Although not every country prohibits sex-selective abortion specifically, there is obviously a global awareness that prenatal sex-selection is unethical based on the sheer number of countries that prohibit preimplantation sex-selection techniques. The United States is, in fact, lagging behind the rest of the world on this front. The use of PGD, sperm sorting, and noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT) for purposes of choosing the sex of offspring is on the rise in America and presents serious ethical dilemmas including a potential increase in abortion when parents who use the procedures become pregnant with the “wrong” gender. Not only should the United States institute sex-selective abortion bans for the sake of our own citizens, but also as a way to promote women’s equality and women’s rights around the globe.

It is disingenuous and unacceptable for countries, organizations, lawmakers, or individuals to decry sex-discrimination and support bans on preimplantation sex-selection, yet ignore or outright oppose bans on the most virulent form of prenatal sex discrimination – elective abortion.

Male-biased sex ratios and son-preference are a serious global problem, as is all sex discrimination – against either sex. As discussed above, currently, access to preimplantation gender selection is limited and likely cost-prohibitive in most countries with skewed sex ratios while ultrasound access is widespread. Thus, the policy of banning only preimplantation procedures in order to combat prenatal sex discrimination is incomplete. The global problem of sex discrimination via abortion will continue to spread. Focusing only on preimplantation bans without a correlating ban on sex-selective abortion in the U.S. would be inconsistent, incomplete, and ineffective in curbing the practice of gender discrimination via sex selection.

Sex Selection in the U.S. Among Asian and Caucasian Populations

Empirical data shows the existence of sex-selective practices among foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans in the U.S. One major well-respected study, which has been widely cited by both proponents and opponents of sex-selection abortion bans, was conducted by Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund, and is based on Census data from 2000.[56] Most significantly, the Almond/Edlund study found that third births among families with two daughters displayed a ratio of 151 boys to 100 girls – an extreme male-biased ratio. Even attempts to discredit the study confirmed what Almond and Edlund concluded, that male-biased sex ratios existed in the third births of families in these communities.

The overall boy-girl sex ratio of Caucasian-Americans is 1.05 in comparison to Asian-Americans at 1.03 – both within normal range. Thus, some opponents of sex-selection bans claim that sex-selection is not a problem in the U.S. among Asian communities because the overall ratio is normal. Their macro analysis misses the point of the Almond/Edlund study – that son-preference is clearly evident in these communities, but that it manifests itself in third births.

Seema Mohapatra, Assistant Professor of Law, Barry University, summarized the significance of these findings in her 2013 article, Global Legal Responses to Prenatal Gender Identification and Sex Selection:

Although the sex ratios of the oldest child in U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean, and Asian Indian parents do not suggest sex selection, the ratios for subsequent children do suggest that gender-selection practices may be at play. In these populations, if there was no previous son, the second or third child was more often male than should be if sex selection was naturally occurring. If the first child was a girl, the sex ratio for the second child was 1.17 favoring males. If the first two children were girls, the ratio for the third was 1.51 favoring males. In contrast, the sex ratios for white Americans in the United States in the same period were within the range of biologically normal and varied only slightly with parity and sex of previous children. What is significant about these statistics is that these son-biased sex ratios are comparable to those documented for second and third children in India, China, and South Korea.[57]

The latest research out of Canada, released just this week, confirms this phenomenon. The first study, which examines variations in male–female infant ratios among births to Canadian- and Indian-born mothers, from 1990–2011 found that by the third birth, 138 boys were born to Indian-born mothers for every 100 girls, and by the fourth birth, 166 boys were born to every 100 girls.[58] The second study more closely implicates the culprit of such skewed ratios – sex-selective abortion. The study compared sex ratios at birth after induced abortion among Canadian-born and non-Canadian-born women. The study found that within the province (Ontario), women from India who already had two daughters gave birth to 196 boys for every 100 girls. If an Indian-born mother with two daughters received an abortion before her third child, the ratio jumped to 326 boys for every 100 girls, and 409 boys for every 100 girls if the mother had multiple abortions.[59]

Evidence would suggest that families who have had two previous daughters and who come from communities that traditionally favor sons will most likely feel pressure to give birth to a son at some point in their lives, even if they reside in a free society. Heritage and deeply-ingrained cultural practices cannot be easily discarded.

A similar study by Joseph Abrevaya states, “[E]ven if the practice of sex selection were to increase in the United States it would not likely lead to a gender-imbalance problem in the aggregate.” [60] Critics of banning sex-selective abortion look to this conclusion to support their claim that bans are unnecessary. The implications of this stance are that, as a nation, we should be concerned with prenatal sex-discrimination only when the problem becomes so extreme that the birth ratios match those of other countries with extreme bias. Further, such opposition implies that we should make it our policy to confront sex discrimination on principle only when it affects a certain threshold number of people. Who determines what number is sufficient to justify action? If only two or three women were fired by a large corporation because of their sex, would a stand against discrimination be justified, or would we sit on the policy sidelines until the problem affects “enough” women?

Yet another study by Sunita Puri et al.[61] presents a qualitative analysis of the cultural pressure/preference to have male children among a group of 65 South Asian immigrant women seeking to have sons. Consideration of the personal experience of physicians or others in Asian-American communities is an integral part of well-informed policy-making on the issue of sex- selective abortion.

An internal medicine physician, Dr. Puri spent six years interviewing patients and doctors in an attempt to better understand issues related to sex selection in the United States. She elaborated on her journey in an article for Slate.[62] Puri found that sex-selective abortion is, in fact, not uncommon in the United States and that, thanks to lack of consistent policy on the issue, physicians are often ill-equipped to deal with the ethical dilemma. Puri poignantly states,

Unlike their Chinese and Indian counterparts, who cannot legally offer sex selection, American doctors are left to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to perform these procedures, without any consistent ethical guidelines. The reasons American women undergo them are complex, from situations that don’t seem particularly troubling (the upper-middle-class woman who wants a daughter to “balance out” her three boys) to those that are deeply concerning (the immigrant woman who wants a son to avoid emotional abuse by her in-laws).[63]

Puri’s article reveals relevant and important information that results only from lengthy study and experience, and highlights two issues vital to the discussion of sex-selective abortion bans. First, as a society, by neglecting to address sex-selective abortion, our physicians are left with no policy guidelines they can consult regarding the ethics of sex-selective abortion. Second, we must recognize that cultural and familial pressure to give birth to sons is a real problem faced by women in the United States. There are women who are clearly being pressured or coerced into aborting their children based on sex, adding elements of force to a situation of gross discrimination. Both problems can be addressed and mitigated by banning the practice of sex-selective abortion and ensuring broad public awareness of the ban and the principles of equality that underlie it.

An ingrained cultural preference or belief can still permeate the lives of people in prosperous, free societies. I was recently told by an Indian-American doctor, whose views on the subject of sex-selective abortion bans are unknown to me, that although the cultural preference for sons varies in severity across economic, regional, and educational backgrounds, it is “no doubt” still an issue among Indian communities here in the United States. Such personal knowledge and experience are indispensable to well-informed, effective policy-making.

We have additional evidence that sex-selective abortions are taking place regularly in the United States. The non-profit organization Live Action conducted an investigation of abortion clinics nationwide in 2012 and found them willing to perform abortions when the reason given for the abortion was solely sex-selection.[64] Video documentation shows that abortion clinics in Texas, New York, Arizona, Hawaii, and North Carolina all agreed to abort unborn children based solely on sex-based preference.[65]

These investigations demonstrate the utter lack of concern that these clinics had for practices clearly meant to end the life of an unborn child for reasons of sex discrimination. Such cavalier attitudes towards these unethical practices can undoubtedly be traced, in part, to the refusal of our society to enact protections against prenatal sex discrimination. As the laws change, awareness of and concern over sex discrimination will undoubtedly shift. Additionally, if these clinics were so openly willing to perform sex-selective procedures, we can only guess at the magnitude of the actual problem when we consider the large number of abortion clinics around the country and the competitive pressures between them.

The Necessity of Sex-Selective Abortion Restrictions

Even the UNFPA and other global organizations have acknowledged the serious implications of male-biased sex selection and advocated taking steps to remedy the problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that the problem is widespread, dangerous for society, and a serious obstacle to gender equality,

Sex selection for non-medical reasons raises serious moral, legal, and social issues. The principal concerns are that the practice of sex selection will

  1. distort the natural sex ratio leading to a gender imbalance and
  2. reinforce discriminatory and sexist stereotypes towards women by devaluing females.

In some countries, such as India and China, it is commonly known that the practice of sex-selective abortion has resulted in distortions of the natural sex ratio, in favour of males. In addition, there is concern that sex selection involves inappropriate control over nonessential characteristics of children and may place a potential psychological burden on, and hence cause harm to, sex-selected offspring.[66]

Former Secretary of State Clinton also acknowledged in her 2013 MSNBC interview that sex discrimination via abortion has far-reaching consequences,

Think of what that’s going to mean in certain parts of the world, particularly Asia — where this imbalance is most acute — when you have a very large population of young men who can’t find wives. A kind of — potential social instability that that breeds. So this is not only about the tragedy of young girls not being given what is needed in order to survive and live, but what it might mean in terms of too many young men.[67]

In fact, a recent article in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine discussing early prenatal testing highlighted the concern that fewer women in a society increases the risk of violence against women and the demand for sex trafficking.[68]

It is imperative that a solution to the problem of sex-selection include a ban on the most obvious and widely available method, sex-selection abortion.

The focus in enacting such laws should not be whether the sex ratios/data show a specified level of disparity, but rather on whether such laws have the potential to protect any person from sex-discrimination. Additionally, it is important to implement policies that take a moral stance on our deeply-held republican ideals because they serve as invaluable instruction in ethical societal practice, regardless of quantifiable outcomes. Claiming that the lack of precisely identifiable numbers of children saved from sex discrimination via sex-selective abortions justifies opposition to sex-selective abortion bans serves to perpetuate the unethical position that only saving a certain number of children could justify laws banning the practice.

Research and anecdotal evidence shows that sex-selective gender discrimination is taking place often in the U.S., justifying legislative action. Sex-selective abortion bans serve to educate the public on the unethical practice of prenatal discrimination. Such education creates and fosters social mores that reject unjust practices. If we, as a society, refuse to enact legislation that could spare the lives of even a few people from a lethal form of sex discrimination, then we delegitimize the moral claim that sex discrimination is wrong in the first place.

Normalization of sex ratios in South Korea in recent years has been used as evidence that evolving norms and economic development minimize the male-biased ratios absent sex selective bans.[69] This assertion, however, fails to account for the context that abortion in general is and has been illegal in South Korea since 1953, with the only exceptions being rape, incest, and severe genetic disorders.[70] In fact, it has been noted that in more recent years, South Korea has even more strictly enforced its ban on abortion due to a lower overall birthrate.[71] Thus, it seems clear that as South Korea advanced economically, the long-time ban on abortion in general has played an important role in the dramatic sex ratio balancing in South Korea.

An additional factor in the sharp decline, as noted by Eberstadt, was a significant cultural shift, “stigmatizing the practice” (of female feticide). The societal shift was the result of a national conversation on the serious problem of female feticide and the implications of the practice on society and families.[72] Introduction, support, and implementation of bans on sex selective abortion in the U.S. can precipitate a national discussion on the problem of sex discrimination through abortion and its consequences, domestically and globally.

When faced with a problem as widespread as sex discrimination via abortion, a multi-faceted attack on the injustice is warranted. Because abortions remain underreported and because of the seriousness of the offense of sex discrimination, a sex-selection abortion ban is the most practical tool in the fight against “gendercide.”

Sex-Selection Bans Should Transcend Party Lines

The claim that banning all abortion is the “primary motivation” for anyone who supports a sex-selective abortion ban is often repeated by opponents of the measures. Such statements constitute a sweeping generalization for the purpose of distracting the public from the very serious problem of prenatal sex discrimination. The Republican/Democratic divide on proposed bans serves only as an admission that liberal policy groups and liberal lawmakers are not opposed to all forms of sex discrimination.

If there is a very real threat of sex discrimination in this country – discrimination that has been condemned openly by the United Nations and Hillary Clinton, among others – then those who truly cling to the ideals of equality will not be swayed from addressing it by political or ideological pressure. Allowing a political party affiliation or a disagreement about abortion as a whole to interfere with passing a law that would protect people from a practice one agrees is unethical is a sad state of affairs. The American public is clearly in overwhelming opposition to the practice of aborting children based on sex as evidenced by the polls.

Sex-Selective Bans Are not a Threat to Women or Women’s Health

Some opponents have expressed concerns that women’s healthcare would be negatively affected by the bans or that pregnant women would face prosecution for violations of the bans. Such fears are completely unfounded. Currently, only those who perform the sex-selective procedure and those who have coerced or solicited the pregnant mother to have the procedure are liable under the bans. Furthermore, even as to the limited scope of individuals’ potential liability under those laws, intent, knowledge, and/or reckless disregard is required. Whereas sex discrimination is currently a reality in the United States, the fear that bans would result in “denial of health care” is mere speculation and simply an attempt to obfuscate the discussion and frustrate passage of sex-selective bans. Additionally, the unfounded claim that women’s “healthcare” would be negatively affected by sex-selection bans assumes that selecting a child of a desired gender is a legitimate part of “healthcare” rather than what it really is – sex discrimination and an attempt to create specific “types” of offspring to satisfy parental or family preference.

In contrast to claims that such bans would jeopardize the mother’s health, the actual threat facing pregnant mothers in relation to selective abortion is coercion, as previously discussed. Pressure to abort in communities where son preference exists is a reality for some women in the United States. Dr. Puri documented the sad predicament of women who were aborting their daughters in the United States because of pressure from family members.[73] Sex-selective abortion bans protect women who find themselves in such situations because they often provide for the punishment of persons involved in the coercion.[74]

“When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society – so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged.” These words by early feminist Maddie H. Brinckerhoff seem to have faded from our national discourse.[75] The problem of sex-selective abortion is rooted in something much deeper that the practice itself. It is rooted in the failure of our nation to recognize that sex-selective abortion tears at the very fabric of liberty by denying equal protection under the law to a segment of the population. If discrimination against a girl or boy on the basis of sex after he or she is born is prohibited, why then do we refuse to enact laws that protect those same children from lethal sex-discrimination prior to birth? We have thus far done a disservice to women and society as a whole by refusing to educate our citizenry on the importance of equality under the law in every instance of sex discrimination – including prenatal sex discrimination.

Such discrimination also presents the complex ethical questions of birthing children merely to fulfill parental preferences and expectations. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine notes that sex-selection “fails to evidence unconditional parental acceptance of their children in appropriate respects.”[76] Researchers Chapman and Benn echo this concern, stating that sex selection of offspring (specifically in reference to non-invasive prenatal testing [NIPT] procedures) “treats the child as an artifact of the reproductive process and as an opportunity to design children according to parental standards of excellence.”[77]

Such alarming practices demonstrate a pressing need for implementation of policy in the U.S. that will unequivocally label sex-selective abortion as a form of sex discrimination and prohibit its practice.

We can turn the tide of prenatal discrimination by first acknowledging the obvious, that prenatal sex-discrimination in all its forms is unethical and unacceptable. We must accept that sex-selective abortions occur globally, even in the United States, and acknowledge the serious consequences that result from gender imbalances and the refusal to condemn sex-selective abortion. Sex-selective abortion perpetuates sex discrimination in general and specifically, in many countries, the attitude that male children are preferable and somehow superior to female children.

Reversal of sex discrimination in the United States begins with implementing sex-selective abortion bans, considering regulations of preimplantation sex selection, and instituting national abortion reporting requirements. Allowing these facts to inform our public policy and taking the steps necessary to eliminate sex-selective abortion will put the United States squarely on the frontlines in fighting the actual “war on women.” Such a stance will create a platform from which the U.S. can affirm the unique value of each individual, and can publicly condemn unjust discrimination against either sex.

Anna Higgins, J.D. is an associate scholar for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

[1] Hvistendahl, M. (2011) Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Public Affairs Publishing, p. 5-6. Hvistendahl estimates that 163 million females were demographically “missing” from Asia alone as early as 2005. See also, It’s a girl, The Economist. The War on Baby Girls, Gendercide. March 4, 2010. United Nations Population Fund, Prenatal Sex Selection.

[2] Littlejohn, R., Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. (2015, April 9). Chinese Men Outnumber Women by 33 Million After Decades of Gender Bias. Retrieved from

[3] A.R. Chapman, P.A. Benn (Autumn 2013). Noninvasive Prenatal Testing for Early Sex Identification: A Few Benefits and Many Concerns. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, VOL. 56 NO. 4, pp. 530-547. Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0034.

[4] Draft Agreed Conclusions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and Violence

Against the Girl Child, Commission on the Status of Women, 51st Session (26 February – 9 March 2007) resolving that we should, “Eliminate all forms of discrimination against the girl child and the root causes of son preference, which results in harmful and unethical practices regarding female infanticide and prenatal sex selection, which may have significant repercussions on society as a whole.” Retrieved from

/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/csw/51/csw51_e_final.pdf See also, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee on Ethics Committee Opinion. (2007 February). Sex Selection. (Number 360), 2. Noting, “Although health care providers may not ethically withhold medical information from patients who request it, they are not obligated to perform an abortion, or other medical procedure, to select fetal sex.” Retrieved from

[6] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” The New Atlantis, Number 33, Fall 2011, pp. 3-18. Noting, “In both the United States and the United Kingdom, these gender disparities were due largely to sharp increases in higher-parity SRBs, strongly suggesting that sex-selective abortions were the driver. The American and British cases also point to the possibility that sex-selective abortion may be common to other subpopulations in developed or less developed societies, even if these do not affect the overall SRB for each country as a whole.” Retrieved from

[7] A.R. Chapman, P.A. Benn (Autumn 2013). Noninvasive Prenatal Testing for Early Sex Identification: A Few Benefits and Many Concerns. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, VOL. 56 NO. 4, pp. 530-547. Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0034

[8] D Prentice. (2015, Feb 18). Written Testimony of David A. Prentice, Ph.D. In Support of Indiana’s SB 334. Retrieved from

[9] A.R. Chapman, P.A. Benn (Autumn 2013). Noninvasive Prenatal Testing for Early Sex Identification: A Few Benefits and Many Concerns. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, VOL. 56 NO. 4, pp. 530-547. Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0034

[10] Charlotte Lozier Institute, Sex-selection Abortion: Worldwide Son-bias Fueled by Population Policy Abuse, May 30, 2012. . Noting that, “The CLI poll of 1,016 U.S. adults found that, overall, 77 percent of respondents answered ‘yes’ when asked, “When the fact that the developing baby is a girl is the sole reason for seeking an abortion, do you believe that abortion should be illegal?” Only 16 percent of all respondents said that abortion should be legal in this circumstance. Among women, support for a law making sex-selection abortion illegal is higher (80-13 percent) than it is among men, who favor such a law by a margin of 74-18 percent. Support for a protective law is found among all age groups, but is highest among those age 45-54 where a ban is supported 87-11 percent. By region, support for a ban ranges from a high of 81 percent in the Midwest and South to 68 percent in the West.”

[12] ETHICS PAPER FROM AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE (ASRM) ASRM Pages, VOL. 103 NO. 6, June 2015, pp 1418-22. Ethics Committee of ASRM, ASRM, Birmingham, AL. “Use of reproductive technology for sex selection for nonmedical reasons.”

[13] 9 Orzack SH, et al. (2015). The human sex ratio from conception to birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas.1416546112

[14] Donovan, C. A., & Sullivan, N. (2012 December 1). Charlotte Lozier Institute. American Reports Series Abortion Reporting Laws: Tears in the Fabric Retrieved from

[16] Id. Donovan, C. A., & Sullivan, N. Citing Minnesota as an example of a state that has a cost-effective, efficient reporting method.

[17] Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 at 544 (1896). The Court in Plessy validated “separate but equal” state laws noting that the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.”

[18] J. E. B. v. Alabama ex rel. T. B. 511 U.S. 127 at 136 (1994).

[19]Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964), “An Act: To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.”

[20] Id. at Title VII, making it unlawful to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

[21] Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2008).

[22] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey 505 U.S. 833 at 846 (1992).

[24] See also, Testimony of Steven H. Aden, Vice President/Senior Counsel, Human Life Issues, Alliance Defense Fund. Hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution Regarding H.R. 3541, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act. (2011 December 6). Testifying that “[T]he Supreme Court has made it clear that States have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination against women and minorities. Moreover, the Casey Court also affirmed the principle that “the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus….” [punctuation is off here – quotation marks]

[25] Chapman and Benn referencing Barbara Katz Rothman, The Tentative Pregnancy: Prenatal Diagnosis and the Future of Motherhood. (1986).

[26] Brief at 18, This brief argues more fully, “[T]his Court has never endorsed a right to abort children only because they have been detected to have a disability. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), this Court repeatedly premised its reaffirmation of abortion rights in terms of the right to terminate an unintended pregnancy.” The brief goes on to argue “This Court quoted approvingly from its statement in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 453 (1972), that the liberty under consideration in Casey pertained to “the decision whether to bear or beget a child,” Casey, 505 U.S. at 851. This Court has never framed the protected abortion decision as whether to bear or abort a particular child based on identified traits of genetic variation, disability, or other health condition. Instead,” the brief argues, “Casey formulated the abortion decision as one confronting a woman ‘when the woman confronts the reality that, despite her attempts to avoid it, she has become pregnant,” id. at 853 – not when she accepts a pregnancy at first, but then comes to perceive the child she is carrying as defective.” The same analysis should apply to sex-discrimination abortion.

[27] Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, “Sex Ratio, Country Comparison to the World.”

[28] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” The New Atlantis, Number 33, Fall 2011, pp. 3-18. Noting, “Estimates by the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) and the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Programs Center (IPC) — the two major organizations charged with tracking and projecting global population trends — make the point. According to estimates based on IPC data, a total of 21 countries or territories (including a number of European and Pacific Island areas) had SRBs of 107 or higher in the year 2010 the total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.” From

[32] Landler, M. (August 18, 2009). Saving the World’s Women. A New Gender Agenda. The New York Times Magazine.

[33] United Nations Population Fund, News. (5 October 2011). Ending Gender Imbalances Must Remain International Priority, Says UNFPA’s Asia-Pacific Director. Retrieved from

[34] Austad S.N., The human prenatal sex ratio a major surprise. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA in reference to 9 Orzack S. H., et al. (2015) The human sex ratio from conception to birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas.1416546112.

[35] 9 Orzack S. H., et al. (2015) The human sex ratio from conception to birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas.1416546112 at 1.

[37] Id. Orzack, S.H. at 2. Noting, “It is almost certain that all fetuses were naturally conceived (most analyses were published before 1978, when ART was introduced) and virtually all were sampled randomly with respect to fetal health and sex. The methods used to assign sex were histology (1 study), karyotype (20 studies), morphology (3 studies), and sex chromatin (17 studies). Thirty-nine studies specify trimester for each fetus of these, 12 studies provide data allowing a CSR [cohort sex ratio] estimate for trimester 1 and for trimester 2. Twenty-four studies specify gestational age in weeks.”

[38] Id. at 7. Addressing the effect of artificial reproductive technology and sex ratios, “Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) “i)The birth sex ratio of babies conceived via ART matches the birth sex ratio of babies conceived naturally. ii) The birth sex ratio for ART with in vivo conception and the birth sex ratio for ART with in vitro conception appear to be identical.” Pg 6) (And, “This increase [weeks 2-20] is consistent with the inference from the ART analysis that the early CSR could be female-biased. Induced abortion studies reporting female-biased first-trimester CSR estimates appear to be carefully done (17, 80–85). In addition, refs. 48 and 86–88 described female-biased CSRs for first trimester spontaneous abortions, but see ref. 89).”

[39] Id. at 3. Orzack et al. further explained the methodology, “We analyzed maternal age (MA) as a metric predictor of the CSR (Table 4). The model without age has strong support (ER ∼ 33), which suggests that there is no association between the CSR and maternal age most studies indicate that maternal age has little or no influence on the sex ratio at birth (45–46). Analysis of limited data (n = 819) suggested that there is no association between mother’s race and the CSR. We compared an overall model, a model stratified between black and nonblack mothers, and a model stratified between white and nonwhite mothers. The overall model had substantially greater support than either stratified model.” Orzack’s research does not indicate that birth order affects the consistent CSR – an approximately equal balance of boys and girls at conception.

[40] Littlejohn, R., Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. (2015, April 9). Chinese Men Outnumber Women by 33 Million After Decades of Gender Bias. Retrieved from

[41] The Economist. The War on Baby Girls, Gendercide. March 4, 2010.

[43] United Nations Population Fund, Prenatal Sex Selection. See also, Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Public Affairs Publishing, p. 5-6 (2011) It’s a Girl,

[45] See, The Economist. The War on Baby Girls, Gendercide. March 4, 2010. Noting, “IMAGINE you are one half of a young couple expecting your first child in a fast-growing, poor country. You are part of the new middle class your income is rising you want a small family. But traditional mores hold sway around you, most important in the preference for sons over daughters… . Now imagine that you have had an ultrasound scan it costs $12, but you can afford that. The scan says the unborn child is a girl. You yourself would prefer a boy the rest of your family clamours for one. You would never dream of killing a baby daughter, as they do out in the villages. But an abortion seems different. What do you do?”

[46] Abdool S. Yasseen III MSc GDip, Thierry Lacaze-Masmonteil MD PhD. early release COMMENTARY Male-Biased Infant sex ratios and patterns of induced abortion. CMAJ, April 11, 2016 DOI:10.1503 /cmaj.160183

[47] Orzack S. H., et al. (2015) The human sex ratio from conception to birth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 10.1073/pnas.1416546112

[49] Id. “As elsewhere, cheap ultrasound machines, which can detect the sex of a foetus, made a difference. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, such machines were rare because parts had military use and their export from the West was banned. As they spread after 1991, sex-selective abortions rose.”

[50] Id. See also, Bongaarts, J. (2013, June). The Implementation of Preferences for Male Offspring. Population and Development Review, Vol 39, No 2.

[51] Countries with laws or policies on sex selection, Marcy Darnovsky, Center for Genetics and Society, April 2009 This memo was prepared for the April 13, 2009 New York City sex-selection meeting, and updated May 9 to correct two errors.

[52] Kosovo enacted a prohibition on February 4, 2009, as noted in FN 42 in Myths article (Law No. 03/L-110 on the Termination of Pregnancy (promulgated by the Government of Kosovo, Jan. 22, 2009, effective Feb. 4, 2009) at art 14.

[53] “‘Social uses prohibited’ means that sex selection is permitted for ‘medical reasons’ – that is, for situations in which an embryo or fetus might be affected by a serious sex-linked disease.”

[54] A full list of the countries that limit sex-selective abortion for non-medical purposes is as follows: Australia, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

[55] Sunita P., (2011, August 2). I Know it’s a Girl and I Need Your Help to Get it Out of Me. Slate.

[56] Almond, D. & Edlund, L. (2008) Son-Biased Sex Ratios in the 2000 United States Census 105 PNAS 5681

[57] Mohapatra, S. (Spring 2013) Global Legal Responses to Prenatal Gender Identification and Sex Selection. Nevada Law Journal. Vol 13. No. 3. 690.

[58] Urquia ML, Ray JG, Wanigaratne S, et al. Variations in male– female infant ratios among births to Canadian- and Indian-born mothers, 1990–2011: a population-based register study. CMAJ Open 2016 4(2):E116-23.

[59] Urquia ML, Moineddin R, Jha P, et al. Sex ratios at birth after induced abortion. CMAJ 2016 Apr. 11 [Epub ahead of print].

[60] Abrevaya, J. (2009, April). Are There Missing Girls in the United States? Evidence for Prenatal Gender Selection. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Vol 1 No. 2. 1-34.

[61] Puri, S. et al., (2011, April). There is Such a Thing as Too Many Daughters, but Not Too Many Sons A qualitative Study of Son Preference and Fetal Sex Selection among Indian Immigrants in the United States. Social Science & Medicine. Vol 72. 1169-76. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.01.027

[62] Puri, S. (2011, August 2). I Know it’s a Girl and I Need Your Help to Get it Out of Me. Slate.

[64] Live Action. Retrieved from

[66] World Health Organization Genomic Resource Centre, Gender and Genetics. Sex Selection and Discrimination, Ethical Issues Raised by Sex Selection.

[68] A.R. Chapman, P.A. Benn (Autumn 2013). Noninvasive Prenatal Testing for Early Sex Identification: A Few Benefits and Many Concerns. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, VOL. 56 NO. 4, pp. 530-547. Johns Hopkins University Press. DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2013.0034.

[70] South Korea Upholds Abortion Ban (August 23, 2012) The Guardian. South Korea’s Highest Court Upholds Abortion Ban.

[72] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” The New Atlantis, Number 33, Fall 2011, pp. 3-18. Noting, “…South Korea’s SRB reversal was influenced less by government policy than by civil society: more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honoring, protecting, and prizing daughters. In effect, this movement — drawing largely but by no means exclusively on the faith-based community — sparked a national conversation of conscience about the practice of female feticide. This conversation was instrumental in stigmatizing the practice, not altogether unlike the way in which nationwide conversations of conscience helped to stigmatize international slave-trading in other countries in earlier times.” Retrieved from

[73] Puri, S. (2011, August 2). I Know it’s a Girl and I Need Your Help to Get it Out of Me. Slate.

[74] H.R. 3541 Sec. 3(a), adding Sec. 249(a)(2), (3) of Ch. 13, tit. 18 U.S.C. (2011).

[75] Brinckerhoff, M. H. (September 2, 1869). The Revolution. 4 (9): 138 – 139

[76] ETHICS PAPER FROM AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE (ASRM) ASRM Pages, VOL. 103 NO. 6, June 2015, pp 1418-22. Ethics Committee of ASRM, ASRM, Birmingham, AL. “Use of reproductive technology for sex selection for nonmedical reasons.”

Conquering Metabesity: What Does The Government Do For The Longevity Of Their Citizens?

While it may seem from the media that the world is constantly in the state of critical collapse, it is not as bad as it seems and the level of welfare is increasing even in the farthest developing countries. Did you know that the average life expectancy in the world, including the countries commonly perceived as less privileged, is 73.2 years? If not, before reading any further, please check out the table on the life expectancy by Wordometers and find your country on the list. The US currently ranks 46 with an average life expectancy of 79.11 between Cuba (79.18) and Panama (79.1). If you are born in Hong Kong today, a city in China (77.47), which ranks first on the list (85.29), you should expect to live on average 6 years, or about 7.5% longer than the average American.

I have Worldometers bookmarked and check it every morning when I wake up to see how many people died of aging while I was asleep to get more motivation to go through the day, think of more ways to generate QALY, and avoid being distracted by less important issues. And it constantly puzzles me why the countries that spend the most on healthcare and research are not there at the top of the list in terms of average life expectancy. And, why are countries not competing on life expectancy while competing on pretty much everything else?

Dr. Alexander Fleming, Kinexum

And I could not think of a better group of people to ask this question than Thomas Seoh and Dr. Alexander Fleming, of Kinexum, who with Stanford Professor Lawrence Steinman, founded the Metabesity conference which brings together some of the most important decision makers in the government, academia, and the industry.

These Are The Startups Applying AI To Tackle Climate Change

Elon Musk’s Big Neuralink Paper: Should We Prepare For The Digital Afterlife?

AI Centers Of Excellence Accelerate AI Industry Adoption

Thomas Seoh, Kinexum, Metabesity Conference

On September 11, 2020, they organized the industry’s first panel on the regulatory considerations for aging biomarkers. It included senior officials from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: Let’s address the most important question I posed in this article. You recruit senior regulators at Metabesity events. Why don’t we see governments competing on the longevity of their citizens and some of the most developed countries that technically drive progress in science and technology are so far behind?

Dr. Alexander Fleming: First, regulators, medicine, industry and the general population have not historically viewed aging as a disease or condition to be treated or cured, but rather as an unalterable human condition. There is not yet adequate awareness of the abundant evidence that geroscience has amassed that biological aging can be delayed or even reversed. Decision makers do not appreciate that this science can be applied to prevent or delay major chronic diseases and thereby substantially improve health and quality of life and reduce healthcare costs.

Second, when the general public is asked if they want materially longer lives, many tend to picture a dependent nonagenarian in a wheelchair or an ICU bed, instead of a vigorous, healthy, mentally alert senior equivalent to those decades younger. The emphasis of geroscientists is to increase heathspan, the period of life free of chronic disease and not just to increase lifespan.

Third, many people are uncertain about the socioeconomic and cultural implications of extended healthspan, in terms of retirement, new careers, personal finance, and making way for new generations.

Education of policy makers and lawmakers and voters about the promise of advancing science and medicine for extending healthy longevity, the unsustainability of the current trajectory of health care costs and the qualitative and quantitative benefits of “the longevity dividend” is the key.

But to specifically answer your question, Alex, some countries ARE leading the way: UK, Singapore, Switzerland, and others. The UK, has adopted a national goal of extending healthspan by 5 years by 2035, with more equitable access. The US is behind such leaders in even recognizing healthy longevity as a national priority, and we need to spark an enlightened “arms race” to harvest “the healthy longevity dividend”. But first, we have to educate our citizenry that geroscience has shown us that it is now no longer a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’ we can delay or even reverse biological aging. We need widespread understanding that healthy, vital elderly are assets, not liabilities.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: What steps should the government take to accelerate the progress in aging research and translation of aging research into clinical practice?

Dr. Alexander Fleming: A major challenge to Big Pharma and investors entering the field is the lack of clear regulatory pathways and evidence needed for approving both drugs and nutritional products with health span claims. Today, if a company approaches the FDA with a product that reduces the aging process, the agency would probably only give approvals for reducing risk of one chronic disease or another, and that would not reflect the full value of the product. Worse would be the scenario in which the product is not approved even though it results in consistent positive effects across multiple chronic diseases, but none of the effects on the individual diseases is sufficient to support approval of any individual disease indication. The largest uncertainty facing developers of these products is the evidence that would be required to support a health span claim. We need to hear from FDA that it can approve products under the above scenario. This would enable trials of 3-5 years’ duration instead of the decade it might take to show convincing preventive effects in healthy populations on individual diseases…. Investors will not get behind trials that have to be long and large enough to show large effects on delaying each chronic age-related disease. The costs, times and risks of such trials are beyond the ability of an investor to consider. There are creative trial design approaches that can feasibly provide convincing evidence, but FDA’s willingness to accept them is needed. Federal legislation, analogous to the Orphan Drug Act and the 21st Century Cures Act, for encouraging FDA to provide clear guidance and incentivize the development of these products could be game-changing.

By the way, such interventions should not be limited to drugs or biologics but include a range of modalities, including nutritional product supplements and medical devices, including mobile apps and sensors. Other measures, like exercise and social interventions, are also important but do not involve regulations. Additional legislation and public policies could declare healthy longevity a national interest and set a national ‘moonshot’ goal (like the UK’s goar to extend healthspan by 5 years by 2035). Additional studies will further quantitate how much the longevity dividend would, net of increased benefit costs for longer-lived elderly, save on public health care costs and create economic value.

Federal appropriations can also supplement resources in addition to those dedicated to researching individual chronic diseases. Today, there is sort of a ‘whack a mole’ problem: heroic efforts are made to save a patient from heart disease, only for them to die from cancer a few years later if heroic measures beat back the cancer, the patient succumbs to dementia. While we should certainly continue to invest in research into diabetes and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer, we should invest a small portion of the billions of dollars going into the War on Diabetes, the War on Obesity, the War on Alzheimer’s, and the War on Cancer, into ways to delay or even reverse biological aging, and thereby prevent or delay all or a number of these chronic diseases.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: What is Metabesity and what is the story behind it?

Dr. Alexander Fleming: I coined the word “Metabesity”, around 2013, to name the constellation of age-related chronic diseases, from diabetes to cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases to cancer to the aging process itself, all with shared metabolic roots, which therefore may be targeted together with common solutions. The intent of naming this target was to encourage concerted effort to invest in and achieve solutions to prevent multiple diseases—and not wait to manage them. Metabesity is sometimes confused with metabolic syndrome and obesity, which are drivers of Metabesity but far from being the only drivers. The emerging geroscience convinced me that after the great successes of medicine against acute diseases and conditions the next frontier could be the prevention of chronic age-related diseases and disabilities. This is a passion on which I want to focus the remainder of my professional life. Around 2016, my co-chair, Larry Steinman, co-discoverer of the MS drug Tysabri and multiple other therapies and long-time former head of the Stanford’s immunology program, and I organized a conference on this motivating theme. Our inaugural conference was in London in October, 2017, set across the street from Wembley Stadium in London. Alex, you were there, and made quite a mark, along with other leaders from various disciplines. We held the next conference at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC in October 2019, and here we are now, as a virtual conference in October 2020 due to the pandemic. This has been a pro bono labor of love, and the losses have been covered by our strategic regulatory and clinical development advisory firm, Kinexum. This year, we established the not-for-profit Kitalys Institute to take over organization of future Metabesity conferences and support other initiatives aimed at supporting healthy longevity.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: I decided to dedicate my life to aging research and longevity biotechnology almost 20 years ago and back then it was a very barren place. There were only a few scientists to follow, few companies, and definitely less funding. However, during the past decade, the situation seems to have changed dramatically. Even the pharmaceutical companies are looking closely at aging. What do you think was the main catalyst for this acceleration? In your opinion, what are the main discoveries made over the past few years that will help drive the longevity ecosystem?

Thomas Seoh: I’m no historian of geroscience, but certainly important scientific and technological milestones have created a mounting sense of excitement - from the discovery that the lifespans of different species, from yeast to worms to rodents, could be extended by genetic and molecular pathway intervention. Other milestones include the demonstration that an old mouse sharing a circulatory system with a young mouse rejuvenates while the younger mouse ages, the reprogramming of mature cells into young, pluripotent cells utilizing Yamanaka factors, and the discovery of epigenetic biological clocks and other biomarkers of aging. Accelerating advances in molecular, cellular and systems biology, rocket-boosted by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, your field of expertise, Alex, where you have made substantial contributions, indicate that geroscience discoveries will continue to grow explosively for the foreseeable future. The small town you arrived at 20 years ago is now explosively growing into a megalopolis.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: I attended the recent panel you put together with the FDA and NIH on the regulatory issues around the biological aging clocks. One of the questions was on the barriers for using the deep aging clocks developed using artificial intelligence in clinical trials. And I was very surprised when Dr. Robert Temple of the FDA said that there are fewer barriers than we think and that the introduction of such clocks may not overcomplicate the trial or put it at risk. Can you expand on this issue and on the future of aging clocks in clinical trials?

Thomas Seoh: That discussion between pre-eminent thought leader Bob Temple from the FDA and some of the leading experts in biological clocks and other biomarkers of aging was indeed elucidating, and an important start of a “cultural exchange” between the innovator scientists and the regulators. First, we should explain that biological clocks and other biomarkers of aging measure biochemical and other biometric values to estimate a biological age that may be more indicative of health and the amount of lifespan an individual may have left than her chronological age - we all know people who seem young and well-preserved for their age, or who seem older and frail beyond their years. It’s important to recognize a distinction in what Dr. Temple said: he was fine with, indeed very supportive of, how tools like biological clocks and other biomarkers of aging could be used to inform selection of drug candidates, enrich clinical trial populations, generate hypotheses for testing whether clinical benefits could be demonstrated, etc. But one critical role developers of interventions against biological aging hanker for is biomarkers to be ‘promoted’ into surrogate markers or registrable endpoints that can be the basis for approval of therapies for the market. This is important because in the absence of biomarkers, actual clinical benefit would need to be demonstrated for a therapy that purports to extend lifespan, a clinical trial would have to demonstrate, for example, that those on the intervention lived longer compared to controls, which could take years for such a trial to complete. And here, Dr. Temple noted that historically, it took decades of emerging scientific and medical consensus to elevate biomarkers such as blood pressure, cholesterol, hemoglobin A1c or viral load to surrogate markers or registrable endpoints deemed sufficiently predictive of heart attack, stroke, diabetes or AIDS to serve as the basis of approval. So he was saying use biological clocks and other biomarkers of aging however they may be deemed useful guidance for product development. But, to gain regulatory approval, sufficiently long and large clinical trials are needed to demonstrate an intervention's clinical benefit (like improved function or longer survival). These outcome trials can be used to validate biomarkers as predictive of such a clinical benefit so that they can become the basis for approval of future interventions.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: In your opinion, why did the resTORbio trial on rapalogs fail? Could they have done better if they were to use aging clocks?

Dr Alexander Fleming: The resTORbio trial did fail on the primary endpoint of the percentage of subjects with clinically symptomatic respiratory illness. However, demonstrating benefits on symptoms is a very high bar, if not an unreasonable one for an initial phase 3 trial for a first in class and indication therapy. The trial actually did show some encouraging results and there is good reason to pursue development in higher risk populations. COVID-19 might provide such an opportunity.

Using a deep aging clock would not have altered the regulatory result, that the trial failed to meet the primary endpoint(s). However, deep aging clock data could well help to generate hypotheses about responsive subgroups or other factors for testing in further trials. Again, the goal of the field, to seek approval if an intervention moved the needle to the requisite extent on the clock, remains distant, according to Bob Temple, until the clock has been ‘validated’ by trials demonstrating the agreed upon and required clinical benefits.

Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov: And my final question. You first invited me to speak at Metabesity London in 2017. And despite the event being rather small, the level of the speakers was staggering. You had Tomas Olssen, the chair of the Nobel Assembly that selects the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, Sir. John Bell, one of the world’s most famous Canadian physician-scientists, top executives from the UK National Health Services, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and other government officials, and big pharma executives. How do you manage to get this level of speakers to present at the conference? I assume that you can not simply call them up? What is your secret?

Thomas Seoh: Actually, it is that simple, we ask them, but the secret sauce is the extent and quality of connections of co-chairs Larry Steinman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Zan, with his deep regulatory and clinical connections. Also, a couple of distinctive features of our Metabesity conferences are that (i) like Steven Spielberg is said to have started making movies he wanted to watch, we organize conferences we want to attend and (ii) we try to avoid it being a parade of lectures from the podium - we try to put together a dinner salon comprised of leaders from various disciplines, rather than put on a music concert. So as one example among many of a session I am really looking forward to at Metabesity 2020, there is a session in the lifestyle track on exercise entitled Why is Exercise Geroprotective? Molecular and Evolutionary Perspectives with geroscientist Tom Rando (a Stanford colleague of Larry Steinman) and evolutionary biologist and cultural anthropologist Dan Lieberman of Harvard (whom I heard at my 25th college reunion), moderated by Judy Foreman, longtime science journalist and author of Exercise is Medicine (recruited by Adriane Berg, Executive Director of the Kitalys Institute, from her own very broad network). I think the word has gotten around that we put on an insightful and important yet fun dinner salon at Metabesity, and a number of speakers want to come chat with other speakers and our sophisticated audience. You know, there are conferences on how human lifespan might be expanded to centuries, and those on how to make money investing in the longevity space our distinct ‘lane’ is translating emerging science into material, accessible gains in public health. This starts with clinical translation but extends to daunting challenges in the commercial, public policy, healthcare practice, and consumer behavior domains. To come up with practical ways forward requires bringing a large, diverse set of smart committed people together across what are traditionally subject matter or functional silos—and that makes it fresh and exciting for the speakers and the attendees.

Targeting Metabesity 2020: Extending Healthspan will transpire 12-15 of October as a free virtual conference and will bring together many top academics, clinicians, government officials, pharmaceutical companies, and startups.

Biology Exam 1

Moths with longer proboscises are more likely to have access to the orchid nectar and are therefore more likely to survive to reproduction.

Metabolism - Autotrophs use energy from the sun

Homeostasis - Maintenance of internal constancy is called _______

Reproduction, growth, or development - Going through puberty to reach maturity is part of _______

Domain - Eukarya, the most inclusive taxonomic category, taxonomic group containing all bacteria

Bacteria - a streptococcus bacterium

Dependent - You measure the boiling point of water at various altitudes You measure the freezing point of water in the presence of various amounts of salt

Hydrolysis - water molecules are broken apart, polymers are broken apart, occurs in your stomach as part of digestion

2 nonpolar covalent bonds - two atoms that are not very electronegative are attracted to each other and they share electrons

3 hydrogen bonds - one polar molecule is attracted to another polar molecule

Essential bulk element - carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, calcium

Dehydration synthesis is involved in reactions that combine organic monomers to produce polymers.

Neutral - pure water, pH of 7

Lipid - Its main feature is its water-repellent property, stored in adipose tissue

Nucleic acid - DNA, RNA, its monomers are called nucleotides, genes are made of this

Triglycerides - function in long term storage of energy, hydrocarbon chains can be saturated and unsaturated, made up of 3 fatty acids linked to a glycerol molecule

Waxes - form seals that water cannot penetrate

Proteins - hemoglobin and enzymes are examples, wide range of functions from transport of substances to carrying out chemical reactions

Nucleic acids - nucleotide, store genetic information and use it in cells, DNA and RNA are examples

Adding a base to an acidic solution will bring the pH of the solution closer to 7.

A hydrolysis reaction involves the splitting of a water molecule each time a bond in a polymer is broken to yield a monomer.

Sterols embedded in the bilayer allow the membrane to remain fluid at various temperatures.

Some proteins embedded in the membrane help with transporting large molecules through the bilayer.

Transmission election microscope - could be used for observing the Golgi apparatus, provides the highest level of resolution

Intermediate filament - this filament is composed of several different proteins, this filament is found in anchoring junctions.

Steroids in cell membranes allow the membrane to be more fluid.

Phospholipid bilayers surround all eukaryotic cells.

Receptor proteins - hormones bind here

Enzymes - these proteins help catalyze chemical reactions

Recognition proteins - a woman has a disorder causing her immune system to attach her own cells she may have a problem with these proteins

Prokaryotes - lacks an endoplasmic reticulum, has DNA in cytoplasm

Intermediate filament - forms internal cell scaffold and provides mechanical strength

Microtubule - major structural protein of cilia and flagella, form tracks along which motor proteins transport various intracellular components, plays a major role in cell division, is composed of the protein tubulin

Bacteria - all three domains arose from a common ancestor this domain was the FIRST to appear, this domain contains the most abundant and diverse organisms

Get notified when we have news, courses, or events of interest to you.

By entering your email, you consent to receive communications from Penn State Extension. View our privacy policy.

Thank you for your submission!

Forest Finance 7: Tree Shelters: A Multipurpose Forest Management Tool


Woodlot Tour

Spotted Lanternfly Permit Training for Businesses: Pennsylvania

Online Courses

Teach for Forests: Forest Education for Teachers and Youth Leaders

Online Courses

Harvesting Trees


6. Epigenetics in a Dynamic Environment: Consequences of Rapid and Widely-Distributed Phenotype Switching

6.1. Epigenetically-Inherited Phenotypes: Neutral, Advantageous or Disadvantageous?

The consequences of an epigenetically-inherited phenotype depend in large part on what the effect of that phenotype is on the overall fitness of the individual bearing it. Just like genetically-inherited phenotypes, epigenetically-inherited phenotypes can be neutral, advantageous or disadvantageous. In the field of medicine, most focus is on disadvantageous epigenetically-inherited phenotypes that can lead to disease states. Advantageous epigenetically-inherited phenotypes have received less attention in human health, yet certainly exist [43]. Indeed, if they can be controlled and managed, advantageous phenotypes arising by transgenerational epigenetic inheritance may have potentially large impacts on medicine [44,45] and on agriculture [10,46,47,48,49,50]. To highlight a concrete example of beneficial epigenetic inheritance, consider the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of hypoxia resistance in zebrafish [7]. As a result of parental (P0) exposure to 2, 3 or 4 weeks of hypoxia (15%), F1 larvae had greater hypoxic resistance than controls whose parents had not experienced hypoxia. Importantly, it was not just an individual larvae or two that were hypoxic resistant, but rather statistically, the entire F1 population had elevated hypoxic resistance. Similarly, we have recently observed that F1 of zebrafish parents exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) showed enhanced resistance to these toxicants when compared to control larvae whose parents were not exposed (Martinez-Bautista N. and Burggren, W. unpublished data [51]). Again, most of the population, not just a few individuals, had resistance greater than the controls whose parents were not exposed. These two examples highlight that more experimentation of potentially advantageous epigenetically-inherited phenotypes is warranted.

6.2. Comparing the Time Courses of Genetic and Epigenetic Inheritance

One of the basic tenets of evolution is that natural selection shapes populations and species over evolutionary time. Natural selection acts on organisms with enhanced or diminished fitness, derived from the accumulation of mutations. The resulting phenotypic modifications are enhanced (or not) by these mutations, but the phenotypic switch at the population level and beyond typically occurs over hundreds or thousands of generations as the genotype leading to a modified phenotype of greater fitness slowly inserts itself into the general population or, alternatively, a genotype leading to lesser fitness is eliminated from the population [52]. Klironomos et al. [53] have provided a simple, but informative model of how increases in fitness in a population can derive from either epigenetic or genetic changes in a population over tens of thousands of generations. However, the effect of epigenetic inheritance may not only be potentially broad and sweeping, but may also be felt immediately in a population [52,53,54,55,56]. To underscore this point, consider a phenotype that is advantageous in an environment when a specific stressor that occurs intermittently. Unlike an advantageous gene mutation that affects an individual and then, perhaps, spreads slowly through the population and beyond over many generations, epigenetic inheritance can simultaneously affect many (if not most or all) of a single generation of an entire population. Why? While there is certainly some variation in epigenetic markers between individuals in a population (see below), whether they result in an advantageous or disadvantageous phenotype, epigenetic markers will arise in response to an environmental stressor far more broadly and quickly within a single generation of a population than will a single point mutation occurring in a single individual. Assuming that all individuals in a population of a species presumably experience an environmental stressor at the same time and to a similar extent and that many of the individuals in that population will as a consequence possess the same epigenetic markers, then an epigenetically-switched phenotype should affect many if not most individuals in the population.

The scenario described above is depicted in Figure 3 , which compares changes in a population of individuals with an advantageous phenotype arising by either epigenetic inheritance or by mutation. This scenario assumes firstly that the switched phenotype (either from genetic or epigenetic inheritance) is advantageous only in the presence of a deleterious environment, which persists over several generations (specifically, four generations in this scenario) before returning to normal, favorable environmental conditions. Second, this scenario assumes that upon return to the previous normal environment, the newly-switched phenotype is now disadvantageous and possibly lethal. Third, this scenario revolves around only a simple point mutation and, thus, ignores the complexities of pleiotropy, including antagonistic pleiotropy. Fourth, the scenario assumes that an epigenetically-inherited phenotype may persist over more than one generation. Indeed, abundant evidence now exists of epigenetically-inherited phenotypes persisting over multiple generations (e.g., [6,15,42,57,58,59]) before either suddenly disappearing or more slowly “washing out” [41].

A comparison of phenotype switching in a population occurring by inherited point mutation vs. inheritance through the effects of epigenetic markers. Events 1, 3 and 5 indicate proportional changes in a hypothetical population resulting from phenotype switching by point mutation that are advantageous during environmental stress, but otherwise disadvantageous (or at least energetically costly). Events 2, 4 and 6 indicate proportional changes in the population resulting from epigenetic phenotype switching. See the text for an additional explanation.

As Figure 3 illustrates, a mutation may result in an advantageous phenotype in only a single individual in a population (Event 1). Advantageous mutations occur at low frequency, become difficult to establish in the population and additionally may be easily lost to genetic drift [60,61]. Thus, this advantageous mutation (Event 1) is only slowly amplified by natural selection over numerous generations, at best. In contrast, an epigenetic phenotypic switch brought on by a deleterious environment can immediately aid in the survival of a potentially large proportion of a population (Event 2), since even allowing for the heterogeneity of epigenetic markers in a population, many in that population may have the epigenetic markers resulting in the modified phenotype. With dissipation of the deleterious environment, however, the individual(s) with the original mutation must cope with the newly disadvantageous phenotype, which cannot be eliminated from the gene pool, except by death of the individual or an unlikely second mutation back to the original gene form (Event 3). In contrast, however, the epigenetically-switched phenotype, now newly disadvantageous in the face of the return to the original environmental condition, is immediately lost by reversion to the original phenotype (Event 4). With a return of the deleterious environment after several generations, the mutant genotype and its phenotype (if they even survive the intervening return to the previous normal environment) will increase only slowly once again in the population at a rate enabled by natural selection (Event 5). Again in contrast, the epigenetically-inherited advantageous phenotype can result in the rapid re-appearance of the advantageous switched phenotype appearing in a large proportion of a population’s individuals (Event 6).

Important to acknowledge is that the scenario depicted in Figure 3 takes an 𠇎ither-or” approach for epigenetic or genetic inheritance. That is, that populations are shown in this figure to either persist by epigenetic inheritance or by genetic inheritance of an advantageous phenotype, but not necessarily both. We know this approach to be an oversimplification, because presumably, there are also genetic changes that occur in populations changing by epigenetic modification. In fact, it is difficult to separate out such simultaneous phenotypic changes caused by this duality [25,53,57,62,63,64].

EEB Quiz 7

Currently, the only predators of Galápagos marine iguanas are Galápagos hawks. Although small iguanas can sprint faster than large iguanas, iguana body size is not correlated with risk of hawk predation. If predators (for example, cats) that preferentially catch and eat slower iguanas are introduced to the island, iguana body size is likely to ________ in the absence of other factors the iguanas would then be under ________ selection.

Based on the data in the figure, what type of selection for body size appears to be occurring in these marine iguanas?

The coastal male junco population tails were, on average, 36% white whereas the tails of males from the mountain populations averaged 40-45% white. Which of the following factors is the most likely original cause of the difference between the populations if the trait is inherited?

Comparison of which treatments would allow the researcher to assess the effect of food type on caterpillar morphology?

Population sizes in the coastal areas have been reasonably large, and there are significant differences between the coastal and the mountain habitats. The coastal habitat is more open (making birds more visible) and has a lower junco density (decreasing intraspecific competition) than the mountain forests. Given this information, which of the following evolutionary mechanisms is the most likely cause of the difference between the coastal and mountain populations?

What is the estimated frequency of allele A1 in the gene pool?

What proportion of the population is most likely heterozygous ( A1A2) for this trait?

If day length causes the different development of caterpillars, which treatments will most likely produce twig-like caterpillars rather than flower-like caterpillars?


The concept (although not so named) originated in 1785 with the Marquis de Condorcet, whose "jury theorem" states that if each member of a voting group is more likely than not to make a correct decision, the probability that the highest vote of the group is the correct decision increases with the number of members of the group (see Condorcet's jury theorem). [19] Many theorists have interpreted Aristotle's statement in the Politics that "a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse" to mean that just as many may bring different dishes to the table, so in a deliberation many may contribute different pieces of information to generate a better decision. [20] [21] Recent scholarship, [22] however, suggests that this was probably not what Aristotle meant but is a modern interpretation based on what we now know about team intelligence. [23]

A precursor of the concept is found in entomologist William Morton Wheeler's observation that seemingly independent individuals can cooperate so closely as to become indistinguishable from a single organism (1910). [24] Wheeler saw this collaborative process at work in ants that acted like the cells of a single beast he called a superorganism.

In 1912 Émile Durkheim identified society as the sole source of human logical thought. He argued in "The Elementary Forms of Religious Life" that society constitutes a higher intelligence because it transcends the individual over space and time. [25] Other antecedents are Vladimir Vernadsky and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of "noosphere" and H.G. Wells's concept of "world brain" (see also the term "global brain"). Peter Russell, Elisabet Sahtouris, and Barbara Marx Hubbard (originator of the term "conscious evolution") [26] are inspired by the visions of a noosphere – a transcendent, rapidly evolving collective intelligence – an informational cortex of the planet. The notion has more recently been examined by the philosopher Pierre Lévy. In a 1962 research report, Douglas Engelbart linked collective intelligence to organizational effectiveness, and predicted that pro-actively 'augmenting human intellect' would yield a multiplier effect in group problem solving: "Three people working together in this augmented mode [would] seem to be more than three times as effective in solving a complex problem as is one augmented person working alone". [27] In 1994, he coined the term 'collective IQ' as a measure of collective intelligence, to focus attention on the opportunity to significantly raise collective IQ in business and society. [28]

The idea of collective intelligence also forms the framework for contemporary democratic theories often referred to as epistemic democracy. Epistemic democratic theories refer to the capacity of the populace, either through deliberation or aggregation of knowledge, to track the truth and relies on mechanisms to synthesize and apply collective intelligence. [29]

Collective intelligence was introduced into the machine learning community in the late 20th century, [30] and matured into a broader consideration of how to design "collectives" of self-interested adaptive agents to meet a system-wide goal. [31] [32] This was related to single-agent work on "reward shaping" [33] and has been taken forward by numerous researchers in the game theory and engineering communities. [34]

Howard Bloom has discussed mass behavior – collective behavior from the level of quarks to the level of bacterial, plant, animal, and human societies. He stresses the biological adaptations that have turned most of this earth's living beings into components of what he calls "a learning machine". In 1986 Bloom combined the concepts of apoptosis, parallel distributed processing, group selection, and the superorganism to produce a theory of how collective intelligence works. [35] Later he showed how the collective intelligences of competing bacterial colonies and human societies can be explained in terms of computer-generated "complex adaptive systems" and the "genetic algorithms", concepts pioneered by John Holland. [36]

Bloom traced the evolution of collective intelligence to our bacterial ancestors 1 billion years ago and demonstrated how a multi-species intelligence has worked since the beginning of life. [36] Ant societies exhibit more intelligence, in terms of technology, than any other animal except for humans and co-operate in keeping livestock, for example aphids for "milking". [36] Leaf cutters care for fungi and carry leaves to feed the fungi. [36]

David Skrbina [37] cites the concept of a 'group mind' as being derived from Plato's concept of panpsychism (that mind or consciousness is omnipresent and exists in all matter). He develops the concept of a 'group mind' as articulated by Thomas Hobbes in "Leviathan" and Fechner's arguments for a collective consciousness of mankind. He cites Durkheim as the most notable advocate of a "collective consciousness" [38] and Teilhard de Chardin as a thinker who has developed the philosophical implications of the group mind. [39]

Tom Atlee focuses primarily on humans and on work to upgrade what Howard Bloom calls "the group IQ". Atlee feels that collective intelligence can be encouraged "to overcome 'groupthink' and individual cognitive bias in order to allow a collective to cooperate on one process – while achieving enhanced intellectual performance." George Pór defined the collective intelligence phenomenon as "the capacity of human communities to evolve towards higher order complexity and harmony, through such innovation mechanisms as differentiation and integration, competition and collaboration." [40] Atlee and Pór state that "collective intelligence also involves achieving a single focus of attention and standard of metrics which provide an appropriate threshold of action". [41] Their approach is rooted in scientific community metaphor. [41]

The term group intelligence is sometimes used interchangeably with the term collective intelligence. Anita Woolley presents Collective intelligence as a measure of group intelligence and group creativity. [12] The idea is that a measure of collective intelligence covers a broad range of features of the group, mainly group composition and group interaction. [42] The features of composition that lead to increased levels of collective intelligence in groups include criteria such as higher numbers of women in the group as well as increased diversity of the group. [42]

Atlee and Pór suggest that the field of collective intelligence should primarily be seen as a human enterprise in which mind-sets, a willingness to share and an openness to the value of distributed intelligence for the common good are paramount, though group theory and artificial intelligence have something to offer. [41] Individuals who respect collective intelligence are confident of their own abilities and recognize that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of any individual parts. [43] Maximizing collective intelligence relies on the ability of an organization to accept and develop "The Golden Suggestion", which is any potentially useful input from any member. [44] Groupthink often hampers collective intelligence by limiting input to a select few individuals or filtering potential Golden Suggestions without fully developing them to implementation. [41]

Robert David Steele Vivas in The New Craft of Intelligence portrayed all citizens as "intelligence minutemen," drawing only on legal and ethical sources of information, able to create a "public intelligence" that keeps public officials and corporate managers honest, turning the concept of "national intelligence" (previously concerned about spies and secrecy) on its head. [45]

According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, collective intelligence is mass collaboration. In order for this concept to happen, four principles need to exist: [46]

- Openness - Sharing ideas and intellectual property: though these resources provide the edge over competitors more benefits accrue from allowing others to share ideas and gain significant improvement and scrutiny through collaboration. [46]

- Peering - Horizontal organization as with the 'opening up' of the Linux program where users are free to modify and develop it provided that they make it available for others. Peering succeeds because it encourages self-organization – a style of production that works more effectively than hierarchical management for certain tasks. [46]

- Sharing - Companies have started to share some ideas while maintaining some degree of control over others, like potential and critical patent rights. Limiting all intellectual property shuts out opportunities, while sharing some expands markets and brings out products faster. [46]

- Acting Globally - The advancement in communication technology has prompted the rise of global companies at low overhead costs. The internet is widespread, therefore a globally integrated company has no geographical boundaries and may access new markets, ideas and technology. [46]

A new scientific understanding of collective intelligence defines it as a group's general ability to perform a wide range of tasks. [12] Definition, operationalization and statistical methods are similar to the psychometric approach of general individual intelligence. Hereby, an individual's performance on a given set of cognitive tasks is used to measure general cognitive ability indicated by the general intelligence factor g extracted via factor analysis. [47] In the same vein as g serves to display between-individual performance differences on cognitive tasks, collective intelligence research aims to find a parallel intelligence factor for groups ' c factor' [12] (also called 'collective intelligence factor' (CI) [48] ) displaying between-group differences on task performance. The collective intelligence score then is used to predict how this same group will perform on any other similar task in the future. Yet tasks, hereby, refer to mental or intellectual tasks performed by small groups [12] even though the concept is hoped to be transferable to other performances and any groups or crowds reaching from families to companies and even whole cities. [49] Since individuals' g factor scores are highly correlated with full-scale IQ scores, which are in turn regarded as good estimates of g, [13] [14] this measurement of collective intelligence can also be seen as an intelligence indicator or quotient respectively for a group (Group-IQ) parallel to an individual's intelligence quotient (IQ) even though the score is not a quotient per se.

Mathematically, c and g are both variables summarizing positive correlations among different tasks supposing that performance on one task is comparable with performance on other similar tasks. [50] c thus is a source of variance among groups and can only be considered as a group's standing on the c factor compared to other groups in a given relevant population. [14] [51] The concept is in contrast to competing hypotheses including other correlational structures to explain group intelligence, [12] such as a composition out of several equally important but independent factors as found in individual personality research. [52]

Besides, this scientific idea also aims to explore the causes affecting collective intelligence, such as group size, collaboration tools or group members' interpersonal skills. [53] The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, for instance, announced the detection of The Genome of Collective Intelligence [53] as one of its main goals aiming to develop a taxonomy of organizational building blocks, or genes, that can be combined and recombined to harness the intelligence of crowds. [53]

Causes Edit

Individual intelligence is shown to be genetically and environmentally influenced. [54] [55] Analogously, collective intelligence research aims to explore reasons why certain groups perform more intelligently than other groups given that c is just moderately correlated with the intelligence of individual group members. [12] According to Woolley et al.'s results, neither team cohesion nor motivation or satisfaction is correlated with c. However, they claim that three factors were found as significant correlates: the variance in the number of speaking turns, group members' average social sensitivity and the proportion of females. All three had similar predictive power for c, but only social sensitivity was statistically significant (b=0.33, P=0.05). [12]

The number speaking turns indicates that "groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking". [48] Hence, providing multiple team members the chance to speak up made a group more intelligent. [12]

Group members' social sensitivity was measured via the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test [56] (RME) and correlated .26 with c. [12] Hereby, participants are asked to detect thinking or feeling expressed in other peoples' eyes presented on pictures and assessed in a multiple choice format. The test aims to measure peoples' theory of mind (ToM), also called 'mentalizing' [57] [58] [59] [60] or 'mind reading', [61] which refers to the ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs, desires or intents, to other people and in how far people understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions or perspectives different from their own ones. [56] RME is a ToM test for adults [56] that shows sufficient test-retest reliability [62] and constantly differentiates control groups from individuals with functional autism or Asperger Syndrome. [56] It is one of the most widely accepted and well-validated tests for ToM within adults. [63] ToM can be regarded as an associated subset of skills and abilities within the broader concept of emotional intelligence. [48] [64]

The proportion of females as a predictor of c was largely mediated by social sensitivity (Sobel z = 1.93, P= 0.03) [12] which is in vein with previous research showing that women score higher on social sensitivity tests. [56] While a mediation, statistically speaking, clarifies the mechanism underlying the relationship between a dependent and an independent variable, [65] Wolley agreed in an interview with the Harvard Business Review that these findings are saying that groups of women are smarter than groups of men. [49] However, she relativizes this stating that the actual important thing is the high social sensitivity of group members. [49]

It is theorized that the collective intelligence factor c is an emergent property resulting from bottom-up as well as top-down processes. [42] Hereby, bottom-up processes cover aggregated group-member characteristics. Top-down processes cover group structures and norms that influence a group's way of collaborating and coordinating. [42]

Processes Edit

Top-down processes Edit

Top-down processes cover group interaction, such as structures, processes, and norms. [66] An example of such top-down processes is conversational turn-taking. [12] Research further suggest that collectively intelligent groups communicate more in general as well as more equally same applies for participation and is shown for face-to-face as well as online groups communicating only via writing. [48] [67]

Bottom-up processes Edit

Bottom-up processes include group composition, [66] namely the characteristics of group members which are aggregated to the team level. [42] An example of such bottom-up processes is the average social sensitivity or the average and maximum intelligence scores of group members. [12] Furthermore, collective intelligence was found to be related to a group's cognitive diversity [68] including thinking styles and perspectives. [69] Groups that are moderately diverse in cognitive style have higher collective intelligence than those who are very similar in cognitive style or very different. Consequently, groups where members are too similar to each other lack the variety of perspectives and skills needed to perform well. On the other hand, groups whose members are too different seem to have difficulties to communicate and coordinate effectively. [68]

Serial vs Parallel processes Edit

For most of human history, collective intelligence was confined to small tribal groups in which opinions were aggregated through real-time parallel interactions among members. [70] In modern times, mass communication, mass media, and networking technologies have enabled collective intelligence to span massive groups, distributed across continents and time-zones. To accommodate this shift in scale, collective intelligence in large-scale groups been dominated by serialized polling processes such as aggregating up-votes, likes, and ratings over time. In engineering, aggregating many engineering decisions allows for identifying typical good designs. [71] While modern systems benefit from larger group size, the serialized process has been found to introduce substantial noise that distorts the collective output of the group. In one significant study of serialized collective intelligence, it was found that the first vote contributed to a serialized voting system can distort the final result by 34%. [72]

To address the problems of serialized aggregation of input among large-scale groups, recent advancements collective intelligence have worked to replace serialized votes, polls, and markets, with parallel systems such as "human swarms" modeled after synchronous swarms in nature. [73] [74] Based on natural process of Swarm Intelligence, these artificial swarms of networked humans enable participants to work together in parallel to answer questions and make predictions as an emergent collective intelligence. [75] In one high-profile example, a human swarm challenge by CBS Interactive to predict the Kentucky Derby. The swarm correctly predicted the first four horses, in order, defying 542–1 odds and turning a $20 bet into $10,800. [76]

The value of parallel collective intelligence was demonstrated in medical applications by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and Unanimous AI in a set of published studies wherein groups of human doctors were connected by real-time swarming algorithms and tasked with diagnosing chest x-rays for the presence of pneumonia. [77] [78] When working together as "human swarms," the groups of experienced radiologists demonstrated a 33% reduction in diagnostic errors as compared to traditional methods. [79] [80]

Evidence Edit

Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone (2010), [12] the originators of this scientific understanding of collective intelligence, found a single statistical factor for collective intelligence in their research across 192 groups with people randomly recruited from the public. In Woolley et al.'s two initial studies, groups worked together on different tasks from the McGrath Task Circumplex, [81] a well-established taxonomy of group tasks. Tasks were chosen from all four quadrants of the circumplex and included visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. The results in these tasks were taken to conduct a factor analysis. Both studies showed support for a general collective intelligence factor c underlying differences in group performance with an initial eigenvalue accounting for 43% (44% in study 2) of the variance, whereas the next factor accounted for only 18% (20%). That fits the range normally found in research regarding a general individual intelligence factor g typically accounting for 40% to 50% percent of between-individual performance differences on cognitive tests. [50]

Afterwards, a more complex criterion task was absolved by each group measuring whether the extracted c factor had predictive power for performance outside the original task batteries. Criterion tasks were playing checkers (draughts) against a standardized computer in the first and a complex architectural design task in the second study. In a regression analysis using both individual intelligence of group members and c to predict performance on the criterion tasks, c had a significant effect, but average and maximum individual intelligence had not. While average (r=0.15, P=0.04) and maximum intelligence (r=0.19, P=0.008) of individual group members were moderately correlated with c, c was still a much better predictor of the criterion tasks. According to Woolley et al., this supports the existence of a collective intelligence factor c, because it demonstrates an effect over and beyond group members' individual intelligence and thus that c is more than just the aggregation of the individual IQs or the influence of the group member with the highest IQ. [12]

Engel et al. [48] (2014) replicated Woolley et al.'s findings applying an accelerated battery of tasks with a first factor in the factor analysis explaining 49% of the between-group variance in performance with the following factors explaining less than half of this amount. Moreover, they found a similar result for groups working together online communicating only via text and confirmed the role of female proportion and social sensitivity in causing collective intelligence in both cases. Similarly to Wolley et al., [12] they also measured social sensitivity with the RME which is actually meant to measure people's ability to detect mental states in other peoples' eyes. The online collaborating participants, however, did neither know nor see each other at all. The authors conclude that scores on the RME must be related to a broader set of abilities of social reasoning than only drawing inferences from other people's eye expressions. [82]

A collective intelligence factor c in the sense of Woolley et al. [12] was further found in groups of MBA students working together over the course of a semester, [83] in online gaming groups [67] as well as in groups from different cultures [84] and groups in different contexts in terms of short-term versus long-term groups. [84] None of these investigations considered team members' individual intelligence scores as control variables. [67] [83] [84]

Note as well that the field of collective intelligence research is quite young and published empirical evidence is relatively rare yet. However, various proposals and working papers are in progress or already completed but (supposedly) still in a scholarly peer reviewing publication process. [85] [86] [87] [88]

Predictive validity Edit

Next to predicting a group's performance on more complex criterion tasks as shown in the original experiments, [12] the collective intelligence factor c was also found to predict group performance in diverse tasks in MBA classes lasting over several months. [83] Thereby, highly collectively intelligent groups earned significantly higher scores on their group assignments although their members did not do any better on other individually performed assignments. Moreover, highly collective intelligent teams improved performance over time suggesting that more collectively intelligent teams learn better. [83] This is another potential parallel to individual intelligence where more intelligent people are found to acquire new material quicker. [14] [89]

Individual intelligence can be used to predict plenty of life outcomes from school attainment [90] and career success [91] to health outcomes [92] and even mortality. [92] Whether collective intelligence is able to predict other outcomes besides group performance on mental tasks has still to be investigated.

Potential connections to individual intelligence Edit

Gladwell [93] (2008) showed that the relationship between individual IQ and success works only to a certain point and that additional IQ points over an estimate of IQ 120 do not translate into real life advantages. If a similar border exists for Group-IQ or if advantages are linear and infinite, has still to be explored. Similarly, demand for further research on possible connections of individual and collective intelligence exists within plenty of other potentially transferable logics of individual intelligence, such as, for instance, the development over time [94] or the question of improving intelligence. [95] [96] Whereas it is controversial whether human intelligence can be enhanced via training, [95] [96] a group's collective intelligence potentially offers simpler opportunities for improvement by exchanging team members or implementing structures and technologies. [49] Moreover, social sensitivity was found to be, at least temporarily, improvable by reading literary fiction [97] as well as watching drama movies. [98] In how far such training ultimately improves collective intelligence through social sensitivity remains an open question. [99]

There are further more advanced concepts and factor models attempting to explain individual cognitive ability including the categorization of intelligence in fluid and crystallized intelligence [100] [101] or the hierarchical model of intelligence differences. [102] [103] Further supplementing explanations and conceptualizations for the factor structure of the Genomes of collective intelligence besides a general ' c factor', though, are missing yet. [104]

Controversies Edit

Other scholars explain team performance by aggregating team members' general intelligence to the team level [105] [106] instead of building an own overall collective intelligence measure. Devine and Philips [107] (2001) showed in a meta-analysis that mean cognitive ability predicts team performance in laboratory settings (.37) as well as field settings (.14) – note that this is only a small effect. Suggesting a strong dependence on the relevant tasks, other scholars showed that tasks requiring a high degree of communication and cooperation are found to be most influenced by the team member with the lowest cognitive ability. [108] Tasks in which selecting the best team member is the most successful strategy, are shown to be most influenced by the member with the highest cognitive ability. [64]

Since Woolley et al.'s [12] results do not show any influence of group satisfaction, group cohesiveness, or motivation, they, at least implicitly, challenge these concepts regarding the importance for group performance in general and thus contrast meta-analytically proven evidence concerning the positive effects of group cohesion, [109] [110] [111] motivation [112] [113] and satisfaction [114] on group performance.

Noteworthy is also that the involved researchers among the confirming findings widely overlap with each other and with the authors participating in the original first study around Anita Woolley. [12] [42] [48] [68] [82]

Computational collective intelligence Edit

In 2001, Tadeusz (Tad) Szuba from the AGH University in Poland proposed a formal model for the phenomenon of collective intelligence. It is assumed to be an unconscious, random, parallel, and distributed computational process, run in mathematical logic by the social structure. [115]

In this model, beings and information are modeled as abstract information molecules carrying expressions of mathematical logic. [115] They are quasi-randomly displacing due to their interaction with their environments with their intended displacements. [115] Their interaction in abstract computational space creates multi-thread inference process which we perceive as collective intelligence. [115] Thus, a non-Turing model of computation is used. This theory allows simple formal definition of collective intelligence as the property of social structure and seems to be working well for a wide spectrum of beings, from bacterial colonies up to human social structures. Collective intelligence considered as a specific computational process is providing a straightforward explanation of several social phenomena. For this model of collective intelligence, the formal definition of IQS (IQ Social) was proposed and was defined as "the probability function over the time and domain of N-element inferences which are reflecting inference activity of the social structure". [115] While IQS seems to be computationally hard, modeling of social structure in terms of a computational process as described above gives a chance for approximation. [115] Prospective applications are optimization of companies through the maximization of their IQS, and the analysis of drug resistance against collective intelligence of bacterial colonies. [115]

Collective intelligence quotient Edit

One measure sometimes applied, especially by more artificial intelligence focused theorists, is a "collective intelligence quotient" [116] (or "cooperation quotient") – which can be normalized from the "individual" intelligence quotient (IQ) [116] – thus making it possible to determine the marginal intelligence added by each new individual participating in the collective action, thus using metrics to avoid the hazards of group think and stupidity. [117]

There have been many recent applications of collective intelligence, including in fields such as crowd-sourcing, citizen science and prediction markets. The Nesta Centre for Collective Intelligence Design [118] was launched in 2018 and has produced many surveys of applications as well as funding experiments. In 2020 the UNDP Accelerator Labs [119] began using collective intelligence methods in their work to accelerate innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Elicitation of point estimates Edit

Here, the goal is to get an estimate (in a single value) of something. For example, estimating the weight of an object, or the release date of a product or probability of success of a project etc. as seen in prediction markets like Intrade, HSX or InklingMarkets and also in several implementations of crowdsourced estimation of a numeric outcome such as the Delphi method. Essentially, we try to get the average value of the estimates provided by the members in the crowd.

Opinion aggregation Edit

In this situation, opinions are gathered from the crowd regarding an idea, issue or product. For example, trying to get a rating (on some scale) of a product sold online (such as Amazon's star rating system). Here, the emphasis is to collect and simply aggregate the ratings provided by customers/users.

Idea Collection Edit

In these problems, someone solicits ideas for projects, designs or solutions from the crowd. For example, ideas on solving a data science problem (as in Kaggle) or getting a good design for a T-shirt (as in Threadless) or in getting answers to simple problems that only humans can do well (as in Amazon's Mechanical Turk). The objective is to gather the ideas and devise some selection criteria to choose the best ideas.

James Surowiecki divides the advantages of disorganized decision-making into three main categories, which are cognition, cooperation and coordination. [120] [ full citation needed ]

Cognition Edit

Market judgment Edit

Because of the Internet's ability to rapidly convey large amounts of information throughout the world, the use of collective intelligence to predict stock prices and stock price direction has become increasingly viable. [121] Websites aggregate stock market information that is as current as possible so professional or amateur stock analysts can publish their viewpoints, enabling amateur investors to submit their financial opinions and create an aggregate opinion. [121] The opinion of all investor can be weighed equally so that a pivotal premise of the effective application of collective intelligence can be applied: the masses, including a broad spectrum of stock market expertise, can be utilized to more accurately predict the behavior of financial markets. [122] [123]

Collective intelligence underpins the efficient-market hypothesis of Eugene Fama [124] – although the term collective intelligence is not used explicitly in his paper. Fama cites research conducted by Michael Jensen [125] in which 89 out of 115 selected funds underperformed relative to the index during the period from 1955 to 1964. But after removing the loading charge (up-front fee) only 72 underperformed while after removing brokerage costs only 58 underperformed. On the basis of such evidence index funds became popular investment vehicles using the collective intelligence of the market, rather than the judgement of professional fund managers, as an investment strategy. [125]

Predictions in politics and technology Edit

Political parties mobilize large numbers of people to form policy, select candidates and finance and run election campaigns. [126] Knowledge focusing through various voting methods allows perspectives to converge through the assumption that uninformed voting is to some degree random and can be filtered from the decision process leaving only a residue of informed consensus. [126] Critics point out that often bad ideas, misunderstandings, and misconceptions are widely held, and that structuring of the decision process must favor experts who are presumably less prone to random or misinformed voting in a given context. [127]

Companies such as Affinnova (acquired by Nielsen), Google, InnoCentive, Marketocracy, and Threadless [128] have successfully employed the concept of collective intelligence in bringing about the next generation of technological changes through their research and development (R&D), customer service, and knowledge management. [128] [129] An example of such application is Google's Project Aristotle in 2012, where the effect of collective intelligence on team makeup was examined in hundreds of the company's R&D teams. [130]

Cooperation Edit

Networks of trust Edit

In 2012, the Global Futures Collective Intelligence System (GFIS) was created by The Millennium Project, [131] which epitomizes collective intelligence as the synergistic intersection among data/information/knowledge, software/hardware, and expertise/insights that has a recursive learning process for better decision-making than the individual players alone. [132]

New media are often associated with the promotion and enhancement of collective intelligence. The ability of new media to easily store and retrieve information, predominantly through databases and the Internet, allows for it to be shared without difficulty. Thus, through interaction with new media, knowledge easily passes between sources (Flew 2008) resulting in a form of collective intelligence. The use of interactive new media, particularly the internet, promotes online interaction and this distribution of knowledge between users.

Francis Heylighen, Valentin Turchin, and Gottfried Mayer-Kress are among those who view collective intelligence through the lens of computer science and cybernetics. In their view, the Internet enables collective intelligence at the widest, planetary scale, thus facilitating the emergence of a global brain.

The developer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, aimed to promote sharing and publishing of information globally. Later his employer opened up the technology for free use. In the early '90s, the Internet's potential was still untapped, until the mid-1990s when 'critical mass', as termed by the head of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), Dr. J.C.R. Licklider, demanded more accessibility and utility. [133] The driving force of this Internet-based collective intelligence is the digitization of information and communication. Henry Jenkins, a key theorist of new media and media convergence draws on the theory that collective intelligence can be attributed to media convergence and participatory culture (Flew 2008). He criticizes contemporary education for failing to incorporate online trends of collective problem solving into the classroom, stating "whereas a collective intelligence community encourages ownership of work as a group, schools grade individuals". Jenkins argues that interaction within a knowledge community builds vital skills for young people, and teamwork through collective intelligence communities contribute to the development of such skills. [134] Collective intelligence is not merely a quantitative contribution of information from all cultures, it is also qualitative. [134]

Lévy and de Kerckhove consider CI from a mass communications perspective, focusing on the ability of networked information and communication technologies to enhance the community knowledge pool. They suggest that these communications tools enable humans to interact and to share and collaborate with both ease and speed (Flew 2008). With the development of the Internet and its widespread use, the opportunity to contribute to knowledge-building communities, such as Wikipedia, is greater than ever before. These computer networks give participating users the opportunity to store and to retrieve knowledge through the collective access to these databases and allow them to "harness the hive" [135] Researchers at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence research and explore collective intelligence of groups of people and computers. [136]

In this context collective intelligence is often confused with shared knowledge. The former is the sum total of information held individually by members of a community while the latter is information that is believed to be true and known by all members of the community. [137] Collective intelligence as represented by Web 2.0 has less user engagement than collaborative intelligence. An art project using Web 2.0 platforms is "Shared Galaxy", an experiment developed by an anonymous artist to create a collective identity that shows up as one person on several platforms like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Second Life. The password is written in the profiles and the accounts named "Shared Galaxy" are open to be used by anyone. In this way many take part in being one. [138] Another art project using collective intelligence to produce artistic work is Curatron, where a large group of artists together decides on a smaller group that they think would make a good collaborative group. The process is used based on an algorithm computing the collective preferences [139] In creating what he calls 'CI-Art', Nova Scotia based artist Mathew Aldred follows Pierry Lévy's definition of collective intelligence. [140] Aldred's CI-Art event in March 2016 involved over four hundred people from the community of Oxford, Nova Scotia, and internationally. [141] [142] Later work developed by Aldred used the UNU swarm intelligence system to create digital drawings and paintings. [143] The Oxford Riverside Gallery (Nova Scotia) held a public CI-Art event in May 2016, which connected with online participants internationally. [144]

In social bookmarking (also called collaborative tagging), [145] users assign tags to resources shared with other users, which gives rise to a type of information organisation that emerges from this crowdsourcing process. The resulting information structure can be seen as reflecting the collective knowledge (or collective intelligence) of a community of users and is commonly called a "Folksonomy", and the process can be captured by models of collaborative tagging. [145]

Recent research using data from the social bookmarking website Delicious, has shown that collaborative tagging systems exhibit a form of complex systems (or self-organizing) dynamics. [146] [147] [148] Although there is no central controlled vocabulary to constrain the actions of individual users, the distributions of tags that describe different resources has been shown to converge over time to a stable power law distributions. [146] Once such stable distributions form, examining the correlations between different tags can be used to construct simple folksonomy graphs, which can be efficiently partitioned to obtained a form of community or shared vocabularies. [149] Such vocabularies can be seen as a form of collective intelligence, emerging from the decentralised actions of a community of users. The Wall-it Project is also an example of social bookmarking. [150]

P2P business Edit

Research performed by Tapscott and Williams has provided a few examples of the benefits of collective intelligence to business: [46]

Talent utilization At the rate technology is changing, no firm can fully keep up in the innovations needed to compete. Instead, smart firms are drawing on the power of mass collaboration to involve participation of the people they could not employ. This also helps generate continual interest in the firm in the form of those drawn to new idea creation as well as investment opportunities. [46] Demand creation Firms can create a new market for complementary goods by engaging in open source community. Firms also are able to expand into new fields that they previously would not have been able to without the addition of resources and collaboration from the community. This creates, as mentioned before, a new market for complementary goods for the products in said new fields. [46] Costs reduction Mass collaboration can help to reduce costs dramatically. Firms can release a specific software or product to be evaluated or debugged by online communities. The results will be more personal, robust and error-free products created in a short amount of time and costs. New ideas can also be generated and explored by collaboration of online communities creating opportunities for free R&D outside the confines of the company. [46]

Open source software Edit

Cultural theorist and online community developer, John Banks considered the contribution of online fan communities in the creation of the Trainz product. He argued that its commercial success was fundamentally dependent upon "the formation and growth of an active and vibrant online fan community that would both actively promote the product and create content- extensions and additions to the game software". [151]

The increase in user created content and interactivity gives rise to issues of control over the game itself and ownership of the player-created content. This gives rise to fundamental legal issues, highlighted by Lessig [152] and Bray and Konsynski, [153] such as intellectual property and property ownership rights.

Gosney extends this issue of Collective Intelligence in videogames one step further in his discussion of alternate reality gaming. This genre, he describes as an "across-media game that deliberately blurs the line between the in-game and out-of-game experiences" [154] as events that happen outside the game reality "reach out" into the player's lives in order to bring them together. Solving the game requires "the collective and collaborative efforts of multiple players" thus the issue of collective and collaborative team play is essential to ARG. Gosney argues that the Alternate Reality genre of gaming dictates an unprecedented level of collaboration and "collective intelligence" in order to solve the mystery of the game. [154]

Benefits of co-operation Edit

Co-operation helps to solve most important and most interesting multi-science problems. In his book, James Surowiecki mentioned that most scientists think that benefits of co-operation have much more value when compared to potential costs. Co-operation works also because at best it guarantees number of different viewpoints. Because of the possibilities of technology global co-operation is nowadays much easier and productive than before. It is clear that, when co-operation goes from university level to global it has significant benefits.

For example, why do scientists co-operate? Science has become more and more isolated and each science field has spread even more and it is impossible for one person to be aware of all developments. This is true especially in experimental research where highly advanced equipment requires special skills. With co-operation scientists can use information from different fields and use it effectively instead of gathering all the information just by reading by themselves." [120] [ full citation needed ]

Coordination Edit

Ad-hoc communities Edit

Military, trade unions, and corporations satisfy some definitions of CI – the most rigorous definition would require a capacity to respond to very arbitrary conditions without orders or guidance from "law" or "customers" to constrain actions. Online advertising companies are using collective intelligence to bypass traditional marketing and creative agencies. [155]

The UNU open platform for "human swarming" (or "social swarming") establishes real-time closed-loop systems around groups of networked users molded after biological swarms, enabling human participants to behave as a unified collective intelligence. [156] [157] When connected to UNU, groups of distributed users collectively answer questions and make predictions in real-time. [158] Early testing shows that human swarms can out-predict individuals. [156] In 2016, an UNU swarm was challenged by a reporter to predict the winners of the Kentucky Derby, and successfully picked the first four horses, in order, beating 540 to 1 odds. [159] [160]

Specialized information sites such as Digital Photography Review [161] or Camera Labs [162] is an example of collective intelligence. Anyone who has an access to the internet can contribute to distributing their knowledge over the world through the specialized information sites.

In learner-generated context a group of users marshal resources to create an ecology that meets their needs often (but not only) in relation to the co-configuration, co-creation and co-design of a particular learning space that allows learners to create their own context. [163] [164] [165] Learner-generated contexts represent an ad hoc community that facilitates coordination of collective action in a network of trust. An example of learner-generated context is found on the Internet when collaborative users pool knowledge in a "shared intelligence space". As the Internet has developed so has the concept of CI as a shared public forum. The global accessibility and availability of the Internet has allowed more people than ever to contribute and access ideas. [135]

Games such as The Sims Series, and Second Life are designed to be non-linear and to depend on collective intelligence for expansion. This way of sharing is gradually evolving and influencing the mindset of the current and future generations. [133] For them, collective intelligence has become a norm. In Terry Flew's discussion of 'interactivity' in the online games environment, the ongoing interactive dialogue between users and game developers, [166] he refers to Pierre Lévy's concept of Collective Intelligence (Lévy 1998) harv error: no target: CITEREFLévy1998 (help) and argues this is active in videogames as clans or guilds in MMORPG constantly work to achieve goals. Henry Jenkins proposes that the participatory cultures emerging between games producers, media companies, and the end-users mark a fundamental shift in the nature of media production and consumption. Jenkins argues that this new participatory culture arises at the intersection of three broad new media trends. [167] Firstly, the development of new media tools/technologies enabling the creation of content. Secondly, the rise of subcultures promoting such creations, and lastly, the growth of value adding media conglomerates, which foster image, idea and narrative flow.

Coordinating collective actions Edit

Improvisational actors also experience a type of collective intelligence which they term "group mind", as theatrical improvisation relies on mutual cooperation and agreement, [168] leading to the unity of "group mind". [168] [169]

Growth of the Internet and mobile telecom has also produced "swarming" or "rendezvous" events that enable meetings or even dates on demand. [30] The full impact has yet to be felt but the anti-globalization movement, for example, relies heavily on e-mail, cell phones, pagers, SMS and other means of organizing. [170] The Indymedia organization does this in a more journalistic way. [171] Such resources could combine into a form of collective intelligence accountable only to the current participants yet with some strong moral or linguistic guidance from generations of contributors – or even take on a more obviously democratic form to advance shared goal. [171]

A further application of collective intelligence is found in the "Community Engineering for Innovations". [172] In such an integrated framework proposed by Ebner et al., idea competitions and virtual communities are combined to better realize the potential of the collective intelligence of the participants, particularly in open-source R&D. [173] In management theory the use of collective intelligence and crowd sourcing leads to innovations and very robust answers to quantitative issues. [174] Therefore, collective intelligence and crowd sourcing is not necessaryly leading to the best solution to economic problems, but to a stable, good solution.

Coordination in different types of tasks Edit

Collective actions or tasks require different amounts of coordination depending on the complexity of the task. Tasks vary from being highly independent simple tasks that require very little coordination to complex interdependent tasks that are built by many individuals and require a lot of coordination. In the article written by Kittur, Lee and Kraut the writers introduce a problem in cooperation: "When tasks require high coordination because the work is highly interdependent, having more contributors can increase process losses, reducing the effectiveness of the group below what individual members could optimally accomplish". Having a team too large the overall effectiveness may suffer even when the extra contributors increase the resources. In the end the overall costs from coordination might overwhelm other costs. [175]

Group collective intelligence is a property that emerges through coordination from both bottom-up and top-down processes. In a bottom-up process the different characteristics of each member are involved in contributing and enhancing coordination. Top-down processes are more strict and fixed with norms, group structures and routines that in their own way enhance the group's collective work. [176]

A tool for combating self-preservation Edit

Tom Atlee reflects that, although humans have an innate ability to gather and analyze data, they are affected by culture, education and social institutions. [177] [ self-published source? ] A single person tends to make decisions motivated by self-preservation. Therefore, without collective intelligence, humans may drive themselves into extinction based on their selfish needs. [44]

Separation from IQism Edit

Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder quotes Bowles and Gintis (1976) that in order to truly define collective intelligence, it is crucial to separate 'intelligence' from IQism. [178] They go on to argue that intelligence is an achievement and can only be developed if allowed to. [178] For example, earlier on, groups from the lower levels of society are severely restricted from aggregating and pooling their intelligence. This is because the elites fear that the collective intelligence would convince the people to rebel. If there is no such capacity and relations, there would be no infrastructure on which collective intelligence is built. [179] This reflects how powerful collective intelligence can be if left to develop. [178]

Artificial intelligence views Edit

Skeptics, especially those critical of artificial intelligence and more inclined to believe that risk of bodily harm and bodily action are the basis of all unity between people, are more likely to emphasize the capacity of a group to take action and withstand harm as one fluid mass mobilization, shrugging off harms the way a body shrugs off the loss of a few cells. [180] [181] This train of thought is most obvious in the anti-globalization movement and characterized by the works of John Zerzan, Carol Moore, and Starhawk, who typically shun academics. [180] [181] These theorists are more likely to refer to ecological and collective wisdom and to the role of consensus process in making ontological distinctions than to any form of "intelligence" as such, which they often argue does not exist, or is mere "cleverness". [180] [181]

Harsh critics of artificial intelligence on ethical grounds are likely to promote collective wisdom-building methods, such as the new tribalists and the Gaians. [182] Whether these can be said to be collective intelligence systems is an open question. Some, e.g. Bill Joy, simply wish to avoid any form of autonomous artificial intelligence and seem willing to work on rigorous collective intelligence in order to remove any possible niche for AI. [183]

In contrast to these views, companies such as Amazon Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower are using collective intelligence and crowdsourcing or consensus-based assessment to collect the enormous amounts of data for machine learning algorithms.

Solving climate change Edit

Global collective intelligence is seen as the key in solving the challenges humankind faces now and in the future. Climate change is an example of a global issue which collective intelligence is currently trying to tackle. With the help of collective intelligence applications such as online crowdsourcing, people across the globe are collaborating in developing solutions to climate change. [184]