Bookclub Book Review: Unnatural Selection


160,000,000 (160 million)

According to author Mara Hvistendahl, that is the number of girls that are missing from the Asian continent. Hvistendahl goes out to find the answer to this puzzling conundrum by researching, exploring, and interviewing people affected by a large gender imbalance in various places. Most scientists and sociologists agree that the optimal number for a gender balanced society is the birthrate of 105 boys to 100 girls. However, there are places in Asia where the gender imbalance is quite high, with one particular city in Hubei province reporting a whopping 176 boy births to 100 girl births, almost double the natural rate. Surprisingly, Hvistendahl’s research leads her as far west as Albania and Georgia, where she uncovers large gender imbalances in those aforementioned countries.

Parts 1 and 2 of the book detail Hvistendahl’s thesis and supporting information about the gender imbalance in Asia. While Hvistendahl points to a long-standing cultural preference for boys, and China’s “One Child Policy,” the author’s main argument for the egregious number of missing girls is due to western foreign policy and intervention at the end of the Korean War and during the Cold War. The author devotes several chapters of the book to the important players in the population control movement in Asia, most of whom were American. 

Part 3 of the book is where things get very interesting. This is when Hvistendahl is “on the ground” with her research, interviewing people from different walks of life to find out how the gender imbalance has affected them. This varies from purchased Vietnamese brides, to child prostitution, to the fenqing, or movements by angry young men that are exploding in popularity in China. Hvistendahl brilliantly ties in different male dominated societies in history, such as Ancient Rome and the American Wild West, and how an extreme gender imbalance lead to a myriad of conflicts and negative consequences for those men. In the final chapter of the book, there is a “twist” that may take the reader by surprise; however, it is what Hvistendahl has predicted for the future.  

Reviewed by: Shellyann O’Meally

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