by Mary Harrington
Thursday, 20
January 2022
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11:16

How to solve the cycle of decline? Print more babies!

Tech bros seem to believe that artificial wombs are better than the real thing
by Mary Harrington
Elon and his sixth baby, XHO–WQFD98H212

Have we reached Peak Everything? The great and the good are beginning to realise, nervously, that the illusion of never-ending growth can’t be sustained forever just by printing money. “Quantitative easing” has been deployed with staggering free-handedness since the Great Crash to ward off the unsettling prospect of the whole carousel crashing down. That accelerated again during the pandemic: City AM reported that one fifth of the entire world supply of US dollars was created in 2020 alone.

But a growing chorus of voices and economic papers now warns that a cycle of low fertility will drive not just faltering improvements in living standards but a vicious cycle of decline. In 2020, staggering global declines were reported in fertility rates, and these trends have worsened over the course of the pandemic.

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk is the latest to weigh in on our civilisational duty to have more babies. Musk, himself the father of six sons, is perhaps America’s foremost tech-optimist, driving the SpaceX project that’s launched numerous recent rockets and a stated ambition to colonise other planets.

From Musk’s ‘Believe in the future!’ perspective, the stubborn trend towards human reproductive pessimism is obviously a disaster: “If there aren’t enough people for Earth, then there definitely won’t be enough for Mars,” Musk lamented. The tech world’s Spock contingent was quick off the mark in response. Maybe it’s unfair asking women to have more babies, one suggested, because of the asymmetrical career opportunity cost. He and others argued the solution must surely be synthetic wombs, to make it safer and easier to manufacture new humans.

Bay Area nerds are perhaps unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, how intricate and interdependent an organic process it is gestating a child. As Abigail Tucker sets out in Mom Genes, the developing baby affects its mother and vice versa, in a process more akin to a conversation than a manufacturing process. Mothers and babies co-create one another. It’s not like making biscuits in a machine.

We can’t even make a synthetic human breastmilk that’s anywhere near as good as the real stuff. So quite aside from the obvious ethical horror-show of attempting to develop such a technology, the probability of developing a form of ectogenesis capable of incubating a live human child is low to say the least.

This doesn’t make the fantasy less appealing, to people whose idea of freedom looks like a concerted push to transcend every given limit of humanity. So perhaps it’s unsurprising to find a growing overlap between those who reject the idea of natural limits to our mastery over our own biology and nature, and those who reject the idea that there might be equivalent limits to economic growth.

When economists are increasingly vocal about the threat to growth posed by population decline, the two ineluctably converge. Artificial wombs are proposed as a means of ‘printing’ new human ‘resources’, in response to growing scarcity in the naturally-occurring kind. Human quantitative easing, then, is the logical next intervention to postpone the collapse of a Ponzi scheme no one wants to admit we’re all still feeding.

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
10 months ago

I had one of those lightbulb moments at a conference in the United States that there was something very badly wrong with American Feminism. I’m not saying all Feminism, just the American instantiation. It was a conference about something else entirely – Physics – and there was a special topical session about bodily fluids – yes, science types find this kind of thing kind of cool, and the session was called “The Fluid Mechanics of Disgust”. Well, there was one talk by a female scientist who was studying the fluid properties of the flow of breast milk through the mother’s teat. Slide number one was the motivation for the work – to design better babies bottles so mothers could go back to work quicker. All very Rosie the Riveter. No talk of more maternity leave or career breaks or any of that cuddly European stuff. So yes, the organizers achieved what they set out to do – I was disgusted, but not for the reasons they had anticipated.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago

Typical. I suspect the perspective of the infant didn’t feature in her analysis.

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

I keep noticing – from what my wife and daughter watch online – that the most popular “influencers” are young married women with kids. Obviously it is all staged – immaculate houses, no arguments and so on. But if this is the new ideal – traditional, happy family life – maybe getting hitched and having babies will come back into fashion in the west. And we can avoid the rise of the breeding machines.

Andrea X
Andrea X
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Instagram is like trip back to Victorian times.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

This is a positive development but I worry that it gives the idea that a happy family life is a luxury good. A solution to the natality crisis will need to address housing costs.

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

It really has to be a glamorised version to appeal to people. If you stuck a camera in our house on a typical morning, you’d put young people off from ever having kids:)
It is a glimmer of hope though.
I agree about housing costs and many other issue to be overcome.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
10 months ago

One more post, and that is it, apologies. Elon Musk must have been up late last night reading Isaac Asimov. On planet Solaria, men and women come together occasionally, do the business, lie back, think of Solaria, and next month the foetus is extracted, screened for genetic illnesses, and if all is well, turned over to the “foetal engineer” for incubation and childraising. The mammy and the daddy never see the little blighter again, this gives the grown-ups time for the important things like Sociology and Abstract Art.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
10 months ago

Just to throw a spanner into the discussion. Why are we so worried about population decline?
It seems to me, at least, that population decline is not happening fast enough, nor is it widespread enough in all parts of the world. Given resource constraints and environmental concerns, nothing short of a staggering increase in productive efficiency can save us from having to choose between horrific, Malthusian poverty and starvation on the one hand, or environmental collapse on the other (to be followed then, by the former).
But a steady and severe reduction in human population, asymptoting to, say, a billion, would solve all kinds of otherwise intractable problems: Enough space for other species, enough fossil fuels to keep the lights on, and enough labour demand to keep the workers displaced by AI and automation busy and contented.
Perhaps the discussion should be focused on how we can encourage more parts of the globe to stop printing babies?

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
10 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Mostly because the ponzi scheme that is pensions, state welfare and economic growth are dependent on it.
The extinction rebellion, anti-natalist types are in a state of cognitive dissonance at the improbability of both having their anti-climate change cake and eating it by their ever expanding welfare programs.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

I think that’s a fair point – and not a trivial one. How to design pensions and welfare systems that harness productivity divorced from labour supply? Not easy to do.
But the fact that some environmentalists are insensitive to these contradictions isn’t sufficient grounds for failing to address them.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Sudden and catastrophic is more likely (than “steady and severe”). Managed decline is not feasible when we are talking about controlling the intimate behaviour of entire nations. Population collapse, from what I have read, happens a bit like bankruptcy according to the famous line. It happens slowly at first, then all at once.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
10 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

The humanist in me hopes you’re wrong. The realist in me fears you’re not.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Human quantitative easing
Ha ha. This is one of Mary H’s great strengths: she can capture a whole raft of ideas in one clever phrase.
We’ve truly reached the point where the religion of economic growth rules our lives. We must conjure humans into existence to enable economic and technological development. It’s not even tech or economics driving this process–we’ve chosen to make them our gods.

William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The suggestion that the artificial womb will be used (in the West) to make babies for economic reasons is total rubbish.
The primary purpose of the artificial womb when used for human babies will be to free women from the burden and inconvenience of gestation.
It’s the pro-feminist solution to the unequal consequences of sex… the asymmetry of sexual reproduction that young women are campaigning against.
Does anyone believe politicians will oppress young women by banning it.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
10 months ago

No need to print babies….. here is South Africa. Just one country from the 3rd world that is moving en masse to Western countries. Coming to you in the next few years.
https://www.statista.com/statistics/1067083/population-south-africa-historical/

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
10 months ago

How incongruous: I read today’s UNHERD feature about how we will all end up eating bugs due to limited resources and then this post. I wonder if Elon has ever tried visiting Yellowstone or Yosemite NP in season. Or tried driving I-95 on a holiday weekend.
Let’s start worrying about depopulation when we get below a billion. By then semi or fully autonomous “servants” will be ubiquitous to take care of all the old folks who can’t care for themselves.

Last edited 10 months ago by Michael Coleman
Douglas H
Douglas H
10 months ago

Have these people not read Brave New World? Or We?

Tom Shaw
Tom Shaw
10 months ago

Beyond the tech fantasy, command-economy baby production isn’t new. The Nazis did it to build their “master race”. Ceausescu did it in Romania to grow the population. He grew orphanages instead. China is beginning to do it to beat the womb shortage, having killed too many baby girls since the beginning of the One Child policy. It is almost certainly too late. Perhaps they will feel the need to co-opt the wombs of N Korea or Taiwan.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
10 months ago

A commenter in another thread has noted that the only way to achieve equity (as opposed to equality) is genetic engineering to harmonise talent inequality. Presumably easy enough in high tech wombs.

Brave New World here we come (though thankfully very long after I’m gone.)

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
10 months ago

Organic chemistry is really, really complex. Never mind wombs, how about printing food? Nothing to it, just rearrange some elements and bingo! … We have done the analysis, so the synthesis is just a tech problem. Except, have you noticed, that all the atoms we eat must have come from something that was once alive … oops.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
10 months ago

Pardon the pun but this is hysterical. You can take that to be in the vernacular or the historic. I leave it to the reader.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
10 months ago

Women on the edge (of time)?

David Simpson
David Simpson
10 months ago

If you print babies, won’t you also need to print parents?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

“…We can’t even make a synthetic human breastmilk that’s anywhere near as good as the real stuff…”

I know the author likely will regard this point with distaste, but I guarantee, this is a mere engineering problem, and just a matter of time. And not very much time at that. I’m not defending the tech bros (even though I am one), merely stating what I know to be the case.

The article is interesting because it raises a point I have been making, over and over for years, (only to draw blank looks of incomprehension in most cases): is there such a thing as a science or technology that should not be persued, because it leads to distressing conditions for the humanity’s psyche?

Because the instinctive reaction of many when faced with the prospect is that the thought gives them the heebie jeebies.I mean everything from the nuclear sciences, to zygote banks, to gene editing and many more. Quoting the author, a “..horror show..” is how many many would view such research.

Because if your stance is that there are such lines, which should not be crossed, then you have to accept, your stance is essentially a religious one. And once you do that, you will have the devil’s own job defending your position against attack. For example you cannot attack the taliban any more, because your position is just at a different arbitrary point but very much on the same line. This is completely apart from the point that embracing such a stance, will likely result in your society losing out to others who don’t self-stop in the same way. For example, imagine the the Allies had eschewed the persuit of nuclear weapons for ethical reasons. There is no question the Nazis would have got there eventually, resulting in a very different world indeed (at least for a few decades).

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I’d say that gain-of-function research on viruses capable of infecting human beings should not be pursued. What say you?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago

I’m not religious, so I don’t believe any research is off limits, but everything should come with a stringent set of constraints. If you can meet the constraints, you can persue the research. Now to the constraints, which I guess is the critical bit. But with the caevat that actors at the national/military/security level are guaranteed to simply disregard such constraints regardless, so this in practice only applies to the commercial world.

i. Nothing that has a probability of causing side effects that will hurt others. The tricky bit is of course deciding – this is why we have regulators with deep technical expertise. If you can convince such people that what you are proposing has a low probability of harm, then you are away. Note that there is no such thing as a completely risk free enterprise, so it’s always a judgement, but it shouldn’t be one bound by current cultural mores, and it should be fair, not a show assessment but with a pre-fixed conclusion.

In the case you mentioned of gain-of-function research, this is in effect biological replicators released into the wild, and it should be stopped unless you can demonstrate you can carry out the research within sandboxes. Note that the covid stuff was (effectively) at national level, so I would say impossible to stop in practice.

ii. Nothing that will demonstrably cause physical distress to sentient entities , not just humans, but also other species. I’m ok with mental distress but only to humans, and if carried as the free choice of those humans in persuing the activities they want to, eg social media. My personal limit is, all mammals are off limits. I believe for example, animal testing should not be allowed, even though that would set back medical research by decades.

iii. Any such research should have full public visibility – any ordinary citizen should be able to demand all documentation pertaining to the research is made available for scrutiny.

I reiterate, my stance is hopelessly old fashioned, and not one that is at all enforceable in practice, because I’m not the only human on the planet.

Last edited 10 months ago by Prashant Kotak
William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

More accurately…
We can’t currently make it for what people are willing to pay for it.
The current approximation is the economic price point.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Absolutely

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Is the solution to compensate the economic contribution of mothers? It makes no sense for a mother to leave the house to perform a low paying job in order to buy artificial milk for the infant she leaves behind. We have really lost the plot.

William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Compensate mothers? Absolutely not. Ludicrous idea.
Why should single men pay taxes so mothers can be financially rewarded?
Women have roughly 30 different types of birth control available to them. No baby is born unless the woman wants it. Women have full control and therefore full responsibility.
Don’t have a baby if you can’t afford to raise it. And don’t expect innocent bystanders to pay your bills for you.

Last edited 10 months ago by William Shaw
William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago

The purpose of the artificial womb is not to increase the production of human babies, it’s to free women from the burden and inconvenience of gestation.
Make no mistake, the womb will find its first uses in animal breeding, where the financial rewards will be huge. Extension to humans will initially be to help those women who are unable to bear children, followed closely by the rich and famous who want to avoid the inconvenience and damage to their appearance. Female athletes will be next and then the rest of the female population will get on board.
At some point in the future, even the thought of a woman actually bearing a child will seem archaic, disgusting and primitive.
It’s the future. Like it or not. It can be delayed, but not stopped.

JP Martin
JP Martin
10 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

”At some point in the future, even the thought of a woman actually bearing a child will seem archaic, disgusting and primitive.”
These cultural shifts are starting. If we look at the rate of Caesarean sections, some countries are approaching 60% (and these are not all rich countries). Humans are losing confidence, or perhaps losing the taste, for normal biological processes.

William Shaw
William Shaw
10 months ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Many people choose not to believe what’s in front of them hoping it will go away.
It won’t.