Building Better Babies

The new season of Horizon continues to provide lots of food for thought. This week’s episode, “The Nine Months That Made You”, looks at how the environment in the womb may affect the future lives of babies.

If you think about it, it is fairly obvious. We undergo far more “development” before we are born than afterwards. If we, as children and adults, are sensitive to diet and chemicals in the environment, how much more sensitive must we be as foetuses? It is certainly worth investigating.

The bulk of the program revolved around the idea that our susceptibility to things like heart disease and diabetes is a function of the quality of nutrition we get in the womb, as well as of diet and lifestyle after we are born. The statistical evidence presented seemed fairly convincing, and the doctors in India who worked on the project were convinced enough to launch a large-scale and long-term experiment in Mumbai to try to improve the health of the poor by improving the diet of young women.

This isn’t a simple process. It is not just a question of making sure that pregnant mothers get enough to eat. The levels of micro-nutrients such as vitamins are apparently crucial. Also it is a multi-generational project. Some of the factors involved may depend on whether certain genes are switched on in the mother’s eggs and, as women are born with a fully stocked ovaries, your ability to bear a healthy child may be in part dependent on the quality of diet your mother had when she was bearing you.

What interested me most, however, was when they went beyond health issues and started to look at personality. There was a nice experiment in which they showed that foetuses have clear personalities (something that most mothers know, but doctors need to prove), so the sort of person we become is not entirely down to our environment and upbringing.

Another experiment related the level of testosterone in the womb to the type of gendered behaviour shown by the resulting children. Girls exposed to higher levels of testosterone are apparently more likely to exhibit gendered behaviour that is generally associated with boys. I’m pretty sceptical of such experiments because they are often carried out by people with a poor understanding of gender, and with lots of cultural bias, but it does hold out the possibility of starting to understand the origins of transsexuality.

Talking of gender differences, I saw a report yesterday that purported to explain why women are much less fond of horror movies than men. Apparently women get much more stressed by the clues that something bad is about to happen. Again I am sceptical of such things. There may be a lot of cultural training and expectation involved here. All I can say is that I’m very female-typical here and always have been. My mum had to take me out of The Wizard of Oz when I first saw it because I found it too scary.

Of course I also view such things as a science fiction reader. If we can build better babies, how far will people take this? How much human variation do we want to “cure”? Whereas the treatments being given to poor women in Mumbai are cheap and simple, what procedures will be developed that only the rich can afford? Science, as always, is a double-edged sword.

9 thoughts on “Building Better Babies

  1. I recently finished Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which talks quite a bit about what we don’t know about fetal testosterone. She’s pretty critical of Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on this, and I’m inclined to agree with her arguments. (There’s likely a bit of confirmation bias on my part there, though.)

    Baron-Cohen, meanwhile, is busy looking at how “assortative mating” might lead to the increase in autism diagnoses. The article I saw recently managed to say both:

    “The theory is still largely speculation, shored up by seductive anecdotes”


    “Supporting the theory, the recent upsurge in autism rates has coincided with certain social changes, including an unprecedented movement of women into math and science professions, which in turn may have encouraged the meeting and mingling of like-minded — and like-brained — future parents.”

    Because, obviously, if you have what you acknowledge as a weak premise, it’s totally fine to to go wild with it. I know I love being told to stay in the kitchen. For science.

    Double-edged sword indeed.

    1. My confirmation bias tends to be centered around not wanting to be deemed insane, or to be a sissy who should have been beaten more as a kid. But I try hard to hold the keeping out of the kitchen priority in mind as well.

      1. In case it isn’t clear, I’m inclined to agree with her arguments about not drawing strong conclusions from weak or flawed results. The more I read, the more amazed I am by what we don’t know and how heavily it is used to prescribe who we should be.

  2. Thanks for the write-up. The program is not available in my area. How I love the imposition of geography on the internet for weird broadcast rights reasons.

    In “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” there are similar reports about the effects of fetal testosterone on both male and female babies. Hopefully this doesn’t result in doctors recommending a course of testosterone injections for mothers who want to make sure their male babies turn out rough and tumble and not gay.

    1. Given the amount of business the likes of Zucker are doing in “anti-gay” therapy for kids, I’m sure someone will already be offering this.

  3. Once again I fail the girly test. 🙂 Or does writing horror not count? 😉

    Apart from my loving horror films… I’m always failing the female test.

    The hormone in the womb stuff does tend to resonate with me, being as I always test for a male brain. Although I fail the finger length test, IIRC.

    Bolshie woman, is the other term, I’m sure. 🙂

    ps My biological mother was bulimic during her pregnancy with me. Something I attribute the severity of my dyslexia too, not to mention the terrible state of my eggs, which were laid down in her body, whilst she was being actively bulimic. Add in formula feeding, and I was doomed!

  4. Epigenetics is a fascinating field. I’m just glad that there are lots of women in biological sciences now as the data unfurls. I shudder to think what might be happening now otherwise. (That is, how much worse the hare-brained speculation might be.)

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