Preface: Final comments on declining sperm
I finished my recent blog on sperm decline and related reproductive horror stories by coming to the strange conclusion that the “end of men” could be in sight but no one is screaming.
The question is why? Very briefly, I want to suggest several reasons. One is that there have been negative studies as well as positive ones, and with that there have been (much like global warming) believers and deniers. In 2008 a study was published entitled Declining World Wide Sperm Counts: Disproving a Myth.* The author had found more studies finding no change than those showing a decline and concluded that “The evidence accumulated to date showing no decline in sperm counts or sperm concentration in populations through the developed world should be accepted.” No real explanation for the positive findings was given. He also totally rejected all evidence for endocrine disruptor theories (plasticizers, pesticides, etc) as supporting human or animal effects on sperm count and advised that “this leg of supposed evidence for proposed legislation is weak to the point of breaking.”
From that point on to 2011, other skeptical articles appeared including one in a New York Times column, but the 2012 study from France that I reported earlier has tipped the balance strongly back to sperm decline.** This research involved over 26,000 men over a period of 17years (1989 to 2005) whose partners had fallopian tube problems and were being tested in government reproductive centers throughout France (126 different centers). Data were collected in this circumstance for 17 years from 1989 to 2005 under very careful conditions. The trend showed a continuous decline of approximately 1.9% per year for a total drop of 32% over this period. It is a truly impressive study.
France already has a fertility rate that is slightly below human replacement level, as does much of Europe. If the 2012 study is accurate, and the decline continues at 1.9% per year the Frenchman’s average sperm count should be approaching the sub-fertility level of 20 million in 45 years..
So, once more, why isn’t anybody screaming? The fact that contradictory findings have appeared is no doubt part of this. It is hard to get upset about a potentially terrible, but unclear danger, and human to push it aside, mentally. That is part of it, but still, assuming this may be global or even just in the Western world–shouldn’t we be organizing a massive international program to get to the bottom of this? Shouldn’t we be examining all the flaws in any past studies and trying to do very up-to-date, coordinated, world-wide research? Now? With all possible speed?
Uncertainty is one problem here and if the environmental toxin theory is correct, there are also very serious problems ahead for both manufacturers and users of industrial chemicals and pesticides, but I wonder if there is something more to this. Is there a male branding problem here? How many years can you describe testosterone as a social toxin without seriously disparaging its carriers? This may be made worse by the fact that the men studied are those from highly developed Western countries–Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, much of central Europe, the United States, and Australia. Are people consciously or unconsciously pushing it aside as a problem of economically comfortable, mostly white males (and their partners) who are not one of the populations of concern in the world?
That opens up a broader thought–could all these male problems–declining sperm, shrinking penises, and dropping testosterone levels–perhaps even dropping achievements in education and the world of work–be at some level the reflection of society’s rejection of maleness? This is not to disparage the endocrine disruptor findings, but rather to ask if there may also be a cultural cause?
Has something really happened to the male brand?
The male brand (the popular view of masculinity) is inextricably linked with testosterone, and testosterone began to have a really bad press in the 1960s, that remains with us today. It was poisonous, it was toxic, it was the cause of all war and violence. We needed to make love, not war. It was patriarchal and inherently dominating, domineering and destructive of all tender feeling.
Is there some truth to this? Certainly. The natural desire to dominate does come with the Y chromosome to some degree. Have we gone too far with this description? I think so. It should be helpful to try to sort out truth from exaggeration here.
In terms of overall influence of testosterone on male behavior, the reigning explanation is that testosterone prepares men to meet “challenges of dominance”, otherwise referred to as Intermale Aggression. Steven Pinker explains this pretty well in his latest book,This is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined.”*** His concern, obviously, is with the sources of violence, and although he does not suggest that there is a direct connection between testosterone and violence, he suggests a very strong indirect connection. He says that “testosterone, according to scientists’ best guess, does not make men more aggressive across the board, but prepares them for a challenge of dominance….”
“It doesn’t cause violence directly, because many kinds of violence have nothing to do with dominance, and because many contests of dominance are settled by displays and brinkmanship rather than violence itself. But to the extent that the problem of violence is a problem of young, unmarried, lawless men competing for dominance, whether directly or on behalf of a leader, then violence really is a problem of their being too much testosterone in the world.”
Is it? What makes these men lawless? Are we to assume that testosterone makes them lawless? Being unmarried makes them lawless? Or does marrying make them lawful? There are a lot of assumptions here. In spite of all qualifying adjectives, Pinker’s summary does come down to that last line “violence really is a problem of their being too much testosterone in the world.”.
Approaching this description of T from another source, here is a quote from an article from Psychology Today, entitled The Testosterone Curse: Part II “Complementing the tendency to imprudent, rash or even reckless behavior, are a variety of research finding indicating that high-testosterone males are more likely to be impulsive, impatient, unreliable…single-minded to the point of obsessiveness. By nature leaning–competitively or confrontationally–toward raucous or rugged physical activities, they frequently don’t perform well academically. and (no surprise) in school one of their problems is that they may not deal very well with intellectual complexities.”
Without a doubt, high T males are more active and competitive than the average male but there are serious flaws in this analysis. All else being equal, it is true that high levels of testosterone are found more often in men convicted of violent crimes, but so is extreme impulsivity, and psychopathy. I would imagine that most high T males are discovered, at least in adolescence and early adulthood, because they have gotten in trouble with the law, and/or school and family. And, no surprise, these individuals are frequently found to have high testosterone, low impulse control, poor empathy for others and less than optimal intelligence. All of those qualities would contribute to an individual who is combative and risk-taking and perhaps lawless. But–and this is important–there is an assumption here that high testosterone leads to low intelligence, low empathy, etc. I know of no research that has ever demonstrated this. It would certainly tend to push an individual over the cliff who has all of the other problems, but that is a different matter.
Secondly, implied in the discussions about high testosterone, is the broader idea that if high T results in nothing but trouble, then T in general is problematic too. One thing we can be sure of is that really low T is not a blessing for the person who has it, or the people who have to live with him. Indications are that in addition to sexual dysfunctions, and physical problems, such as loss of bone mass and muscle mass, low testosterone in men commonly produces such symptoms as mood changes in the direction of depression and irritability, cognitive changes in the direction of less ability to focus and concentrate, and a general sense of loss of drive, initiative and energy. From the individual’s point of view this is certainly nothing to wish for, and from the point of view of Mr. low T’s friends, family and coworkers, this is probably not a lot of fun either. Nevertheless, the widespread 60s attitudes that seemed to reject all traditional male behavior still seems to carry the idea that “T in general is problematic”.
Third and last, is the idea that testosterone fueled behavior may have been needed in the chaotic early period of human life, but has outlived its usefulness. Again I quote Steven Pinker’s book. “Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms Anything that deflates the concept of dominance is likely to drive down the frequency of fights between individuals and wars between groups. That doesn’t mean that the emotions behind dominance will go away–they are very much a part of our biology, especially in a certain gender–but they can be marginalized.”
Dominance is a slippery word. If by that word Pinker implies dominance by force and violence we could all agree that it should be marginalized. However, in a lesser sense you dominate whenever you get your way or win–whether by athletic prowess, musical, artistic or organizational talent, sheer force of will, or skillful intellectual argument. You dominate when you achieve any hierarchical position of power–whether it be shop boss or CEO. You dominate when with all the smartness at your command you win an election and bring your party to power. Frankly, with every respect to Dr. Pinker, you express your response to a challenge to dominate when you successfully write and publish an 800 page book on The Better Angels of Our Nature. And that is not a bad thing.
There is an extremely important point in there. If the concept of a “challenge to dominance” is interpreted simply as a knee-jerk reaction to exert dominance any time a male person encounters another male person, it certainly is primitive and pointless. I am sure that it does stir, even in mature adults, when one man feels threatened by another man’s interest in taking away his wife or girlfriend, or displacing him in his position or generally taking something he values, but those are real things and worthy of some arousal of dominance behavior. If an adult male reacts this way in the absence of any cause then you need to look deeper than levels of T. The important point, I think, is that testosterone is a serious part of what pushes men to respond to all sorts of challenges in work, in sports and other leisure time activities—and that’s a good thing. What Dr. Pinker misses in wishing to marginalize the emotions behind dominance, is that standing and defending what you believe is right is a form of dominance. Working within “a society that has undergone a civilizing process” to see your view prevail for a better course of action, is a form of dominance too—and that is surely a good thing.
Among the many remainders of the 1960s is the desire to abolish all hierarchies and all dominance of individuals over others. I recall listening to a University talk on the subject of removing dominance words from our language use. It was suggested that as a department chairperson, you should always refer to your secretary by her name, and not “my secretary” (even though you did gently mention what her duties were from time to time), and your dog was your “companion” and you were not its master (even though you seemed to lay down the rules about where not to urinate, and when not to bark). My point is simply that humans (and dogs) cannot live together without some hierarchies, without leaders and followers. To the extent that rising to a challenge to dominate is bigger and wider than just trying to beat someone else, it is simply necessary.
I suggest that the male brand has suffered badly from the three assumptions that I have outlined. First that high testosterone produces violent and often criminal behavior in isolation, rather than merely being a potential contributing factor. Second that average levels of testosterone (and thus average males) suffer from guilt by association–if high T is bad, all T is bad. And finally, that the idea that testosterone prepares men to rise to a challenge of dominance, is wrong in assuming that all dominance is bad–even unnecessary– and wrong in assuming that the challenge is always dominance in the narrow sense of besting someone else. Climbing a mountain “because it is there”, going to Mars, inventing electricity, writing a great book, finding the Higgs particle are all responses to a challenge. I suppose you can work the motive backward so that it is a challenge to dominate everyone else who is trying to do your thing, but that’s a stretch.
Coming up in a few days: Could social attitudes really affect testosterone levels?
*Fisch, H. MD (2008) Declining Worldwide Sperm Counts: Disproving a Myth. Urol Clin N. Am 35, 137-146. (Can be found online, also).
**Rolland, M. et al. (2013. Decline in semen concentration and morphology in a sample of 26,609 men close to general population between 1989 and 2005 in France. Published in Human Reproduction but available online at http://humrep.oxfordjournal.org/content/early/2012/12/02)
Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has Declined Viking USA.
Seltzer Leon The Testosterone Curse (Part 2) (Published on Psychology Today at http://www.psychologytoday.com)