Modern Western man is dying. I mean that quite literally: Total sperm count among Western men declined nearly 60 percent from 1973 to 2011. That’s according to the first-ever comprehensive meta-analysis of 7,500 studies, by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The analysis was published last summer, but it seems to have mostly eluded media attention until this year.
The most alarming finding? “When we restricted the analysis to studies after 1995, we found no sign that decline is leveling off,” said the Hebrew University’s Dr. Hegai Levine, one of the lead researchers. “In other words, the decline continues.” The implications for the species and modern Western societies especially are existential. As a GQ essay put it, “the human race is apparently on a trend line toward becoming unable to reproduce itself.”
Lest you think that’s a magazine scribe’s hyperbole, here’s Shanna Swan, another of the paper’s lead scientists: “You can ask, ‘What does it take? When is a species in danger? When is a species threatened?’ And we are definitely on that path.” Absent a dramatic reversal, that path might one day lead us to the opening scene of Children of Men, the 2006 movie based on P.D. James’s dystopian novel, in which a distraught crowd in a coffee shop watches news coverage of the death of the youngest person on earth—age 18.
With global fertility at zero (in the movie), that untimely death brings mankind one grim step closer to total extinction. Then a seemingly miraculous pregnancy does take place, and it falls to our protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen at his scraggly, depressive best), to escort the expectant mother through a post-apocalyptic Britain to a safe place where she might give birth and renew the face of the earth.
To be sure, men and women are still having babies in the real world, though fertility rates among most Western nations are well below replacement. Lower fertility means fewer young workers, which in turn causes all sorts of social problems: slow growth, welfare competition, unmet pension obligations, loneliness, depression. The human race may not go extinct for a long time, but the immediate effects are bad enough that we should make rectifying the male seed deficit an immediate priority.
And that’s where things get complicated. Because scientists can’t seem to reach any sort of agreement about what’s causing men to produce fewer little swimmers. Is it environmental degradation? Is it the chemicals and plastics that saturate modern life? Is it stress? Smoking? Diet and nutrition? All of the above? No one can say for certain. Another point for verisimilitude for Children of Men: In the movie, it is never quite made clear what is behind the global fertility crisis. It’s just there almost like, well, a biblical curse.
The West’s reigning scientism would never permit us to look beyond science for an answer. Scientism—as opposed to science properly understood—says that scientific knowledge is the only kind worthy of the name. It seeks to supplant and indeed vanquish other claimants to truth, especially revealed religion, with its injunctions to “cleave to a wife” and “be fruitful and multiply” (rather than play video games and cavort with sex bots). But the persistent mystery of the missing sperm is another reminder that the scientistic, contraceptive society may not be as durable as its sunniest boosters imagine it to be.
Correction: The Hebrew University meta-analysis found a sperm-count decline of nearly 60% among men who participated in the underlying studies. A previous version of this article misstated the conclusion in terms of the “average male.”