Salvo 05.11.2023 12 minutes

The Rules of the Gamete

defalted businesman  on chairs

Securing the means of reproduction.

A few years ago, a group of scientists at the University of Arizona put forward the idea of building a seed bank on the moon. Only a facility sited off-world, the scientists said, could provide a true hedge against the extinction of life on Earth, since a terrestrial unit would also probably be destroyed in any global cataclysm that might take place—say, a massive ecological collapse, an asteroid strike, or nuclear war. Among the sperm and seeds protected in deep pits on the moon’s surface would be human gametes, too.

The idea of storing human gametes, and especially sperm, in this manner shows foresight, though it’s hard not to wonder what good gallons of sperm on the moon would do if there were no humans left on earth to use them. The possibility that there could be people but no supply of human sperm is looking increasingly likely. According to Professor Shanna Swan, a reproductive health expert at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, if current trends in sperm counts continue, by 2045 the median man will have a sperm count of zero. What this means, basically, is that half of men will produce no sperm at all, and the other will produce so few that they might as well just produce none.

The cause of this shocking decline, which runs in tandem with a similarly dramatic fall in levels of testosterone, appears to be our growing exposure to so-called endocrine-disrupting (i.e., hormone-disrupting) chemicals, which has increased enormously in recent decades. Among these chemicals are substances like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), many of which are essential to the manufacture of plastics, cosmetics, fire retardants, and other such ubiquitous products of our modern industrial age.

While we may be used to explanations about declining birth rates couched in terms of increased freedom and education, technological advance, and prosperity—“women have fewer children in the West today because they’re more free, better educated, wealthier, healthier and have access to contraception and abortion”—the idea that the bigger problem is caused by industrial chemicals is still largely novel. Birth rates in the developed world have been plummeting for some time, but few would care to think there might come a day when it could actually be impossible to conceive by natural means.

We face a situation that humans have never faced before in our long history, dating back some two thousand centuries. Nonetheless, it’s worth reminding ourselves that individual societies have been driven to the brink—and beyond—by problems with fertility in the past. When the means of social reproduction were threatened, our ancestors produced a range of different responses, some of which we might recognize; others, by contrast, would seem outlandish, thoroughly undesirable, and even immoral.

For the ancient Greeks, fertility was one aspect of the broader practice of eugenics (literally, “coming into being well”/“good birth”). In most Greek cities, “mere” fertility was not usually the main eugenic consideration, but subsidiary to others. So, for instance, in his discussion of the eugenic principles governing the ideal Republic, Plato’s Socrates was concerned principally with ensuring that only the best mated with the best and had children. Being able to produce enough people to continue society was not generally in question. In Sparta, however, where citizenship was organized entirely along military lines, “oligandria,” or “the scantiness of men,” was recognized, by Spartans and outside observers, as one of the most serious threats to the city-state’s continued existence.

Constant warfare, as well as gruelling lifelong preparation for it, meant that Sparta’s military elite of male citizens was more or less always in chronic decline, unlike the perioikoi sub-class and the slave helots, of whom there were always plenty. According to Aristotle, this was one of the reasons why women in Sparta had more power than elsewhere in ancient Greece because of their vital role in producing male warriors. Aristotle even went so far as to attribute Sparta’s decline from pre-eminence among the Greek cities to the excessive power of its women, calling Sparta a “gynocracy.”

The Scythians, another ancient warrior society, apparently faced a very different set of problems related to fertility. These problems are described in a medical text, On Airs, Water, and Places by a Greek writer known as “Pseudo-Hippocrates,” who wrote in the fifth century B.C. The Scythians were horse-riding nomads who inhabited the Pontic steppe, an area stretching from southern Ukraine to Kazakhstan across the top of the Black and Caspian Seas.

According to Pseudo-Hippocrates, the cold, damp environment the Scythians lived in affected the humors of their bodies, making them “soft and moist.” This imbalance was made worse by their lifestyle, which involved long periods in the saddle or in their famous wheeled wagons. “The girls get amazingly flabby and pudgy,” Pseudo-Hippocrates noted. “People of such a constitution cannot be prolific,” he added, attributing their inability to conceive to their extra weight, and also to the effects of hard saddles on the male reproductive organs, in particular.

Pseudo-Hippocrates also noted “there are many eunuchs among the Scythians who perform female work and speak like women…such persons are called Andrieis (effeminates). The Scythians attribute the cause of their impotence to god, and venerate and worship such persons, everyone dreading that a similar fate might befall himself.”

The condition is described as one men embraced out of choice when they recognized themselves as impotent. Although the Scythians apparently saw impotence as an act of God, Pseudo-Hippocrates believed it was caused, again, by horse-riding. He thought there were more eunuchs among the richer classes of Scythian society, who rode the most, unlike the lower classes, who might live more in the manner of traditional farmers. “[The rich men] always wore trousers and spend most of their time on horseback, unable to fondle themselves, and from cold and fatigue they forget their sexual desires.”

It’s likely that Pseudo-Hippocrates was playing up, to some extent, to Greek stereotypes about barbarians and the superiority of Greek civilization—Scythian burials reveal many of them to have been unusually tall and robust, including so-called burials of “Amazon” warrior women—but the lifestyle factors he describes—weight gain, long periods of sitting, constant saddle pressure on the male genitalia, and tight trousers—would all have had a detrimental effect on fertility.

Studies show that overweight men have lower sperm quality and quantity, and overweight women are well known to have difficulty in conceiving and an increased rate of miscarriage. Sitting for long periods of time also affects sperm parameters in men, not only because it is associated with being overweight, but because it prevents proper thermoregulation of the testes. As far as hard saddles are concerned, we know that keen male cyclists regularly suffer infertility, and tight trousers and tight underwear have been shown to reduce men’s reproductive health as well. All in all, then, it looks like Scythian men’s testicles took a heavy beating, even by today’s punishing standards of skinny jeans and 30 hours a week spent sitting in front of the TV. Pseudo-Hippocrates was probably right that the Scythians were indeed far from prolific.

What did these societies do in response? We know that the Spartans devoted considerable resources to cultivating worship of goddesses of fertility such as Helen, Orthia Artemis, Artemis Cyparissia, and Artemis Elilithia, as well as attempting to develop fertility-boosting remedies through the expansion of medicine as a discipline. Sparta maintained close relationships with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Alexandria, then the most important medical center in the Mediterranean world, and we know that plants such as agnus castus were used by Spartan physicians to treat infertility in women. Scientific studies have shown that agnus castus does have a number of beneficial hormonal effects for women, helping to regulate periods and premenstrual tension and to ease the transition to menopause. It was also apparently common for older men, if they were impotent or otherwise unable to attend sexually to their wives, to select and invite younger men to consort with their wives instead, for the benefit of the state.

If the Scythians attempted to mitigate the negative effects of life in the saddle on their fecundity, we know little about it, beyond the fact that they treated eunuchs with a kind of reverential dread and that powerful men often took many wives. We know a little more about the Comanche of the American plains, who were in a similar situation to the Scythians, with commentators of the time and later historians noting that miscarriages among women were very common because they would have to ride long distances even while pregnant.

Rather than resorting to worship of fertility goddesses or cultivating medicinal remedies, the Comanche intensified their raiding on other tribes and on European settlements on the frontier. The fearsome horseman would kill all the men, male children and old women, and then take the remaining young girls and women of childbearing age with them as captives, strapped to their saddles. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was one such girl. In 1836, she was kidnapped during a Comanche raid into North Texas and taken back to Comancheria, where she eventually married a powerful chief and gave birth to Quanah Parker, the last and perhaps the greatest of all Comanche leaders.

In our own time, proactive society-wide measures to reverse declining fertility are noticeable mostly by their absence. Despite growing awareness of the role played by harmful chemicals in the current decline, regulation has not really become a political issue, though Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is talking about it as part of his presidential campaign. Hungary is one nation, at least, that is trying legislative measures to encourage its citizens to have children. This is something the Roman emperor Augustus also tried, with his famous leges Juliae, which, among other things, provided various inducements to marriage and childbearing and made adultery a banishable—even a capital—offense.

In 2019, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced tax benefits and subsidies for young couples having children. For example, young couples are now offered interest-free loans that will be cancelled once they have three children. Women having four or more children are exempt from paying income tax for life. At the time the measures were introduced, Hungary’s population was falling by 32,000 a year and women were having fewer children than the E.U. average. Announcing the measures in his annual state of the nation address, Orban said that the answer to falling birth rates in Europe was generally considered to be immigration: “For every missing child, there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine.” But “Hungarian people think differently,” he added. “We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children” (my emphasis).

Orban is right that the principal “answer” to falling birth rates, in Europe and the U.S., is and always has been immigration. The vehemence of the reaction in the international community, press, and academia to Orban’s departure from this elite consensus is very telling. We’re told, for instance by the “Illiberalism Studies Program,” that his demographic measures are actually part of a new “authoritarian neoliberalism,” in which individual rights take second place to the “rights of the family as a basic societal unit” and minorities, like Hungary’s Roma community, are “othered” and excluded. This form of “exclusionary protectionism” is sustained by “attacks on immigrants and elites” and ultimately only benefits the strongman leader himself. Any attempt to remedy declining fertility by political appeal to supra-individual structures like the family is destined, it would seem, to be smeared as “illiberal” and “authoritarian.”

One of the major ironies of relying on immigration to bolster fertility is that we now know the rest of the world is subject to the same precipitous declines in fertility we, in the West, are. A recent study by an international team of researchers has revealed, for the first time, that trends previously seen only in the West are being replicated in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Men in these regions are suffering from the same “significant decline” in total sperm counts and sperm concentration as their counterparts in the West. What’s more, this decline has been accelerating since the year 2000.

Don’t think this will stop Western governments from relying on immigration to address their fertility problems. Fertility decline or no, the global non-Western population still vastly outstrips the population of the West and will continue to. Just recently, the British government announced it would be trialling plans for “replenishing” aging rural communities by settling migrants in them for minimum periods of five years. The measure is part of the government’s “leveling-up agenda,” described as a “moral, social and economic program for the whole of government” to “spread opportunity more equally across the UK.” Similar plans are also being enacted in rural communities in France and Spain. The inspiration for these resettlement schemes apparently comes from the “Atlantic Growth Strategy,” a pilot program that’s been run by Canada’s Atlantic provinces since 2016. “We need more young blood to keep our economies going,” said John McCallum, Canada’s Minister of Immigration—and “young blood” can only mean one thing: more immigrants.

How many more? How about the entire Third World? “Climate migration” was one of the hot topics at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos this year, when Al Gore, in unusually blustering form, suggested that a coming wave of one billion migrants was going to cause Western nations to “lose our capacity for self-governance.”

If this was supposed to be a warning, Gore didn’t make a particularly convincing Jeremiah. Indeed, the case for unprecedented climate migration as a net benefit for the aging, declining West had already been made in a book called Nomad Century, by Gaia Vince. Using rhetoric familiar to anybody who has read anything written by Klaus Schwab or the World Economic Forum, Vince argues that the threat of catastrophic climate change is also a perfect opportunity for us to transform our societies from top to bottom and make them fairer, greener places for all. She suggests that as many as three billion people in the Global South will have to leave their homes by 2070 due to climate change, and rather than waiting for them to be forced to do so by increasing temperatures and bad weather, we should encourage them to come here now.

This increasingly feels like the how of the Great Reset: how we will go from our current world of nation states to the borderless, massively connected cappuccino-colored world described in the infamous “think piece” “Welcome to 2030.” Precedents have already been established in international law to formalize the right of migrants to remain if their own country is judged to be threatened by climate change.

Recognizing that we are not the only society to have faced the prospect of serious, even ruinous, fertility decline provides a salutary lesson. For one thing, company in hardship can be reassuring: we’re not the first, nor will we be the last—hopefully!—to be in this position. We can better appreciate the stakes too. Sparta, once so proud, declined to nothingness, its military state overthrown by the slave classes. The Scythians and the Comanche disappeared too, more or less. We should be in absolutely no doubt that societies can quite literally be erased and that fertility problems can be a major reason why; although of course there is always a complex interplay of political, social, and economic factors involved.

At the same time, we are also reminded of the fundamental truth that history never repeats itself: it only rhymes. The uniqueness of our own situation is undeniable. No society in history has faced the chemical assault we are subjected to, in addition to the other factors that have been driving fertility down and down, nor have such problems ever taken on such a huge scale. Nor, indeed, has any other society had rulers so hell-bent on ignoring the underlying problems and simply importing ever more people from elsewhere to keep the population machine grinding on. As I said in a previous article for this publication, “the decline is real.” What we do about it will be up to us, and us alone.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading

to the newsletter