Skip to comments.How Modern Chemicals May Be Changing Human Biology
Posted on 01/20/2003 6:49:21 PM PST by Djarum
In ancient times--by which I mean, before 1950--most scholars agreed that women were, as a rule, not quite equal to men. Women were charming but mildly defective. Many (male) writers viewed women as perpetual teenagers, stuck in an awkward place between childhood and adulthood. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, wrote that women are "childish, silly and short-sighted, really nothing more than overgrown children, all their life long. Women are a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man."
Psychologists in that bygone era devoted considerable time and energy to the question of why women couldn't outgrow their childish ways. The Freudians said it was because they were trapped in the pre-Oedipal stage, tortured by penis envy. Followers of Abraham Maslow claimed that women were fearful of self-actualization. Jungians insisted that women were born with a deficiency of imprinted archetypes. Back then, of course, almost all the psychologists were men.
Things are different now. Male psychologists today are so rare that Ilene Philipson--author of On the Shoulders of Women: The Feminization of Psychotherapy--speaks of "the vanishing male therapist as a species soon to be extinct. the gender of the modal psychotherapist has changed from male to female, the standard of mental health has changed along with it. Today, Dr. Philipson observes, the badge of emotional maturity is no longer the ability to control or sublimate your feelings but rather the ability to express them. A mature adult nowadays is someone who is comfortable talking about her inner conflicts, someone who values personal relationships above abstract goals, someone who isn't afraid to cry. In other words: a mature adult is a woman.
It is now the men who are thought to be stuck halfway between childhood and adulthood, incapable of articulating their inner selves. Whereas psychologists fifty years ago amused themselves by cataloging women's (supposed) deficiencies, psychologists today devote themselves to demonstrating "the natural superiority of women." Psychologists report that women are better able to understand nonverbal communication and are more expressive of emotion. Quantitative personality inventories reveal that the average woman is more trusting, nurturing, and outgoing than the average man. The average eighth-grade girl has a command of language and writing skills equal to that of the average eleventh-grade boy.
As the influence of the new psychology permeates our culture, women have understandably begun to wonder whether men are really, well, human. "What if these women are right?" wonders one writer in an article for Marie Claire, a national woman's magazine. "What if it's true that some men don't possess, or at least can't express, nuanced emotions?" More than a few contemporary psychologists have come to regard the male of our species as a coarsened, more violent edition of the normal, female, human. Not surprisingly, they have begun to question whether having a man in the house is desirable or even safe.
Eleven years ago, scholar Sara Ruddick expressed her concern about "the extent and variety of the psychological, sexual, and physical battery suffered by women and children of all classes and social groups ... at the hands of fathers, their mothers' male lovers, or male relatives. If putative fathers are absent or perpetually disappearing and actual fathers are controlling or abusive, who needs a father? What mother would want to live with one or wish one on her children?" Nancy Polikoff, former counsel to the Women's Legal Defense Fund, said that "it is no tragedy, either on a national scale or in an individual family, for children to be raised without fathers."
The feminization of psychology manifests itself in myriad ways. Consider child discipline. Seventy years ago, doctors agreed that the best way to discipline your child was to punish the little criminal. ("Spare the rod, spoil the child.") Today, spanking is considered child abuse. You're supposed to talk with your kid. Spanking sends all the wrong messages, we are told, and may have stupendously horrible consequences. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller confidently informed us, in her book For Your Own Good, that Adolf Hitler's evil can be traced to the spankings his father inflicted on him in childhood.
THE NEW MEN'S MAGAZINES
It isn't only psychology that has undergone a process of feminization over the past fifty years, and it isn't only women whose attitudes have changed. Take a stroll to your neighborhood bookstore or newsstand. You'll find magazines such as Men's Health, MH-18, Men's Fitness, Gear, and others devoted to men's pursuit of a better body, a better self-image. None of them existed fifteen years ago. The paid circulation of Men's Health has risen from 250,000 to more than 1.5 million in less than ten years. Many of the articles in these magazines are reminiscent of those to be found in women's magazines such as Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Cosmopolitan: "The Ten Secrets of Better Sex," "The New Diet Pills--Can They Work For You?" or "Bigger Biceps in Five Minutes a Day." (The women's magazine equivalent might be something like "slimmer thighs in five minutes a day.")
Men didn't use to care so much about their appearance. Psychiatrists Harrison Pope and Katharine Phillips report that in American culture today, "Men of all ages, in unprecedented numbers, are preoccupied with the appearance of their bodies." They document that "men's dissatisfaction with body appearance has nearly tripled in less than thirty years--from 15 percent in 1972, to 34 percent in 1985, to 43 percent in 1997." Cosmetic plastic surgery, once marketed exclusively to women, has found a rapidly growing male clientele. The number of men undergoing liposuction, for instance, quadrupled between 1990 and 2000.
THE FEMINIZATION OF ENTERTAINMENT AND POLITICS
This process of femininization manifests itself, though somewhat differently, when you turn on the TV or watch a movie. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, leading men were, as a rule, infallible: think of Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, Cary Grant in North by Northwest, or Fred McMurray in My Three Sons. But no longer. In family comedy, the father figure has metamorphosed from the all-knowing, all-wise Robert Young of Father Knows Best to
A mature adult nowadays is someone who is comfortable talking about her inner conflicts, someone who values personal relationships above abstract goals, someone who isn't afraid to cry. In other words: a mature adult is a woman.
A transformation of comparable magnitude seems to be under way in the political arena. Military command used to be considered the best qualification for leadership--as it was with Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, and Dwight Eisenhower, to name only a few. Today, the best qualification for leadership may be the ability to listen. The feminine way of seeing the world and its problems is, arguably, becoming the mainstream way.
In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George Bush p?e for the presidency. Clinton was an acknowledged draft evader. Bush, the incumbent, was a World War II hero who had just led the United States to military success in Operation Desert Storm. Clinton won. In 1996, Clinton was challenged by Bob Dole, another decorated World War II veteran. Once again, the man who had evaded military service defeated the combat veteran. In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain competed for the Republican presidential nomination.
McCain was a genuine war hero whose courageous actions as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had won him well-deserved honors and praise. Bush, on the other hand, was alleged to have used family influence to obtain a position in the Texas National Guard, in order to avoid service in Vietnam. Once again, the man who had never experienced combat defeated the military veteran. Moral of the story: It's all very well to be a war hero, but in our modern, feminized society, being a war hero won't get you elected president. Conversely, being a draft dodger isn't as bad as it used to be.
A number of authors have recognized the increasing feminization of American society. With few exceptions, most of those acknowledging this process have welcomed it. As Elinor Lenz and Barbara Myerhoff wrote in their 1985 book The Feminization of America, "The feminizing influence is moving [American society] away from many archaic ways of thinking and behaving, toward the promise of a saner and more humanistic future.... Feminine culture, with its commitment to creating and protecting life, is our best and brightest hope for overcoming the destructive, life-threatening forces of the nuclear age."
I think we can all agree on one point: there have been fundamental changes in American culture over the past fifty years, changes that indicate a shift from a male-dominated culture to a feminine or at least an androgynous society. The question is, what's causing this shift? Some might argue that the changes I've described are simply a matter of better education, progressive laws, and two generations of consciousness-raising: an evolution from a patriarchal Dark Ages to a unisex, or feminine, Enlightenment. I'm willing to consider that hypothesis. But before we accept that conclusion, we should ask whether there are any other possibilities.
We have to make a big jump now, a journey that will begin at the Columbia River in Washington, near the Oregon border. James Nagler, assistant professor of zoology at the University of Idaho, recently noticed something funny about the salmon he observed in the Columbia. Almost all of them were--or appeared to be--female. But when he caught a few and analyzed their DNA, he found that many of the "female" fish actually were male: their chromosomes were XY instead of XX.
Nagler's findings echo a recent report from England, where government scientists have found some pretty bizarre fish. In two polluted rivers, half the fish are female, and the other half are ... something else. Not female but not male either. The English scientists call these bizarre fish "intersex": their gonads are not quite ovaries, not quite testicles, but some weird thing in between, making neither eggs nor sperm. In both rivers, the intersex fish are found downstream of sites where treated sewage is discharged into the river. Upstream from the sewer effluent, the incidence of intersex is dramatically lower. The relationship between the concentration of sewer effluent and the incidence of intersex is so close that "the proportion of intersex fish in any sample of fish could perhaps be predicted, using a linear equation, from the average concentration of effluent constituents in the river."
It's something in the water. Something in the water is causing feminization of male fish.
And it's not just fish. In Lake Apopka, in central Florida, Dr. Louis Guillette and his associates have found male alligators with abnormally small penises; in the blood of these alligators, female hormone levels are abnormally high and male hormone levels abnormally low. Male Florida panthers have become infertile; the levels of male sex hormones in their blood are much lower (and the levels of female hormones higher) than those found in panthers in less-polluted environments.
WHAT'S GOING ON?
Our modern society generates a number of chemicals that never existed before about fifty years ago. Many of these chemicals, it turns out, mimic the action of female sex hormones called estrogens. Plastics--including a plasticizer called phthalate, used in making flexible plastic for bottles of Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Evian water, and so forth--are known to have estrogenic effects. Many commonly used pesticides have estrogenlike actions on human cells. Estrogenic chemicals ooze out of the synthetic lacquer that lines the inside of soup cans. These chemicals and others find their way into sewage and enter the rivers and lakes. Hence the effects on fish, alligators, and other wildlife.
EFFECTS ON HUMANS?
Modern chemicals may have a feminizing effect on wildlife. That's certainly cause for concern in its own right. But is there any evidence that a similar process of feminization is occurring in humans?
Answer: there may be. Just like the Florida panther, human males are experiencing a rapid decline in fertility and sperm count. The sperm count of the average American or European man has declined continuously over the past four decades, to the point where today it is
The quaestion is, what's causing this shift? Some might argue that the changes I've described are simply a matter of better education, progressive laws, and two generations of conciousness-raising.
Male infertility, one result of that lower count, is now the single most common cause of infertility in our species. The rate of infertility itself has quadrupled in the past forty years, from 4 percent in 1965 to 10 percent in 1982 to at least 16 percent today.
WHAT ABOUT GIRLS?
So far we've talked mainly about the effect of environmental estrogens on males. What about girls and women? What physiological effects might excess environmental estrogens have on them? Giving estrogens to young girls would, in theory, trigger the onset of puberty at an earlier than expected age. In fact, in the past few years doctors have noticed that girls are beginning puberty earlier than ever before. Just as the environmental-estrogen hypothesis would predict, this phenomenon is seen only in girls, not in boys. Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, studying over seventeen thousand American girls, found that this trend to earlier puberty is widespread. "Girls across the United States are developing pubertal characteristics at younger ages than currently used norms," she concluded.
Rather than labeling all these pubescent eight-year-olds as "abnormal," Dr. Paul Kaplowitz and his associates recently recommended that the earliest age for "normal" onset of puberty simply be redefined as age seven in Caucasian girls and age six in African-American girls. Dr. Kaplowitz is trying, valiantly, to define this problem out
Many of these chemicals, it turns out, mimic the action of female sex hormones called estrogens.
But saying so doesn't make it so. Last year, doctors in Puerto Rico reported that most young girls with premature breast development have toxic levels of phthalates in their blood; those phthalates appear to have seeped out of plastic food and beverage containers. The authors noted that Puerto Rico is a warm island. Plastic containers that become warm are more likely to ooze phthalate molecules into the food or beverages they contain. These authors, led by Dr. Ivelisse Col?, reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives, the official journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (a branch of the National Institutes of Health). On the cover of the issue in which the report appeared, the editors chose to feature the picture of a young woman drinking water from a plastic bottle.
Premature puberty in girls has become so widespread that it has begun to attract the attention of major media. This topic made the cover of Time magazine on October 30, 2000. Unfortunately, few of these high-profile articles show any understanding of the possible role of environmental estrogens. The Time article barely mentioned the Environmental Health Perspectives study, nor did it link the phenomenon of early puberty in girls with declining sperm counts, intersex fish, or tiny penises in alligators. Instead, it featured a picture of a short boy staring at a taller girl's breasts.
What effect might extra estrogen have on adult women? Many scientists have expressed concern that exposure to excessive environmental estrogens may lead to breast cancer. The rate of breast cancer has risen dramatically over the past fifty years. Today, one in every nine American women can expect to develop breast cancer at some point in her life. But this increase is seen only in industrialized countries, where plastics and other products of modern chemistry are widely used. Women born in Third World countries are at substantially lower risk. When they move from a Third World country to the United States, their risk soon increases to that seen in other women living here, clearly demonstrating that the increased risk is an environmental, not a genetic, factor.
At this point, you may feel that you've been reading two completely disconnected essays: one about the feminization of American culture, and the second about the effects of environmental estrogens. Could there be any connection between the two?
There may be. If human physiology and endocrinology are being affected by environmental estrogens--as suggested by lower sperm counts, increasing infertility, earlier onset of puberty in girls, and rising rates of breast cancer--then there is no reason in principle why human psychology and sexuality should be exempt. If we accept the possibility that environmental estrogens are affecting human physiology and endocrinology, then we must also consider
If human physiology and endocrinology are being affected by environmental estrogens then there is no reason in principle why human psychology and sexuality should be exempt.
The phenomena we have considered show a remarkable synchrony. Many of the cultural trends discussed in the first half of the article began to take shape in the 1950s and '60s, just as plastics and other modern chemicals began to be widely introduced into American life. There are, of course, many difficulties in attempting to measure any correlation between an endocrine variable--such as a decline in sperm counts--and a cultural variable, such as cultural feminization. One of many problems is that no single quantitative variable accurately and reliably measures the degree to which a culture is becoming feminized. However, we can get some feeling for the synchrony of the cultural process with the endocrine process by considering the correlation of the decline in sperm counts with the decline in male college enrollment.
We've already mentioned how sperm counts have declined steadily and continuously in industrialized areas of North America and western Europe since about 1950. Let's use that decline as our endocrine variable. As the cultural variable, let's look at college graduation rates. Since 1950, the proportion of men among college graduates has been steadily declining. In 1950, 70 percent of college graduates were men; today, that number is about 43 percent and falling. Judy Mohraz, president of Goucher College, warned not long ago that if present trends continue, "the last man to graduate from college will receive his baccalaureate in the year 2067.... Daughters not only have leveled the playing field in most college classrooms, but they are exceeding their brothers in school success across the board."
Plot these two phenomena on the same graph. Use no statistical tricks, no manipulation of the data--simply use best-fit trend lines, plotted on linear coordinates--and the two lines practically coincide. The graph of declining sperm density perfectly parallels the decline in male college graduation rates.
Of course, the correlation between these phenomena--one endocrine, one cultural--doesn't prove that they must derive from the same underlying source. But such a strong correlation certainly provides some evidence that the endocrine phenomenon of declining sperm counts may derive from the same source as the cultural phenomenon of declining male college enrollment (as a percentage of total enrollment).
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE MALE AMERICAN EMPIRE?
I have suggested that the feminization of American culture and endocrine phenomena such as declining sperm counts are both manifestations of the effects of environmental estrogens. To the best of my knowledge, no other author has yet made such a suggestion. If this hypothesis is ultimately shown to be at least partly correct, it would not be the first time that items of daily household life contributed to the transformation of a mighty civilization. A number of scientists, most notably toxicologist Jerome Nriagu, have suggested that one factor leading to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was the lead glaze popular among the Roman aristocracy after about Bowls and dishes were glazed with lead, which was also widely used in household plumbing. (Our word plumbing comes from the Latin plumbum, which means lead.) The neurological symptoms of lead toxicity--mania, difficulty concentrating, and mood swings--were not recognized as manifestations of poisoning. No Roman scientist conducted the necessary controlled experiment: a comparison of families that used lead-glazed pottery with families that did not. The scientific worldview necessary for such an experiment did not exist at the time. It is thought-provoking to consider that something as insignificant as pottery glazing may have brought down the Roman Empire.
Could anything of comparable magnitude be happening right now, in our own culture? Testing the hypothesis I have proposed will be difficult. It is probably not possible to randomize humans to a "modern, plasticized" environment versus a "primitive, no-plastics, no-cans, no-pesticide" environment--and even it were possible, it would not be ethical to do so. (It should be noted, however, that one careful study has already been published demonstrating that men who consumed only organic produce had higher sperm counts than men eating regular, pesticide-treated produce. Measures of the degree to which a culture is "feminized" would be controversial, and only seldom would such measures be objectively quantifiable.
Nevertheless, the world around us is changing in ways that have never occurred in the history of our species. It is possible that some of these changes in our culture may reflect the influence of environmental estrogens, an influence whose effects are subtle and incremental. To the extent that human dignity means being in control of one's destiny, we should explore the possibility that our minds and bodies are being affected by environmental estrogens in ways that we do not, as yet, fully understand.
Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., is a physician and psychologist practicing in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Okay...this may rub some the wrong way, but- how 'bout reduced strictures against "self-pollution"?
I thought about becoming a semen donor when I was in grad school. I didn't, because I thought turning pro would take all the fun out of what had been a fun hobby.
BUT- during the orientation, the staff said we had to abstain from this sort of thing, SO THAT OUR SPERM COUNT WOULD BE HIGHER...
It would be intersting to track how the (alleged) diminution correlates to a reduced strictures on this sort of activity. After all, early Boy Scout manuals counseld against this sort of thing until...ohhh...about the 1940s.
Not sure, but wonder if this could be a factor
When Albright slipped and revealed the clinton administration desire to reduce American super power status while raising other nations to the same level with us, was she revealing the direction a more feminized culture will move? [I've always maintained that sinkEmperor was a pu$$y and his over-sexualized ego was perversely failed masculinity; he didn't like women, he just used them for his gratification, dehumanizing them in the process. Says a lot that NOW supported him without question, eh?]
Speaking as an overgrown child myself, I have no problem with this characterization....
If infers heavy use of plastics in cooking, storing, and merchandising food and beverages.
This can be anything from a bottle of retail water to saran wrap to tupperware.
Is this how you see it?
If this were true, people would be getting rid of plastic cooking ware it would seem.
LOL! Best line yet from a freeper.