Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race
by Shanna H. Swan with Stacey Colino
Scribner, 304 pp., $15.31
Over the past 50 years, one of the leitmotifs of American conspiracy theory has been the threat posed by invisible chemicals seeded into our water, food, and air. Back in the 1950s, water fluoridation provoked a backlash on these grounds from anti-Communist hardliners. Fluoridation campaigns, they claimed, were no innocent attempt to improve dental hygiene: The infusion of fluoride in the water supply was a plot to weaken the U.S. population and render it more vulnerable to Soviet domination.
Several decades later, the “chemtrails” theory circulated on early online forums, leaving many Internet users convinced by rumors of airborne bioweapons hidden in airplane vapor trails—all in service of the shadowy New World Order. The belief that COVID-19 was not, in fact, a virus, but a mysterious toxin spread by 5G towers, which took hold in conspiracy circles in 2020, was a more recent reiteration of the same basic idea.
Accounts of the exact mechanisms of these invisible assaults vary, but in one influential strain, the sinister invisible substances target the male reproductive organs. During the postwar era, such notions became commonplace enough to be famously lampooned in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear war farce, Dr. Strangelove. In an oft-quoted dialogue, Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper tells Peter Sellers’s Captain Lionel Mandrake about an “international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” by means of “foreign substances introduced without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice.” Chief among the harmful substances Ripper warns against is, of course, fluoride.
Fast forward half a century, and we find InfoWars host Alex Jones offering up a monologue on similar themes, which culminates in the widely meme-ified pronouncement that “they’re turning the friggin frogs gay!” Less well-remembered is the mechanism he adduces as an explanation—“putting chemicals in the water!”—or other echoes of the fictional General Ripper’s earlier admonitions: “What do you think tap water is? It’s a gay bomb, baby!” But for Jones, unlike Ripper, the villain behind these depredations is not the foreign Communist menace, but the US government itself.
Kubrick’s Ripper was a parodic composite of the John Bircher right of the era; Jones’s antics are so outlandish as to render parody redundant. Indeed, during a child custody dispute, Jones’s attorneys claimed he was a “performance artist” whose on-air persona is a fictional character he plays for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, whereas Kubrick could tacitly dismiss Ripper’s fluoridation fears—and those of real anti-Communists—as pure crankery, coverage of Jones’s rants must occasionally concede that the news he purveys isn’t always fake—not entirely so.
For instance, CNBC dubs Jones’s “gay frogs” rant one of his “five most disturbing and ridiculous conspiracy theories,” but goes on to note that his “gay bomb” remark has its basis in a real—though ultimately shelved—US military project: “[I]n 1994, a government lab did request funds to pursue the development of a weapon that would turn enemy combatants gay.” Likewise, in the New Statesman, Amelia Tate notes the “blatant absurdity” of Jones’s outburst, but goes on to add: “one 2010 study showed that pesticides can turn male frogs to females.” However, Tate clarifies, “this is very different from an active government plan to make frogs homosexual.” A reasonable distinction, but it leaves a question unanswered: Where exactly does reasonable concern about, say, the reproductive effects of pollutants end, and “conspiracy theory” begin?
Xenoestrogens—environmental hormones that mimic estrogen—are a known byproduct of many widely used chemicals. Their effects on animals and humans alike have been studied by scientists for decades; the “gay” (or “feminized”) frogs paper is just one example. According to some researchers, exposure to these and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals has led to plummeting sperm counts, ambiguous genitalia, and increased homosexual behavior in various species, threatening their ability to reproduce; others dispute these findings and argue that whatever threat they may pose to animal populations is dwarfed by factors like habitat loss and climate change.
If you put aside Jones’s inflammatory “gay” phrasing, concern about chemicals preventing frogs from reproducing at replacement level is unlikely to provoke much controversy (unless, perhaps, it prompts regulations opposed by businesses). But to even hint at the possibility of similar risks to human reproduction is to touch on hot-button culture war issues. For one thing, many environmentalists regard continued human population growth as undesirable, precisely because of the risk it poses to, for instance, frog habitats. Moreover, to be concerned about reduced sperm count, genital abnormalities, or changes in sexual behavior in humans is, in effect, to position yourself on the conservative side of the culture war by endorsing normative sexuality.
For this reason, discussion of hormonal disruptions in humans remains mostly confined to the fringes of public discourse. Beyond InfoWars, concern about xenoestrogen and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals is prevalent on the hyper-masculinist online right, whose adherents advocate a restoration of older sexual norms. The denizens of this subculture believe that the modern world is hellbent on emasculating men to render them pliant subjects of an increasingly feminized world. They accordingly view xenoestrogens seeded in the environment as a tool of the feminist agenda.
The most heavily memed version of this idea is the so-called “soy boy”: the “low-T” and “cucked” “bugman,” fully subjugated by the feminist New World Order. The “soy” terminology refers to the heavy concentration of phytoestrogen, a plant-derived compound similar to the main female sex hormone, in soybean products. Hence, the idea is that the vegetarian diets of effete metropolitan males are a form of compliance with the scheme to make them docile subjects of feminist tyranny. Similar notions have emerged about the effects of seed oils, another foodstuff with a high level of phytoestrogen whose ominous effects are often cited in the “mansophere.”
As with Jones’s “gay frogs” jeremiad, all of these seemingly outré notions have some basis in fact: The presence of phytoestrogens and other xenoestrogens in food, water, and the environment is real, even if awareness of this fact remains largely the province of specialized scientists and internet eccentrics. While the former would dismiss the latter’s claims of a deliberate project of emasculation, some researchers do share the manosphere’s fundamental concern that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are altering sexual development and function in humans as well as frogs. The best-known of them is the reproductive epidemiologist Shanna H. Swan, author of Count Down: How Our Modern World is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race.
In Count Down, Swan makes the case—though not in so many words —that Kubrick’s General Ripper was, in the long run, quite prescient in his anxiety about the threat to his “precious bodily fluids.” However, in Swan’s account, Ripper’s attribution of blame was mistaken. It is not foreign communist agents but capitalist industrial development that has, in effect if not intent, “sapped and impurified” semen. According to Swan, it is the reckless accumulation of chemical byproducts, not a deliberate conspiracy of subversives, that we have to fear.
Swan’s book is a follow-up to a 2017 meta-analysis she co-authored, which found that average sperm counts among men in industrialized nations have fallen by nearly 60% since 1973. The paper received a wave of mainstream press coverage warning of “spermageddon” and invoking the possibility of a drastic collapse of human fertility, like what is conjured up in dystopian narratives like The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men. Count Down echoes this apocalyptic prospect in the subtitle phrase about “imperiling the future of the human race,” and in her closing admonition that humanity “could end up marching toward the brink of extinction or obsolescence.”
Declining sperm counts, in Swan’s telling, are only one harbinger of this broader risk. She also cites a reduction in testosterone among men, smaller penis size, and other genital abnormalities. Women’s fertility, she notes, is a more frequent object of public discussion than men’s, but most of the debates surround women’s choices to prioritize career over childbearing earlier in life, thus delaying pregnancy to later years when conception is less likely and miscarriage more so. According to Swan, ubiquitous endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also playing a role in lowering chances of conception by interfering with female as well as male reproductive function.
Swan also surveys the copious research suggesting that these chemicals are meddling with the reproductive functions of other species. The “feminized” frogs who preoccupy Jones, with low testosterone and eggs in their testicles, make an appearance in Count Down. We also learn about female sea snails who are growing penises, “masculinized” female fish, “a significant increase in homosexuality” among male ibises, Florida alligators with altered reproductive tracts, panthers with reduced sperm counts, and minks with shrinking average penis lengths.
The hypothesized culprits for reproductive crises facing non-human species are mostly agricultural byproducts. These same chemicals also threaten humans through our diets, Swan warns. On this front, her recommendations include eating organic foods, avoiding plastic food storage, filtering drinking water, and so on. (Unlike the “manosphere” activists who share her concerns about xenoestrogens, she does not warn against soy products or seed oils.) In addition, she enumerates a wide array of substances ubiquitous in our physical environments – building materials, children’s toys, hygiene products – that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Swan’s book is riven by a tension between the apocalyptic rhetoric of the jacket copy—the specter of a Children of Men-like future and even human extinction—and her relatively moderate proposals. On the subject of diet and consumption, for instance, her advice doesn’t differ too much from the lifestyle choices already embraced in affluent enclaves in the past few decades, as attested to by the popularity of Whole Foods and widespread bans on plastic bags.
The chapters of Count Down in which Swan enumerates the manifold environmental hazards hiding in the fabric of our daily lives put one in the mind of the protagonist of Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe, starring Julianne Moore. Moore’s character becomes convinced that the synthetic substances that clutter her suburban existence are making her ill, and eventually retreats to a remote commune of like-minded sufferers from “environmental illness,” where all pathogenic materials are banned. One could imagine some of Swan’s readers, particularly those struggling to conceive children, concluding that only such a recusal from modern life might alleviate their problems, given the sheer scale of the material forces arrayed against them.
But Swan makes no such recommendation: Spermageddon is avoidable, she suggests, by doing more of what well-off liberals are already doing, as well as expanding the regulatory state and incentivizing corporate social responsibility (CSR). Beyond the anodyne dietary and food storage recommendations mentioned previously, she devotes a chapter to outlining regulatory priorities, but does not seem to regard their implementation as particularly challenging: She cites well-known prior successes, such as the ban on DDT and subsequent recovery of the bald eagle population, as well as CSR agendas of companies including Walmart and Home Depot. Whatever threats it may pose to sperm, Swan regards the modern world as capable of reform.
“Where is the outrage on this issue?” Swan asks in her final chapter. Apparently, she does not tune into The Alex Jones Show or follow the many Twitter accounts that caution against the xenoestrogens hiding in plain sight all around us, sapping our masculinity; in these fringe spaces, outrage on the subject abounds. What she seems to wonder is why those of her own demographic—roughly speaking, “pro-science” liberals who eat organic, avoid plastic, and care about climate change and other forms of environmental degradation—have not taken up her cause. “The sperm-count decline,” she writes, “is akin to where global warming was 40 years ago—reported on but denied or ignored.” Despite her attempt to borrow the doomsaying rhetoric of climate change activists, her work has not yet created quite the response she hoped for.
There are a few likely reasons that, even if her initial research was widely covered, the demise of sperm counts has not become a major concern in the bien-pensant enclaves where other environmental causes attract fervent adherents. It is tolerated, if sometimes controversial, for individual couples to have children in this social milieu. But human reproduction is no longer regarded as an unblemished good. For one thing, the default expectation of childbearing is often seen as an oppressive imposition on women, who may choose to prioritize other pursuits. For another, continued human population growth is seen as a cause of climate change and other threats to nonhuman species and the planet; to have a child is to double one’s “carbon footprint.”
As a result, not only might Swan’s warnings provoke little outrage among many other highly educated people today—the collapse of sperm counts and attendant decline in fertility might be seen as a net positive. After all, in recent years anti-natalism—the principled opposition to human (and in some cases, even animal) reproduction—has become a fashionable philosophy. Radical anti-natalists might regard the mass sterilization warned against by Swan as an accidental boon to the earth. More moderate advocates of “child-free” living might well view Swan’s book as flawed in its bias toward the intrinsic desirability of childbearing.
Swan edges into even more controversial territory in a chapter called “Gender Fluidity.” On one hand, she explicitly endorses the fashionable doctrine of “gender identity” as an “inner sense of self,” separate from biological sex (her forthright references to which would get her in trouble in some contexts). However, she also raises the question of whether endocrine-disrupting chemicals have played a role not only in reduced reproductive capacity, but also in the increased number of people identifying as transgender, gender-fluid, nonbinary, and so on. “The question,” Swan writes, “of whether chemicals in our midst are affecting gender identity is a bit like the metaphorical elephant in the room—obvious and significant but uncomfortable and difficult to address.”
The question is uncomfortable in part because it is premised on the oft-disputed assumption that gender and biological sex are linked. The idea that certain traits, behaviors, or preferences associated with men and women have a biological basis tends to provoke a severe backlash—just ask Larry Summers or James Damore. The exception, however, is that those undergoing gender transitions and the clinicians who treat them often tacitly reaffirm these otherwise disavowed notions: For example, trans men undergoing testosterone treatment report experiencing “male” traits like aggression, anger, and heightened libido—a frequent theme in the clinical literature.
Hence, the potential for controversy in Swan’s exploration of the biological basis of increased gender-bending is not only that it risks opening the black box of how gender and sex might be linked. It is also that she inadvertently exposes some of the internal contradictions of au courant gender ideology, in which “toxic masculinity” is asserted to be a collection of entirely cultural traits, even as its components—belligerence and sexual rapacity—are regularly observed as effects of testosterone treatments used in gender transition. But Swan dodges these controversies, and concludes the “Gender Fluidity” chapter with a paean to the “brave, new, inclusive, nonbinary world” (seeming to forget the dystopian associations of the phrase “brave new world”) whose emergence she sees as a “silver lining” of the hormonal disruptions she otherwise decries.
There is considerable debate within the scientific community about the effects Swan has documented. There is no clear consensus on how significant a role endocrine-disrupting chemicals are playing in reduced sperm counts and other declines in reproductive capacity, or on how large a role these biological changes are playing in decreasing fertility in relation to other factors, much less on their possible impact on the recent rise in gender fluidity. What is certain is that, regardless of whether Swan is correct about the underlying causes of these trends, fertility is plummeting and gender and sex are in flux across much of the developed world. But for a growing number of people, all of that is to be celebrated, whether they are anti-natalists, gender ideologues who argue that biological sex is a social construct to be deconstructed along with traditional gender, or transhumanists who see the human future not in biological reproduction but in a merger with technology.
It’s not simply that these factions don’t care about the issues Swan raises: To varying degrees, they explicitly advocate the abolition of reproductive sexuality and would regard the effects she observes in a positive light. Swan doesn’t have a clear counterargument to any of these positions, and secular liberal culture, more and more in thrall to the ideologies enumerated above, won’t offer it either. The most likely takers for Swan’s message are therefore on the political right. American conservatives have historically had little interest in environmental causes and have tended to oppose regulatory bodies like the EPA, but some may find reason to change their tune if they are persuaded that hormone-disrupting chemicals are indeed weakening the basis of the traditional family by hampering heterosexual reproduction and blurring sex and gender.
A further potential implication of Count Down is that various ideological trends lately denounced on the right—the subversion of gender norms, the notion that biological sex is an arbitrary fiction—merely offer an ex post facto moral justification of the unintended hormonal side effects of industrial modernity and consumer society. Exhorting people to retvrn to the traditional family can only go so far if its erosion has a partly chemical basis, as Swan claims. If it does, those who lament the decline of normative sex and gender may need to do more than inveigh against the trans agenda and enjoin men to avoid seed oils. They may need to embrace the sort of regulatory agenda typically associated with progressive causes. Perhaps, contrary to the core assumptions of modern American conservatism, only big government can save the family now.
by Geoff Shullenberger