Plastics, tiny penises, and human evolution

An Italian study in 2012 found that men’s penises were growing smaller over time — two centimetres lost from grandfather to grandson in the twentieth century. Conservative radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh knew who to blame: ‘feminazis, the chickification, and everything else’ linked to feminism. Other commentators, a bit more scientific, pointed the finger at endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as pesticides and hormones fed to cattle, as likely culprits.

For example, Bucky McMahon at Mediumpinned the blame squarely on plastics, offering that ‘virtually all commercially available plastics leach synthetic estrogens,’ implying that plastics are behind the (allegedly) lost penis stature. According to McMahon, plastic-derived xenoestrogens, chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen, are also responsible for a fall off in the sperm count in men, first reported in 1992 British Medical Journal paper written by a Danish team led by Elisabeth Carlsen (Carlsen et al. 1992; see also Le Moal et al. 2014 for more recent review; and Sharpe 2003).

Some observers argue that the same culprit leads to an opposite trend among women. In 1997, a paper by Marcia Herman-Giddens and colleagues in Pediatrics reported that girls in the United States developed breasts earlier than previously thought: their findings suggested that Euro-American girls were, on average, experiencing the onset of puberty before 10 years of age, and African-American girls, on average, before the age of 9 (Herman-Giddens et al., 1997). A ‘new normal’ was a more precocious onset of female sexual maturity, in some cases long before the girls were emotionally ready. As Dr. Glenn Braunstein wrote for the Huffington post: ‘childhood for girls is shrinking, while the duration of puberty is expanding.’

The potential causes of early onset for puberty in girls include xenoestrogens, but also obesity and higher childhood body weight, an imbalance between high-energy diet and lower levels of activity, the consumption of sugary soft drinks, even sexual abuse or other severe life stress.

Although all of these findings are controversial — other studies find no decrease in sperm count or penis size, for example (see Bergman et al. 2012) — the worst-case scenario is grim, indeed. McMahon predicts a sad end to our species, driven to sexual dysfunction and the brink of extinction by plastics messing with our hormones:

In the endgame, we’ll be a race of sexed-up tweener girls and sterile dudes with little dicks wandering baffled through a rubbish-filled world. Then those poor mismatched souls will grow old and die. End of story …

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