April 6, 2013
Nell Lake
c/o Harvard Magazine
7 Ward Street
Cambridge, Mass. 02138-4037

Dear Nell Lake:
Perhaps you have seen the movie “Master and Commander.”  Early in the story the sailing ship HMS Surprise is in pursuit of a French privateer, the Acheron.  It is a foggy night.  An officer on the Surprise thinks he hears a bell but is not sure.  After dithering a bit he calls for the ship to beat to quarters and prepare for battle.  Then everybody listens.

My personal Acheron is population fertility.  The developed world has not been able to produce enough babies for long term survival since about thirty years ago.  The rest of the world seems to be on the same course, just a few decades behind.  There is enough circumstantial evidence (which can be found at http://nobabies.net/A%20December%20summary.html ) to warrant waking everybody up.  In addition I believe two of us have demonstrated the same effect in fruit flies. (M. L. Herbert and M. G. Lewis Fluctuation of fertility with number in a real insect population and a virtual population African Entomology 21(1): 119–125 (2013))

The apparent cause is infertility due to insufficient numbers of shared recent ancestors because of population size in the flies and mating strategy among humans.  The link will give the logic for that as well as evidence.  Of course I am eager for more evidence.  I do not have a British man-of-war to call on.  I can only listen in the night and fog in hopes that the right sound can be brought to the attention of the right person. 

So I was delighted when a friend brought your article (Nell Lake Labor, Interrupted Harvard Magazine vol. 115 no. 2 November-December 2012 page 21) to my attention.  You point out that the number of children born by Ceaserian section – by surgery – in the United States has risen to about 30 % and this seems very high.  You do an excellent job of picking through conflicting opinions, but there is one thing that might be the case that you did not mention – probably because nobody knows.

As a radiology resident I occasionally would interpret “pelvimetry” films done on pregnant women.  A pelvic film would be taken under defined geometrical conditions.  Landmarks could be measured.  Magnification could be corrected.  An interpretation could be made as to whether the pelvis was big enough to permit an ordinary vaginal birth.  More recenlty I have not heard of pelvimetry being done; your article suggests that by the time such a study would be indicated a surgical procedure is already planned anyway. 

I have heard that male development has declined to the point where the average male organ length is dropped from six inches to five.  I have heard that incomplete development of that organ – hypospadias – has increased.  I was at a fertility conference when it was announced the the UN had lowered what a “normal” sperm count was.  This they do regularly.  Sperm counts have fallen and continue to fall. 

As Homer mentions in the Iliad during the wild scene when the Trojans are storming the Greek camp, men just aren’t as manly as we were.  (I’m pretty sure the Greeks also faced falling sperm counts and falling fertility for the same reason we see them, but of course it cannot be proven.)  I have heard this attributed to estrogens in our food, but nobody is sufficiently concerned or convinced to make much of it.

The question in my mind is whether women’s pelvises are also getting smaller.  If the average woman’s pelvic outlet has decreased to the degree that male organs have that would account for a large part of the increase in the number of childbirths that are done with surgery.  I do not know how one would do a study to figure it out.  So far as I know it hasn’t even occurred to anybody to wonder.  But to me it seems an obvious question.  So I was wondering whether during your preparation for the article anybody ever mentioned any evidence or even speculated that there might be something like that going one.

Sorry I’m usuing snail mail; it makes it less convenient to reply.  I couldn’t find an email adress for you.  But perhaps you would be kind enough to let me know.


M. Linton Herbert MD 

There have been 73 visitors in the past month.

Home page