It would be a bit of an anticlimax. Instead of some huge catastrophe doing us in, humanity may simply go extinct all by itself. Actually, the Big Decay may have already begun. Human fertility seems to be declining frighteningly fast. A couple of generations more -- and the human race could be history.
You would hardly notice it at first. Gradually, street life is becoming calmer than it used to be. Less people, less traffic. It’s a relief at first: no more housing problems, no more traffic jams, no more queues for the movies.
But after a while, your cheerfulness subsides. Slowly it begins to dawn on you what’s happening. You’re witnessing the demise of a species -- your species, to be precise. Humankind is about to join the Dodo, the Woolly Mammoth and the Neanderthal Man. The human race is heading for extinction.
OK, so you decide you’ll have kids, in an attempt to turn the tide. But then the grimness of the situation really lashes out at you. No matter how hard you and your partner try – no pregnancy. You turn to one of the fertility clinics that are by now very common. But the doctors can’t help you out. You’re infertile, the two of you. If you’re a man, you’re the one to blame: your sperm is of no use. You can have sex all you like, but your semen just doesn’t do the trick.
It’s a generation or two later. The world has changed completely. The fertility clinics are all deserted now – well, there’s animals living in them, and weeds growing all over them. In what used to be crowded streets, trees now grow. Wild dogs and rats stroll the deserted cities. Erosion gnaws at what used to be buildings. And outside the city, roads and farms lay barren, like a fading memory of what once was.
Sure, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some small pockets of humans that still survive. Mankind is a bewildered species by now, largely outnumbered by the birds, the rats, the dogs, the wolves perhaps. And the human species is degenerating fast: there are so little people left, they inbreed all the time, giving birth to children that are ever more mentally retarded. If they give birth to any children at all, that is.
But in the end, there’s no survival. Human is simply no longer viable. There will be a last group of humans – and then, the very last human being. Eventually, the last human gets old and dies. And that will be it. There will be no more laughter, no more voices, no more thoughts. The only thing left is a couple of ruins, scattered over the face of the planet.
Feel sad already? You should. The slow extinction outlined here is definitely one of the most depressing Apocalypses you could think of. Well, the good news is we aren’t about to witness it any time soon: with five billion people living on the planet today, overpopulation is more of a problem than extinction.
But that could change. Actually, the first signs of the Big Demise are already here to be seen. Men are becoming less fertile, several studies indicate. In only fifty years time, the number of sperm cells per milliliter of semen has halved, from 113 million cells to 66 million. Sure, that’s still a lot of sperm cells. But it could also mean that in another fifty years, men will no longer be able to make any babies at all.
It’s a big mystery why male fertility is declining. Many researchers blame the pollution: there’s all kinds of chemicals everywhere, in the air and in our food, and we just don’t know exactly what all these substances do to the human body. Others blame the human habit of wearing clothes: men have their testicles outside their body because sperm can’t stand high temperatures, and pants and underwear undo this. Clothes warm up your balls, so to speak.
A more exotic – and frightening – theory has it that evolution itself is turning against us. In nature, the biologically `fittest' individuals survive, leading to an ever more `fit' offspring. But among humans, this works different. How many kids you get doesn't depend on biology, but rather on where you live and what culture you’re in. Western city-dwellers get less kids than inhabitants of traditional societies. It doesn't matter who has the best sperm; the Not-So-Fit survive as well. So basically, the biological quality of our species may be in decline -- and the sperm problem could be a result of it.
Oh, it is probably a combination of things, the demise of our fertility. The chemicals, plus the ball-warming pants, plus the evolutionary knock-back, plus who-knows-what. Whatever the reason, we should worry. If the present trend continues, we could be history well before the next Millennium.
And it doesn’t help that the decline of our species is sped up by demography. More and more people adopt the industrial, Western lifestyle: more women working rather than having kids, and with reliable contraceptives widely available, more and more couples choosing to have children at a later age -- and less children. Eventually, this trend will lead up to the point when the number of humans will no longer grow, and actually start to shrink. The turning point is supposed to be around the year 2150.
So bring out the clones, you say. If we’re running out of humans, just make some new ones in a laboratory somewhere. Oh, come on, be real! Cloning doesn’t work as well as the media and the scientists like us to believe. What they don’t tell you in the news papers is that most clone attempts simply fail.
For example: it took two hundred attempts before CC the cat, the world’s first cloned pet, came along. And then there’s the still insurmountable problem of old age. You see, old age is locked in your DNA. So your clone will look like a baby, but its DNA will be as old as you! So by the time you die of old age, so does your clone. It’s as simple as that.
So... We're doomed, right?
Well, not necessarily. Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: the claim of science that men are becoming infertile may be dead wrong. The findings of the sperm counting studies are still controversial. One study says we’re doomed, the next study says that’s all rubbish. It will take some time before we know for sure what’s going on – if there’s anything going on at all, that is.
But don’t relax yet. Our species has a reputation for being not particularly good at reproduction.
One out of four couples have serious problems getting pregnant. And even if you have sex at the height of female fertility, there’s only 10-20 percent chance of pregnancy. That’s probably the reason why humans are the only mammals that have sex throughout the year, instead of only during spring. Now, given these problems, you just DON’T want our species to become less fertile as well.
And then there’s this. We already mentioned the possibility that chemicals render us infertile. But yet, we come up with ever more chemicals. And it doesn’t help that the atmosphere’s cleaning up system that rids us of pollution is on the verge of breaking down (in a so-called `hydroxyl collapse’).
Finally, there’s the eerie possibility our technology makes us infertile by mistake. As we write this, the US biotechnology firm Epicyte experiments with a new breed of contraceptives: corn that is designed to render the men that eat it infertile. There’s also a real possibility lab crops like these `escape’ into nature, turning more and more crops into contraceptives. It would be some choice. Either you starve, or you go infertile.