A couple of weeks back I wrote about the female biological clock and the futility of attempts to undermine or diminish its significance. Like it or not, the clock is here to stay, pathways around it are limited at best, and the forseeable future doesn’t contain much hope for change.
In what I’m confident is a response to this immutable truth, several mainstream media outlets within the last year have worked to try and promote the existence of a male biological clock:
It turns out that BOTH men and women are best suited, biologically speaking, to reproduce in their 20’s and early 30’s. After 35, both men and women are more likely to produce children with various kinds of developmental difficulties. Men face the same questions as women: can they afford to wait until their careers are settled before starting a family?
Here is why the notion of a male biological clock is, at best, extraordinarily misleading.
1. Male Fertility Persists Almost Indefinitely
Female fertility hits a proverbial brick wall in the 39-43 range. As noted last week, women undergoing fertility treatment at ages beyond that range are almost always forced to use donor eggs to conceive.
A man hits no such brick wall, which is why the application of the term “biological clock” is misleading. Women have a legitimate countdown to pay attention to. For men in general (some individuals will obviously be less fortunate), the clock essentially keeps running until death. Women see a halt to their fertility altogether, while men merely witness a slight increase in the complications associated with their fertility without it ever usually ceasing to exist. This is an important distinction willfully obscured by reports on this topic that attempt to make the female biological clock a unisexual construct.
This is also important when addressing the latter portions of the quote above:
Men face the same questions as women: can they afford to wait until their careers are settled before starting a family?
The answer is yes. A man at 40 is not in a position comparable to a female at the same age. She is approaching a reproductive brick wall and may have to spend exorbitant amounts of money on fertility treatments to overcome this with no guarantee of success. He has no such brick wall to worry about. He can consider the fact that his sperm are more likely to produce a child with a condition like autism, but that risk (though close to twice as high as it was when he was a decade younger) is still VERY small:
They found that men who had a daughter when they were 50 or older were 1.79 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism than a man who had a child when he was 20 to 24 years old. Men who had a son at 50 or later were 1.67 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism.
“We know from previous studies that older paternal age is a risk factor for autism,” lead author Emma Frans, from Karolinska Institutet, said in a press release. “This study goes beyond that and suggests that older grandpaternal age is also a risk factor for autism, suggesting that risk factors for autism can build up through generations.”
The overall risk is small, and the study was only observational, meaning it did not prove that advanced age meant autistic grandchildren.
“Although there was a statistically significant increase in the incidence of autism in families with older grandparents, it must be remembered that autism was still extremely infrequent even in families with the oldest grandparents,” Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, said to HealthDay. He was not involved in the study. “Thus, older parents and grandparents should not be unduly worried.“
This particular study looked at men who reproduce at around 50, and concluded that the risk of autism in the resulting children, though statistically significant, was miniscule. Compare this to a woman at age 45 (1 in 30 risk of Down Syndrome) who takes a much more significant chance of having a child with a disorder, assuming she can get pregnant at all.
The simple reality is that a man who has waited until 35 or 40 to settle his career and start a family is in a much better position than a woman at that age. He has no brick wall equivalent coming at him, his risk of producing a mentally/genetically ill child (or grandchild) is increased but still very small, and his sexual market value (assuming he has made a decent career and kept himself in shape) is generally going to be much higher than his female counterpart (read: he’s going to have more numerous sexual options of higher average quality).
2. The consequences of advanced paternal age are not as severe as their maternal counterparts.
Nature.com, the primary source for the study regarding male fertility cited by the rest of the mainstream media, includes a couple of very crucial caveats to their results that are (unsurprisingly) left out of most mainstream articles on this topic:
However, Mark Daly, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who studies autism, says that increasing paternal age is unlikely to account for all of the rise in autism prevalence. He notes that autism is highly heritable, but that most cases are not caused by a single new mutation — so there must be predisposing factors that are inherited from parents but are distinct from the new mutations occurring in sperm.
Historical evidence suggests that older fathers are unlikely to augur a genetic meltdown. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Icelandic men fathered children at much higher ages than they do today, averaging between 34 and 38. Moreover, genetic mutations are the basis for natural selection, Stefánsson points out. “You could argue what is bad for the next generation is good for the future of our species,” he says.
Though a correlation between paternal age and an increase in autism-spectrum disorders has been observed, the significance of it has not been fully determined. The evidence we do possess, however, indicates that this significance is not likely to be high. Maternal age still remains the more visible and prominent factor in child health, and will likely continue to be just that.
The mainstream media, of course, has told a different story, drawing many dramatic conclusions from a study that doesn’t seem to warrant them. Why have they done this? One such article on the topic was kind enough to make it obvious:
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s also a small gift to imagine all the fathers out there who divorced a wife who was the mother of their autistic child and then moved on to start a new family with a younger, “safer” woman. While I don’t wish for anyone to have a child with all the difficulties that come with autism, if even a few of those dads read Wednesday’s news and felt a little heartburn with their morning coffee, I won’t lose too much sleep.
Simply put, the findings of this study are being blown up and out of proportion in order to tell women what they want to hear. Reality is irrelevant—schadenfreude is the order of the day.
The motivations behind the promotion of this idea are pretty obvious: mainstream media outlets know that women will be eager to read and buy into the notion that they are not alone in their fertility concerns and that men actually have no real advantage over them. The idea that they must contend with a limitation that men do not (a true biological clock) is uncomfortable to them and they naturally welcome any evidence to the contrary.
The truth is that while men do indeed have reproductive limitations, these limitations are fewer in number and of decidedly inferior severity relative to their female counterparts. The male of the species is not ageless, but his reproductive capacity is better suited for advanced age.
This is just the reality of human biology. Men enjoy vastly inferior sexual market value during the early portions of their lives relative to their female peers, who peak in their teens and early twenties. This is balanced by greater male sexual value at older ages, whereby men see a general increase in their appeal to the opposite sex as they enter their late-twenties and early thirties and also get to enjoy a larger reproductive window (extending essentially into old age).
No amount of rationalization and wishing will change this truth—men and women were simply not created equal in this regard, and should not be treated as such. The sooner this reality is accepted, the better.
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