Carol Stabile reviews Our Stolen Future.
Since the publication of Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters in 1926, the genre of “scientific detective” stories has enjoyed a quiet but consistent level of popularity. Typically, these stories have functioned as celebrations of (or ideological guarantors for) the virtues of the scientific enterprise. This genre, however, properly belongs to an earlier era in the twinned history of science and industrialization: an era armed with certainty, rationality, and faith in scientific progress.
In light of this historical specificity, it is less than surprising that the genre itself has shifted substantially in the years following the Second World War. Faith in the potential of science had been undermined by the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, awareness increased of the environmental devastation that accompanied industrialization, and more recent disasters at Bhopal and Chernobyl had foregrounded the price paid for such progress. Reflecting these changes, the scientific detective story has become the scientific thriller, whose narrative grimly proclaims the imminent demise of humanity, if not the earth itself. While there are still sleuths in the scientific thriller, they are uncertain about the consequences of their actions and they are no longer armed with the magic bullets that their predecessors carried. The only certainty lies in the premise that humanity’s survival is being threatened by (in order of popularity): the Ebola virus, genetically-engineered mutants, flesh-eating streptococcus, or antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Although promoted as a “scientific detective” story, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival, is actually such a scientific thriller. Our Stolen Future purports to recount a tale of the tragic and unintended consequences of industrialization and the large-scale failure of current research paradigms to grasp (much less meliorate) such effects. In so doing, the text attempts to situate itself within a tradition of environmental literature established by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a comparison that the book goes to great and sometimes tiresome lengths to elaborate. Like Carson’s now classic text, Our Stolen Future examines the effects of environmental pollution, in this case what the authors describe as “hand-me-down poisons.” By this term, the authors refer to chemical contaminants that have been “passed down from one generation to the next, that victimized the unborn and the very young” (26).
The actual detective work begins with the efforts of Theo Colborn, a senior scientist at the World Wildlife Federation and one of the book’s three authors, to make sense of data about wildlife populations in the Great Lakes region some two decades after the now infamous Cuyahoga River (which empties into Lake Erie at Cleveland) caught fire and drew attention to the rampant pollution in the area. The findings Colborn was faced with were puzzling in their diversity. Sewage treatment plants had mitigated some of the worst pollution, algae growth had subsided as a result of bans on phosphates in detergents, and the thinning and breaking of eggshells that had plagued bird populations had subsided following 1972 restrictions on the use of the pesticide DDT. At the same time, “biologists working in the field were still reporting things that were far from normal: vanished mink populations; unhatched eggs; deformities such as crossed bills, missing eyes, and clubbed feet in cormorants; and a puzzling indifference in usually vigilant nesting birds about their incubating eggs” (14).
Although Colborn originally sought a link between environmental contaminants and cancer in both animals and humans, her hypothesis was stymied by data that indicated that people in the Great Lakes region were not experiencing a greater incidence of cancer. In fact, rates for certain types of cancer were actually lower than in other areas. As Colborn reviewed the data, she began to uncover evidence that the real culprit might actually be the potential of hand-me-down poisons to disrupt the endocrine system.
The endocrine system, regulator of the body’s internal processes, includes a number of organs known as endocrine glands: the thyroid, the ovaries, the testicles, the pancreas, the pituitary, the thymus, the adrenal glands, and the parathymus. To a large extent, the endocrine glands, which regulate and release hormones, work in concert with the nervous system and immune systems to coordinate bodily functions. Hormones are particularly important in prenatal development, where even the slightest alterations can have devastating consequences. Perhaps the most widely known example of the effects of hormone disruption among humans involved the drug known as DES. Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen widely prescribed for pregnant women in the late fifties and sixties, was later found to cause complicated and often subtle abnormalities in the daughters and sons of the women for whom it had been prescribed: a rare form of vaginal cancer, increased risk for cervical cancer, and a variety of reproductive abnormalities, such as deformed uteruses, and missing Fallopian tubes among women, and undescended testicles in men.
Like Silent Spring, Our Stolen Future is at its best in chronicling the biological effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals, as well as the myriad and unexpected sources of exposure (breast milk, animal fat, and compounds in plastic that leach chemicals having estrogen-like effects). Yet the authors diverge from Carson in one important aspect, arguing that:
If this book contains a single prescriptive message, it is this: we must move beyond the cancer paradigm. Until we do, it will be impossible to grapple with the challenges of hormone-disrupting chemicals and the threat they pose to the human prospect… The assumptions about toxicity and disease that have framed our thinking for the past three decades are inappropriate and act as obstacles to understanding a different kind of damage. (203)
One of the strengths of the book may very well be to point out that the cancer paradigm predominant in research in environmental health, toxicology, and epidemiology may blind scientists to the multiple, long-term effects of chemical exposure and the pervasiveness of such exposure throughout the world.
Nevertheless, the book’s arguments take place in a historical and political vacuum. However important the call to move beyond the cancer paradigm, the fact remains that the link between cancer and environmental pollution remains hotly contested in U.S. society, due largely to the efforts of multinational corporations to downplay or conceal such links. In fact, over three decades after publication of Silent Spring, a recent segment of ABC’s Prime Time assembled an impressive array of corporate scientists to argue that there was little or no evidence to support a link between cancer and environmental factors. If the more direct link between cancer and environmental pollution is so difficult to prove, then a link between contaminants that are (like Foucault’s notion of power) everywhere would be impossible to sustain, particularly in the contemporary political climate. (One of the difficulties researchers encounter, according to the authors, is that there is no population - be it animal or human - that is free of hormone-disrupting chemicals.)
In fact, as sociologist Troy Duster has observed, the dominant research paradigm is now one that emphasizes genetic rather than environmental factors. Although the authors of Our Stolen Future rightly criticize the current scientific obsession with mapping the human genome as a form of genetic determinism that denies the role of environmental factors, they are more than willing to indulge in a kind of hormonal determinism, or unfounded speculation about the role of hormone-disrupting chemicals in producing various social problems with no attention to the social and economic context in which such problems occur. Learning disabilities, rising violence, “the breakdown of the family and frequent reports of child abuse and neglect” (237), and reduced intelligence, the authors speculate, may well be linked to hormone-disrupting chemicals. And although they observe that “Human sexual orientation is no doubt a complex phenomenon” (195), they repeatedly refer to case studies of female gulls nesting together and studies that have indicated that DES daughters “have higher rates of homosexuality and bisexuality than do their sisters who were not exposed to this synthetic estrogen before birth” (195).
Nowhere are such abstract speculations more pernicious than around the book’s controversial claim that male infertility is increasing as a result of “feminizing” pollutants. As Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner note in The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present, despite the general cultural assumption that there is an epidemic of infertility in the U.S., “the overall incidence of infertility has decreased since the mid-1960s”, from 11 percent of married couples to 8 percent of married couples (and here it is helpful to keep in mind that fertility statistics only measure live births and therefore tell us little about actual fertility) (1). In fact, it is important to note that the spate of publicity surrounding the Our Stolen Future’s publication in March 1996 completely devolved around what The New Yorker described as “Silent Sperm.” A special on The Learning Channel, based on the publication of a chapter of the book in Natural History, chronicled what amounted to a crisis in masculinity: the bulk of the program was devoted to allegedly dwindling sperm counts and an associated decline in (of all things) penis size.
Our Stolen Future clearly fuels the forms of masculinist panic that are epidemic in U.S. society. Scientific research is framed once again within blatantly sexist parameters. For example, Frederick vom Saal’s research on the effects of hormones on mice in utero is rendered in the following terms: “At first blush, vom Saal’s results sound like a tale of the ugly sister and the pretty sister. Not only was the ugly sister - the mouse that had developed between males - more aggressive, but vom Saal discovered she was significantly less attractive to males than the pretty sisters who had spent their womb time between other females. Eight times out of ten, a male given a choice would chose to mate with the pretty sister” (34). Having detailed the pathological effects of the “ugly” aggressive sister, the authors then ask which mouse is normal. Despite vom Saal’s emphatic answer, “They’re all normal,” the authors then proceed to just as emphatically reinforce the normality of the “pretty” sister.
This sort of rhetorical ploy - initially establishing behavior as abnormal, questioning “normality,” and then reifying normality - is typical of the book on the whole. But the authors’ insistent forays into the realm of pure speculation - those sections where they admit that little evidence exists for their claims - slide dangerously toward a reactionary perspective. Taking advantage of current panics around intelligence, fertility (among Caucasian populations), and family values, the book advances its sociobiological arguments on the basis of some pretty flimsy claims. The authors, for example, take the arguments advanced by conservatives as givens: IQ rates are on the wane, family values are deteriorating, and violence is increasing in our streets and schools. Although the authors admit at certain junctures that these connections are primarily speculative, they neither acknowledge that the very statistics they use (in the few places where they actually give sources for their assertions) are highly controversial within scientific communities, nor do they refrain from making further generalizations and speculations.
Like so much popular scientific and environmental writing, Our Stolen Future presents its arguments in a political and economic vacuum. The problem - hormone-disrupting chemicals - is presented with no mention of, or attention to, the system that profits from environmental pollution or the corporate polluters who continue to poison our water, air, work places, and communities. Nor, in the sections on male infertility or even general ill-health, is there mention of how increasing global poverty may exacerbate the health effects of chemical contaminants, not to mention ensuring that certain communities are more at risk of exposure. In this aspect, the book resembles the Democratic Party’s line on environmentalism (and it is not coincidental that Vice-President Al Gore wrote the foreword): an apparent willingness to discuss environmental “problems” in large, abstract terms, but a refusal to recognize the corporate sources of such problems.
In the end, like the Democratic line on the environment, Our Stolen Future collapses around the question of action. Perhaps because the book itself is a protracted call for further research, it gives its readers little in the way of practical advice. Thus, in an oddly recursive formulation, it argues that the answer to the problems that Big Science has created is, in effect, more science as usual. At a time when government agencies from the EPA to the FDA to OSHA are under massive assault, when commitment to public health and environmental safety is swiftly disappearing, and when research funding has been largely privatized, the authors’ call for broad government intervention rings hollow, sounding oddly anachronistic.
Ironically, Our Stolen Future’s emphasis on biological networks and holistic interconnections is accompanied by a blindness to the economic and political interests and forces that mandate the world’s reliance on cheap, synthetic chemicals and environmental exploitation and degradation. Unlike the model of the ecosystem, the global economy is neither balanced nor organic, but depends on economic disparities and material imbalances. As much as we would like to see the “nonhuman world” as an actor or agent, certain simple facts remain: a human economic system is the source of the problem. It remains up to humans to isolate the problem and address it.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future. New York: Dutton, 1996.
Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Marsh, Margaret and Wanda Ronner. The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.