This Old Sperm

Photo: Everett Collection

Earlier this month, the journal PLoS Medicine analyzed data from a study of over 50,000 pregnant women and came to a simple but stunning conclusion: Older fathers have dumber kids. The more geriatric the dad, the dimmer the progeny, on measures including “thinking and reasoning, concentration, memory, understanding, speaking, and reading.” (Luckily, geezer offspring had no problems with motor skills, making them ideal for wheeling around their elderly dads.)

It was another unsettling addition to the growing pile of evidence that men have their own biological clocks, with older fathers also producing higher rates of schizophrenia and autism. But what really caught my eye was the secondary finding, which was that older mothers were associated with smarter children. I quickly did the calculations and was pleased with my findings. The most intelligent children, I deduced, must be the outcome of 45-year-old career women inseminated by their 21-year-old personal trainers.

At last, science has produced the case for cougars. As Madonna understands intuitively, nature clearly intends aging women—whether married, divorced, or single; on vacation in Cancún or just killing time on line at the DMV—to snatch up passing youths in our talons and gestate a race of supersmart children. Who themselves, I presume, will be smart enough to self-select their partners likewise, forming a superrace of egghead Demis and Ashtons, a Cleopatran paradise of trophy studs and December–May embryos. Denying this is denying biology itself, and far be it for me to deny biology!

Now, I admit, my theory makes little sense. For one, the study, at least as described in the Times, suggests that the findings about older mothers—which were part of a reanalysis of a study conducted from 1959 to 1965—were likely due to social factors, i.e., “more nurturing home environments associated with the generally higher income and education levels of older mothers.”

If social factors account for older mothers’ big-brained kids, I’m more than a little confused about why biological ones must account for older fathers’ dumber broods, but that might be because my mother foolishly had me in her twenties. And while we’re stringing apart cause and effect, surely a lot has changed socially for older mothers since 1965, back when the median age for first marriage was 20.6 and most banks asked women for a male co-signer to get a loan. (And this is not even the most disturbing element of the study: The youngest father was 14 and the youngest mother, 12!)

But why not jump to conclusions? We do it every time a study comes out that confirms a cultural bias in the opposite direction—any bit of data that contributes to the portrait of women as desperate for an early sell date, while their roguish counterparts seek ever younger and more symmetrical reproductive targets. But the larger issue is that even the most nuanced scientific data tend to transform, in the popular consciousness, into “magazine science,” all caveats excised in the name of that greater sociobiological theme: that men and women are the way they are because this is the way they have to be. So if there’s something sickly refreshing about the bad news for older dads, let’s just admit that this is more about social gamesmanship than hard facts. If Us Weekly begins to print pictures of Owen Wilson with worried captions about stale sperm, would that be so bad?

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This Old Sperm