50. Handsome Men, Lousy Semen: 2. Or Perhaps Not

If you read this blog, you may have noticed that it contains a consistent thread with most posts roughly linked to previous posts.  Sometimes, however, I do go off on a tangent.  And I am doing so here.

Call it a literary impairment.

However, in my defense, it is hard not to be pulled into the scientific literature once it starts poking around in the mannish trifecta of testosterone, penises, and ejaculate.  Researchers just can’t seem to keep their hands out of our pants.

For example, In the last post [49] I offered a press release from Wiley and the Journal of Evolutionary Biology verbatim.

Let me repeat that release:


September 02, 2014

A Handsome Face Could Mean Lower Semen Quality

49. JEB Semen

49. JEB Semen

Frontal and right side lateral view of male face. Prior to attractiveness ratings, colour photographs were scanned, and an oval mask was placed over the image to minimize the visual effect of hairstyle.

Contrary to what one might expect, facial masculinity was negatively associated with semen quality in a recent Journal of Evolutionary Biology study. As increased levels of testosterone have been demonstrated to impair sperm production, this finding may indicate a trade-off between investments in secondary sexual signaling (i.e. facial masculinity) and fertility.

Interestingly, males estimated facial images generally more attractive than females did, suggesting that males may generally overestimate the attractiveness of other men to females.

  •  Soler, C., Kekäläinen, J., Núñez, M., Sancho, M., Álvarez, J. G., Núñez, J., Yaber, I. and Gutiérrez, R. (2014). Male facial attractiveness and masculinity may provide sex- and culture-independent cues to semen quality. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 27, 1930–1938.  doi: 10.1111/jeb.12446 [Full Text]


I picked this press release and article for a number of reasons.  First, the title of the press release is nowhere even close to what is contained in the journal article.   I had previously noted [20] that one should never implicitly trust a secondary source and one should always read the original material if possible. The press release and its accompanying article is a good case in point

It was not handsome men that had lower semen quality.  Handsomeness was never measured.  What was assessed, however, was the attractiveness of specific male faces.  Ratings of attractiveness were related to semen quality.  But not in the direction suggested by the press release.  Instead, those rated more attractive had better, not worse, semen quality as defined by sperm quantity, motility, and morphology.

Along with ratings of attractiveness, seven facial features thought to represent masculinity were also measured.   Only one facial feature — width — was found to have any correlation with semen quality and its relationship was negative.  Wider face, poorer semen.

Is facial width correlated with attractiveness?  We don’t know.  The authors do not report the results of any correlation between facial masculinity and attractiveness (even though the study’s underlying logic and theory, results, and discussion practically screams for it).  I think it is safe to assume that it was not reported because there was nothing to report.

Perhaps a more accurate title for this press release should have been:

  • A Masculine Face Could Mean Lower Semen Quality.

But, no, actually that is a little confusing.  Semen and masculinity does sound synonymous.  Plus, there was only one facial measure of masculinity that was related to semen quality (the other six measures of masculinity showed no relationship with semen quality).  How about this:

  • Men With Wide Faces May Have Lower Semen Quality.

However, that does not fit either. In fact, the authors noted that the relationship between facial width and semen was not robust.  When the sample was constrained to include only those men whose semen quality fell within a normal biomedical range, the relationship between facial width and semen quality disappeared.

That leaves us with:

  • Men’s Facial Features Are Not Related to Semen Quality.

Yet, that is not quite correct.  The study did find that those faces that were rated as attractive positively predicted semen quality.  Something about those faces and their features were related to semen quality.  But we don’t what and it was certainly not any of the masculine features that were measured in this research.  I guess that leaves us with:

  • Something About Men’s Facial Features May Be Related to Semen Quality But We Do Not Know What.

There.  That seems about right.

50. Wide Cheek

Now, the other reason I decided to focus on this study is because it is nice example of all that is deliciously goofy when one attempts to simplify the highly complex relationship that exists between humans as nothing more than the simple sharing of genetic material.

And it all begins with birds.

More on that later.