Human Nature

Life on Mars?

And other news from the technological frontier.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers. 2) Life arrives on a moon of Saturn. 3) The creature genetic engineers fear most. 4) The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

Two NASA scientists claim to have found possible evidence of life on Mars. They say signs of methane on Mars resemble evidence that has been shown to reflect water and microbial life in caves on Earth. To prove it, we’d have to send a probe to drill into Mars.

The army is using an online war video game to recruit young soldiers. More than four million users have registered at America’s Army, which includes mock battles. Red smoke marks each wounding; bodies are never blown apart. Army’s spin: “We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards.” Critique: 13? We’d rather let you have the gore. … 11:30 a.m. PT

Animal rights activists called for federal regulation of pet cloning. The industry, which one company says will have “a multibillion-dollar market,” is unregulated. The American Anti-Vivisection Society wants it regulated by the Agriculture Department under the Animal Welfare Act. Activists’ spins: 1) It’s inhumane to the clones. 2) It’s cruel to the homeless animals people should be adopting instead. 3) It’s a rip-off, because contrary to buyers’ expectations, a cloned cat differs from the original. Pet cloning industry spin: “We bend over backward to make sure people are doing this for the right reasons.” Critique: And what reasons are those?

Lawmakers introduced federal legislation to expand funding of stem-cell research. President Bush has restricted funding of human embryonic stem-cell research to cell lines derived from embryos destroyed before Aug. 9, 2001. The new legislation would abolish that cutoff date. Opponents’ spin: This will let embryo research get out of control. Proponents’ spin: Look at the flight of embryo researchers to California and other countries. It’s already out of control, and if we don’t fund it, we can’t control it.

Philadelphia’s mayor wants to equip the whole city for wireless broadband. Fifty local jurisdictions are setting up public broadband networks; more are expected to follow if Philadelphia joins the list. Applications proposed by city officials: 1) Poor folks could use the Web. 2) Cops on the street could access mug shots. 3) Delivery drivers could upload and download inventory data. … 9:30 a.m. PT

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

The U.S. will send robots with machine guns to Iraq within two months. Robots are already digging up bombs there and searching caves in Afghanistan. Shallow anti-robot spins: They cost a lot of money, and they’ll accidentally kill civilians. Pro-robot spins: They cost less than soldiers do, they’re fearless, they’re focused, they’ll make war casualty-free for us, and they’ll learn how to avoid killing civilians. Deep anti-robot spins: The cheaper and safer war is for us, the more we’ll indulge in it—and the more we can trust robots to run it, the less attention we’ll pay.

A murder jury rejected the Zoloft defense. The defendant, 15, killed his grandparents when he was 12. The judge told jurors they could acquit him based on “involuntary intoxication” if his lawyers proved 1) he didn’t know Zoloft could intoxicate him, 2) he followed a doctor’s prescription, and 3) the drug made him unable to tell right from wrong. The jury decided Zoloft “played a part in his behavior,” but it didn’t compel him to kill, and he knew right from wrong. A spokesman for Zoloft’s manufacturer says the Zoloft defense has succeeded in only one of 14 criminal cases. Spin from a lawyer suing the manufacturer: It’s a dangerous “mind-altering pill. What in the name of God are we doing to our children?” Counterspin: Maybe in this case we should ask what our children are doing to us.

Coffee may prevent cancer. In a big Japanese study, coffee drinkers were less than half as likely as non-coffee drinkers to get liver cancer. The more coffee they drank, the lower the cancer risk. Another study indicates coffee can reduce the risk of rectal cancer, but only if it’s decaffeinated. Spin: Maybe it’s the antioxidants. Counterspin: Maybe people who drink decaf just have healthier habits in general. And caffeine can cause miscarriage or aggravate menopause. Implication: Don’t assume all addictions are unhealthy.

Last year’s hurricanes reduced shark attacks by driving people and sharks away from the Florida coast. P.S.: Tuberculosis may have helped control leprosy in the Middle Ages. Implication: Problems are often solved by worse problems.8:45 a.m. PT

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005

Scientists are debating whether humans had sex with Neanderthals. The latter were not our ancestors but coexisted with us until 30,000 years ago. Arguments pro: 1) Similarly related species have produced offspring. 2) We found a fossil that might be half human and half Neanderthal. Arguments con: 1) The fossil has been misinterpreted. 2) There’s no DNA evidence of the two species mixing. 3) We didn’t overlap with them much. 4) “No self-respecting Neanderthal female would fancy a Homo sapiens male.”

Short boys are more likely to be given growth hormone than short girls are. A study shows parents and doctors are twice as likely to seek special medical attention for boys’ height problems than for girls’ height problems, even when the girls are shorter relative to the norm. Researchers’ spins: 1) It’s bad for girls because their underlying diseases go undiagnosed. 2) It’s bad for boys because they’re made to think they have a medical problem when they don’t. 3) We’re sexists. 4) “When growth hormone is prescribed in the absence of disease, the treatment is cosmetic, not medical.”

Critics say too many kids are diagnosed as bipolar. The Washington Post reports “some preschoolers barely out of diapers are being treated for bipolar disorder with powerful drugs, few of which have been tested in children.” Supporters’ spin: 1) “These are biological illnesses that require biological treatment.” Critics’ spins: 1) Bipolar is “psychiatry’s flavor of the month”—the criteria are vague, and the evaluations are sloppy. 2) Some of these cases are really abuse, anxiety, or behavioral problems. 3) In “little kids, all disorders pretty much look alike.” 4) Some of the prescribed drugs are dangerous to kids whose central nervous systems are still under construction. 5) Drug companies oversell bipolar medications. 6) Insurance reimbursements favor drugs over behavioral therapy. 7) Parents of troubled kids just want to be let “off the hook”—and the drugs oblige them.

Previous items:

You can’t patent a hybrid animal that’s substantially human.

Only 135 people are frozen in the two full-service U.S. cryonic facilities.

The California Supreme Court says IQ is not a sufficient basis to decide who may be executed.

Emotional stress can fatally weaken your heart.

Kids whose moms work the late shift lag in cognitive development.Massachusetts is at war over human research cloning.
Californians are trying to stop the biological alteration of pets.

The scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep will clone human embryos.

Italy is paying families to produce children.

The smallest preemie ever to survive has improved enough to go home.

Severely brain-damaged people may be more aware than we realize.

A Michigan legislator is trying to stop a company from firing workers who smoke at home.

A former priest was convicted of child rape based on one accuser’s recovered memories.

Criminal psychologists are embracing the concept of evil.

President Bush’s space budget favors human travel over research.