Human Nature

All Too Human

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.

You can’t patent a hybrid animal that’s substantially human. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected a patent for a method of making a creature from human and monkey cells. The creature’s stated purpose was to test toxins or grow tissue for transplants, but the applicant’s real goal was 1) to win the patent and prevent others from making such a creature or 2) to lose and set a precedent against patenting part-human life. Patent office’s rationales for saying no include: 1) Patenting such a creature might preclude it from procreating without your permission, thus violating its right to privacy. 2) A patent would prevent others from employing the creature, thus violating the constitutional ban on slavery. Loophole: Since mice with human ingredients are already patented, you just have to keep the human percentage below a certain threshold, which nobody has yet defined.

Only 135 people are frozen in the two full-service U.S. cryonic facilities. The companies freeze your body or head in the hope that future technology can revive you. More than 700 people have signed up to be frozen, but the disclosure that one company has the head of baseball slugger Ted Williams hasn’t brought in much business. Spin from a client: I’m afraid it won’t work, “but it beats the alternative.” Spin from the client’s then-living dad, Walter Matthau: I’m more afraid it might work, so no thanks.

Friday, Feb. 11, 2005

The California Supreme Court says IQ is not a sufficient basis to decide who may be executed. Prosecutors suggested anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher was not retarded and therefore could be executed. But the court decided 1) “IQ tests are insufficiently precise to utilize a fixed cutoff” and 2) death-row inmates can get their sentences changed to life in prison if a judge rules that they’ve probably had “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning” and other mental disabilities since they were minors. IQ can be a factor, but not the sole factor. Victim advocate’s spin: The ruling will create “a lot of work” for prosecutors fighting off appeals. Anti-death penalty spin: A little work never killed anyone. Implication: Our understanding of intelligence is becoming more complex. 7:30 a.m. PT

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005

Emotional stress can fatally weaken your heart. Researchers have documented some cases of stress cardiomyopathy (“broken heart syndrome”) and suspect many more. The probable mechanism is adrenaline stunning the heart muscle; the victims are almost all women. Bad news: In extreme cases it can kill you if untreated. Good news: You heal completely if treated. Pop spin: Your heart really can be broken. Highbrow spin: Your mind really can control your body.

Kids whose moms work the late shift lag in cognitive development. Why? Anti-feminist spin: 1) You’re too tired to be a good mom when you’re home. Classist spin: You have to work the late shift because you’re uneducated, which makes you a bad mom. Liberal spin: Your inconvenient hours force you to leave your kids with friends or family instead of in day care, where they’d learn more.

Massachusetts is at war over human research cloning. The state senate president wants to make it easier to do human embryonic stem cell research, including cloning. The governor accepts research on embryos left over from fertility treatments but wants to ban the creation of new embryos for research that requires their destruction. Researchers’ spin: The governor is against curing diseases. Governor’s spin: “Creation for the purpose of destruction is wrong.” Lawmakers’ spin: If we ban it in Massachusetts, biotech companies will move to California and other states that are offering public money to do it. Media question: Why do the Associated Press and the New York Times avoid the word “cloning,” instead calling it “embryonic stem cell research”?

Californians are trying to stop the biological alteration of pets. One company has sold two cloned cats; another is selling fish genetically modified to glow. California has barred sales of these fish to its residents, and lawmakers are now pushing to ban the sale of cloned pets and the cropping of dogs’ ears. Animal rights spin: Cloning is harmful to our furry friends. Cynical spin: So is eating them. … 1:30 p.m. PT

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005

The scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep will clone human embryos. Britain gave Ian Wilmut a license to create the embryos for research. Wilmut’s spin: We’re going to cure diseases. Don’t worry—we won’t let the embryos grow beyond 14 days. Anti-cloning spin: That’s the problem. American pro-cloning spin: Religious zealots are holding us back in the global biotechnology race.

Italy is paying families to produce children. Last year the government paid couples $1,300 to have a second child. One town, Laviano, is offering  almost $14,000 for every child born. The reason: The population is shrinking and aging, causing tax revenue to fall far short of pension obligations. Some people are moving to Laviano to collect the payout. Laviano mayor’s spin: It’s working! Critics’ spins: 1) Great, now European cities can go broke bidding for parents the same way American cities go broke bidding for employers. 2) The chief problem is that the economy doesn’t let women or men work and raise families at the same time. Why not fix that instead? Implication: Economics 1, Catholic Church 0.

The smallest preemie ever to survive has improved enough to go home. She weighed 8.6 ounces and was 9.5 inches long at birth. Upbeat spin: It’s another miracle. Cautionary spin: It’s another warning that we need to stop the increase in premature births, because for every miracle, there are many tragedies. … 7:50 a.m. PT

Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2005

Severely brain-damaged people may be more aware than we realize. Doctors classify 100,000 to 300,000 brain-damaged people as “minimally conscious.” This is better than a “persistent vegetative state”—they can breathe and blink but can’t eat, communicate, or get out of bed. We thought they didn’t know what was going on around them, but brain scans suggest they do; they just can’t tell us. A previous study reportedly indicates up to 30 percent of patients thought to be in persistent vegetative states were actually minimally conscious. Critique: This doesn’t mean they can recover. Implications: 1) Should we reconsider pulling the plug on Terry Schiavo? 2) Are these people enduring a living hell?

A Michigan legislator is trying to stop a company from firing workers who smoke at home. The company has begun randomly testing employees for nicotine, with a pledge to fire those who refuse to quit. The legislator says it’s “un-American” to let a company punish legal activity outside the workplace. Civil libertarian spin: What’s next? No beer at home? (Actually, a company did fire a worker for off-duty drinking 15 years ago.) Company’s public spin: Employers have a right to control health costs. Fired worker’s reply: I’m not on the company health plan. Company president’s off-message spin: “I spent all my life working with young men, honing them mentally and physically to a high performance. And I think that’s what we need to do in the workplace.”

A former priest was convicted of child rape based on one accuser’s recovered memories. The defendant, Paul Shanley, rested his entire defense on a recovered-memory debunker. A psychiatrist previously testified for the prosecution that recovered memories are true. Jurors voted to convict on the theory that the accuser had nothing to gain by pursuing criminal charges because he had already won a $500,000 settlement. Upbeat spin: Recovered memories are vindicated. Cynical spin: Don’t offer a civil settlement until the criminal case is resolved.

Criminal psychologists are embracing the concept of evil. Research indicates high scores on a “psychopathy checklist” correlate with recidivism and differences in brain processes. A psychiatrist has organized biographies of criminals into 22 categories of evil; other scientists are evaluating crimes on a “depravity scale.” Arguments against evil as a diagnosis: 1) It suggests no treatment. 2) It’s vague and subject to bias, which can lead to unjust death sentences. 3) “The causes of [criminal] behavior are biological, psychological and social.” Arguments for it: 1) It identifies criminals who defy all treatments and all other explanations. 2) The best you can do with such people is admit they’re fundamentally evil so you can keep them off the streets. Implication: Psychology’s denial of evil, like religion’s affirmation of it, is a debatable moral assumption.

President Bush’s space budget favors human travel over research. It funds the space shuttles, the International Space Station, a new vehicle for manned space travel, and preparations for human exploration of Mars, but not saving the Hubble Space Telescope or sending an unmanned probe to Jupiter’s moons. Implication: Bush (or America, depending on your viewpoint) would rather act than study. Critique: So what else is new? … 1:30 p.m. PT

Previous items:

Virginia may execute a killer because he’s no longer retarded.

Cops are being investigated for using or selling steroids.

Greenhouse gases could revive Mars.

You can sue for the “wrongful death” of an embryo.

The FDA may approve an electronic implant for depression.

Cops are fingerprinting speeders.

Cell phones make young people drive as badly as old people.

An ex-priest accused of child rape rested his entire defense on a recovered-memory debunker.

The average consumer of a pay-per-view porn movie watches just seven minutes.

Medicare will cover Viagra.

Pro-lifers are using sonograms to dissuade women from abortions.

Adult marrow cells might replace embryonic stem cells.

China is reversing its one-child policy.

Sports doping cops have detected a new “undetectable” steroid.

Birds are smarter than we thought.

Hard liquor and beer are good for old women.

People aren’t fully rational until age 25.

Companies are firing or refusing to hire smokers.

A new magazine is devoted to cosmetic surgery.

Congress is moving to restrict cold medicine.

President Bush says gay couples are inferior parents.

Fidgeting fights obesity.

We can turn stem cells into motor neurons.

An antidepressant gave a woman a two-hour orgasm.