Human Nature

The Blogs of War

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on Bill Frist’s pro-choice sympathies, artificial wombs, and harvesting organs from embryos, click here.)

The government is investigating why four women died after taking an abortion pill. Pro-lifers want to ban it. Pro-choicers say it’s safer than other abortion methods (one death in every 100,000 cases) and far safer than pregnancy, and some blame all four deaths on off-label vaginal rather than oral administration of a follow-up drug.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is comparing abuse of animals to abuse of blacks. The comparisons are central to an education campaign that has been suspended offline but continues online. PETA’s view: It’s all oppression. NAACP’s view: “They’re comparing chickens to black people?”

Soldiers’ blogs are complicating military censorship in Iraq. The number of blogs has risen from a dozen to 200 or more in two years. The military has demoted one guardsman, whose site has since disappeared. Other troops have stopped blogging under pressure from superiors.

A gene correlates with alcohol tolerance in fruit flies. In humans, higher tolerance correlates with alcoholism. Scientists hope to block alcoholism by interfering with the gene, but there’s a catch: Evidence suggests the gene also “helps protect the body from environmental stress.”

New York City asked restaurants to eliminate trans fats. The health commissioner likened trans fats (which are used by 30 percent to 60 percent of the city’s restaurants) to asbestos. Denmark has banned foods with a trans fat content of more than 2 percent, but New York is the first major U.S. city to act.

Genetic tests are exposing “dads” who unwittingly raise other men’s kids. Reported rates range from 1 percent to 30 percent, mostly toward the low end. The poorer your family is and the younger your wife was when she got pregnant, the higher your risk. According to Reuters, “most cases that are inadvertently identified are ignored by whoever uncovers the situation.”

For sale: a trip around the moon. Duration: 10 to 21 days. Vehicle: Russian Soyuz. Possible stops: International Space Station. Russian pilot provided; leg room purportedly comparable to that of an SUV. Available seats: two. Price per seat: $100 million.

Terrorists in Iraq are using dogs as suicide bombers. The Muslim Scholars Association says this is wrong because it hurts animals—but the association sympathizes with the insurgents, who target human civilians.

Loss of brain cells may kill old people in their sleep. As you age, the part of your brain that makes you breathe loses cells. Research suggests that at some point, this begins to disrupt your nighttime breathing, prompting you to wake up. When you’re too old and weak to wake yourself up, you die.

A survey found that 13 percent of Dutch patients who requested euthanasia changed their minds. (Euthanasia is legal there.) In another 12 percent of cases, doctors refused requests for euthanasia. In the remaining cases, the patient was euthanized or died before the request could be approved and executed. Skeptics wonder how many others changed-mind cases went unreported.

Chemists are testing ashark repellent that produces the scent of rotting sharks when released in water. It might eventually be put in swimsuits or suntan lotion. It was conceived to protect sharks by steering them away from dangerous areas, but humans are hijacking it to protect themselves.

Food companies have engineered fake taste buds to find chemicals that heighten your sensation of sweetness. This has allowed researchers to test 200,000 chemicals in the lab so far. Two strong candidates have been identified.

Ecstasy fights Parkinson’s. It’s the most effective of 14 amphetamines that counteract symptoms of the disease in mice. Scientists say 1) you shouldn’t try this in your own home, but 2) we already give kids low-dose amphetamines for ADD, so 3) let’s cook up safer amphetamines to treat Parkinson’s.

New York Gov. George Pataki vetoed over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill. His stated reasons: 1) The bill endangers girls’ health; 2) it allows purchases of multiple doses; and 3) men could use the pill to coax girls to have sex. His critics say the pill would prevent abortions.

South Korean scientists cloned a dog, one of the hardest animals to clone. Alleged ramifications: 1) We’re that much closer to cloning a human. 2) Soon we can use cloned dogs to study diseases and therapies to help humans. 3) Here comes an industry for people who want to re-create their dying dogs. 4) Those people will learn the hard way that cloned dogs don’t turn out identical. 5) The South Koreans are the new kings of cloning.

The brain-dead woman who was being kept alive to nurture her fetus to viability gave birth and then died. The baby was removed early because cancer in the mother threatened the pregnancy. The baby weighs less than two pounds but looks healthy. The doomed mother was then unplugged.

Scientists proved they can help you diet by implanting false memories that certain foods made you sick. In experiments, they turned people off to strawberry ice cream and turned them on to asparagus. Some critics worry that brainwashing will fail as a mass diet technique; others worry that it might succeed.

Rafael Palmeiro was suspended from baseball after testing positive for a steroid. He recently testified before Congress that he had never used steroids. Palmeiro denies knowingly taking a steroid but says, “I wasn’t able to explain to the arbitrator how the banned substance entered my body.” President Bush says he still believes Palmeiro “didn’t use steroids.” (For Human Nature’s take on steroids, click here.)

The company behind the Atkins diet filed for bankruptcy. Atkins haters gloated that the low-carb fad was unhealthy and now officially dead. The company argued that the fad was so successful that food conglomerates invaded the market and drove the company out of business.

President Bush endorsed the teaching of intelligent design, a religion-inspired theory of creation that challenges Darwinism but avoids Biblical literalism. Bush didn’t divulge his personal views but said “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.” (For Human Nature’s take on intelligent design, click here.)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist endorsed a bill to expand funding of embryonic stem-cell research. This reverses his previous support of President Bush’s policy. Analysts now think the Senate will pass the bill, and Bush will have to veto it.

New York Gov. George Pataki will veto over-the-counter access to morning-after pills. His office says he’s doing it because the bill allows access for minors. Critics say he’s doing it to placate moral conservatives in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. (For Human Nature’s take on pharmacists and morning-after pills, click here.)

A study suggests stem cells in bone marrow might restock ovaries with eggs. If so, women could delay menopause, bank the stem cells to make eggs later in case their ovaries won’t, or possibly get transplants of the stem cells from other women.

Astronomers found another planet in our solar system. It’s twice as far from the Sun as Pluto is. Skeptics say it’s too small to count as a planet—but since Pluto is even smaller, we have either eight planets or 10.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer. 2) The emerging technology of artificial wombs. 3) The case for  growing embryos for their parts. 4) The forced marriage of stem-cell opponents. 5) The lesson of the Schiavo autopsy. 6)  Mandatory pregnancy: A true story. 7) The evolution of creationism. 8) If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK?