Human Nature

Drop the Crack Pipe, Grandpa

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on race, crime, creationism, and anal sex, click here.)

The rate of fatal drug overdose among people 40 or older has doubled in California since 1990, while the rate among younger people has declined. Nationally, the percentage of drug abusers who are older than 35 has nearly tripled since 1979. Theories: 1) Boomers keep doing drugs till it kills them. 2) Boomers stop doing drugs, thus losing their tolerance, so when they start up again, it kills them. 3) Boomers learn the hard way that a 45-year-old body can’t take the same abuse as a 25-year-old body. 4) Older abusers do their drugs alone, so when they overdose, nobody’s around to call 911.

Scientists claim new dope tests can help distinguish natural from artificial steroids. The new technique improves carbon analysis. Rosy spin: High-tech cops are outwitting high-tech cheats. Cynical spin: The cops are bluffing.

Fossils indicate that a miniature near-human species may have shared the Earth with us until 12,000 years ago. Bones found on an island suggest the creatures were 3 feet tall with chimp-sized brains. Theories: 1) They’re a separate genus of primates. 2) They’re deformed humans. 3) They’re humans who evolved to be smaller because they were isolated on the island.

IBM pledged not to weed out job applicants who have bad genes. Companies could use genetic information to avoid hiring people with expensive future health needs; IBM is the first big company to say it won’t do that. Congress is considering similar genetic-privacy legislation. Proponents say people won’t accept the spread of genetic testing unless they’re protected from discrimination as a result.

A birth mother defeated a genetic father for custody of their children. The unmarried couple had IVF triplets using his sperm and anonymously donated eggs. The Tennessee Supreme Court declared her the legal mother, in part because the couple had originally agreed she would have that role. The case is viewed as a landmark because it affirms parenthood without genetic connection, marriage, or legal adoption.

Five robot cars finished a 130-mile course through desert, tunnels, and mountain passes. They used cameras, lasers, sensors, radar, and GPS. It’s a huge improvement over last year, when no cars finished the course. The military sponsored the contest to develop war vehicles that don’t expose human drivers to danger, but the contest winner says he did it to make civilian cars safer.

Researchers are figuring out how partial sleep deprivation kills people. It generates stress hormones, raises blood pressure, causes chronic inflammation, and disrupts coordination of bodily functions. It correlates with obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and death.

Most European smokers who have heart attacks keep smoking. Health advocates wonder how to get the message across that smoking is bad for you. Cynics figure if the heart attack doesn’t get it across, nothing will.

Vaccines can prevent some cancers. The first successful vaccine, possibly available next year, generates immunity to virusesthat cause cervical cancer, which kills nearly 300,000 women a year.

A flu epidemic that killed 50 million people decades ago may repeat itself. The 1918 flu virus, like the viruses now spreading in Asia, came from birds. The U.S. government is preparing for the new viruses to mutate and infect humans.

Twenty-one hospitals will put artificial blood in trauma patients during an FDA-approved clinical trial. The oxygen-carrying fluid, PolyHeme, will be administered to anyone who isn’t wearing a blue bracelet that signals refusal. Proponents say informed consent is impractical in trauma cases.

California authorized the purchase of GPS tracking monitors for thousands of criminals on parole or probation. The monitors can be assigned by probation officers without court orders. Lawmakers say they’ll cut both crime and costs. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

A pro basketball star was traded after refusing to be DNA-tested for a heart condition. Eddy Curry missed part of last season due to an arrhythmia; tests suggested he might have a condition that killed two other players. The test could prove he has the condition (thereby ending his career) but couldn’t prove he doesn’t. His old team says without the test, his risk of dying on the court is too high; his new team says it’s up to him.

Brain scans can help spot compulsive liars. People who score high on tests for deceptiveness have 25 percent more white matter and 14 percent less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex than others do. One theory: White matter helps with the intellectual challenges of trickery.

“Weather modification” experts are plotting ways to knock out hurricanes. One plan would spray film on the ocean to block the heat transfer hurricanes need; another would spray soot in the atmosphere to get the same effect; a third would use jet engines on barges to disrupt a hurricane with small tropical storms. But a successful plan might divert the hurricane to a different landing site, causing legal or international havoc.

Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett said “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Bennett called the idea “ridiculous and morally reprehensible,” and he cited it to suggest that abortion policy shouldn’t be used to engineer society. But critics also saw racism in the predictive aspect of his statement. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

Low cholesterol in men may cause Parkinson’s. Men with LDL cholesterol levels below 135 were four to six times more likely to get the disease. One theory: Cholesterol helps eliminate toxins that trigger Parkinson’s. Another: Cholesterol is related to chemicals involved in the central nervous system.

Connecticut became the first state to enact new restrictions on fertility treatment. One provision halts mandatory insurance coverage of fertility treatment at age 40; another limits the number of implanted embryos to two per treatment. The rationale for the age limit is cost-effectiveness; the rationale for the embryo limit is reduction of multiple births. The age limit doesn’t apply to men.

A study suggests MRIs can detect lies with accuracy exceeding 90 percent. If true, that beats polygraphs. During lies, MRIs showed greater blood flow to brain areas associated with lie-related processes such as anxiety, impulse control, and multitasking.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Bill Bennett’s racial determinism.2) “Intelligent design”  chickens out. 3) The mainstreaming of anal sex. 4) The political use of fetal pain. 5) The difference between blacks and animals. 6) The emerging technology of artificial wombs. 7) The case for  growing embryos for their parts. 8) The evolution of creationism.