Human Nature

The “Race Gene”

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on dogs, creationism, and gay priests, click here.)

The biggest breakthrough in stem-cell research may be a fraud. Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk claimed to have derived 11 customized stem-cell lines through cloning; his colleague now says Hwang admitted to faking  nine of them, and the other two are dubious. Skeptics question whether Hwang also faked his other reported feats, including cloning a dog. Hwang insists he has evidence that the stem-cell derivation worked. Conservative spin: The whole promise of cloning is a fraud. Liberal spin: Hwang was going too fast, but in the right direction. Liberal fear: “Is this our version of WMD?”

A single gene makes whites paler than blacks. Until 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, everyone was black; then a mutation in this gene created white people. Reactions: 1) Don’t talk about racial genetics; it encourages racism. 2) If color comes down to one gene, doesn’t that minimize its significance? 3) Did whiteness spread in Europe because it made people healthier, or because it made them more sexually attractive?

Random DNA testing debunked convictions in two of 31 sexual assault cases in Virginia. This brings the number of rape-related exonerations in Virginia to five. Each wrongly convicted man had served more than a decade behind bars. In these old cases, prosecutors used crude blood tests to link defendants to crimes; newer DNA testing is astronomically more precise but can’t be applied in many cases because the evidence is gone. Liberals’ take: Imagine how many errors we’d find if all the evidence had been preserved. Let’s retest every available case and stop executing people. Moderates’ take: Let’s retest every available case so we can get back to executing people.

The latest rage in cosmetic surgery is virginity restoration. Business is booming in “revirgination,” i.e., hymen reattachment. Cost: $2,000 to $5,000. Unmarried immigrant women are getting it to avoid family disgrace by hiding the fact that they’ve lost their virginity. Married women are getting it (along with vagina-tightening surgery) to thrill husbands on their anniversaries. Objection from the left: It’s female genital mutilation. Objection from the right: It’s virginity fraud. (For Human Nature’s previous update on female genital mutilation, click here.)

The government declared a genetic war on cancer. Cynics point out that we’ve declared war on cancer before, but officials say this time we’re building the right weapon: a catalog of molecular errors that cause cancers so we can spot errors and correct them or tailor drug treatments to them. Optimists envision cancer as a “chronic, manageable condition.”

The world’s first face transplant is turning into a horror story. A surgeon involved in the case says the donor had hanged herself. Meanwhile, the recipient reportedly confirmed that her dog chewed off part of her face (thereby necessitating the surgery) because she had taken a huge overdose of sleeping pills and seemed dead. If so, one woman’s successful suicide attempt cleaned up the other’s failure. Also, the transplant surgeon indicates he made the decision quickly because one woman’s face matched the other’s. A French official is urging an investigation.

Scientists put human cells in the brains of living mice. To avoid making the mice too human, only 100,000 cells were injected (compared to 75 million or more mouse brain cells), and very few human cells survived. But, based on those that did, the authors say they’ve proved human embryonic stem cells can be integrated into brains without causing tumors. Proposed applications: 1) Put stem cells in patients with brain diseases. 2) Create mice with the diseases, put human cells in their brains, and see what happens. 3) Put human cells in other mouse organs so we can test drugs for humans on humanized mice instead of on people. Scientists’ reassurance: Don’t worry, we won’t humanize mice too much. The catch: The more we humanize them, the more accurate they’ll be as drug test models.

Girl monkeys like dolls; boy monkeys like toy cars. Given the choice in an experiment, “some male monkeys moved a toy car along the ground,” while “female monkeys closely inspected a doll’s bottom. Males also played with balls while females fancied cooking pots.” Researchers’ conclusion: The behavioral split between males and females predates the split between humans and monkeys.

Shrinks are debating whether to classify extreme bigotry as a mental illness. Arguments in favor: 1) It makes some people unable to function socially or hold down a job—the criteria we already use for depression and other mental illnesses. 2) Anti-psychotic drugs have relieved extreme bigotry among prison inmates. Arguments against: 1) It will become a legal defense in hate crimes. 2) It will excuse everyone, because we’re all somewhat biased. 3) It will make medicine another weapon of political correctness.

Feeding tubes have run amok, according to some doctors. They were invented as temporary devices for young patients but have become permanent and routine for terminal old patients. Studies show they risk complications and don’t prolong the lives of terminal patients, but the number of insertions has doubled each decade. Reasons: 1) More old people. 2) Liability fears. 3) Tubes are easier than helping nursing home patients feed themselves. 4) Insurers pay nursing homes more for patients with tubes. 5) Pro-lifers are fighting to require tubes in more cases. Critics’ warning: Today’s option is tomorrow’s prison. (For Human Nature’s take on terminal illness and assisted suicide, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs.2) Creationism’s slow death. 3) The pope’s antigay tendencies. 4) Pat Robertson vs. the pope on intelligent design. 5) Does Alito treat women like girls? 6) Bill Bennett’s racial determinism. 7) The mainstreaming of anal sex.