Human Nature

Why the Screwball Gets the Girl

And other news from science and technology.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on gay priests, Pat Robertson, and abortion, click here.)

A newly decoded dog genome will help us unravel human diseases. Genes, diseases, and behaviors have been concentrated in separate dog breeds, making it easier to correlate genes with diseases and behaviors. Genetic similarities would then help us find the troublesome genes in humans. Possible targets: cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Bonus finding: Testicle-activity genes evolved particularly rapidly in humans compared with dogs and mice, suggesting that female selection of males is central to human evolution.

Schizophrenic genes may be sexually advantageous. A study indicates that creative people and unconventional thinkers get more sex partners. Previous studies showed that creative people are more likely than others to be schizophrenic or have schizophrenic relatives. Authors’ hypothesis: Schizophrenia is disadvantageous to passing on your genes, but if you don’t get the full-blown disease, schizophrenia-related genes that cause unconventional thinking make you more attractive, and that’s why the genes and the disease persist.

You’ll soon be able to use frequent-flyer miles to go into space. Virgin Atlantic has spent $250 million to begin building vehicles that will carry small groups of clients beyond the atmosphere and back. A model craft has already made the trip. Tentative launch date: 2008. Cost per ticket: $200,000, or 2 million frequent-flyer miles.

Hanging out with dolphins can relieve human depression. Researchers’ conclusion: It makes the humans feel better. Environmentalists’ objection: It stresses out the dolphins. Cynics’ question: Why are we testing a therapy hardly anyone could arrange or afford?

A study sayspeoplewho have one alcoholic drink a day are 54 percent less obesity-prone than teetotalers are. (But those who have four or more drinks a day are 46 percent more obesity-prone.) Another study indicates that among people who weigh too much or drink too much alcohol, those who drink more than two cups of coffee a day are only half as prone to chronic liver disease. Each study involved more than 8,000 people. Cynical take: Wash out your fat with liquor, then rinse out your liquor with coffee.

NASA is developing “synthetic vision” for pilots. The technology translates data on a plane’s motion and surroundings into three-dimensional video. This helps pilots respond as though they can see outside, even when they can’t due to clouds, fog, or darkness.

The spread of impotence drugs is declining. Suggested reasons: 1) Stigma. 2) Dubious reports of blindness. 3) People resent high drug prices and distrust drug ads. 4) The performance enhancement for men under 40 is unimpressive. 5) Younger men learned that the drugs improve only circulation, not arousal. 6) Older men got used to frigid marriages.

An analysis of studies indicates passive smoke may be as dangerous as smoking in causing breast cancer. In studies that checked women less thoroughly for passive-smoke exposure, the increase in risk (of breast cancer, compared to non-exposed women) for smokers was double the increase for passive smokers. But in studies that checked more thoroughly, the increase in risk was similar: 108 percent for smokers and 90 percent for passive smokers. Authors’ conclusion: Extend the crackdown on smoking.

A nicotine vaccine could prevent kids from smoking. It triggers antibodies that prevent nicotine from getting to your brain. In a small initial sample, several smokers getting high doses of the vaccine kicked the habit for 30 days. Doctors say it could be administered to teenagers to prevent them from taking up smoking—”the first time that a vaccine is used not to prevent a disease but to prevent a behavior.”

A factory is producing “biodiesel” from animal parts. It uses “bones, innards and other parts of farm animals” that people won’t eat. Compared to fossil fuels, biodiesel radically cuts smog and greenhouse gases. The good news for environmentalists: less global warming. The bad news: another incentive to slaughter animals.

Surgeons performed the world’s first face transplant. The recipient, who had been mauled by a dog, got the brain-dead donor’s nose, lips, and chin. Critics oppose face transplants because they’re elective and pose risks of identity confusion, tissue rejection, further disfigurement, and cancer. The surgeon who did this transplant also did the first hand-and-forearm transplant, which resulted in the patient amputating the hand.

Titan, a moon of Saturn, could replace Earth as our solar system’s most habitable place. Scientists have just finished analyzing data from a probe we sent there. Tentative findings: Titan has many ingredients for life but is frozen at a primitive stage  because it’s too far from the sun. But in four billion years, as the sun swells and incinerates Earth, Titan might warm up enough to produce life. (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

Liberals are looking for loopholes in the Vatican’s new policy against gay priests. The policy bans ordination of people who “practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ ” Liberal spins: 1) It’s still OK to feel gay as long as you’re celibate. 2) It’s OK if it doesn’t distract you from your job. 3) It’s OK if you seem emotionally mature. 4) It’s OK as long as homosexuality doesn’t become your “primary identification.” 5) It’s OK as long as you preach “the immorality of homosexual genital activity.” (For Human Nature’s take, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The pope’s antigay tendencies. 2) The overconfidence of stem-cell liberals. 3) Pat Robertson vs. the pope on intelligent design. 4) Does Alito treat women like girls? 5) Monty Python’s flying creationism. 6) Two breakthroughs in the stem-cell war. 7) Bill Bennett’s racial determinism. 8) The mainstreaming of anal sex.