Human Nature

Another Face Transplant?

This week’s surgeons: the People’s Liberation Army.

New column 4/15. (For the latest Human Nature columns on obesity, birth control, and polygamy, click here.)

A Chinese hospital claims to have performed the world’s second face transplant. The patient was mauled by a bear two years ago; the transplant from a brain-dead donor reportedly covers two-thirds of his face. The procedure was performed by a “unit in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army specializing in plastic surgery.” According to Agence France Presse, “In December last year, the doctors succeeded in a face transplant conducted on a rabbit, and subsequently decided to try it on a human.” Hospital’s spin: “This surgery was even more complex and meticulous than the one performed by the French.” Skeptics’ warning: China has a history of cutting ethical corners to look like a biomedical leader. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on the French face transplant, click here and here.)

Products for fat people are proliferating. The list now includes big umbrellas, big lingerie, Size-32 bridal gowns, wider car seats, seat belt extenders, stronger footstools, reinforced beds, armless chairs, handbooks that discuss “irritations caused by skin folds,” and “lotion applicators and sponges attached to handles—enabling the user to reach all parts of the body.” Hospitals are installing “wider wheelchairs, wider doorways, longer needles and bigger CT scan machines.” The final touch: wider and sturdier coffins. Fat-products industry’s view: “You can’t just yell at someone and tell them to lose weight.” Human Nature’s view: A coffin is worth 1,000 words. (For Human Nature’s take on the war on fat, click here.)

A girl’s failing heart healed itself while she used a donor heart. Ten years ago, when she was a toddler, her heart was too big and weak, so doctors gave her a donor heart but left the original one inside her, still connected. Recently, her body rejected the donor organ, and when they opened her up, they found that the original organ had fixed itself. Reactions: 1) It’s a miracle. 2) It’s a tribute to the doctors who left the original heart inside her, just in case. 3) It validates the theory that some failing hearts suffer from inflammation and can recover if simply allowed to rest.

China cracked down on sperm, eggs, and surrogate motherhood. The government 1) banned the sale of human eggs, 2) warned people they would be punished severely for profiting from surrogate motherhood, which is illegal, and 3) prohibited the use of one man’s sperm to impregnate more than five women. Rationales: The fertility business is getting out of control, Chinese men are losing sperm density, and “surrogate pregnancy is seriously harmful to the society.” Criticisms: 1) The restrictions are arbitrary. 2) They’ll drive the fertility business underground. 3) They’ll encourage more child trafficking, since the country has a one-child policy and many couples want boys.

Beer may increase your risk of lung cancer—but wine may lower it. In one study, “after smoking was discounted, drinking up to six beers per week increased the risk of lung cancer by 20 percent, and by 50 percent for seven or more beers consumed in the same period.” In another study, “beer appeared harmful to men who did not eat fruit and vegetables regularly while men who drank wine saw their lung cancer risk drop by 40 percent, and women by 70 percent.” Interpretations: 1) Beer causes cancer; wine prevents cancer. 2) Beer drinkers eat fried food, which causes cancer; wine drinkers eat vegetables, which prevent cancer. 3) Wine drinkers, being richer and better educated than beer drinkers, take better care of their bodies in lots of ways. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on the putative benefits of alcohol, click here and here.)

North Carolina is trying to substitute machines for doctors in executions. Judges say doctors have to make sure that drugs have rendered each condemned prisoner unconscious so he doesn’t feel pain during his lethal injection. But doctors’ and nurses’ associations say it’s unethical for doctors to participate in executions, so prison officials are proposing to substitute a machine that monitors the prisoner’s brain waves. A doctor and nurse could watch the monitor in another room without violating the ethical rule. Criticisms: 1) This isn’t compliance, because a machine isn’t a doctor. 2) The machine hasn’t been proved reliable for this purpose. 3) The machine was intended and sold to help patients, not to kill them. 4) The reason for the ethical rule is that executions shouldn’t look like medical procedures. Adding medical machines worsens that problem.

Whites are using DNA tests to claim minority status under affirmative-action programs. With amateur test results suggesting that a small fraction of their ancestors might have been African or Native American, they’re applying as minorities for jobs, college admissions, financial aid, and government programs. One test company invited customers “to validate your eligibility for race-based college admissions or government entitlements.” Argument from an applicant’s father: “Naturally when you’re applying to college you’re looking at how your genetic status might help you.” Criticisms of the tests: 1) Results suggesting a tiny percentage of minority ancestry are meaningless due to the margin of error. 2) Fake minorities are stealing benefits meant for real ones. 3) If nobody could tell you were black without a DNA test, nobody discriminated against you, either. Defense: DNA tests are more reliable than self-reporting, which most colleges use to determine who gets racial preferences. (For Human Nature’s previous update on Mormons and DNA testing, click here.)

The governor of Kentucky will sign a ban on “computer-assisted remote hunting,” in which you track your prey “through a real-time Internet video link and [use] a mouse or joystick to fire a remote-operated gun or bow.” This will make the practice illegal in at least a dozen states. Rationale from the governor’s spokesman: “It sounds like more of, instead of hunting, a wildlife kill. That takes a lot of the sport out of it.” (For Human Nature’s take on remote-controlled hunting of human beings, click here.)

Scientists are trying to regrow lost or worn-out body parts. “Blastema regeneration” helps spiders rebuild legs, salamanders rebuild limbs and jaws, and zebra fish rebuild hearts and spinal cords. (A sea cucumber that’s cut in half can grow into two sea cucumbers.) People can regrow liver parts and sometimes fingertips; some scientists think drugs could activate regenerative genes that became dormant in us. Example: We have the same gene that helps zebra fish regain fins. Reactions: 1) Good luck; animals that regenerate are completely different from us. 2) Yeah, well, it’s not like stem cells are working regenerative wonders. 3) If the blastema idea works, it’ll be cheaper. 4) There must be something to it, since it’s the method nature chose for regeneration. 5) If it works, then stem cells probably don’t, since they rely on opposite theories of what makes cells become this or that kind of tissue. (For Human Nature’s latest update on rebuilding organs, click here. For Human Nature’s take on growing organs from embryos, click here.)

A very small study suggests that tanning may be addictive. The study compared eight frequent tanners to eight infrequent tanners. Findings: 1) The frequent tanners preferred ultraviolet light more than the infrequent tanners did. 2) A drug that interferes with opiate addiction “reduced ultraviolet preference in frequent tanners.” 3) The drug caused half of the frequent tanners, but none of the infrequent tanners, to “experience nausea or jitteriness, consistent with opiate withdrawal.” This backs up previous findings that some tanners are obsessive. Researchers’ theory: Ultraviolet radiation generates endorphins, which become addictive. (For Human Nature’s previous update on the AMA’s proposal to ban teenagers from indoor tanning, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The war on fat. 2) Does God answer prayers? 3) The blurred line between contraception and abortion. 4) The difference between gay marriage and polygamy. 5) Stop giving healthy people Social Security. 6) Technology and the end of Roe. 7) The temptation of remote-controlled killing. 8) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs. (Click here to return to top of page.)