Human Nature

Deformer Babies

The deliberate crippling of children.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on baby-making, global obesity, and living death, click here.)

Several U.S. fertility clinics admit they’ve helped couples deliberately select defective embryos. According to a new survey report, “Some prospective parents have sought [preimplantation genetic diagnosis] to select an embryo for the presence of a particular disease or disability, such as deafness, in order that the child would share that characteristic with the parents. Three percent of IVF-PGD clinics report having provided PGD to couples who seek to use PGD in this manner.” Since 1) the United States has more than 400 fertility clinics, 2) more than two-thirds that answered the survey offer PGD, and 3) some clinics that have done it may not have admitted it, the best guess is that at least eight U.S. clinics have done it. Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies. (For Human Nature’s take, including more findings from the survey, click here.)

Old people are the fastest-growing age group in the labor force. The number of workers 65 or older has risen 45 percent in a decade and 10 percent in the last two years, more than doubling  the growth rate of workers aged 45 to 54. The percentage of U.S. retirees who are working may soon reach 25 percent. Old people are finding jobs more quickly than they used to, and they’re filing fewer age-discrimination suits. Happy left-wing spin: Old folks are conquering age discrimination. Gloomy left-wing spin: Old folks have to work longer because retirement security is dead. Happy right-wing spin: They have to work longer because they’re living longer. Gloomy right-wing spin: They’re keeping jobs the rest of us need. (For Human Nature’s takes, click here and here.)

Chinese doctors performed the world’s first documented penis transplant. An unexplained accident left the patient with a “small stump,” unable to urinate properly or have sex. Doctors gave him the penis of a brain-dead man whose parents agreed to donate it. Good news: After 10 days, he could “urinate smoothly” and showed no signs of tissue rejection. Bad news: After two weeks, “because of the wife’s psychological rejection as well as the swollen shape of the transplanted penis,” the organ “regretfully had to be cut off.” Upbeat conclusion: We’re figuring out the human body. Skeptical conclusion: We still have no clue about the human mind. (For updates on the world’s first two face transplants, click here, here, and here. For Human Nature’s take on genital mutilation, click here.)

The U.S. government chose a plan to build a high-tech border fence. The Boeing proposal consists of 1,800 towers armed with motion detectors and powerful zoom cameras. Its selling point was lower cost than fancier proposals featuring aerial drones. Previous government spin: We’ll solve the border problem with the surveillance technology of the future. Current spin: The surveillance technology of the future costs too much and doesn’t work, so we’ll use the surveillance technology of the present. Skeptics’ view: The surveillance technology of the present doesn’t work either. (For Human Nature’s summary of other border-fence proposals, see next item.)

The government plans to use military technology to create a virtual border fence. Proposalsfrom rival contractors: 1) aerial spy drones, 2) tethered balloons, 3) fixed and mobile towers along the border, 4) “giving every Border Patrol agent a personal digital assistant” with broadband, and 5) having agents “watch sensor activity and video feeds from their trucks” using Google Earth. The chief topic of debate is drones. Argument for them: They can cover a lot of ground so agents don’t have to. Arguments against them: They’re expensive and can’t operate in bad weather. (For Human Nature’s take on aerial drones and killing, click here.)

Health advocates are debating whether to convert smokers to snuff. Arguments for it: 1) Smoking has stopped declining in the U.S. 2) Most attempts to quit fail, even with counseling and nicotine gums or patches. 3) Studies suggest low-carcinogen varieties of snuff (smokeless tobacco) are 90 percent safer than cigarettes. 4) People are entitled to know this. 5) Switching to snuff appears to have helped Sweden cut smoking to a record low. Arguments against it: 1) Snuff is still bad for you. 2) If we suggest it’s safe, more kids will take it up. 3) Tobacco companies want us to embrace snuff because it’s their new business plan. 4) Without giving in to snuff, California has nearly matched Sweden’s reduction in smoking. (WSJ link requires subscription) (For Human Nature’s take on the crusades against smoking and junk food, click here.)

Alcohol drinkers earn 10 percent to 14 percent more than nondrinkers, according to a study. Authors’ theories: 1) Drinking helps you “socialize more with clients and co-workers, giving drinkers an advantage in important relationships.” 2) Drinking “may also provide individuals with opportunities to learn people, business, and social skills.” Authors’ conclusions: 1) “By preventing people from drinking in public, anti-alcohol policies eliminate one of the most important aspects of drinking: increased social capital.” 2) “Not only do anti-alcohol policies reduce drinkers’ fun, but they may also decrease earnings.” 3) Maybe we should stop trying to reduce drinking at colleges. Rebuttals: 1) You don’t have to drink to socialize. 2) It’s more likely that sociability causes both drinking and social capital than that drinking causes social capital. 3) This “study” is right-wing-funded spin masquerading as impartial research. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on the benefits of alcohol, click here, here, and here.)

Europe is debating a backlash against thin fashion models. Last week, a Spanish fashion show banned models with a Body Mass Index (weight-height ratio) lower than 18, which the World Health Organization classifies as underweight. According to AP, the average 5-foot-9 runway model flunks this test by 10 pounds. Now a British Cabinet minister is urging the British Fashion Council to follow suit. British argument for a ban: Beauty isn’t important. Spanish argument for a ban: Beauty is important, and unhealthy thinness isn’t beautiful. American argument against a ban: It’s discrimination. French argument against a ban: It’s a joke. (For Human Nature’s takes on American and global obesity, click here and here.)

Bicycle helmets may backfire by encouraging cars to drive closer to the cyclist. Theory: Wearing a helmet makes you look like you know what you’re doing, so drivers assume you can operate in tighter space. Evidence: A traffic psychologist rode a sensor-equipped bike around Britain, and when he wore a helmet, cars passed more than three inches closer, on average, than when he didn’t. He was also hit by two vehicles while wearing the helmet. Bonus finding: When he dressed as a woman, drivers gave him more than five inches of extra space. Psychologist’s interpretation: Helmets protect you in a low-speed tumble but may backfire in serious car traffic. Accident-prevention group’s rebuttal: Wear your helmet, and we’ll educate drivers to give you more space. (For Human Nature’s update on the dangerous distraction of car navigation systems, click here.)

The first man and woman to get “bionic” arms demonstrated the devices. After losing your arm, your brain thinks the nerves that went to the arm still operate it. Surgeons attach the stumps of these nerves to expendable muscle in your chest. Then they wire the muscle to your prosthetic arm by electrodes. Result: When your brain tells the arm to move, the chest muscle twitches, and the electrodes make the arm move. The Department of Defense is funding the technology. Approved spin: This will be great for the 400 soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq. Unapproved spin: or we could just pull out and let soldiers keep the arms they were born with. (For Human Nature’s previous update on prosthetic limbs, click here. For military-funded sensory enhancement devices, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Is eugenics better than sex? 2)  Buried alive in your own skull. 3) The global explosion of fat. 4) The case for genital mutilation. 5) The liquid world of terrorism. 6) The deluded bubble of air conditioning. 7) Stop killing meat and start growing it. 8) The war on tanning.