Human Nature

Jock in a Box

Why work out when you can take pills instead?

(For the latest Human Nature columns on cybersex, Rush Limbaugh, and biotech politics, click here.)

Resveratrol doubles endurance in mice. This is the same stuff that neutralized the bad consequences of fatty food in a recent mouse study (extending the lives of fat-eating mice by 15 percent). In the new study, resveratrol-fed mice built more energy capacity and athletic muscle, burned more fat, and lowered their weight and their heart rates. Genetic evidence suggests this or related drugs might similarly help humans. One company says demand for its resveratrol pills has multiplied by 2,400 in the two weeks since the previous resveratrol study came out. Skeptics’ warnings: 1) We don’t know whether this will work in humans. 2) To get a dosage equivalent to what the mice got, you’d need way more resveratrol than you could get from today’s pills, much less from red wine. 3) We don’t know whether such a dosage is safe in humans. 4) If it works, athletes may use it to cheat. Researchers’ rejoinders: 1) Of course they’ll use it, and we’re using it already, since it “makes you look like a trained athlete without the training.” 2) “This is the first example of a drug that can apparently affect the whole aging process.” 3) If it’s unsafe or ineffective in humans, we know how to find similar drugs that will work for us. (For the most recent update on resveratrol, click here. For Human Nature’s takes on athletic enhancement, click here and here. For life extension, click here.)

A new robot can recognize when it’s injured and change its behavior to compensate. Animals do this all the time, but previous robots have shown little or no adaptability. This robot was designed to observe the consequences of its movements, infer how its limbs work, and adjust when the consequences change. Key test: When its creators shortened one of its legs, it changed the way it walked. Sci-fi spin: It’s self-aware! Realistic spin: It’s self-modifying. Upbeat spin: It’s an early model for explorer robots that must handle surprises on other planets without human aid. Nightmare scenario 1: Adaptive, self-modifying robots will treat human interference as just another challenge to overcome. Scientists’ rejoinder: “We just pull the plug out of the robot.” Nightmare scenario 2: Your plug-pulling habit is just another challenge. (For Human Nature’s take on remote-controlled killing, click here. For automated polling, click here.)

A High Court judge ruled that Ireland’s constitutional “right to life of the unborn” doesn’t apply to frozen embryos. Context: A woman petitioned to implant IVF embryos conceived with her husband, who has since separated from her and doesn’t want them implanted. Ruling: “There has been no evidence … to establish that it was ever in the mind of the people voting on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that ‘unborn’ meant anything other than a fetus or child within the womb.” Therefore, if you want to guarantee embryos a right to life, pass a law. Irish health minister’s reaction: This may affect how we regulate IVF. Catholic archbishop’s reaction: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” American rejoinder: Welcome to judicial restraint, pro-lifers. (For Human Nature’s takes on IVF embryo rights in the United States and Italy, click here and here.)

A British bioethics council opposes routine lifesaving care for babies gestated less than 22 weeks. The influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics says intensive care for such babies should require a parental request and doctors’ approval, since survivors at this gestational age are “extremely rare” and often have grave disabilities. But the council also opposes affirmative steps to kill the babies. Council’s  rationale: “We don’t think it is always right to put a baby through the stress and pain of invasive treatment if the baby is unlikely to get better and death is inevitable.” Pro-lifers’ reaction: This is “eugenics” and “a further step towards active killing of disabled newborns.” Catholic bishops’ reaction: 1) It’s OK to “withdraw medical treatment when it is judged to be futile or unduly burdensome.” 2) The council rightly “reaffirms the validity of existing law prohibiting euthanasia, and upholds the vital and fundamental moral principle that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always gravely wrong.” British Medical Association’s reaction: Every case is different, so we don’t like drawing a universal line at 22 weeks. (For Human Nature’s take on late-term fetal pain, click here. For previous updates on preemies, click here, here, and here.)

Plastic surgery for “deflated” ex-fat people is spreading. More obesity is causing more stomach bypass surgery to control eating, which is deflating fat people and creating the fastest-growing plastic-surgery market. “The excess skin that hangs from the torso, abdomen and extremities is not only extremely unsightly, but can be painful and susceptible to recurrent intertriginous infections.” Some flab also causes “difficulty with personal hygiene.” Procedures include: 1) abdominoplasty, in which “the skin and subcutaneous tissue between the umbilicus and pubis is excised in an elliptical pattern”; 2) “belt lipectomy”; 3) fixing “pancake” breasts and “bat wings”; and 4) cutting out the “nipple areola complex” and moving it back up to its “appropriate anatomic position.” Plastic surgeons’ official pitch: You need us because the leftover flab and skin can cause infections. Unofficial pitch: You need us because you’re even uglier after the weight loss than you were before. (For pictures of the surgery, click here. For Human Nature’s takes on obesity, click here and here.)

Companies are opening “virtual offices” in cyberspace. Second Life, an online world, has grown from 100,000 users to 1.3 million in a year, with users spending real money for fake land and merchandise. Companies have paid for space to advertise and sell there; now they’re holding conference calls with characters representing real participants. Other uses: a brainstorming “creative lounge,” meetings with clients, and maybe news conferences. (The Wall Street Journal links to a sample presentation on YouTube here.) Cost of setting up a virtual office: $20,000. Rationales: 1) It facilitates collaboration. 2) It helps us meet tech-savvy people. 3) It shows we’re tech-savvy. Critiques: It shows you’re spending too much time and money trying to look tech-savvy. (For Human Nature’s take on virtual sex, click here.)

Missouri lawmakers blamed abortion for contributing to illegal immigration. A state House committee report says, “The lack of a traditional work ethic, combined with the effects of 30 years of abortion and expanding liberal social welfare policies have produced a shortage of workers and a lack of incentive for those who can work.” It calculates that 80,000 more Missourians would have been born without abortion and that many would now be in a “highly productive age group for workers.” Republicans run the committee; Democrats refused to sign the report. Critiques: 1) Welfare reform restored any missing incentives to work. 2) The real reason for the so-called worker shortage is that better-educated Americans don’t want these crummy jobs. 3) You right-wingers are bonkers. (For Human Nature’s take on abortion, blacks, and crime, click here.)

Enriched cocoa bars can lower your cholesterol. In a six-week study, people with high cholesterol who ate Cocoa Via Crunch, a snack bar enriched with plant-derived compounds called phytosterols, lowered their bad cholesterol by 6 percent. Wishful conclusion: Chocolate is good for you. Actual conclusion: “In conjunction with a healthful diet and regular exercise, the inclusion of a novel food product, such as a chocolate product that contains plant sterols, can be a safe and effective means to lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels.” (For Human Nature’s previous updates on the benefits of chocolate, click here, here, and here.)

Fast-food chains are encouraging orders through touch-screen kiosks. The machines are used for drive-in and walk-in customers. Official rationales: 1) The machines are faster. 2) They’re easier. 3) They get your order right. Unofficial rationales: 1) They sell more food because, unlike employees, they “always suggest an item like a drink or a dessert if it is not ordered.” 2) “Anonymity encourages people to make larger orders. They are not embarrassed to super-size something because they aren’t doing it face to face.” Sanguine spin: Machines are making life easier. Tart spin: Machines are making death easier. (For Human Nature’s takes on fast food, obesity, and disease, click here, here, and here.)

Zookeepers are using sex videos to teach a panda how to mate. Panda breeding in captivity is notoriously difficult. A Thai zoo plans to play “porn” on a big screen for a young male in the hope that he’ll try the techniques on the female next door. Panda supervisor’s explanation: “They don’t know how to mate, so we need to show the male how.” Cynical view: Any species that needs videos to mate is beyond salvation.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The mortal combat of biotech politics. 2) Rush Limbaugh’s reality problem. 3) Pills, booze, and Mark Foley’s abuser. 4) The perils of policing cybersex. 5) Pro-lifers against contraception. 6) The first penis transplant. 7) Is eugenics better than sex? 8)  Buried alive in your own skull. 9) The global explosion of fat.