Human Nature


How the earwig lost his other penis.

(Best of Human Nature 2006 linked to below. For the latest columns on gluttony, police shootings, and banning food, click here.)

Scientists are investigating the evolution of double penises. Many spiders, dragonflies, shrimp, lizards and snakes have two penises, but a particular earwig species “has a strong preference for its right penis.” Differences among earwig species suggest males originally had two penises, but as they increasingly favored the right one, “the less-preferred (left) penis disappeared altogether.” High-minded conclusion: Behavioral changes can drive evolution, not just the other way around. Translation: Use it or lose it. Conclusion that probably did not appear on the grant application: “Who would have ever thought you could learn so much from earwig penises?” (For updates on women who gave birth from two wombs, click here and here. For Kent Sepkowitz’s take on member measurement, click here.)

Pot has been genetically altered to defeat drug warriors. A new hybrid called “Colombians” is showing up all over Mexico. Improvements: 1) The plants “mature in about two months and can be planted at any time of year,” so “authorities will no longer be able to time raids to coincide with twice-yearly harvests.” 2) “Yields are so high that traffickers can now produce as much marijuana on a plot the size of a football field as they used to harvest in 10 to 12 acres.” 3) “The plants’ roots survive if they are doused with herbicide.” Old mantra: Agricultural technology will feed the world. New caveat: But first, it will give us all the munchies. (For more news on marijuana, see below.)

Bacteria may cause obesity. In a pair of studies, 1) fat people had more efficient calorie-extracting gut bacteria than thin people did, 2) the proportion of these bacteria declined as fat people lost weight, and 3) when bacteria were transferred from fat or thin mice to bacteria-free mice, the recipient mice gained more or less weight depending on whether their donors were fat or thin. (Fine print: To assess the bacteria, researchers “strained the faeces of 12 willing obese volunteers.”) Excited reactions: 1) Maybe antibiotics or food additives are causing the obesity epidemic. 2) Bacteria would also explain why fat people have more trouble losing weight. 3) We could cure obesity by targeting the bacteria. Skeptical reactions: 1) The bacterial differences were too small to explain the obesity epidemic. 2) Maybe your weight changes your bacteria, instead of the other way around. 3) Don’t let these dubious studies become “another excuse you give people to get obese.” (For Human Nature’s previous takes on the obesity epidemic and our efforts to control it, click here and here.)

Synthetic pot may be the most broadly effective treatment for pain, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients. Findings: 1) Patients “treated with the drug experienced significantly more pain reduction than patients treated with standard therapy.” 2) Their “scores for drowsiness, tiredness, appetite and well-being were stable,” while scores for other patients declined. 3) Their “depression and anxiety were also reduced significantly,” unlike other patients. Arguments for these drugs, known as cannabinoids: 1) No other drug is as broadly effective. 2) Alternative drugs are riskier, more expensive, and more addictive. 3) Cannabinoids have “no street value,” since they don’t deliver “the toxic effects of smoking pot.” Fine print: Side effects include “drowsiness … and euphoria.” (For previous updates on drug legalization, click here, here, and here.)

Massachusetts might follow New York City in banning artificial trans fats. A legislator has filed a proposed statewide ban, and the Boston Public Health Commission is studying the feasibility of a citywide ban. New York officials touted their policy in a conference call. Boston officials’ concerns: 1) “I can just hear cries that we’re becoming the food police.” 2) “I wouldn’t want a regulation that couldn’t be enforced.” Rosy public-health view: We’re building momentum! Cynical view: As Massachusetts goes, so goes George McGovern. (For Human Nature’s take on banning trans fats, click here.)

A nasal spray could fight obesity by robbing food of its taste. A company has patented the spray and will soon test it in humans. The idea is to kill taste by temporarily disabling your sense of smell, so you stop getting a pleasure reward for eating. Other fat-control devices are in the works: a pill that blocks food cravings in your brain, and electrical gizmos that paralyze or contract your stomach. Spray company’s spin: We’re announcing this product to help people control their greed. Cynical view: They’re announcing the product before it has even been tested in humans, to exploit investors’ greed and con you into financing their risk. (For Human Nature’s take on fat-control methods, click here.)

An Indian runner lost a silver medal for flunking a “gender test.” The test report says she “does not possess the sexual characteristics of a woman,” apparently because she has “more Y chromosomes than allowed.” (The test involves gynecological, endocrine, and genetic exams.) She reportedly passed one gender test last year but flunked another. Indian officials’ spins: 1) Her birth certificate says she’s female. 2) She “almost certainly never had sex-change surgery” or took male hormones. 3) Although she’s 25, she “has not attained puberty yet.” 4) “It looks like a case of just natural hormonal change which could happen to people from [her] poor background.” Conservative spins: 1) We need more gender tests to expose cheaters who use hormones to change their bodies. 2) We’ll let test flunkers compete again only after they get “surgery and hormone therapy.” (For Human Nature’s take on performance enhancement and cheating, click here. For previous updates on sex changes and birth certificates, click here and here.)

A policy report says marijuana has become America’s biggest cash crop. Estimated market value: $36 billion per year—more than corn and vegetables combined. The author favors legalization, but the government hasn’t disputed his figures. Author’s argument: Permit, regulate, and tax pot like tobacco. Government’s rebuttal: Legalizing every country’s biggest cash crop would mean coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan. (For previous updates on drug legalization, click here, here, and here. For genes and marijuana, click here.)

California and Florida have suspended lethal injections. A botched execution prompted Gov. Jeb Bush to halt them in Florida until a commission makes the practice more humane. Meanwhile, a judge ruled that California’s sloppy administration of injections made them unconstitutional. Several other states have postponed or revised injections or are reviewing their constitutionality. Anti-death-penalty spins: 1) “This demonstrates that there is no happy and kind and nice way to execute someone.” 2) Now maybe we’ll stop killing people like animals. Pro-death penalty spins: 1) Actually, it demonstrates that unnecessary cruelty, not the death penalty, is what bothers people. 2) The judge in California explained how to clean up injections so we can resume them: by killing people like animals, with anesthetics. (For Human Nature’s take on the death penalty as a deterrent, click here. For minors and the death penalty, click here. For updates on IQ, DNA, and the death penalty, click here and here.)

Internet use has surpassed newspaper reading, according to data and projections in a new census report. In 2000, Americans age 12 or older spent nearly twice as much time reading newspapers as using the Internet. By 2009, Internet time will be 20 percent higher than newspaper time. Over this nine-near period, Internet and home video time will have doubled, video game time will have increased 50 percent, book and box-office movie time will be flat, and time spent on newspapers, magazines, and recorded music will have declined. Television time dwarfs all other media but will stay nearly flat over the next three years. 1996 attitude: Slate will never catch on. 2006 attitude: We can’t remember who said that. Anybody got a link? (For a previous update on the evolution of virtual-sex technology, click here. For laptops in the developing world, click here. For Human Nature’s takes on cybersex and Internet politics, click here and here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The Best of Human Nature 2006. 2) Unhealthy food outlawed in New York. 3) Food and sex without consequences. 4) The mortal combat of biotech politics. 5) Rush Limbaugh’s reality problem. 6) The eerie world of policing cybersex. 7) Pro-lifers against contraception. 8) Is eugenics better than sex? 9)  Buried alive in your own skull.