Human Nature


Stunting a girl’s growth to keep her portable.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on lesbianism, gluttony, and banning food, click here.)

Parents who deliberately stunted a girl’s growth are defending their decision. The bedridden 9-year-old is severely mentally and physically disabled; her parents, through doctors, have administered estrogen to stunt her growth and have removed her uterus and breast buds to prevent menstruation and breasts. A hospital ethics committee approved the treatment. Critics’ reactions: 1) It violates the medical oath to “do no harm.” 2) It’s eugenics. 3) It invites other parents to stunt their autistic, schizophrenic, or behaviorally disordered kids. Parents’ defense: 1) It’s not for our convenience. 2) By staying small, our “pillow angel” can “continue to delight in being held in our arms and will be moved and taken on trips more frequently and will have more exposure to activities and social gatherings.” 3) We’re sparing her bedsores, menstrual discomfort, and the risk of our family’s breast cancer. 4) If you don’t have a child like this, “you have no clue what it is like.” Rebuttal: Society should be reshaped for disabled people, not the other way around. (For previous updates on parents who use growth hormones to make their kids taller, click here and here.)

NASA upgraded the Mars rovers’ software from more than 100 million miles away. The new software improves the rovers’ ability to independently 1) recognize and transmit useful pictures, 2) recognize and evade hazards, 3) recognize a visually evolving object in the distance, and 4) decide where and when to extend their arms for investigation. The rovers, designed for three months, are completing their third year on Mars. NASA’s summary: “We’re teaching an old dog new tricks.” Superficial reaction: amazing dogs. Advanced reaction: amazing teachers. (For Human Nature’s take on space exploration and human ingenuity, click here.)

South Carolina is considering legislation to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for anything. The samples would be added to “state and national DNA databases.” Other states collect DNA only if your arrest is supposedly related to crimes such as murders or grave sex offenses. Proponents’ view: DNA sampling is “minimally invasive” and “the fingerprint of the future.” Opponents’ view: If you’re busted for shoplifting or white-collar crime, DNA sampling is an unreasonable search of your body, and the government will abuse the database. Al-Qaida’s view: Before bombing plane, remember not to heist candy bar from 7-11. (For a previous update on whites using DNA tests to claim they’re African-Americans, click here. For Human Nature’s take on lifelong GPS tracking of felons, click here.)

Housework prevents breast cancer more effectively than athletic activity or manual paid labor does, according to a study of 200,000 women. No joke: “Household activity was associated with a significantlyreduced risk in postmenopausal … and premenopausal … women. Occupationalactivity and recreational activity were not.” Spending “16 to 17 hours a week cooking, cleaning and doing the washing” reduced cancer risk “by 30% among the pre-menopausal women and 20% among the post-menopausal women.” General theory: Exercise alters hormones and metabolism, which affect breast cancer. Why housework beats athletics: “Moderate forms of physical activity, such as housework, may be more important than less frequent but more intense recreational physical activity.” Male spin: See, women belong in the home. Female spin: Now, for that study of housework and prostate cancer … (For Human Nature’s takes on male-female differences in violence, child abuse, and vengeance, click here, here, and here.)

The average height of Chinese kids has risen 2 and a half inches in 30 years, according to China’s health ministry. The height advantage of urban over suburban kids has been cut in half. Government’s theory: Economic growth has boosted calorie intake. Good news: This has made kids taller. Bad news: It’s made them fatter, too. (For Human Nature’s take on obesity in China and around the world, click here. For previous updates on Chinese leg-lengthening surgery, click here and here.)

A 67-year-old woman gave birth. This is not one of those grandmas carrying her daughter’s kids to term; the babies are her own, thanks to IVF in South America. She breaks the previous maternity age record, 66, which was set two years ago, and during which one of the twin babies died. Reaction from an Italian fertility expert eight months ago when he helped a 63-year-old woman get pregnant and give birth: I’m “excited and proud.” Reaction from the same expert to the new record-holder: Making “babies which will soon become orphans” is “reprehensible … Having a baby isn’t like drinking a glass of water, there are criteria, and one of these is an age limit.” (For Human Nature’s previous update on the 63-year-old mom, click here.)

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that all pregnant woman be offered early tests for Down syndrome. Previously, ACOG urged tests only for women over 35. Rationales for testing all women: 1) Tests have become more accurate and less invasive, and the risk of miscarriage from amnio has declined. 2) The old threshold was “arbitrary,” since the risk of Downs grows steadily with age. 3) We did such a good job promoting tests for older women that most Downs kids are now being born to the younger women we didn’t target. Feel-good takeaway: more “peace of mind” about your pregnancy. Cynical takeaway: more pressure to abort your Downs baby. (For  Human Nature’s takes on embryo eugenics, click here and 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.)

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