Human Nature

Mammary Impairment

Testing your breast milk for alcohol.

(For the latest columns on gay sheep, made-to-order embryos, and shrinking people, click here.)

The company that makes Snickers and Mars bars pledged to stop advertising junk food to kids under 12. Previously, no major food company had an advertising age limit older than 8. European regulators, alarmed by obesity, have been pressuring companies to stop marketing junk food to kids. Soda makers have agreed to draw the line at age 12; now candy makers may follow. Cynical libertarian view: They’re only doing this to avoid explicit regulation by Big Brother. Cynical corporate-watchdog view: They’re only doing this because it’s completely unenforceable. If they were serious about shunning kids, they’d advertise on the CBS Evening News. (For previous columns on regulating candy and soda, click here and here.)

A company is selling a home test that screens breast milk for alcohol. The test takes two minutes and is sold by the six-pack for $20. Rationale: Alcohol can reduce your baby’s milk intake, mess up her sleep, and impair her motor-skill development. Testimonials: 1) “What a blessing to know that you can have a drink and not worry if you are passing it on to your baby.” 2) It’s “a great product for new mothers who still want some semblance of a social life.” 3) “I always felt guilty if I indulged but then felt left out if I didn’t. Now I can have that glass of wine and feel secure …” Cynical view: Next, milk tests for crack and meth. (For a study suggesting that insufficient breast-feeding makes your baby 65 percent more likely to end up alcoholic, click here and here.)

Mind-reading took another step forward. Scientists proved they could “decode from activity in medial and lateral regions of prefrontal cortex which of two tasks [experimental] subjects were covertly intending to perform.” Their prediction accuracy rate was 70 percent. Happy spin: Now computers can discern and fulfill the wishes of quadriplegics. Horror spin: Now employers and the government can screen people for troublesome urges and impose lie-detection tests with confidence. Skeptical spin: Scoring 20 percent above chance on a predetermined binary question isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of the mind. (For previous updates on brain scans and lie detection, click here and here.)

A study offers new evidence that natural selection drives the incest taboo. On average, your level of disgust at the notion of sex with a sibling correlates with how long you cohabited with that sibling and watched your mom care for her as a small child. So does your level of altruistic behavior toward the sibling. These experiential factors correlate more strongly with incest aversion than does your belief that the sibling is genetically related to you. The researchers posit a mental “kinship estimator” that converts “maternal perinatal association” into altruism and sexual disgust, driving you to choose a mate outside your family. Old idea: Nature makes you horny for your sister, but faith teaches you it’s icky. New idea: Nature tells you it’s icky, and faith takes the credit. (For a previous update on religious incest and retardation, click here. For Human Nature’s takes on incest and cousin marriage, click here, here, and here.)

The Kansas board of education revoked its neo-creationist curriculum guidelines. Advocates of “intelligent design” controlled the board when it imposed the guidelines two years ago. Moderates ousted conservatives in last year’s elections, winning enough seats to reverse the policy. Conservatives say they’ll try to take back the board next year, when half its members are up for election again. Conservatives’ view: What we tell kids about the origin of life “will shape their views about religion, ethics, morals and even government.” Moderates’ view: Then let’s start by not lying to them. (For Human Nature’s takes on the evolution debate, click here, here, and here.)

The National Federation of the Blind wants car makers to redesign hybrids to make more noise. Rationale: Hybrids are too quiet for blind pedestrians to hear. Proposals: 1) “A device built into the axle that could make a sound as the wheels rotate.” 2) “A sensor that blind travelers could carry that would indicate when a hybrid is in the vicinity.” Toyota’s reaction: Drivers and pedestrians, not car makers, should handle this problem. Prius Club officer’s reactions: 1) Drivers can identify blind pedestrians by looking for their white canes. 2) Hybrid drivers will do this because they’re particularly attentive. Human Nature’s view: Let’s try canes and horns before mandating noise. (WSJ link requires subscription.) (For a previous update on legislation to let blind people hunt animals with laser sights, click here. For “brain ports” that can help blind people see with their tongues, click here.)

Naps might lower your risk of dying from heart disease. In a Greek study, regular nappers “had a 37% lowercoronary mortality” than non-nappers. The biggest effect was in employed men. Supportive theories: 1) Napping relieves stress. 2) Napping is natural, so skipping naps is stressful. 3) Don’t let economic globalization wipe out siestas. Skeptical theories: 1) The study screened out people who nap instead of exercising; so don’t get the idea that sleeping away the day is good for you. 2) Napping and low coronary mortality risk are symptoms of type-B personality; so if you’re type A and you take on napping as an extra daily assignment, it’ll just drive you to the grave that much faster. (For a previous update on the French government encouraging naps at work, click here.)

Scientists are growing customized breast implants from stem cells. Recipe: Extract stem cells from your fat, mix them with regular fat cells, grow them into fatty tissue, and inject it into your breasts. It’s been tried on nearly 40 women so far with no serious ill effects. Rationales: 1) These implants are natural; they’re really yours. 2) They won’t leak, as old silicone implants do. 3) They won’t shrink if we can grow them with built-in blood vessels, thanks to the stem cells. Caveats: 1) We don’t know yet how they’ll hold up over the long term. 2) So far, we can only grow them to half the size of a synthetic implant. (For previous updates on breast implants, click here and here.)

Legislation in New York would ban use of cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerries while crossing the street. Bill text: 1) It shall be a crime to “enter and cross a crosswalk while engaging in the use of an electronic device in a city with a population of one million or more.” 2) “A user of an electronic device who holds such device to, or in the immediate proximity of his or her ear, is presumed to be engaging in the use of said device.” Fine: $100. Rationale: 1) It’ll protect pedestrians and drivers. 2) “It is impossible to be fully aware of one’s own surroundings when occupied in using an electronic device.” Critiques: 1) This legislative idiocy is what happens when you start banning cell phone use while driving and bicycling. 2) Why is it legal to walk while reading a newspaper? 3) Why is it legal to operate your car stereo while driving? 4) “N.Y. senator proposes interfering with natural selection.” (For previous updates on cell phones and driving, click here and here. For iPhones, click here.)

The military is testing a new way to regrow lost body parts. Motive: Soldiers are returning from Iraq with amputated limbs. Method: “extracellular matrix,” the material that tells cells where to go and what to become. It’s currently used to repair rotator cuffs, Achilles tendons, hernias, and bladders. The military arranged the test in part because a man photographed his finger’s regrowth (after losing the last three-eighths of an inch) over four months. He says his regrown fingertip behaves like a newborn’s, staying intact while his other fingertips crack in cold weather. (WSJ link requires subscription.) (For Human Nature’s take on using fetuses to regenerate tissue, click here.)

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