Human Nature

From Ex-Lax to Xbox

When geezers become gamers.

(For the latest columns on naked body scanners, pain weapons, and mind-reading machines, click here.)

The military scrapped a program to reverse-engineer the brain. Title: Biologically Inspired Cognitive Architectures. The project started two years ago with a $10 million earmark for planning. Purported objective: to let computers handle cognitive support tasks so more human soldiers are available for combat. Theories: 1) The military’s research agency was forced to shift resources from long-term ambitions to bolstering Iraq and Afghanistan. 2) The project was failing. Bonus report: The U.S. now has nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to 150 three years ago. (For Human Nature’s take on military drones, click here.)

Older people are turning to video games. One company’s data show nearly half its players are over 50; another company says people in this age group account for over 40 percent of the time on its gaming site. Retirement communities and cruise lines are installing gaming systems. Theories: 1) Old folks are getting over their fear of video games. 2) They’re trying to sharpen their wits and stave off dementia. 3) They’re using online games to socialize, like old-fashioned cards or dominoes. 4) They’re becoming addicted, like kids. 5) They have too much free time on their hands, like kids. Supportive view: As your body deteriorates, it’s easier to play video tennis than the real thing. Cynical view: As you play video tennis instead of the real thing, your body deteriorates. (For video games as military training, click here.)

“Semi-identical” twins have been discovered. They occur when 1) two sperm fertilize the same egg, which happens in 1 percent of conceptions; 2) the egg grows into a viable embryo, which happens rarely; and 3) the embryo splits into twins, also rare. Details: 1) Each twin has some XX (female) and XY (male) cells. 2) One is a boy; the other is a hermaphrodite (has ovarian and testicular tissue) and is being raised as a girl. 3) They have the same genes from their mom, like twins, but have different genes from their dad, like ordinary siblings. Expert prediction: “It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another case.” Human Nature’s prediction: We’ll see another case—and it’ll be on Jerry Springer. (For a previous update on black-and-white twins, click here. For twins from two wombs in one woman, click here. For twins and low IQ, click here. For twinning and the problem of double souls, click here.)

The high court of New Delhi, India, banned smoking while driving, regardless of who’s in the car. A few other countries, cities, and U.S. states have banned smoking in cars, but only when children are present. This ban, which covers 14 million people, is part of a traffic safety package that includes a prohibition on driving while using a cell phone. Rationale: “Anything that distracts the attention of driver[s] is dangerous. The human mind cannot do two things simultaneously.” According to the AP, “Several U.S. states are currently considering similar rules, with Vermont lawmakers considering a blanket ban on any activities that could interfere with driving,” such as smoking or eating. New Delhi residents’ reactions: 1) Thank God the government is finally doing something to control people who ignore the traffic laws. 2) If the cops pull us over for smoking or phoning, we’ll just bribe them and continue to ignore the traffic laws. (For previous updates on banning smoking in cars, click here, here, here, and here.)

Eating beef while pregnant may decimate your son’s sperm count. In a study, U.S. women who reported having eaten beef seven or more times a week during pregnancy produced sons who grew up to have sperm counts 24 percent below average. These men were three times as likely as other men to seek help from fertility doctors. Theories: 1) U.S. cattle producers use too many steroids. 2) Too many pesticides or other pollutants end up in cattle. Critiques: 1) The study asked women to recall their pregnancy diets more than 20 years later. 2) All their sons ended up fathering kids. (For previous updates on male infertility, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

San Francisco banned non-recyclable plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers. Bangladesh, South Africa, Taiwan, and Paris, France, have adopted similar bans; Ireland taxes plastic bags. Other U.S. cites are considering whether to do the same. Rationales: 1) Less environmental harm and global warming. 2) Less dependence on oil from the crazy Middle East. Objections: 1) Paper and recyclable bags cost more, and stores will pass on the cost to consumers, so it’s a regressive tax. 2) If recyclable bags are weaker, people will use twice as many, defeating the ban’s purpose. Rebuttals: The bags are strong, and the difference is just a few pennies. (For Human Nature’s take on another recent trend, banning trans fats, click here.)

Regulators approved rules to control organ harvesting from people who may not be brain-dead. Harvesting from such people has increased from 189 to 647 cases in four years. New rules from the United Network for Organ Sharing ban organ harvesters from participating in a potential donor’s treatment until doctors declare him dead. Harvesters are also forbidden to be in the room when the plug is pulled. Both conditions were allegedly violated in a recent case in California. Sanguine view: Most hospitals already follow the new rules. Scary view: Demand for organs has already bent the brain-death rule, and it’ll bend these rules, too. (For recent updates on the California case, organ harvesting from the un-brain-dead, and getting organs from prisoners in South Carolina, click here, here, and here. For using embryos to grow organs for harvesting, click here.)

A Swedish government study finds a “trade-off between gender equality … and public health.” The study compared absenteeism, disability, and life expectancy data among nearly 300 municipalities. It checked the data against nine indicators of equality in public and private employment, such as average income and the percentages of men and women in executive jobs. Result: “Gender equality … correlated with poorer health for both men and women.” Researchers’ theories: 1) Women have taken on more male burdens, but men haven’t reciprocated, so women are overburdened. 2) Men suffer from having “lost many of their old privileges.” 3) Women have “greater opportunities for risky behavior as a result of increased income.” Conservative spin: Told you so. Liberal spin: It’s not real equality till men do their part. (Previous update: Housework prevents breast cancer. For Human Nature’s takes on male-female differences in violence, child abuse, and vengeance, click here, here, and here.)

Researchers improved eyesight in mice by inserting a human gene. Normal mice have only two kinds of color-detecting eye cells, so they see blue and yellow but can’t tell red from green. Colorblind people have the same problem. By adding a single human gene to mouse embryos, researchers enabled them to grow the third kind of color detector and distinguish red from green. Conclusions: 1) The third-detector gene spread quickly in evolutionary history because it gave its bearers instant advantages. 2) If mouse brains are agile enough to use the gene this quickly, maybe we can cure human colorblindness, too. 3) Why not upgrade our vision with genes that give other species a fourth kind of color detection? (For a previous insertion of human cells into mouse brains, click here.)

A big study suggests preschoolers who get nonparental child care are more likely to become disruptive in fifth or sixth grade. Nonparental child care includes nannies, day care, and “anyone other than the child’s mother who was regularly scheduled for at least 10 hours per week.” Caveats: 1) Kids who get good child care also do better on vocabulary tests. 2) The differences are small. 3) Parenting quality and genes are bigger factors. Conservative spins: 1) If you put your kid in day care, you’re inviting the other kids to raise him, so they all become silly and disruptive. 2) Moms should stay home. 3) The problem will get worse as more parents dump their kids into day care. Liberal spins: 1) The study has no control group. 2) It doesn’t adequately distinguish good child care from bad. 3) Kids who learn freedom and responsibility in good day care may be labeled disruptive by elementary-school teachers, because elementary schools treat kids like prisoners. 4) If you really want a generational disaster, try forcing moms to deal with kids all day on top of their paying and nonpaying jobs.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Machines that read your mind. 2) Real diets for real people.  3) Invasion of the naked body scanners. 4) The future of pain-beaming weapons. 5)  Gay sheep and human destiny. 6)  More on gay sheep. 7) The power to shrink human beings. 8) The first human embryo factory9) Lesbians of mass destruction.