Human Nature

Boy Meets Bulimia

Gay men and eating disorders.

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

Best evidence yet for a fat gene: DNA analysis of nearly 40,000 white Europeans identified a gene that raises a person’s risk of obesity by 30 percent if he has one copy of the gene, and by 67 percent if he has two copies. Weight differences linked to the gene appear by age 7. Preachy spin: Diet and exercise, not this gene, explain why most of the world’s fat people have become fat. Fatalistic spin: But this gene might explain why, despite getting the same diet and exercise as your neighbor, you’re fatter. (For Human Nature’s take on the global obesity epidemic, click here. For gluttony without consequences, click here.)

Gay men are more prone to eating disorders than women or straight men are, according a survey of people in New York City. Comparative lifetime prevalence: fewer than 5 percent of straight men; 8 percent of straight women; fewer than 10 percent of lesbians; more than 15 percent of gay men. This corroborates other studies. Interpretations: 1) Gay men, like straight women, fret about staying thin. 2) But straight women don’t seem to fret more than lesbians do. 3) Feeling connected to the gay community lowers a man’s risk of eating disorders. 4) But playing sports with other gay men raises it. Go figure. (For Human Nature’s takes on the biology of homosexuality in sheep and humans, click here and here.)

The Senate again voted to fund embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush again promised to veto it because the research involves cells derived from destruction of embryos. (The Senate also voted to fund alternative stem-cell research that’s less controversial but also less promising.) Prognostications: 1) Supporters got a nearly veto-proof majority. 2) Big deal—they got the same majority last time, and it did them no good. 3) Even if they get through the Senate, they don’t have a veto-proof majority in the House. 4) The real story is that all the Democratic presidential candidates and two of the top three Republicans support the bill, so it’ll probably be signed within two years. (For a list of lies and distortions in yesterday’s Senate debate, see today’s Washington Post. For Human Nature’s take on stem cells and the future of biotech politics, click here.)

Two doctors wrongly declared a would-be organ donor brain-dead. The story, according to his daughter: 1) The man had a brain hemorrhage and was in the hospital. 2) An organ-procurement network repeatedly phoned the daughter, saying, “We have to get the body parts in a certain time. … How is he doing today? Did he go up or down?” 3) Two doctors declared him brain-dead, but the second did so in a hurry.  4) The doctor “came in and threw the paper on my dad’s legs and said, ‘We got two signatures. We’re pulling the plug.’ ” 5) The daughter asked for a third doctor, who determined that the man was not brain-dead. 6) The man lived another 11 days. Organ procurers’ reaction: It’s tragic when such unusual haste makes people think we’re vultures. Skeptics’ reaction: How unusual is it? (For other recent incidents of rushing to harvest organs, click here and here. For an update on the doubling of organ harvesting from people who may not be brain-dead, click here.)

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a woman has no right to implant frozen embryos against the father’s will, even if she has since become infertile. The British couple in question fertilized six of her eggs with his sperm through IVF just before removal of her ovaries due to cancer. Then they split up, and he withdrew consent. British law says both parents must consent to each stage of IVF, including implantation. Woman’s argument: The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees her a right to use her embryos and guarantees her embryos a right to life. Court’s ruling: Each country may define when rights begin, and Britain says an embryo has none. Upshot: Most countries are agreeing that the right not to become a parent trumps the right to become a parent. (For Human Nature’s take on the business logic of embryo manufacture, click here. For the rights of IVF embryos, click here and here.)

Virtual churches are sprouting in Second Life. Many are online branches of real churches, with streaming video of live sermons. Rationales: 1) Cyberspace is another frontier for evangelism. 2) Where better to reach the unsaved? 3) It’s no weirder than the current practice of broadcasting to real-life satellite churches where congregants watch services on screens. Secular critique: Second Life should be for fantasies like sex, not drudgeries like church. Religious critique: Church, like sex, is more exciting in the flesh. Social critique: Real religion consists of good works in this world, not pretending to worship in another. Half-cynical view: Conversations in Second Life churches are less fake than the “good-sermon-nice-weather exchanges” in real churches. Fully cynical view: Most churchgoing is fake, so why not let your avatar do it for you, like sending your kids to Sunday school. (For previous updates on virtual sex, commerce, and terrorism, click here, here, here, and here. For Human Nature’s take on prosecuting cybersex, click here.)

Severe obesity has tripled in five years in the U.S. According to a study, the prevalence of overweight has increased by a quarter, obesity has increased by half, and severe obesity has increased by 75 percent. Education and weight-loss surgery have failed to stop the trend. Optimistic view: This is terrible, because the fatter you get, the worse the effects on health and public expense. Pessimistic view: The real situation is even worse, because these numbers are based on self-reporting. (For Human Nature’s take on the global explosion of fat, click here. For weight-loss surgery and gluttony, click here.)

Botox backlash is emerging in the television industry. Some actors have been told not to use injectibles; Warner Bros. is looking for actors in countries where Botox is less prevalent. Reasons: 1) “If you’re playing a mom you need to look like a mom.” 2) You need facial expressions to do comedy, and “frozen isn’t funny.” Pious view: Authenticity is coming back. Cynical views: 1) The industry’s real problem is with scars and other visible signs of cosmetic procedures, which are being exposed by big screens and high-definition TV. 2) As more and more moms get Botox, you’ll need Botox to look like a mom. (For the latest stats on Botox use, click here.)

China issued new rules for organ transplants.  Rules: 1) No more organ buying. 2) No organ harvesting without the owner’s consent. 3) Ethics screening of all transplants. 4) Stiff penalties and fines. Government spins: 1) “It is a milestone in the country’s organ transplant history.” 2) We now conform to world standards. Objections: 1) The rules don’t address China’s organ harvesting from executed prisoners. 2) They don’t cover marrow, corneas, or other tissues aside from organs. China’s rebuttal: All organs from executed prisoners are obtained with the donor’s consent. Human rights groups’ rebuttal: If that’s China’s idea of consent, the rules are meaningless. (For organ harvesting from embryos, click here. For organ harvesting and cost-benefit morality, click here.)

Chess cheating is going high-tech. Officials used to worry about players getting help from computers through signals from friends in the audience. Now they worry about players getting help from computers invisibly, through tiny electronic devices. One player has been caught with a wireless receiver in his ear; another had a receiver in his cap; another played 25 straight moves recommended by a computer program, but no device was found on him. New tournament policies: 1) No hearing aids, headphones, or cell phones. 2) Tournament officials may search you at will. 3) “In the future, electronic detection devices may be used.” Old nerd pastime: chess. New nerd pastime: hacking. (For previous updates on computers and chess, click here, here, and here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The evolution of brains and morals. 2) Machines that read your mind3) 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 factory. 9) Lesbians of mass destruction.