Human Nature

Wankers Away

Your tax dollars at work, launching rich people into space.

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

A New York appeals court says an insurer must pay for breast reduction surgery on a boy with overdeveloped breasts. Insurer’s argument: The surgery is cosmetic. Lower court’s opinion: It’s “medically necessary,” “more akin to a clubfoot or cleft palate than to a large nose, heavy acne or diminutive breasts on an adolescent female, all of which are relatively common.” Appeals court’s opinion: Doctors testified that it’s a “deformity” and caused the boy “emotional distress.” Question: If estrogen exposure from pollutants makes breasts on boys more common, will insurers no longer have to cover the surgery? (For a previous update on environmental estrogens and early puberty, click here. For using steroids to turn female fish into males, click here.)

A New Mexico county voted to fund the country’s first commercial spaceport. Cost: $200 million, to be financed in part by a sales tax. The port’s first carrier, Virgin Galactic, has already signed a lease and plans to launch $200,000-per-passenger sub-orbital rocket flights in two years. Other states are thinking of turning their military bases into spaceports. New Mexico governor’s spin: We’re leading the way to high-tech jobs. Critics’ reaction: How about using our tax money to give kids health care instead of subsidizing joy rides for the rich? (For previous updates on space tourism, click here, here, here, and here.)

The campaign for adult circumcision is coming to the United States. African nations have been promoting the surgery based on studies that show it reduces HIV transmission. Now New York City’s health department is asking gay groups and other HIV-afflicted communities to talk up the idea with their members. The department is also asking city-run clinics to offer free circumcisions for uninsured men. Criticisms: 1) Circumcision has been shown to prevent HIV transmission from straight sex, not from gay sex or needle sharing. 2) “It’s going to sound like white guys telling black and Hispanic guys to do something that would affect their manhood.” Rebuttals: 1) Front door, back door, whatever—circumcision still protects the penis. 2) Every day we don’t promote it, HIV infects more people. Bonus report: New York City handed out five million free condoms in a month—”two condoms for every man living in the city.” (For Human Nature’s take on the HIV risks of oral vs. anal sex, click here. For male vs. female circumcision, click here.)

Britain is putting loudspeakers in surveillance cameras so operators can scold you for littering, fighting, or vandalism. The country already has 4.2 million surveillance cameras, one for every 14 Britons, and is planning national identity cards and a database of information on individuals. Human operators will be able to monitor the new closed-circuit cameras remotely and speak to anyone within earshot. Rationale: more shaming, less crime. Objections: 1) Big Brother is watching you. 2) Come and get me, copper. Idealistic view: “Humans must dictate our future, not machines.” Cynical view: If you thought the cameras were annoying, wait till you have to listen to the humans. (For previous updates on surveillance cameras, click here and here. For Human Nature’s take on GPS and crime, click here.)

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will veto mandatory HPV vaccinations for sixth-grade girls. However, he signed a bill ordering insurers to pay for voluntary HPV shots, and his budget has nearly $1 million to fund them in schools. Richardson’s explanation of the veto: “While everyone recognizes the benefits of this vaccine, there is insufficient time to educate parents, schools and health care providers.” Cynics’ explanation: The governor of Texas is being roasted by parental-rights groups for mandating HPV vaccinations in schools (since the virus is sexually transmitted), and Richardson, who’s running for president, fears a similar backlash. (Albuquerque Journal link requires subscription.) (For the latest update on the Texas backlash, click here.)

Ethicists are debating new state laws that let organ procurers override patients’ living wills. Three states have enacted such measures, four other legislatures have passed them, and 17 more are considering them. If you’ve signed a living will that says you don’t want to be kept on life support, but you’ve also signed an organ donor card, the new laws let organ procurers put you on life support to keep your organs viable and evaluate them for transplant. Objections: 1) It’s wrong and grisly to defy a living will. 2) The laws may deter doctors from giving you pain drugs such as morphine, for fear of making your organs less transplantable. 3) If donor cards override living wills, people will stop signing donor cards. Rebuttals: 1) We need the organs. 2) We’ll change the laws so families are consulted when living wills and donor cards conflict. (For an update on the doubling of organ harvesting from people who may not be brain-dead, click here. For Human Nature’s take on organ harvesting and the rise of cost-benefit morality, click here.)

More than 80 countries signed a treaty establishing rights for disabled people. It will come into force once 20 countries ratify it, probably within a year or two. The treaty “requires ratifying nations to adopt laws banning discrimination on the basis of any form of disability, from blindness to mental illness.” Sample provisions: Countries must 1) “guarantee freedom from exploitation and abuse,” 2) ensure the “equal right” to privacy and control of one’s finances, 3) provide “wheelchair-accessible buildings,” and 4) protect “disabled newborns’ right to life.” Idealistic view: Everyone’s signing the treaty! Cynical view: Half the countries that signed it haven’t signed the optional protocol that would enable its enforcement.

Many people diagnosed with depression don’t really have it, according to a big study. They’re just grappling with normal troubles such as divorce, breakup, job loss, or death of a pet. The data suggest “previous estimates of the number of Americans who suffer depression at least once during their lives—more than 30 million—are about 25 percent too high.” Reformist reactions: 1) Sadness is normal; deal with it. 2) Drug companies pushed us to over-diagnose depression so they can sell more antidepressants. 3) Stop doping everyone, and start prodding them to heal themselves with behavioral changes. Caveats: 1) If sad people don’t at least get counseling, they might become depressed. 2) Don’t forget the bad old days when we under-diagnosed depression. (For previous updates on the over-diagnosis of autism and “compulsive buying disorder,” click here, here, and here.)

The World Health Organization says too many poor people are selling their organs. Data: 1) 10 percent of worldwide transplants are “transplant tourism,” in which the recipient travels to a country where organs can be bought from living donors. 2) The number is increasing. 3) In Pakistan, 80 to 85 percent of transplants are commercial. 4) In some Pakistani villages, “40 to 50 percent of the population … only has one kidney.” WHO conclusions: 1) Countries must regulate organ transactions more tightly. 2) Let’s promote organ donation from dead people so patients won’t end up buying them from living people. (For Human Nature’s take on growing organs in embryos, click here.)

Cell phones and bar codes are turning the physical world into an Internet. Recipe: 1) Put a high-density bar code on any object to encode information about it, including audio or video. 2) Put software in a cell phone so it can scan bar codes and get the information. Buzzword: “physical hyperlink.” This is happening in Asia and just beginning in the U.S. Examples: 1) Point your phone at a food item and get nutritional information. 2) Point it at a billboard to download a movie trailer. 3) Scan a printed newspaper article and watch a bar-code-linked video on your phone. 4) Point your phone at a house for-sale sign and get the realtor’s details. Happy spin: The speed and convenience of cyberspace will be everywhere. Gloomy spin: The invasiveness and din of cyberspace will be everywhere. (For Human Nature’s take on physical sex vs. cybersex, click 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.