(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the new Human Nature Fray.)
Update on fetal sex selection: At least eight small skulls have been found in a septic tank near New Delhi, India, and investigators are digging for more. An ultrasound machine was also found. Officials say it appears to be another “case of female feticide.” Other recent discoveries: 437 baby bones near a hospital in Madhya Pradesh in February and 25 fetuses in a well in Punjab, also associated with an ultrasound facility. In the state where the eight new skulls were found, the ratio of female to male residents is only 86 to 100. (To debate the morality and legality of sex-selection abortions, click here.)
A study confirmed differences between male and female sex dreams. Findings: 1) 8 percent of reported dreams were erotic. 2) Contrary to studies done in the 1960s, women had as many sexual dreams as men did. 3) Current and previous lovers “turned up in 20 percent of the women’s dreams but only 14 percent of the men’s.” 4) Men “reported dreams featuring multiple sex partners twice as often” as women did. “Men tend to visualize themselves making love to unknown women or with multiple partners in public settings.” 5) Women “were twice as likely to have dream scenarios featuring celebrities.” Theories: 1) Over the last half-century, empowerment has made women more likely to have erotic dreams. 2) Empowerment has made them more likely to report their erotic dreams. 3) Women’s empowerment has made men less likely to report dreams involving multiple partners and public settings. (To discuss male-female differences in sexual psychology, click here.)
Computers and humans are becoming harder to distinguish in cyberspace. Latest problem: Security tests designed to block computers that impersonate humans (e.g., “type the fuzzy number you see on the screen”) have become too hard for many humans. The tests, known as captchas (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), have been toughened because spammers learned how to make their machines better at “analyzing the images and separating the letters and numbers from the background noise.” Now the images are so hard to decipher that even a company’s chief technology officer flunks 25 percent of them. * Earnest complaint: Security screens have become an “intelligence test.” Cynics’ rebuttal: Fine with us. (For Human Nature’s take on human vs. machine intelligence, click here.)
The new cosmetic surgery craze is “man boobs” reduction. Nearly 14,000 teenage boys got the surgery last year—a 21 percent increase from 2005—making male breast reductions more common than male facelifts. Price: $4,000 to $10,000. Sample Web site: manboobs.co.uk. Reasons: 1) Society is now pressuring boys as well as girls to look like models. 2) More boys are getting fat. 3) More boys are using steroids. 4) More boys are aware of, and open to, cosmetic surgery. 5) More doctors are willing to do or recommend it. Criticisms: 1) Hormonal changes will often get rid of boys’ boobs, so they don’t need the surgery. 2) If they get the surgery too early, hormones may bring the boobs back. Rebuttal: Sometimes the problem is genes, not fat or hormones. (To debate cosmetic surgery, click here.)
A Polish man regained consciousness after 19 years in an apparent coma. A traumatic accident caused a brain tumor that made him unable to speak or move his limbs. This year, rehabilitative therapy restored his functions. He now says he conscious the whole time: “I heard everything around me, I understood everything but I could not utter a single word. I was like a plant. It was horrible, not being able to communicate.” Skeptical reaction by a government neurologist: It wasn’t really a coma or a vegetative state. Scary rebuttal: Exactly. (For Human Nature’s take on being buried alive in your own skull, click here. To discuss euthanasia of people in apparent vegetative states, click here.)
Many fat Britons are also malnourished. The government says two million people are malnourished, three-quarters are overweight, and more than a fifth are obese. Nutrition experts, supported by doctors’ accounts, argue that the real malnutrition number is four million and that this includes many fat people. In five years, “the number of hospital-identified malnourished patients has risen by more than 40 percent.” Theory: People are eating so much junk and fast food that they’re not getting enough fruits and vegetables. Skeptical view: The real reason we’re finding more malnourished people is that we’re now looking for it. Rebuttal: Yes, that’s the problem—the fat conceals the malnutrition. (For Human Nature’s take on global obesity, click here. To discuss fat and malnutrition, click here.)
Researchers are breeding mutant cows that make low-fat milk. After a farm accidentally produced the first such cow, milk-company researchers “bought her from her owner for $300 … and moved her to a secret location for further testing.” Then they bred offspring that carry the trait. The milk is 1 percent fat instead of 3.5 percent, and it has omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. The next step is to identify how the gene causes the milk so this pathway can be directly engineered. Milk-company spin: It’s natural! Cynical view: It’s the “accidental” product of constant breeding, and now we’re going to engineer it worldwide.
Dog eugenics is accelerating thanks to DNA testing. Examples: 1) Breeders are testing Labradors and mastiffs to weed out genes for unattractive fur. 2) They’re testing whippets for a muscle gene that improves racing speed. 3) A scientist is proposing to breed patrol dogs for stamina and odor detection. Objections: 1) Breeders will kill dogs that don’t meet the new eugenic standards. 2) Eugenics backfires, since the gene for pretty hair in Labradors, for example, can cause skin trouble. 3) Eugenic certainty takes the mystery and fun out of breeding. 4) Dogs with better genes should have to race in their own league. 5) Human eugenics will be next, since we also have the whippets’ muscle gene. Rebuttals: 1) Come on, we’re talking about dogs, not people. 2) We bred dogs long before DNA testing. 3) Tests can help us weed out genes that cause dog diseases. (For Human Nature’s take on dog breeding, click here. To air your views on dog eugenics, click here.)
Civil libertarians are protesting New York’s installation of more traffic surveillance cameras. The mayor plans to install more than 300 cameras to record license plate numbers and bill the drivers for using the city’s congested center. Critics’ warning: The number of cameras will be more like 1,000 and will threaten people’s privacy. Mayor’s rebuttal: Our cameras will be nothing compared to the thousands of private security cameras that already infest Manhattan. (For previous updates on surveillance cameras, traffic, and charging people to drive in Manhattan, click here, here, here, and here. To debate the merits of surveillance cameras, click here.)
Tobacco companies are shifting their business toward selling smokeless tobacco in a pouch, aka snus. R.J. Reynolds is test-marketing it in two cities; Philip Morris is trying it in two others. Rationales: 1) Snus users get less cancer than smokers. 2) They produce no passive smoke. 3) This is a way to sell more tobacco as the cigarette market wanes. 4) Unlike regular smokeless tobacco, the new products put the tobacco in something like a tea bag, so you don’t have to spit. Companies’ spin: Great taste, less killing. Critics’ view: It’s wrong to market snus as safe, since it’s still addictive and causes pancreatic cancer. (For previous updates on the shift to smokeless tobacco, click here and here. For oral sex and oral cancer, click here. To post your thoughts on the safety of smokeless tobacco, click here.)
Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The spread of virgin births. 2) The abolition of menstruation. 3) The chess match of man and machine. 4) Ultrasound and the future of abortion. 5) The global market in human organs. 6) The evolution of brains and morals. 7) Machines that read your mind. 8) Invasion of the naked body scanners. 9) The future of pain-beaming weapons.
* Correction, June 14, 2007: The item on captchas (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) originally said that test images had become so hard to decipher that a company’s chief technology officer flunked 75 percent of them. The source article actually said that the CTO passed 75 percent of the tests, which were administered by Ticketmaster. For this mistranslation, Human Nature blames … human error. Return to the corrrected sentence.