Human Nature

Womb For Growth

Developing an “artificial uterus environment.’

(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Aerial drones are becoming an air safety issue. Approvals of government agency requests to fly them have doubled in two years; police departments and companies are also beginning to fly them. Uses in Iraq and Afghanistan: spying and killing. Domestic uses: spotting and tracking forest fires, monitoring hurricanes, catching illegal immigrants, finding lost hikers, patrolling cities for crime, and shooting down missiles aimed at passenger planes. Regulators’ concerns: 1) Too many drones going into use too fast, creating more headaches for air traffic control. 2) Determining what degree of pilot training and safety mechanisms are necessary to approve a device that has no passengers but might harm bystanders. The government plans to control drone use tightly “until the technology improves enough to allow those flying the drones to reliably detect and avoid other aircraft or obstacles in the sky—just like real pilots in real cockpits.” (For Human Nature’s take on military drones, click here.)

Scientists are developing an artificial uterus environment.” Key ingredient: microchips that “rest on a membrane of cultured uterus cells,” whose chemicals help fresh IVF embryos (up to 20 at a time) grow. In mice, the chip is almost as effective as a womb; it’ll be tested on human embryos this year. Goals: 1) improve the success rate of IVF. 2) “create a fully automated artificial uterus in which egg and sperm are fed in at one end and an early embryo comes out the other, ready for implanting in a real mother.” 3) “growing genetically modified animals, stem cells and cloned embryos.” (For Human Nature’s take on artificial wombs as organ factories, click here.)

Humans won the first “Man-Machine Poker Championship.” The computers: two laptops running a program designed by the same researchers whose checkers program just proved to be invincible. The humans: two pro poker players. The game: Texas Hold ‘Em, two matches of four rounds, each match pitting one human against one computer, with the dealt cards reversed (the human in Match A got the same cards as the computer in Match B) to eliminate luck. Scores (money) from the two matches were totaled to determine which team won each round. Result: humans 2, computers 1, and a tie. Human spin: We won! Computer scientists’ spins: 1) You nearly lost. 2) Machines are getting better. 3) Conquering poker, with its unpredictability and bluffing, will help machines conquer business. (Related column: Computers, humans, and chess. To comment in the Fray, click here.)

“Obesity appears to spreadthrough social ties.” Findings: 1) Your chances of becoming obese go up by more than half (and in some cases by 171 percent) if your friend becomes obese. 2) This effect exceeds the effect of having an obese sibling or spouse. 3) The effect happens even if your friend is far away. 4) Fat neighbors had no effect. 5) “Persons of the same sex hadrelatively greater influence on each other than those of theopposite sex.” Theories: 1) The results can’t be explained by fat people befriending each other; the social connection causes the fat transfer. 2) Common genes, food, or environments can’t explain the comparative results involving friends, siblings, spouses, and neighbors. 3) Maybe you emulate your fat friends. 4) Maybe they loosen your “norms about theacceptability of being overweight.” Approved conclusions: 1) A lot of obesity is behavioral, so control your weight. 2) Acquire thin friends. Unapproved conclusion: Ditch your fat friends. (Related columns: global obesity; the war on fat; girth control. To comment in the Fray, click here.)

Another top cyclist quit the Tour de France after flunking a dope test. The test indicates Alexander Vinokourov got a performance-enhancing blood transfusion. He had just wowed fans with two big stage victories after falling way back in the pack. This is the latest of countless doping scandals in cycling, including 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis. Monday’s coverage: Vinokourov is the comeback kid! Tuesday’s coverage: He’s a cheater! His spin before the dope test: “I won with courage and panache.” His spin afterward: Those foreign blood cells must have gotten into me when I crashed my bike. Old moral: Cheaters never win. New moral: Whoever won today’s stage cheated. (Related columns: doping vs. LASIK; doping in the Winter Olympics. To join Human Nature in a discussion of sports doping, click here.)

Grand jurors refused to indict a doctor on murder charges for killing four hospital patients after Hurricane Katrina. Circumstances: 1) The hospital had 10 feet of water, no electricity, and temperatures above 100 degrees. 2) More than 30 patients died there during the four-day wait for help, many from dehydration. 3) The four patients in question were aged 61 to 90. 4) The alleged weapon was pain-relief drugs. 5) The doctor had stayed at the hospital after other medics fled. 6) The attorney general ordered her arrest and publicly accused her of homicide but was unable to offer a motive. Doctor’s defense: I was just trying to relieve pain. Attorney general’s reactions: 1) The grand jury got it wrong. 2) Doctors shouldn’t play God. Rebuttal: Neither should attorneys general. (Related columns: Schiavo politics; Schiavo hypocrisy; Schiavo’s autopsy. For Human Nature’s views on the case, click here.)

States and cities are creating new kinds of laws against dogs. New rules: 1) registries for dangerous dogs, 2) bans on breeds thought to be vicious, 3) financial or criminal liability. The registries work like sex-offender registries, identifying dogs near you that have attacked people or animals. Virginia and some counties have registries, Hawaii is considering it. Critiques: 1) Bans on one breed just lead people to breed and train ferocity into another. 2) Dogs in a banned breed just get dumped in shelters. 3) Registries facilitate harassment of owners. 4) It’s unfair to stigmatize a dog that attacked only once. Rebuttal: These are the same complaints civil libertarians make about sex-offender registries. (To debate dangerous-dog registries and breed bans, click here.)

Toy makers and other companies are blurring the distinction between online and offline. New Barbie dolls play MP3s and can be plugged into a docking station to access online games and chats. Stuffed animals called Webkinz have a number sequence you can plug in to a Web site to enter a fantasy world complete with avatars of your animals. Disney is selling a camera into which you can download Disney characters for your photo collection. MTV has started a video game in which people can play real instruments together through game consoles. Rationale for toy companies: Doll sales are down, but electronic sales to kids are up. Business model: 1) Use the offer of site access to sell the first doll. 2) Add new, restricted-access areas to the site that require kids to buy new dolls. 3) Keep the kids interested by letting use the site to win play money to get additional outfits. (To discuss the blurring of children’s reality with cyberspace, click here.)

A nasal spray can dispel shyness in people with social phobia, according to preliminary results of a small study. The spray is oxytocin, a hormone involved in romantic love and other kinds of bonding. The spray also makes people more trusting. All the participants reportedly lost their anxious feelings and improved their social interactions. Author’s summary: The spray “enhances the ability to socially interact in patients with social phobia, thereby reducing anxiety and physical arousal in a socially phobic situation.” It “may be launched in the market in the next five years.” Approved application: making shy people normal. Next application: making normal people gregarious. (For a previous update on oxytocin and sex, click here. For Human Nature’s take on neural manipulation of personality, click here. If you’re feeling shy, don’t post your own take here.)

A company is claiming a free-speech right to Webcast cockfights. The sport is illegal here, but the Webcasts come from Puerto Rico, where it’s legal. The company’s suit challenges a U.S. law that forbids interstate commerce in depictions of cruelty to animals. Company’s arguments: 1) Cockfighting qualifies for free-speech protection because it’s “part of Puerto Rican culture.” 2) It’s no worse than bullfighting. 3) It’s natural, unlike dogfighting, which has to be provoked by humans. 4) Just because you can ban cockfighting doesn’t mean you can ban depictions of it. 5) The law was designed to stop animal-cruelty videos that “appeal to a prurient interest in sex,” which these Webcasts don’t do. Rebuttals: 1) Cockfighting is barbaric. 2) It’s like kiddy porn, which the First Amendment doesn’t protect. 3) “There’s nothing artistic about the presentation.” 4) The same Web site sells depictions of “women in bikinis shooting large guns.” (For previous updates on cockfighting and dogfighting, click here and here. For Human Nature’s takes on killing animals, click here and here. To comment in the Fray, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1)  Liberals and bioethics. 2) The case for turning food into fuel. 3) Recombining  man and beast. 4) The spread of virgin births. 5) Abolishing menstruation. 6) The chess match of man and machine. 7)  Ultrasound and the future of abortion. 8) The global market in human organs. 9) The evolution of brains and morals.