Human Nature

Cappuccino Cures

The health benefits of coffee.

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

The defendant in the astronaut love triangle asked a court to remove her GPS ankle monitor. The monitor was required as a condition of her release on bail, so she can’t flee while facing kidnapping charges. Among her arguments: “The president of the manufacturer invited media to his office and specifically shared” where she was “right at that moment,” violating her “right of privacy.” Bonus update: Companies are selling GPS collars and motion-sensing chips for dogs. Advertised uses: 1) tracking your dog, 2) making sure it’s getting enough exercise while you’re away, 3) following it to the prey on a hunting trip, and 4) enabling you to contact the owner of the dog your dog just met. Unadvertised use: Getting a date with the other owner. (Related column: Why felons should be  grateful for GPS monitors.) To comment, join the Fray.

It’s been a great week for coffee drinkers: 1) “Data from 10 studies … suggest that people who drink coffee may be reducing their risk of liver cancer.” 2) “Drinking more than three cups of coffee a day helped protect older women against some age-related memory decline.” 3) “Drinking three or more cups of coffee a day may cut the risk of colon cancer in women by half.” 4) “Exercise and moderate caffeine consumption together could help ward off sun-induced skin cancer.” Unauthorized conclusions: 1) Go pour yourself another cup. 2) And don’t forget the chocolate

A biotech company is peddling “personal stem cell lines” derived from your IVF embryos. Pitch: Instead of donating your leftover embryos for adoption or public research, we help you “develop” them to “benefit you and your family.” Rationale: Your “genetically-matched” cell line is safer than the “over-manipulated generic stem cell lines” available to the public. Stipulations: 1) This is only for couples with at least 10 “remaining” IVF embryos. 2) “The more embryos we receive from the client, the more likely it is that we will successfully derive the stem cells.” Objections: 1) It’s not developing; it’s killing. 2) It’s not a genetic match. 3) The benefit is overhyped. 4) Since nobody who resorts to IVF accidentally ends up with 10 good spare embryos, this is really a pitch to produce extra embryos just for the cell lines. (Related series: growing embryos for transplantable organs.) To comment, click here.

Over a 19-year period, women who got cosmetic breast implants were three times as likely to commit suicide as women who didn’t, according to a Swedish study. They were also three times as likely to die from alcohol or drug addiction. This echoes other studies. Caveats: 1) Some studies suggest “women felt better about themselves after implants.” 2) In this study, “There was no higher risk in the first 10 years afterward … but the risk was 4.5 times higher after 10 to 19 years and six times higher after 20 years.” Theories: 1) Women who got breast implants 19 years ago were disproportionately prone to distress over their bodily flaws; that’s why they got the implants. 2) The implants made them happier for a while, but then the underlying disorder took over, driving some to suicide. The good news: Women who get implants today will be less suicidal. The bad news: … because now everybody’s getting them, disordered or not. (To discuss cosmetic surgery and psychiatric disorders, join the Fray.)

A historian says class-based natural selection caused the Industrial Revolution. Theory: 1) In pre-industrial England, wills show “the rich had more surviving children than the poor.” 2) “The poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations.” Therefore, 3) “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages.” As a result, 4) “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work” replaced “spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving” behaviors. 5) This, in turn, reduced violence and increased literacy, work hours, savings, and productivity. 6) This transition “may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.” 7) China and Japan lagged England because “their richer classes … were surprisingly unfertile.” Implication: Today’s poor countries lag economically because they haven’t endured the same selective pressures. Objections: 1) The genetic part of the theory is speculative. 2) The cultural part is classist. 3) The whole thing is racist. Rebuttal: OK, but … is it true? (To comment, click here.)

Barry Bonds broke the record for career home runs. Official reaction: He outslugged Hank Aaron. Unofficial reaction: He outran investigations by federal prosecutors and Major League Baseball, which are pursuing charges that he used steroids and committed perjury about it. Compromise view: The performance-enhancing drugs are in his past. Cynical view: So is his performance—he has posted only 53 home runs in the last three years, and he’s been hitting .185 since the All-Star Game. (Related column: If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK?) To join the discussion, enter the Fray.

Obese women are about one-third more likely to have kids with structural birth defects. The list includes spina bifida, heart defects, missing limbs, and “malformation of the anal opening.” Caveats: 1) The correlation is only “weak tomoderate” and is true of less than half the defects studied. 2) In fact, fat women were less likely than other women to have kids with one defect. Theories: 1) Fat causes undiagnosed diabetes, which is bad for the baby. (Anyone with diagnosed diabetes was screened out.) 2) “Obesity does not cause the defects but is a marker for other factors that do.” 3) Fat women eat different kinds of food, which are bad for the baby. 4) Fat women try to lose weight through fasting or extreme diets, which are bad for the baby. (Related columns: obesity and laxity; obesity and stigma; girth control; the global explosion of fat.) To comment, join the Fray.

A study suggests “Baby Einstein” and other baby videos are bad for kids. Findings: 1) “32% of the babies were shown the videos, and 17% of those were shown them for more than an hour a day.” 2) “For every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.” Theories: 1) By spending time with “DVDs and TV instead of with people,” the babies lose interaction with humans who “instinctively adjust their speech, eye gaze and social signals to support language acquisition.” 2) Baby DVDs are worse than educational TV shows, because the DVDs “have little dialogue, short scenes, disconnected pictures and … linguistically indescribable images.” Researcher’s conclusion: Your kid is better off watching American Idol with you than watching Baby Einstein alone. Human Nature’s view: You knew Baby Einstein had to be poison when President Bush extolled it. (To join the discussion, click here.)

Scientists engineered jellyfish with multiple heads. By suppressing certain genes, they systematically caused “formation of multiple oral poles (“heads”) … deformation of the main body axis … and duplication of tentacles.” Each head was “fully functional and capable of independent feeding.” Freaky factoid: The suppressed genes “are closely related to Hox genes, which play a similar role in humans.” Rebuttals: 1) The genes are different. 2) The genomes are completely different. 3) Jellyfish have no brains. 4) Their heads are nothing like ours. 5) These jellyfish were only one millimeter long. (Previous HN item: A baby with a smiling, blinking second head. Related: Another “dicephalus” baby, and an exhibit of live, two-headed animals.) To comment, click here. (Only one opinion per head, please.)

Removing a single gene makes female mice act like males. Observed behaviors: chasing, “mounting, pelvic thrust, solicitation, [and] anogenital olfactory investigation.” After bearing babies, the altered females, like males, became “insouciant about raising their offspring and keen on having more sex.” Old idea: Structural brain differences cause male-female differences in sexual behavior. New idea: 1) “The female brain has a perfectly functional male behavior circuit,” except that it’s suppressed. 2) “It’s simple to convert one to the other.” Caveats: 1) In humans, the corresponding gene is impotent. 2) In mice, it regulates a brain organ humans don’t have. (Related columns: 1) Men, women, and schadenfreude. 2) Hormones and animal homosexuality. 3) Lesbian parents. 4) Female child molesters.) To join the discussion, click here.

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Fat lies and fat lies revisited. 2)  Liberals and bioethics. 3) The case for turning food into fuel. 4) Recombining  man and beast. 5) The spread of virgin births. 6) Abolishing menstruation. 7) The chess match of man and machine. 8)  Ultrasound and the future of abortion.