Human Nature


More from James Watson on race, evolution, and intelligence.

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

Activists are pressing Disney to let disabled people ride Segwaysin Disney World and SeaWorld. The activists say Segways provide greater mobility, freedom, and dignity than wheelchairs do, but Disney doesn’t let visitors use them. Disney’s arguments: 1) Segways might run into kids, old people, or disabled people. 2) Segways go too fast. 3) Segways can topple. Activist’ rebuttals: 1) A study shows Segways are safer than other personal vehicles. 2) Disney offers Segway tours of its other properties. 3) Disney makes some of its employees ride Segways. Next question: If Segways are approved for disabilities, will they qualify for public subsidies or insurance coverage? (Related: Segways and obesity; Segways as police vehicles.)

James Watson tried to explain and revise his comments about blacks and intelligence. (See original item below.) New quotes: 1) “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.” 2) “If I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it.” 3) “To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant.” 4) “There is no scientific basis for such a belief.” 5) People want “to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough.” 6) “We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things.” 7) “This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers.” Related news: 1) Watson’s quotes were apparently recorded. 2) Watson’s lab suspended him. 3) The director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health says Watson’s comments “are completely inconsistent with the body of research literature in this area.” 4) London’s Science Museum said it canceled Watson’s speech because he “has gone beyond the point of acceptable debate.”

President Bush is putting a critic of publicly funded birth control in charge of publicly funded birth control. This is the second consecutive birth-control critic Bush has put in the job. The new appointee has argued that federal employees’ health insurance should not have to cover contraception, “because fertility is not a disease. It’s not a medical necessity that you have [contraception].” Pro-choice reactions: 1) You’ve got to be kidding us … again. 2) Pssst, right-wingers! 98% of women use contraception! 3) Way to go, geniuses—expect more abortions. Conservative rebuttals: 1) The new appointee didn’t oppose contraception per se; she just wanted “to allow federal employees the option to choose a health benefits plan that did not include family planning coverage.” 2) It’s not just a moral issue; some employees don’t want such coverage “due to their age.” 3) We’re for “consumer choice of coverage” and “keeping family planning truly voluntary.” Human Nature’s question: Birth control isn’t necessary … but the Iraq war was? (Related: More contraception, fewer abortions.) Those of you who agree with Bush on birth control: Let’s hear your arguments.

A co-discoverer of DNA says average black intelligence is not “the same as ours.” Quotes from James Watson: 1) He’s “gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” since “our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” 2) He hopes everyone is equal, but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” 3) “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically,” including “equal powers of reason.” 4) Racial discrimination is wrong because “there are many people of color who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.” Backlash: A museum has responded by canceling Watson’s speech.   Critiques: 1) He’s “out of his depth scientifically.” 2) “IQ tests are culturally biased.” 3) Low black scores can “be explained by social rather than genetic factors.” 4) He should be held legally liable for “fueling bigotry.” 5) His “poisonously racist opinions put … the unsuspecting public at serious risk.” Rebuttals: 1) Political correctness should never “stop you ascertaining the scientific truth.” 2) “IQ testing has consistently shown that racial groups perform differently.” Human Nature’s view: Never be afraid to consider testable claims about your sex or ethnicity. (Related: Blacks, crime, and the bigotry of low expectations.)

A woman is shipping 80,000 cans of Silly String to Iraq to detect bombs. Each can is addressed to a specific member of the U.S. armed forces. She got the idea from her soldier son, who requested cans for his unit. Concept: You shoot the stuff across a room and see if it hangs over something invisible, i.e., a trip wire. Feel-good spins: 1) What a mom! 2) Good old American/grunt innovation. 3) “In an age of multimillion-dollar high-tech weapons systems, sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that can save lives.” 4) This is something ordinary people can do to be useful. Rebuttal: This is something ordinary people can do to feel useful, but in fact, the troops don’t need it. Next campaigns to help the war effort: 1) Tampons for the wounded! 2) Condoms for our riflemen!Human Nature’s view: The bombers are killing us with consumer products, so let’s defend ourselves the same way.

A study indicates that many people trust gossip more than facts. In a rotating money game, participants were stingy with partners who had been called stingy by a third party, and generous with partners who had been called generous by a third party, even when 1) the participant saw extensive evidence that the “stingy” partner had actually behaved generously (and that the “generous” partner was stingy) and 2) participants were told that the gossip was not based on evidence beyond what they had seen. Furthermore, the third party’s reputation did not affect the impact of his gossip. Old view: Gossip evolved to help society by spreading the truth about people, thereby punishing cheaters. New problem: If gossip overrides truth, cheaters can evade punishment by spreading lies. New rationalizations: 1) In evolutionary history, gossip has been more commonly attainable than direct observation and has been available from multiple sources, so it tends to be more useful. 2) Evolution didn’t train us to consider gossipers’ reputations because that that much detail is “too demanding for the working memory.” Question: Is this why negative political ads work? Human Nature’s answer: Yes.

Scientists are learning to make human tissue with inkjet printers. Method: 1) Configure a “printer” to deposit fluid in a lab dish instead of on paper. 2) Buy a printer cartridge, empty it, and refill it with a menu of cell types instead of a menu of colored inks. Cells successfully printed so far: bacteria, yeast, hamster ovary cells, and human stem cells. Rationale: Inkjets can lay out cells in precise patterns and can add new layers as earlier layers grow, so we can “build complex three-dimensional tissues by printing the right precursors and enzymes in sequence,” including “bone, ligament, cartilage, and cornea.” Advertised applications: 1) Lab-grown tissue for basic research. 2) Organs for people who need them. 3) Tissues and organs for testing drugs in the lab. (Related columns: Selling organs on the world market; growing implantable organs in human embryos.)

U.S. airports are about to begin using a new naked body scanner. The Phoenix airport already uses a backscatter X-ray machine that sees through clothes. This week, the same airport will debut a millimeter-wave scanner that does the same thing with virtually no radiation. Next airports: possibly LAX and JFK. Objection: “These are virtual strip searches.” Government’s assurances: 1) You won’t be scanned unless we select you for extra screening. 2) The image just looks like a “fuzzy photo negative.” 3) We blur the face so nobody can link your identity to the image. 4) The viewing machine is separated from the screening area, so the viewing officer can’t see who you are, and the officer in the screening area can’t see the image. 5) The viewing machine isn’t networked and has no storage capacity, so you don’t have to worry about the image being saved or transmitted. 6) A virtual search is less invasive than what we do now: a real pat-down. Human Nature’s view: Let them see you naked, as long as they can’t see your face. (Would you choose a body scan or a pat-down? Join the debate in this thread.)

Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting global warming. He shares the award with a panel of climate scientists. Official explanation of the award: Global warming “may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources,” causing “increased danger of violent conflicts and wars.” Complaints: 1) A peace prize for environmentalism? 2) Gore exaggerates the science. 3) He’s done nothing for the cause but publicity. 4) He’s using it to get rich. 5) The prize is just a fashion award, like his Oscar. 6) It’s really a slap at President Bush, just like the Nobel given to Jimmy Carter. Rebuttals: 1) The science is clear, so what’s needed now is the publicity. 2) This is not a slap at Bush. 3) It’s payback time, baby! Gore’s reaction: I’m trying to save the planet. Pundits’ reaction: Yeah, but the important thing is, how will this affect the presidential horse race? Human Nature’s view: Gore’s work deserves a global award, but not a “peace” prize. (Do you think he deserves it? Post your take in the Fray.)

A study concludes that the global abortion rate is falling thanks to birth control. Data: 1) The rate fell 17 percent from 1995 to 2003. 2) The biggest drop was in the former Soviet bloc and “did coincide with substantial increases in contraceptive use in the region.” 3) Previous studies found that “abortion incidence declines as contraceptive use increases.” 4) Abortion bans don’t correlate with low abortion rates. 5) Abortion bans do correlate with high rates of unsafe abortion. Authors’ conclusion: If you want fewer abortions, don’t ban them; provide more birth control and sex education. Liberal reaction: Bush is making things worse by censoring abortion counseling and pushing abstinence instead of condoms. Pro-life rebuttal: 1) The data are unreliable. 2) They’re being spun by pro-choice “scientists.” Human Nature’s view: Reducing abortions through birth control is a no-brainer. (Do you favor contraception as a way to reduce abortions? Speak up.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) The lessons of Iraq. 2) Rethinking the age of consent. 3) The best sex stories of 2007. 4) Are conservatives stupid? 5)  Larry Craig’s anti-gay hypocrisy. 6) The jihad against tobacco. 7)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited. 8)  Liberals and bioethics. 9) Recombining  man and beast. 10) The spread of virgin births.