Human Nature

Liquor License

Should we lower the drinking age?

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

The French government is facing a backlash for trying to DNA-test aspiring immigrants. If you claim to be related to a French resident, the legislation would offer “voluntary” testing to prove it. Objections: 1) It’s a double standard, since legal family relationships among French natives don’t require a genetic bond. 2) Ditto for privacy: No native has to submit to such testing. 3) It’s reminiscent of collaboration with the Nazis. 4) It’s cheap anti-immigrant politics. 5) Genetics has no place in human rights. Rebuttals: 1) It’s voluntary. 2) It’s free. 3) It’s needed only when you can’t produce other good evidence of a family relationship. 4) Eleven other European countries do it, so what’s the big deal? 5) We’ll try it for 18 months and drop it if it’s a problem. 6) We’ll just test maternity, to spare you the pain of discovering that your dad isn’t really your dad. (Related: previous update on the French proposal.)

The new vice debate is whether to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. A group seeking to lower the age is under attack from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Transportation Safety Board, the American Medical Association, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Arguments for 21: 1) It prevents deaths from drunk driving. 2) It prevents binge drinking. 3) Young people’s brains aren’t fully formed, so they’re more susceptible to alcohol. 4) It protects them from pressure to drink. 5) It saves taxpayers billions in medical costs and lost productivity. 6) The polls are on our side. Arguments for 18: 1) The data on drunk driving are debatable. 2) Excess, not age, should be the issue. 3) The current drinking age “has forced drinking underground,” which results in binge drinking. 4) Other countries have lower drinking ages without harm. 5) If competence to drink requires a fully formed brain, set the age at 25, not 21. 6) If saving lives is paramount, why not “mandatory injections of alcohol for men between the ages of 50 and 65”? (Related: Rethinking the age of sexual consent.) Human Nature’s view: Lower the drinking age and punish impaired driving more severely.

A study of twins suggests picky eating is 78 percent genetic. The study found “no influence of sharedenvironmental factors“—i.e., if you raise genetically unrelated kids in the same household, they’re no more likely to be similarly picky (or not) than if they’d been raised in different households. (The remaining 22 percent influence is from raising genetically similar kids differently within the same household.) * Old parental anxiety: My kids’ pickiness is my fault for failing to shop or cook properly. New parental anxiety: My kids’ pickiness is my fault for giving them picky genes. Depressed fatalist spin: Picky eating among preschoolers is inevitable, for evolutionary reasons. Upbeat fatalist spin: The evolutionary reasons fade as kids get older, so cross your fingers and keep serving vegetables. Human Nature’s view: Eat vegetables in front of your kids. If it doesn’t help them, it’ll at least help you.

U.S. agencies and companies are developing robotic and remote-controlled insects. Original model: the CIA’s gas-powered “insectothopter,” which resembled a dragonfly. Current projects: 1) DARPA’s “Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, aka “cyborg moths,” created by putting computer chips into moths so they can be remotely controlled. 2) DARPA’s “cyborg beetles.” 3) Caltech’s “microbat ornithopter.” 4) Harvard’s robotic fly, with “synthetic wings buzzing at 120 beats per second.” 5) Georgia Tech’s “entomopter.” 6) Japan’s radio-controlled “hawk moths.” Advertised applications: tailing people, guiding missiles, finding survivors in wreckage. Hysterical critique: Insect robots threaten us all! Educated critique: Insect robots are doomed to become expensive bird food.

Scientists have treated vascular damage in eight people by giving them new blood vessels grown from their own cells. Method: They take a bit of your skin and an inch-long section of a vein, isolate certain cells, grow them into sheets of tissue, roll them into a tube, and implant them in your body. Benefits: 1) Your blood flow improves. 2) It’s your own tissue, so you don’t need anti-rejection drugs. 3) It’s all natural, so you avoid inflammation. 4) It grows as you grow. Applications: kidney disease, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and coronary birth defects. Caveat: It’s been done on only a few patients and hasn’t been monitored very long. (Related: lab-grown blood vessels, lab-grown livers, lab-grown bladders, lab-grown breast implants, and lab-grown meat.)

Genetics pioneer Craig Venter is close to announcing the first man-made organism. Venter’s team recently created a new copy of a bacterium by transplanting its genome into a different organism. Now they’re doing the same thing with an artificial chromosome. Advertised applications: making biofuel and eating greenhouse gases. Venter’s spin: “We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it.” (Cleanup from Venter’s spokeswoman: Actually, we haven’t done it yet.) Nail-biting reactions: 1) “What does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?” 2) It’s the dawn of “designer genomes.” 3) Many of them will be biological weapons. Human Nature’s prediction: This will end up as one of the top 50 news items of the 21st century. (Are you more excited or afraid of the era of artificial organisms? Explain.)

A court in South Korea overturned the discharge of a female military pilot for lacking breasts. Circumstances: The pilot got cancer in one breast but asked doctors to remove the other breast, too, “believing it would be more convenient for her when flying.” She was then kicked out on the grounds that “army regulations require soldiers who are missing body parts to be discharged.” Court ruling: Her doctor says she’s fit for normal military duty, and that’s good enough. The military plans to appeal the ruling. Human Nature’s view: If lack of boobs is disqualifying, start by discharging all the men. (Except the generals, of course.)

A 72-year-old man is fathering his own grandchild. His son shoots blanks, so his daughter-in-law needs donor sperm to get pregnant. The couple wants the baby to be genetically related to its nominal dad, so they asked Grandpa to pony up. This will make the baby its “father’s” half-sibling. Objections: 1) Yuck. 2) The kid will freak out when he learns who he is. 3) The old guy’s sperm could cause genetic disease. Clinic’s rebuttals: 1) Our ethics committee signed off on it. 2) Lots of couples already use donor sperm from family members. 3) Society has “changed its perceptions of what is and what is not acceptable,” so get over it. (Related: 1) Three women who have given birth to their grandchildren. 2) A woman who’s freezing her eggs so her daughter can use them to have a baby. 3) Parents who used their dead son’s sperm to inseminate a woman he never knew. 4) The business of manufacturing embryos from strangers’ eggs and sperm. (Can you explain why fathering your grandchild is wrong? Give it your best shot.)

Marion Jones admitted to taking steroids and pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about it. She faces up to six months in jail and the loss of her 2000 medals. Jones’ spins: 1) My coach told me it was flaxseed oil. 2) When the agents asked me about it, I was trying to protect my coach and myself, and I panicked. Critics’ reactions: 1) She thought it was flaxseed oil even though her coach told her “not to tell anyone about” it? 2) She didn’t just take the drug; she lied about it repeatedly. 3) Stop blaming the men in her life. 4) She’s going to cost her relay teammates their medals, too. Defenders’ rebuttals: 1) Everybody does it. 2) She was the best athlete even without drugs. 3) Barry Bonds is using the same ignorance alibi, but he’s getting away with it because his supplier, unlike hers, is refusing to talk. (Related columns: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.) Should Jones’ relay teammates lose their medals, too? Discuss in the Fray.

Microsoft launched a Web site for storing and sharing individual health records. Google and major health insurers are developing similar plans. Sample uses: 1) Your doctor puts your records on the site, where you can access them anytime. 2) You check your blood pressure or glucose at home, and your monitor automatically sends the data to your online records, where your doctor can access them. Microsoft’s spins: 1) This will improve health care. 2) All your doctors will know all the medications you’re taking. 3) We’ll keep your records encrypted and totally private; only people you designate can look at them. 4) Consumers will get used to this just as they have with online banking. Skeptical reactions: 1) Private? Riiiight. 2) Even if the system is safe, people won’t believe it, so they won’t use it. 3) People don’t care enough about their health to eat vegetables, much less manage their medical information. (Would you put your records on the Web? I would.)

Companies are peddling new home robots: 1) a roof-gutter cleaner; 2) a hospital robot through which doctors can interact with patients; 3) a Roomba-like Webcam you can steer around your house from far away, allowing you to “participate in family moments even though you’re working late” or “read your kids a story and see their faces light up” while you’re on a business trip; and 4) a “video surveillance” robot that can watch your pets while you’re on vacation or spy on your kids if they’re home alone. Industry spin: The new robots help you “connect” with your loved ones. Critiques: 1) They help you pretend you’re connecting while you spend your life at the office. 2) They teach your kids that you need to spy because you don’t trust them, even though you don’t love them enough to be there in person. 3) Serves you right when some thief or pervert hacks into your Webcam robot. (Related stories: remote-controlled pigeons; remote-controlled hunting; remote-controlled aerial drones; remote-controlled flying saucers.) Human Nature’s view: My wife would deactivate the robot on Day 1, after my son spent the afternoon mooning it.

Nearly half of the male-to-female transsexuals in a small study say they’ve achieved postoperative orgasm. All the participants had feminizing genitoplasty, i.e., “their penis surgically removed, their urethra repositioned and female labia constructed.” In a follow-up subsample, roughly 90 percent had installed a vagina and a “neoclitoris” made from their penile glans. Findings: 1) Twenty-three percent had regular intercourse. 2) Forty-eight percent achieved orgasm. 3) Fourteen percent “reported having an overly sensitive clitoris.” 4) Twenty-nine percent “were troubled by vaginal hair growth.” Researchers’ conclusion: Most patients were happy with the surgery. Human Nature’s prediction: The next (but much rarer) breakthrough procedure will be adding a vagina while keeping your penis. Laurels to the first reader who can find a case in which this has already been done. (As always, post the URL in the Fray.)

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

Correction, Oct. 20, 2007: The item originally said that 22 percent of the influence on picky eating comes from “raising genetically similar kids in different households, so parenting style might make a difference.” This was incorrect. The 22 percent influence comes from differences in environmental factors between individuals who share the same household. (See this Fray thread  posted by Mangar.) (Return  to the corrected sentence.)