Human Nature

Subprime Clones

Will the livestock industry keep your food clone-free?

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

Embryo screening will soon include high cholesterol. According to the Guardian, British regulators are considering an application to weed out embryos with genes for very high cholesterol. The Times of London says the application will be approved. Officially, the test targets embryos with two bad genes, which can be fatal in youth. Unofficially, it also detects embryos with one bad gene, which causes milder symptoms that can usually be managed with drugs and dietary precautions. The doctor who submitted the application says that if the test shows all the embryos have at least one bad gene, “it will be up to the patients to choose” whether to implant any or to reject them all. The couple sought out this doctor because he was already offering embryo screening for breast-cancer genes. Human Nature’s view: Our descent into eugenics continues.

The cloning industry is setting up a tracking system for cloned meat and milk. Every cloned animal will get an implanted chip to identify it, and every farmer who buys one will have to prove the animal died or was bought by a packer or processor that publicly accepts clones. The idea is to make sure consumers know whether what they’re eating might be a clone. Enforcement: A central registry tracks every clone, and a farmer who fails to furnish the requisite proof loses a big deposit. Objections: 1) We need more study before letting clones into the food supply. 2) The tracking system is unreliable because it’s voluntary and industry-run. 3) It doesn’t require labeling of the clones’ offspring. Industry spins: 1) We’re doing this just to appease anxious consumers, not because there’s any real safety issue. 2) Clones are so expensive that any sensible farmer would use them for breeding, not food. Human Nature’s view: It’s OK to eat clones.

Political campaigns are using brain technology to target voters’ emotions. Methods: brain scans, voice analysis, headsets to monitor electrical signals, and measurement of sweat, pupils, and facial muscles. Buzzword: “neuromarketing.” Current clients include Mitt Romney and John Edwards. Rationales: 1) Research shows emotion, not reason, dominates voters’ perceptions of candidates. 2) Neuromarketing works in business, so politicians would be fools not to try it. 3) People today are busy, distracted, and dismissive, so politicians have to find out what’ll grab them. 4) Campaigns are loaded with cash, and this is the latest way to spend it. Critiques: 1) Political behavior is too complex to be predicted from brain scans. 2) Campaign tasks are too obvious to require expensive brain scans. 3) Here’s a neuroscience tip: Treating us like cattle and selling yourself like a consumer product are turn-offs. (Related: Human Nature’s take on the latest bogus campaign technology, “personalized educational artificial intelligence.”)

The mayor of San Francisco proposed a fee on sellers of sugary drinks. Details: His office will “prepare a law that would charge retail chains for stocking Coke, Pepsi and other drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.” Mayor’s arguments: 1) Sugary drinks fatten kids. 2) Fat kids raise public health-care costs. Objections: 1) If fat’s the issue, why not tax pizza, burgers, and beer? 2) How about tax breaks for vegetarian food? 3) Butt out. 4) “Government could drive itself crazy trying to calculate the societal cost of a bag of Cheetos.” Soda industry’s spin: The real cause of child obesity is the video-game industry. (Related: The war on junk food; the war on soda; the war on salt.)

A “wearable artificial kidney” performed well in a small study. It plugs into the body through a needle, is supported by straps, and runs on a battery. Device maker: “Xcorporeal.” It worked for four to eight hours in this study. Longer-term goal: All-day or constant use. Ultimate goal: “Miniaturization and nanotechnology will provide more convenient and, ultimately, implantable devices that replicate the function of a healthy kidney.” Advantages: 1) You don’t have to go to a medical facility for dialysis. 2) Daily or constant cleansing is more efficient than the usual dialysis process of three days on and four days off. 3) It also improves your cardiovascular stability. Fine print: 1) Actually, artificial kidneys have been tried since the 1970s. 2) There were complications even in this study.

The dawn of synthetic biology is raising alarms. Update: “Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA.” The chromosome can then “direct the destruction of [a] cell’s old DNA and become its new ‘brain.’” New concepts: “BioBricks” and biological “operating systems.” Applications underway: producing fuel, drugs, and fabrics. Practical fears: 1) Terrorism. 2) “Bio hackers.” 3) Disease. 4) Concentration of life-making power through patents. 5) Self-replicating organisms running amok. Philosophical fear: We’re erasing the distinction between what’s alive and what’s artificial.

The Mitchell report is prompting skepticism that sports leagues can stop doping. President Bush’s spin: The report is “putting the steroid era of baseball behind us.” Report’s actual finding: Major League Baseball’s drug tests “have reduced the use of detectable steroids, but players switched to human growth hormone precisely because it is not detectable.”  Additional problem: HGH “appears to boost the efficacy of steroids” so athletes can use steroid doses that don’t “register in drug-screening tests.” MLB commissioner’s spin: We’ll convene a summit to figure out how to detect HGH. Rosy scientists’ spin: We may have a commercially available HGH blood test by spring. Congressional threat: We may spend federal money to develop a better test. Cynical views: 1) A reliable urine test for HGH is extremely unlikely if not impossible. 2) Players will never agree to a blood test, and MLB will never enforce it. 3) Existing blood tests can detect HGH “only within a few hours of its use.” 4) Players will adjust their dosage to stay below the test threshold. 5) They’ll develop new masking agents. (Related: The inconsistent ethics of sports cheating.)

The world’s governments agreed to a global-warming “action plan.” Basics: more talks aimed at serious emissions cuts. Old approach: Rich nations do the cutting. New approach: Rich nations pay poor ones to join in the cutting. Upbeat spins: 1) Public pressure is forcing politicians to act. 2) Science is forcing politicians to act. 3) More countries are agreeing to do their part. 4) Bush is becoming more cooperative. 5) A more cooperative president will soon replace Bush. Rebuttals: 1) The “action plan” specifies no action, just more talks. 2) That’s why everyone agreed to it: It’s meaningless. 3) China and India will never accept cuts that impede their economic growth. 4) Without their help, we can’t control warming. Old U.S. spin: Science hasn’t proved that humans are responsible for global warming. New U.S. spin: Science is proving that foreigners are responsible for global warming. (Human Nature’s view: This looks just like the toothless Middle East peace process.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Are cultural trends changing our genes? 2) The travesty of political robo-calls. 3) Are Jews genetically smart4) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 5) The lessons of Iraq. 6) Rethinking the age of consent. 7) The best sex stories of 2007. 8) Are conservatives stupid? 9)  Larry Craig’s anti-gay hypocrisy. 10) The jihad against tobacco.