Human Nature

Assembly Required

Constructing the first artificial life form.

New columns 1/22 and 1/23 on Bush’s stem-cell policy and  abortion and teen sex. (For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Microsoft applied for a patent to help companies remotely monitor employees’ bodies. Wireless sensors could measure “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure.” Objections: 1) It’s “office spy software.” 2) Employers will use it to assess and fire workers. Microsoft’s rebuttals: 1) The system “does not relate to any of Microsoft’s current product plans.” 2) Its purpose is just “to detect when users need assistance” (through “frustration or stress”) and “offer assistance by putting them in touch with other users.” 3) Most of the application doesn’t involve physical monitoring. Employers’ reactions: 1) We love this idea! 2) But, of course, “it should be voluntary.” Human Nature’s view: The system would discover that the top office stress factor is itself. (Related: A similar system in soldiers through networked helmets.)

Scientists completed the second of three steps to creating artificial life. The first step was to turn one organism into another by substituting the second organism’s genome. The second step was to build a new genome from chemicals. The third step is repeat the first step, this time using the human-built genome. Hype: 1) This technology will get cheaper and faster, as computer chips did. 2) Artificial organisms will make biofuel, solve global warming, and cleanse the environment. Fears: 1) The technology could be used to spread anthrax and smallpox. 2) Self-replicating bacteria could run amok and destroy the environment. (In fact, the synthesized genome is a “parasitic bacterium that lives in the human urogenital tract.”) Skepticism: 1) This is the tiniest genome they could have built. 2) It’s not a new organism; it’s a copy. 3) It’s not even alive; it’s just an inanimate genome. 4) The process is so long and expensive that organism manufacturers will just modify existing bacteria instead. (Related: Human Nature’s previous coverage of the artificial-life project.)

Calabasas, Calif., banned smoking in 80 percent of apartment buildings. It’s the second California city to do so. Rules: 1) The ban includes balconies and patios. 2) Smokers can stay in their buildings “until they move.” 3) “Relocation to smoke-free or smoking-allowed buildings is completely voluntary.” 4) New tenants can be evicted for smoking. Pro-ban arguments: 1) Nonsmokers’ right to health trumps smokers’ rights. 2) Staying inside your apartment doesn’t help, because smoke moves “through walls, air conditioning systems and open windows.” 3) This will become a model for other cities. 4) We’ll find plaintiffs to force landlords to stop renting to smokers. 5) Next we may “ban smoking in private homes.” Smokers’ reactions: 1) Is there any personal space left? 2) Prohibition—great idea. 3) Will you execute search warrants? 4) Enjoy the litigation between tenants. (Related: The year’s top 10 assaults on privacy.)

British regulators authorized the creation of “human-animal cytoplasmic hybrid embryos.” They’re made by removing the nucleus from an animal egg and replacing it with a human cell nucleus. One of the approved applications proposes to use eggs from “cows, rabbits, sheep and goats.” Objection: It’s unnatural and creepy. Rebuttals: 1) It’ll help us cure diseases. 2) It’ll help us learn how to clone embryos with fewer human eggs. 3) It’ll help us learn how to make stem cells with making embryos at all. 4) It’s already being done in other countries. 5) Our scientists will go to those countries if we don’t let them do it here. 6) The resulting embryos are only 0.1 percent nonhuman. 7) We won’t let them develop beyond 14 days. (Related: Human Nature’s take on the future of human-animal hybrids.)

A study confirmed that caffeine can double your risk of miscarriage. Data: 1) Women who drank at least two cups of coffee daily had twice as much risk as women who drank none. 2) Women who drank less than two cups had a 40 percent higher risk than women who drank none. 3) Equivalent caffeine from soda, tea, or chocolate had the same effect. Theory: Caffeine stresses fetal metabolism and may reduce fetal blood flow. Researchers’ conclusions: 1) Stop drinking coffee during pregnancy. 2) Switch to decaf. 3) At least lower your dose. 4) For energy, switch to walking, yoga, or “dried fruits and nuts.” Critiques: 1) Most miscarriages are genetic. 2) Nobody really understands miscarriage. 3) Zero tolerance is excessive; just drink moderately. 4) Smoking and age are bigger risk factors than caffeine is. 5) Scientists are just trying to “scare women.” 6) Our mothers made it through lots of health hazards, and so can we.

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Abortion and teen sex. 2) Why the polls botched New Hampshire. 3) The best Human Nature stories of 2007. 4) The top privacy threats of 2007. 5) Are cultural trends changing our genes? 6) The travesty of political robo-calls. 7) Are Jews genetically smart? 8) Rethinking the age of consent.