Human Nature

Where the Boys Aren’t

Audio torture only teens can hear.

New column 2/13 on whether embryos are people. (For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Employers are pushing “mandatory wellness programs.” Motives: 1) Cut health-insurance costs. 2) Boost health and productivity. Old message: Don’t worry, the company will take care of you. New message: Worry, because we’re sick of picking up the tab. Last year’s approach: We’ll charge you an extra $30 per pay period if you smoke or weigh too much. Employees’ response: No way! This year’s approach: We’ll give you an extra $30 per pay period if you don’t smoke or weigh too much. Employees’ response: Great! (Related: paycheck deductions for obesity.)

British activists called for a ban on “ultra-sonic dispersal devices.” The devices drive away teenagers by delivering an unpleasant noise at high frequencies that can be heard only by people under 25. Activists say 3,500 of them are in use. Merchants’ rationale: We use them to drive away “anti-social gangs” that “deter customers, intimidate staff and can commit vandalism and violence.” Objections: 1) The devices “target all children and young people, including babies, regardless of whether they are … misbehaving.” 2) “Young people have a right to assemble … without being treated as criminals.” 3) “Imagine the outcry if a device was introduced that caused blanket discomfort to people of one race or gender.” Device inventor’s solution: I’ll “introduce a contract which stipulates to shopkeepers how it can be used.” (Human Nature’s view: Why not achieve the same effect by piping ’70s crap?)

Two more “virgin births” were documented. The offspring, hatched at a Kansas zoo, are the first Komodo dragons outside England known to have been produced by parthenogenesis, in which an egg becomes an embryo without fertilization. DNA tests are underway to confirm it. Actually, the mother laid 17 eggs, so if these two were parthenogens, the other 15 were as well. But the zoo didn’t incubate the other eggs because it didn’t have room to raise them. Spooky possibility: Parthenogenesis happens way more often than we imagine; we just haven’t looked for it. Related: 1) Human Nature’s take on parthenogenesis in turkeys, sharks, and other animals. 2) A report of a half-parthenogenetic human being. Human Nature’s view: Parthenogenesis challenges our moral distinction between eggs and embryos.

Rat consumption is booming in Vietnam. It’s universal in some villages and “is beginning to catch on” with urbanites and tourists. Reasons: 1) It’s cheaper than pork or chicken. 2) Easy to catch. 3) Yummy! 4) It’s safer than eating birds, now that bird flu is going around. 5) The rat supply is up, because the cats and snakes that used to eat the rats are now being eaten by Southeast Asians. (Menu code for cats: “little tiger.”) Recipes: ground rat meat and chili, rat steamed with lemon leaves, rat stir-sautéed with spring onion and herbs. Vietnamese caveat: We don’t eat sewer rats. Cultural argument against rat-eating: It’s gross. Scientific argument: The next plague will arrive through rats, and people will go back to eating birds. (Related: The case against eating meat.)

A lawyer couple sued their neighbor for smoking in her apartment. Demands: 1) She has to stop “causing smoke to enter into the common hallway.” 2) Compensatory damages. 3) Punitive damages. 4) Legal fees. Plaintiffs’ arguments: 1) Her smoke seeps into the hallway and poses “grave danger” to their child. 2) They’ve complained, but she “intentionally, recklessly and/or negligently” persists. 3) She encourages her dog to pee in front of their apartment and on their kid’s stroller. 4) “She snaps at my wife.” 5) “She has every right to do what she wants, as long as it doesn’t affect us.” Defendant’s arguments: 1) She bought two air purifiers to control the smoke. 2) She opens her windows to ventilate the apartment. 3) She uses rolled-up rugs to seal the space under her doors. 4) She lived in the building for 10 years before they moved in. 5) She offered to sell her apartment to them, but they don’t want it. 6) “I’m not into harming anyone.” 7) She’d like to quit smoking but can’t. 8) Perfectionist snobbery is replacing urban tolerance. Human Nature’s view: Check out the neighbors before you buy the apartment, instead of suing later. (Related: The overzealous war on tobacco.)

The guy who allegedly injected Roger Clemens with steroids testified that he also injected Clemens’ wife with human growth hormone. Reported testimony from Brian McNamee: 1) He injected the wife at Clemens’ request. 2) He thinks she did it to look good in a Sports Illustrated bikini photo. Clemens attorney’s reply: 1) “To say that Roger directed [injections for his wife] is a colossal lie.” 2) It shows McNamee will say anything. (New York Times account: “Clemens’s camp reacted angrily to the public disclosure without specifically denying it.”) McNamee lawyer’s spin: The issue is Clemens, not his wife. Legal analysis: The wife won’t have to testify, thanks to spousal immunity. Human Nature’s question: Did McNamee save the gauze and syringes from injecting the wife, too? (Related: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.)

The difference between fat and nonfat kids is 77 percent genetic. Sample: 10,000 British twins aged 8 to 11. Results: Differences in fat were driven largely by genetic differences, not by differences in family environment. Fatalistic attitude: Differences in obesity are genetic, so there’s nothing you can do about it. Moralistic attitude: Changes in behavior, not in genes, have caused the obesity epidemic. Therefore, being fat or having a fat kid is your fault. New attitude: Differences in obesity are genetic, but changes in behavior, not in genes, have caused the obesity epidemic. Therefore, being fat or having a fat kid isn’t your fault in particular, but there’s a lot we can and should do about it. (Related: Human Nature’s takes on obesity, personal responsibility, and social responsibility.)

A man grew his own jaw transplant in his abdomen. Scientists attached his stem cells to a scaffold and “put it inside the patient’s abdomen to grow for nine months.” The cells “turned into a variety of tissues and even produced blood vessels.” Surgeons then transplanted the tissue to his head. Benefits: 1) No animal viruses, since doctors didn’t use animal tissue. 2) No rejection problems, since the transplant matches the patient’s DNA. 3) Fast recovery, since the new bone was grown instead of taken from his leg. Approved reaction: This brings “custom-made living spare parts for humans a step closer to reality.” Unapproved reactions: 1) Congratulations—it’s a bone! 2) Is that a bone in your abdomen, or are you just glad to see me? (Related: Regrowing lost body parts—or gestating them in embryos.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) The messy biology of human embryos. 2) Obama and the white vote. 3) Bush, stem cells, and stubbornness. 4) Abortion and teen sex. 5) Why the polls botched New Hampshire. 6) The best Human Nature stories of 2007. 7) The top privacy threats of 2007. 8) Are cultural trends changing our genes? 9) The travesty of political robo-calls.