Human cannibalism and the Donner Party.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 13 2006 8:11 AM

Eat Me

Human cannibalism and the Donner Party.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on human eggs, dogs, and gay priests, click here.)

Scientists claim to have cleared the Donner Party of cannibalism. Using CSI methods, they examined bone remains and found  that 1) the Donner family camp was at a different site from the camp where cannibalism demonstrably occurred, and 2) there's no evidence of cannibalism at the Donner site. Skeptics' replies: 1) Maybe they ate the meat but didn't get to the bones. 2) The evidence shows they were desperate enough to eat shoelaces, rodents, and their dog. 3) Even if they didn't eat each other, the other families did. (For confirmed cases of cannibalism last year, click here and here.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

DNA testing vindicated the death-penalty system. Virginia's governor ordered the test because critics thought it would expose the nation's first execution of a provably innocent man. Instead, the test confirmed the murderer's guilt. Reactions from death-penalty opponents: 1) Keep testing, and eventually we'll prove an innocent man has been executed. 2) It's wrong to kill even if you've got the right man. 3) We can't believe this murderer conned us into using him as our test case by swearing his innocence to the end.

A survey suggests we're losing our aversion to fatness. Two decades ago, most Americans said overweight people were less attractive than other people. Now only 24 percent say so. Theories: 1) More of us are fat, so we don't want to judge others or feel bad about ourselves. 2) More of us are fat, so our perception of what counts as fat has shifted. 3) More of us are politically correct, so we've learned not to tell pollsters how ugly we think fat people are. 4) Our views about the aesthetics of plumpness have changed in past centuries and will change again.

A judge ruled that fetuses don't count toward carpool lane quotas. An Arizona woman, having been ticketed for driving alone in an HOV lane, pointed out to the judge that Arizona law counts the fetus as a person when calculating the number of victims in violent crimes against pregnant women. As evidence, she brought photos of her son, who was born two weeks after the incident. The director of Arizona Right to Life supported her claim. The ticketing officer says it's not the first time he's heard this argument. The judge rejected it, explaining that the purpose of HOV laws is "to fill empty space in a vehicle," and the womb doesn't count. (For Slate's take on counting fetuses as victims in violent crimes, click here.)

Creationists are turning from science to philosophy class. Last month, a judge struck "intelligent design" from the science curriculum in Dover, Pa., calling it "an interesting theological argument, but … not science." A California school board responded by approving a course called "Philosophy of Design." The course description says it "will discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid," and "evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old." Critics have sued, saying 1) the course is "designed to advance religious theories" rather than open-minded debate, and 2) it's taught by a fundamentalist minister's wife. The district says it's legal "to explore cultural phenomena, including history, religion or creation myths." (For Human Nature's take on teaching creationism as a cultural phenomenon, click here.)

Lions are hunting humans in southern Africa. In Tanzania, annual attacks are up from 40 a decade ago to 100 today; 70 percent are lethal. One lion purportedly ate 40 people. Reasons: 1) People are sleeping outdoors to guard their crops against bushpigs. 2) Lions following the bushpigs find the humans and discover they're tasty. 3) "Once they discover that they can eat people they get quite bold. They are even breaking into people's houses and pulling them out." Experts' advice to locals: Build your outhouses closer to your homes. Lessonto Americans and Australians: Stop whining about shark attacks. (For Slate's take on shark lovers, click here.)

All reports of stem cells from cloned human embryos are fraudulent. Investigators had already debunked South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk's 2005 report that he got stem-cell lines from 11 patients. Now they've discredited the world's only other such report, issued by Hwang in 2004. However, the panel says 1) Hwang did clone a dog, as he claimed, and 2) there's evidence that he did clone human embryos. American researchers say they'll now derive stem cells from human clones to prove that Hwang's failure to do it doesn't mean it can't be done. (For Human Nature's latest take on the Korean cloning scandal, click here.)

Brain scientists want high schools to start later so teens can sleep. Research shows that body clocks run later in teens than in adults and younger kids: In teens, a sleep-inducing hormone doesn't start rising till 10 or 11 p.m. and doesn't let up till 8 a.m. Some high schools are starting later; others are considering it. Skeptical parents say adjusting the school day would 1) interfere with after-school jobs and 2) give in to teens who stay up late playing video games or chatting on the phone. But some scientists say 1) we should respect kids' sleep needs the way we respect their nutritional needs, and 2) sending them to school at 7 a.m. just teaches them to dope themselves with coffee.

About 500,000 fetuses are aborted in India each year because they're girls. The more daughters a couple has without bearing a son, the more lopsided the odds become that the next baby they allow to be born will be male. Couples whose last child was male are as likely to bear a daughter as a son; couples whose last child was female are only 76 percent as likely to bear a daughter as a son; couples whose last two children were female are only 72 percent as likely to bear a daughter as a son. Bonus finding: Educated women are more likely than illiterate women to make sure their second child is a boy.

Smoking during pregnancy boosts the odds that your baby will have the wrong number of fingers. Smoking 10 or fewer cigarettes a day increases the risk of too many, too few, or webbed fingers by 29 percent. Smoking a pack a day almost doubles the risk. Question: Will grossness make this warning more effective than previous cigarette warnings?

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Coercing women to experiment on their eggs. 2) The future of creationism. 3) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs. 4) The pope's antigay tendencies. 5) Does Alito treat women like girls? 6) Bill Bennett's racial determinism. 7) The mainstreaming of anal sex.

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