Are we getting so fat we've forgotten what fat is?

Science, technology, and life.
April 7 2006 9:38 AM

Obesity Inflation

Are we getting so fat we've forgotten what fat is?

(For the latest Human Nature columns on birth control, polygamy, and old people, click here.)

Scientists say a new study debunks intelligent design. ID claims that evolution can't explain "irreducibly complex" systems, in which the parts serve no useful function until they're combined. According to this theory, the parts couldn't have arisen and evolved into the whole system through natural selection, since they offered no advantage. The new study shows how, in one case, two parts evolved for independent reasons and then fortuitously combined to produce an advantageous system. Rebuttals from ID proponents: 1) We're not convinced the parts made enough sense to survive natural selection. 2) New rule: To debunk our theory, any system you explain this way has to have at least three parts. (For Human Nature's take on irreducible complexity, click here.)

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Only 15 percent of obese people see themselves as obese. In a study, they accurately calculated their height and weight but classified themselves as overweight, not obese. By contrast, more than 70 percent of overweight and normal-weight people accurately classified themselves. Interpretations: 1) Fat people don't know the numerical threshold of obesity. 2) They know it but don't want to admit they're fat. 3) We're getting so fat we've lost all perspective on what fat is. (For Human Nature's previous update on our slipping standards of fatness, click here.)

Brain scans indicate babies born at 24 weeks gestation can feel pain. Previous studies inferred pain from flinching or facial expressions; critics argued that such behavior could be purely reflexive. This time, doctors directly monitored brain activity during blood tests and found signs of pain being processed. Researchers' inference: Now we can verify which pain-relief methods work on preemies. Alternative inference: Does this validate legislation to require counseling and availability of fetal anesthesia for late-term abortions? (For Human Nature's review of previous studies on fetal pain, click here.)

Biomarkers suggest a very low-calorie diet might slow human aging. Compared to a control group, people who ate 25 percent fewer calories than the recommended daily allowance (and people who ate 12.5 percent fewer calories than the RDA while getting 12.5 percent more exercise) developed lower body temperatures and significantly lower insulin levels and DNA damage, which correlate with longevity. This follows previous studies in which 1) a very low-calorie diet apparently slowed heart aging in humans and 2) animals on such diets exceeded their species' maximum life spans. Proposed mechanism: Your body slows down to keep you alive, because it thinks you're starving. Possible conclusions: 1) Put down the sandwich and back away slowly. 2) Wait to see whether people with better biomarkers live longer. 3) Cauliflower and oats for dinner again? Kill me now. (For Human Nature's take on the fiscal costs and benefits of slower aging, click here.)

Scientists have grown and implanted the first custom-made human organs. They made bladders and put them in patients who donated the source tissue. Recipe: Take a tiny tissue sample from each patient, grow it in a dish, wrap it around a scaffold to shape it, grow it for seven weeks in an incubator, then put it in the patient, where the new bladder keeps growing. The bladders have been functioning in seven patients for about four years. Next, scientists plan to grow kidneys, livers, and hearts. Interpretations: 1) Tissue engineering has arrived. 2) We did it without embryonic stem cells. 3) Death, RIP. (For Human Nature's take on growing organs from embryos, click here.)

Kids are getting too fat for car seats. More than 280,000 kids younger than 7 no longer fit in regular car seats, weigh more than the prescribed limits, and probably aren't tall enough to use a seat belt. They're potential human projectiles in a crash. This happened because child obesity has doubled in 30 years, and nearly one in four little kids is now overweight. Official solution: Bigger car seats, somehow made affordable to everyone. Unofficial solution: Natural selection. (For Human Nature's previous update on people getting fatter, click here.)

A large, long-term study suggests prayer doesn't help patients recover from surgery. Patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered more complications than those who didn't know one way or the other, and patients who were being prayed for without their knowledge suffered more major complications than those who weren't prayed for. Secular takes: 1) Can we please stop wasting money on prayer studies now? 2) If you're going to pray for somebody, have the grace not to tell them, since it might cause them complications from "performance anxiety." Excuses: 1) This study was just about prayer from strangers, so maybe prayer from your family and friends helps. 2) Maybe the benefits were obscured because some people got more prayer than others. 3) Your study is no match for my faith and anecdotes. (For Human Nature's previous update on failures of prayer, click here.)

Animal cloning is becoming a viable business. A company just announced the sale of two cloned cutting horses for $300,000 and says two more clones will be born "any day," with many more already gestating. Reaction from competitive horse associations: We won't let clones compete, since that would turn our art into a boring science. Reaction from animal welfare groups: How dare you treat "horses as a commodity"? Reply from the cloning company: Commodity? We're just trying to make a few bucks off these horses while we wait for the FDA to let us sell cloned animals for food. (For Human Nature's previous updates on dog and pig cloning, click here and here.)

The brains of smarter kids are slower to develop. The old theory posited that smarter people had bigger frontal lobes or more gray matter, probably due to genes. But a new analysis shows that at age 7, kids with higher IQs actually have thinner cortexes (the most sophisticated brain component) than their peers do. Cortexes thicken, then thin out in all children, but the higher your IQ, the later this happens. New theories: 1) Intelligence is determined by environment more than by genes. 2) No, it could still be genes, but they determine timing, not size. You don't get smart because your brain develops later; your brain develops later because you're already smart. "The most agile minds have the most agile cortex." 3) It's a combination: "Children might inherit certain genes that incline them to interact with their environment in very 'stimulating' ways," but parents and teachers could help stimulate the other kids. (For Human Nature's previous update on factors related to IQ, click here.)

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