Changing the sex of your food.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 29 2006 9:57 AM

Genitally Modified Organisms

Changing the sex of your food.

(For the latest Human Nature columns on penis transplants, baby-making, and living death, click here.)

Scientists are changing the sex of fish to make them meatier. The idea is to turn females into males so they'll grow faster and gain more weight. This has already been accomplished with synthetic steroids; now Israeli and Palestinian scientists are trying it with natural plant compounds, which presumably are less dangerous to eat. Official spin: The project is breaking down the walls between Israelis and Palestinians. Unofficial spin: It's breaking down the walls between male and female.

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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Chinese doctors are still selling the organs of executed prisoners despite protests and promises of reform. A BBC correspondent told one hospital he needed a liver; the chief surgeon said he could get one in three weeks from a prisoner for nearly $100,000. An official "said there was currently an organ surplus because of an increase in executions ahead of the 1 October National Day." Government spin: We don't kill prisoners for their organs; they volunteer the organs as a "present to society." (For Human Nature's previous update on organs from Chinese prisoners, click here.)

Old people in hospitals are starving because they can't reach their food. Sixty percent of older patients become malnourished in hospitals. An Australian study finds: 1) One of every five patients aged 65 or over "could not reach food brought to their hospital rooms." 2) Most "could not open food packaging." 3) "More than a third struggled with cutlery." 4) "Many struggled to pour beverages." 5) Busy nurses spent barely a minute with the average patient at mealtime. 6) "Nurses would walk past patients who clearly could not reach or open their food and they would just keep walking." (For happier trends in old people's health, click here and here.)

Female ring finger size correlates with athletic potential in a study of British twins. Previous studies suggested that male ring-finger size (compared to index-finger size) correlated with athletic success, musical talent, and sexual orientation. This study finds "women with ring fingers longer than their index fingers had performed better at running and associated running sports such as soccer and tennis." Old boast: We can predict your kid's athletic talent because ring-finger size reflects testosterone exposure in the womb. New boast: Actually, ring-finger size doesn't reflect testosterone exposure—so it's probably genetic, which means we can predict your kid's athletic talent, anyway. Skeptical takes: 1) You don't even know what the genes are. 2) All these studies have been done on adults, so you haven't successfully predicted anything. (For Human Nature's previous update on men with long ring fingers, click here.)

New York City is preparing to ban trans fats in restaurants beyond a token amount. Its board of health, which can implement the ban with no outside approval, voted unanimously to set a schedule for doing so, pending public comments. Chicago may follow; Starbucks, Subway, and Wendy's are moving in the same direction. Board's arguments: 1) We banned lead paint and smoking because they kill people. Trans fats do the same. 2) They're easy to replace with less harmful ingredients. 3) We asked restaurants to do this voluntarily, and they ignored us. 4) The rest of the country followed us on smoking and lead paint, so get ready for trans-fat bans everywhere. Restaurants' objections: 1) An appointed board has no business doing this on its own. 2) It's government intrusion. 3) It costs too much. 4) We can't control our suppliers. 5) We'll sue. (For Human Nature's take, click here.)

Excess testosterone can kill brain cells. A study shows it causes mass cell death akin to Alzheimer's. Bonus finding: Estrogen, the female hormone, appears to reduce cell death. Researchers' conclusions: 1) Don't take steroids. 2) Maybe you shouldn't take testosterone supplements either. 3) "Next time a muscle-bound guy in a sports car cuts you off on the highway, don't get mad, just take a deep breath and realize that it might not be his fault." Cynical view: Just what we need—another Twinkie defense.  (For Human Nature's takes on steroids, click here, here, and here.)

The government lifted the ban on bringing liquids aboard planes. New rules: You can bring drinks purchased inside "sterile" gate areas, plus toiletries, as long as the containers are no more than 3 ounces and are in a clear plastic zip bag no bigger than a quart. Government's explanations: 1) We can seal off the "sterile" areas. 2) We figured out you can't blow up the plane with 3 ounces of anything. 3) We need to stop wasting time hunting for smuggled lipstick. 4) We're hard at work on gizmos that will detect liquid bombs. Skeptical reactions: 1) So, in other words, you made us suffer unnecessarily. 2) Don't insult our intelligence about the gizmos; they don't work. 3) You can't seal off the "sterile" areas, either. 4) Now, instead of wasting time hunting for lipstick, you'll waste time measuring everyone's lipstick to see whether it's more than 3 ounces. (For Human Nature's take, click here.)

Being tall increases a woman's chance of having twins or triplets. The difference in average height between mothers of single and multiple-birth babies in the U.S. is  1 inch. Theory: Taller people have more insulinlike growth factor, which increases the chance of spontaneous twinning. Bonus finding: Eating dairy products from cows full of growth hormones also increases your chance of having twins, for the same reason. (For Human Nature's previous update on tall people and superior intelligence, click here.)

Health advocates are trying to ban or zone fast-food restaurants. Several towns and cities have restricted such restaurants; the New York City council majority leader is proposing similar restrictions, based on a legal argument that zoning laws can be used to protect public health. Arguments for restrictions: 1) Fast-food joints make us fat. 2) They cause traffic problems. 3) They pollute. 4) They're ugly. 5) They cause truancy. 6) They hurt local restaurants. 7) We banned smoking in restaurants; why not ban chain burgers, too? 8) Poor people "should have options." Arguments against restrictions: 1) You're going to ban restaurants in the name of options? 2) By abusing zoning laws? 3) But you're not going to restrict hot-dog carts or pizza parlors? (For Human Nature's takes on obesity and banning junk food, click here, here, and here.)