How brain damage cures smoking.
(For the latest Human Nature columns on lesbianism, made-to-order embryos, and shrinking people, click here.)
Smoking addiction can be erased by "knocking out" a tiny part of the brain. It's called the insula. In a study of brain-injured former smokers, half said their cravings had completely vanished. Three-quarters of this subset had suffered insula damage. "Smokers with damaged insulas were 136 times more likely to have their addictions erased than smokers with damage in other parts of their brains." Excited reactions: 1) We can help people quit smoking by targeting the insula. 2) Maybe we can target alcohol, cocaine, and gambling addiction the same way. Warning: "Damage to the insula is associated with slight impairment of some social function." (For last week's update on cigarette makers increasing nicotine output, click here.)
China says it will modify its one-child policy and crack down on sex-selective abortions. Government's statements: 1) The one-child policy has prevented a population disaster. 2) However, too many couples have responded by aborting girls so they can have a boy; to stop this, we'll get tougher on fetal sex tests and abortions of females. 3) We'll offer financial rewards to parents of girls. 4) Poor Chinese are angry that rich Chinese are buying their way out of the policy by paying fines, so we'll lower fines for poor parents. (For China's recent crackdown on sperm, eggs, and surrogate motherhood, click here.)
The U.S. military demonstrated a heat ray that inflicts disabling pain from one-third of a mile away. It consists of electromagnetic millimeter waves, which can penetrate skin enough to cause pain but not damage. It was targeted at volunteering reporters. AP description: "While the 130-degree heat was not painful, it was intense enough to make the participants think their clothes were about to ignite." Reuters description: "The sensation from the exposure was like a blast from a very hot oven, too painful to bear without scrambling for cover." Military spins: 1) The ray has been tested on 10,000 volunteers, with "no injuries requiring medical attention." 2) Yet it forces people to run for cover. 3) Such "non-lethal" weapons will help us disperse crowds, stop checkpoint runners, and disarm enemy fighters without having to shoot people. Skeptical view: They'll also make it easier to inflict pain. (For Human Nature's take on the temptation of remote-controlled killing, click here.)
Activists are attackingresearch on why some rams are gay. Eight percent of rams show sexual interest only in other rams; a researcher is studying the biological factors involved. Critics' allegations: 1) He's trying to "cure" homosexuality in rams through "prenatal treatment." 2) This could lead to "breeding out" human homosexuality. Researcher's rebuttals: 1) I'm studying rams, not humans. 2) I'm focusing on causation, not manipulation, of sexuality. 3) I'm against sexual eugenics in humans. 4) My research might help figure out which rams will breed. Refined criticism: The implications for manipulating sexuality in livestock and humans are obvious. Refined rebuttal: That's an argument for opposing unethical use of technology, not for blocking basic science. (For a previous update on gay animals, click here. For Human Nature's take on gay parenthood, click here.)
President Bush proposed a nearly fivefold increase in "renewable and alternative fuels."Political translation: ethanol. Bush's arguments: 1) It'll cut our dependence on Middle East oil. 2) It'll help the environment. 3) It'll fight global warming. Complaints: 1) The proposal is too meager to make a difference. 2) It's too ambitious, as our corn supply can't meet it. 3) Corn ethanol yields lower mileage than gas does. 4) Making corn ethanol requires so much fossil fuel, it's a net loss. 5) It'll raise food prices by demanding all our corn. 6) The more mileage-efficient alternative, "cellulosic ethanol," is even more expensive to make. 7) "Alternative and renewable" is Bush's way of promoting liquefied coal, which is twice as bad as gas for global warming.
Doctors performed the world's third face transplant. The new tissue consisted of a mouth, nose, and chin. Twist: The previous two face transplants were done to repair animal attacks; this one was done to repair effects of a genetic disease. Rationales: 1) The patient "had such large, heavy tumors on his lips that it was difficult to speak or eat." 2) He "had undergone some 30 to 40 operations over 10 years to try to improve his face's appearance." 3) He still "could not get a job because of his appearance." His surgeon compared it to the Elephant Man. Next: British and American doctors are preparing for full-face transplants. (For reports on the previous face transplants, click here, here, and here.)
China conducted the first successful anti-satellite missile test in two decades. The test alarmed the U.S. military, which uses satellites to relay communications and guide missiles. Chinese talking points: 1) "It is purely catch up" with the U.S. and Russia. 2) China still "opposes the weaponization of space." Hawk theory: They're preparing to disable us so they can invade Taiwan. Dove theory: They're trying to scare us into negotiating a treaty limiting space weapons. (For previous updates on U.S. space militarization, click here, here, and here. For Human Nature's take on aerial military drones, click here.)
Stem-cell researchers are preparing to trade IVF discounts for human eggs. The deal: We give you IVF at half the cost, and in exchange, we get half the eggs for research. The U.K. has already authorized this as an experiment. Objections: 1) It's commerce in human flesh. 2) It can be risky for the donor. 3) It exploits desperate women. 4) There are other ways to get eggs, such as frozen, unfertilized IVF leftovers. Defenses: 1) Women are already paid to donate eggs. 2) People are paid to participate in experiments. 3) Some clinics already facilitate egg- and cost-sharing deals between clients. 4) Attempts to get women to donate eggs for free have failed. 5) It's not egg selling; it's "egg sharing." 6) Don't patronize women; they can choose for themselves. (For Human Nature's take on manufacturing and selling human embryos, click here.)
California lawmakers are debating a possible ban on spanking. It applies only to children age 3 or younger. Suggested penalties range from parenting classes to a year in jail. Most states already ban corporal punishment in day care and schools. Ban- supporters' arguments: 1) Spanking very young kids is cruel, since they don't know right from wrong. 2) It's useless, for the same reason. 3) It can lead to child abuse. 4) There are better ways to discipline kids. Opponents' arguments: 1) It's government usurpation of parental discretion. 2) It's unenforceable. 3) The legislator pushing it doesn't even have kids. Human Nature's take: In war, executions, and parenting, nonviolence is making a comeback.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of a baby on Slate's home page by Photodisc/Getty Images.