The slippery slope of human-animal hybrids.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 3 2007 8:43 AM

Man and Beast

The slippery slope of human-animal hybrids.

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Some Britons are turning to nicotine gum and lozenges since the government banned pub smoking. The National Health Service says pub owners can sell smokeless, nonprescription nicotine products; one owner is selling the gum and lozenges with drinks. The ban lets customers smoke outside, but rainy weather has forced them to look for a way to get their nicotine hit indoors. Rosy spin on the gum and lozenges: "It's a way for people to give up smoking." Cynical view: It's a way to maintain their addiction. (Related column: feeding your sex and food addictions without consequences. To comment, join the Fray.)

William Saletan William Saletan

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

A British parliamentary committee says the government can't draw a clear line against human-animal hybrids. The government has already moved its proposed line from banning hybrid embryos to banning only " 'true' hybrids created from mixing human and animal gametes." The committee says the new line won't hold, either. Arguments: 1) "Once researchers have 'crossed the species barrier' there is no valid distinction to be made between an entity that is 99% human and an entity that is only 50% human." 2) The government's proposal already allows the current "hamster test," in which "human sperm are mixed with hamster eggs" to test the sperm's health. 3) "There is no principle, as such, which underpins the Government's choice of 50% as a cut-off point for whether an entity is sufficiently human to merit regulation" as a human rather than animal embryo. 4) "What makes an entity human rather than animal is not easily measured in DNA terms." 5) "You may start off with an embryo which is 20 per cent human and end up with something which is 60 per cent human or vice versa." Committee's conclusion: So, let's not ban any of it. Conservative conclusion: So, let's ban all of it. (Related column: the logic of human-animal chimeras. To join the discussion, click here.)

Electrode stimulation restored consciousness to a seemingly incurable brain-damage victim. He can now laugh, cry, move his arms, eat, drink from a cup, comb his hair, recite part of the Pledge of Allegiance, and say "I love you, Mommy." Caveats: 1) Doctors picked this patient because he wasn't irretrievably damaged; in fact, he was already "sometimes able to move his thumb in response to yes-or-no questions" and "occasionally nodded his head and mouthed 'yes' or 'no.' " 2) The same procedure failed to help Terri Schiavo, because her damage was far worse. Happy take-away: We may be able to reawaken some of the hundreds of thousands of people who've been vegetating in nursing homes because we thought their minds were gone. Scary take-away: People have been vegetating in nursing homes because we thought their minds were gone. (Related columns: Buried alive in your own skull; interpreting the Schiavo videos. To comment, click here.)

Australian schools are beginning to require kindergarteners to wear sunglasses. In the first school to try it, the rule applies through sixth grade; shades are required only outdoors. Other schools expect to follow, and officials are considering "making sunglasses compulsory in all public school playgrounds." Eye experts go further, arguing that "children should wear sunglasses from infancy." Reason: eye damage from UV rays. Early reports: The mandatory shades are "being well received by the pupils." In fact, "[t]he students say they would also be happy to wear their glasses after school." (Related column: indoor vs. outdoor tanning. To comment, click here.)

A U.S. transplant surgeon was indicted for allegedly trying to kill a patient for his organs. Prosecutor's claim: He "tried to accelerate [the patient's] death to facilitate the harvesting of his organs." Methods: "massive amounts of narcotic painkillers and sedatives" and "administering the antiseptic Betadine through a feeding tube into [the patient's] stomach, a sterilization procedure typically done after a donor is dead." Doctor's defense: 1) The patient was already on a respirator. 2) He had irreversible brain damage. 3) His family had authorized harvesting of his organs. 4) He died from other causes, not from the extra drugs. Broader concerns: 1) This scandal will deter doctors from harvesting organs before brain death, which will lead to more people dying on the organ waiting list. 2) It'll deter people from registering as organ donors. (Related column: The worldwide market in organs. To comment, click here.)

A survey in New Zealand identified "vegansexuals." Definition: No sex with carnivores. Sample quotes from respondents: 1) "I would not want to be intimate with someone whose body is literally made up from the bodies of others who have died for their sustenance. Non-vegetarian bodies smell different to me—they are, after all, literally sustained through carcasses." 2) "I believe we are what we consume so I really struggle with bodily fluids, especially sexually." 3) "I couldn't think of kissing lips that allow dead animal pieces to pass between them." 4) "When you are vegan or vegetarian, you are very aware that when people eat a meaty diet, they are kind of a graveyard for animals." (Related columns: the case against eating animals; the case against sex with animals. To comment, click here.)

Caffeine may help prevent skin cancer. Findings: Mice that drank caffeine "had a 95 percent increase" in their ability to destroy precancerous cells. Mice that exercised "showed a 120 percent increase, and the mice that were both drinking and running showed a nearly 400 percent increase." The mice's caffeine concentration was "similar to that inthe plasma of most coffee drinkers (one to four cups per day)." Irresponsible conclusion: Your coffee addiction will solve your tanning addiction. Responsible conclusions: 1) "We think it likely that this will extrapolate to humans, but that has to be tested." 2) Don't think this means you can stop using sunscreen. (Related column: The bum rap on indoor tanning. To comment on tanning or coffee, click here.)

Circumcision had no effect on sexual sensation in a small study. Opponents of circumcision say it dulls pleasure and increases pain. But "genital sensory testing shows no difference between circumcised and uncircumcised men" in "in sensitivity to touch or pain," whether during arousal or non-arousal. Conclusion: The results "dispel the myth that the glans penis is more sensitive in the uncircumcised male due to the protective function of the foreskin." Caveat: "The presence of scar tissue formation from circumcision, as well as functional and mechanical changes related to sexual activity, are factors that may have secondary effects on genital sensitivity." (Related column: Circumcision and AIDS. To post your comments on circumcision, click here.)

President Bush may have tightened his stem-cell policy. Old policy: The government funded human embryonic stem-cell research only on cell lines created prior to Aug. 9, 2001. Problem: The policy was designed to prevent methods that killed embryos, but new methods can derive cell lines without killing—e.g., by removing just one cell from an eight-cell embryo. New policy: The government will fund research only on cell lines derived without "subjecting to harm" any embryo. Bush's view: The new policy "expands" research by allowing newer methods. Critics' view: The new policy is already blocking the new methods because the government will take years to certify that they don't even "harm" any embryos. (For related columns on the new methods, click here, here, here, and here.)

Companies are making employees pay for being fat. Methods: 1) "Incentives" that lower your health premiums or deductibles if you stay "fit." 2) Paycheck deductions if you exceed a specified weight-to-height ratio. 3) Cash or goods if you lose weight. In two years, the percentage of executives who think obese employees should pay more for benefits has risen from 48 to 62. Rationales: 1) Fat workers cost companies more in health expenses. 2) Incentives improve fitness. 3) Whether you lose weight or pay more is up to you. Objections: 1) My weight is none of my employer's business. 2) It's wrong to punish people whose weight is biologically beyond their control. 3) It's illegal to discriminate based on health status. (Related columns: fat and food regulation; fat and personal responsibility. To join the discussion, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Fat lies and fat lies revisited. 2)  Liberals and bioethics. 3) The case for turning food into fuel. 4) Recombining  man and beast. 5) The spread of virgin births. 6) Abolishing menstruation. 7) The chess match of man and machine. 8)  Ultrasound and the future of abortion.

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