(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the new Human Nature Fray.)
Road tolls increase after collectors switch from cash to debit systems. After adoption of E-ZPass or similar debit systems, tolls become "20 to 40 percent higher than they would have been without electronic toll collection." Reason: They can get away with it, because you don't notice what you're being charged. Implication: Credit cards and other electronic payment systems may be hiding broader price increases from you in the same way. Old advice: Avoid pain and effort. New advice: Avoid anyone who offers to insulate you from pain and effort.
Women don't talk more than men do. Old husbands' tale: Women use three times as many words a day as men do. New data: Recorded sampling finds no significant difference. Critique: All the participants were college students. Bonus reports: 1) "Men tend to talk about things … whereas women tend to talk about other people." 2) Men talk more to wives and women; women talk more to and about kids. "Earlier attempts to measure the verbosity of the sexes relied on self-reported data." Human Nature's theory: Men don't notice how much they're talking. (For Human Nature's take on men, women, and the joy of punishment, click here. To talk about which sex talks more, click here.)
China extended its crackdown on organ sales. New rules: 1) No transplants for anyone entering the country on a tourist visa. 2) No transplants for foreigners without health ministry authorization. 3) No overseas advertising by Chinese hospitals. Feel-good explanation: China sees that it's wrong to sell organs. Actual explanation by the government: China wants the organs for its own citizens, not foreigners. (For Human Nature's take on the worldwide organ market, click here. To debate organ sales, click here.)
Engineers designed a wheelchair you can steer with your tongue. Current steering method for quadriplegics: a straw you suck on or blow into. Problems: annoyance and health risks from the oral intrusion. New method: a microphone in the ear that deciphers tongue movements from air pressure rearrangements in the mouth. The device will hit the market later this year. Off-label use No. 1: Soldiers "might also use such devices to steer remote-controlled robots with their tongues, leaving their hands free." (For Human Nature's take on the arrival of mind-reading machines, click here.)
Doctors produced the first live baby from a lab-matured egg. Old method (IVF): stimulate the woman's ovaries with hormone drugs, extract ripe eggs, fertilize them in dishes, freeze the embryos, and later thaw and implant them. New method (in vitro maturation, known as IVM): extract unripe eggs, ripen them in dishes, freeze them, and later thaw, fertilize, and implant them. Official use No. 1: enable cancer patients to have babies if they have to begin fertility-killing chemo before they can do the ovarian stimulation for IVF. Official use No. 2: substitute IVM for IVF generally, since it's cheaper and safer to mature eggs in the lab than to stimulate ovaries with hormone drugs. Off-label use No. 1: Affordable backup egg supply for any woman who fears infertility. Off-label use No. 2: Instant solution to the shortage of human eggs for research. Off-label use No. 3: Parentally arranged backup egg supply for your 5-year-old daughter. (See item below for IVM using eggs of prepubescent girls. To debate the multiplying scenarios for artificial procreation, click here.)
Scientists found a chemical way to eliminate fat. Findings in mice: 1) A natural substance called NPY translates stress and junk food into fat. 2) If you put it under skin, fat grows around it. 3) If you inject a NPY-blocking chemical, mice don't get fat even when they eat junk food and are stressed. 4) The NPY blocker can dissolve half a fat deposit in two weeks. Previous finding: Humans don't get fat if their NPY receptors are impaired. Authors' spins: 1) We can get rid of fat! 2) We can fatten your boobs, in a good way! 3) It's all-natural! Critiques: 1) In humans, the NPY blocker might fail or cause bad side effects. 2) Mice that didn't eat junk food didn't get fat. 3) Mice that ate junk food but avoided stress didn't get so fat, either. (For Human Nature's take on gluttony and sex without consequences, click here. To discuss the wisdom of helping people stay slim while eating junk food, click here.)
Military clinics are encouraging soldiers to get laser eye surgery. Troops most likely to go to Iraq get top priority. Rationales: 1) Soldiers "perform better if they don't have to worry about breaking eyeglasses, losing contact lenses, or fogging of glasses and lenses at crucial moments." 2) It "removes concerns about their compatibility with night vision goggles, gas masks, [and] aiming devices." One Army clinic is urging soldiers to ask about the procedure if their vision is 20/50 or worse; the officer in charge of the clinic advertises, "Now I'm 20/15 in both eyes." (For Human Nature's take on steroids, LASIK, and pushing eyesight beyond 20/20, click here.)
Doctors rapidly matured eggs from prepubescent girls. They extracted immature eggs from 16 girls, including seven eggs from a 5-year-old, eight from an 8-year-old, and 17 from a 10-year-old. The eggs "were then matured in a Petri dish over one to two days until they resembled those of a 20-year-old woman." The procedure "achieved full maturation in 41" of 130 eggs. The eggs were then frozen; it's not yet known whether they'll be viable when thawed. All the girls had cancer. Official rationale: Now girls who survive cancer and chemo can have babies when they're ready. Off-label use No. 1: Now parents of any girl can have some of her eggs extracted, rapidly matured, and frozen just in case she later becomes infertile. Off-label use No. 2: Instant solution to the shortage of human eggs for research. Off-label use No. 3: Instant grandchild to replace your cancer-stricken daughter. (To debate the ethics of accelerating the maturation of eggs from minors, click here.)
Scientists derived embryonic stem cells from human eggs without fertilization or cloning. This is a variant of parthenogenesis, which has produced lizards, sharks, and turkeys, but has never produced a live mammal. Scientists' spin: Now we can make stem cells without medically troublesome "animal-derived components" and without ethically troublesome human embryos. Catholic critique: "If these grow as organized embryos for the first few days and then arrest, they may just be very short-lived human beings." Even a leading scientist calls them "a different kind of embryo." (For Human Nature's take on parthenogenesis and virgin births, click here.)
Researchers took a big step toward creating synthetic life. They transplanted one microorganism's genome into another, completely changing its identity and behavior. The goal down the road is to create a genome and then do the transplant, so the new organism will be man-made. Scientists' spins: 1) We can make bacteria that produce fuel and fight global warming! 2) Don't worry, the bacteria we're using don't cause disease, and we can engineer them to self-destruct if they escape the lab. Rebuttal: Somebody else could use the same techniques to engineer bacteria that do cause disease or wreak some other kind of havoc. (To debate the wisdom of making synthetic life, click here.)
Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The reunion of man and beast. 2) The spread of virgin births. 3) The abolition of menstruation. 4) The chess match of man and machine. 5) Ultrasound and the future of abortion. 6) The global market in human organs. 7) The evolution of brains and morals. 8) Machines that read your mind. 9) Invasion of the naked body scanners. 10) The future of pain-beaming weapons.