The genetic reversal of sexual orientation.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 27 2007 8:49 AM

The Worm Turns

The genetic reversal of sexual orientation.

New column 10/26 on race and intelligence. (For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

James Watson retired as chancellor of his lab after an uproar over his comments about evolution, Africans, and inferior intelligence. (For his quotes, click here and read the 2nd and 4th items.) Watson's spins: 1) I'm old, and it's time to go. 2) I'm sorry to leave on a bad note. 3) My parents believed in "social justice, especially the need for those on top to help care for the less fortunate." 4) "I have always striven to see that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all." Translated spins from Watson's lab: 1) Please remember Watson for deciphering DNA and fighting cancer and mental illness, not for racism. 2) Please think of us as a worthy place for your medical research dollars, not as that racist guy's lab. Human Nature's view: Watson still doesn't have his story straight.

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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Genetic brain manipulation can change sexual orientation in worms. Experiment: Scientists activated a male-determining gene in the brains of "female" worms. The worms' bodies stayed female, but their sexual interest shifted to females. Conclusions: 1) Sexual orientation is hard-wired. 2) This study bolsters other research (in flies and mice) indicating that the capacity for male sexuality is wired into female brains, subject to a genetic switch. 3) "Humans are subject to evolutionary forces just like worms," so maybe we're wired the same way. Caveats: 1) It's just worms. 2) The worms have no eyes, almost no males (one in 500), and the "females" are really hermaphrodites. 3) Our brains are a lot more complicated. Related: Brokeback Mutton and more on gay sheep.

Employee benefits are shifting as marriage and parenthood decline.  Data: 1) 42 percent of U.S. adults are now unmarried. 2) In 35 years, the proportion of unmarried women who marry each year has declined by half. 4) In 40 years, the proportion of households that have kids under 18 has declined from almost half to less than a third, and soon it'll fall to a fourth. Single/childless complaints: 1) Parents get more freedom to leave work than we do. 2) The work they leave undone gets dumped on us. 3) They get paid better. 4) Company benefits are designed for them, not us. Result: As the balance of power shifts away from parents and married couples, companies are rethinking the distribution of hours, salaries, and benefits. (Related: Most American women no longer live with a husband, and married couples are no longer a majority of U.S. households.) Single perspective: We want "equal respect for nonwork life." Parents' perspective: Our nonwork life is more important than yours. Human Nature's view: Now that I'm a parent, I see that the parents are right.

Several U.S. military widows have produced children using their dead husbands' sperm. These are not pregnancies that were underway when the husband died; they're pregnancies that didn't exist. A leading sperm bank has offered discounts to servicemen going to Iraq; many have banked sperm in case they're exposed to chemicals that damage their fertility. Arguments for using the sperm: 1) It's part of the life my husband and I could have had. 2) "When he died, I was 40 and it's not like I had time to look for another person." 3) The sperm bank offered servicemen the discount explicitly "to help ensure the future of their families." 4) The child can be "something good that came out of the war." Objections: 1) Maybe "the guy hadn't planned to die, so he didn't say you could use his sperm." 2) Even if he did, the widow might regret bearing his child when she later "meets someone else." Related: 1) The first court-approved production of a baby between a corpse and a stranger. 2) Human Nature's take on making and selling embryos from strangers.

Doctors are promoting a new way to detect whether you've been smoking. A "pulse cooximeter" is attached to your finger and measures, through illumination of the fingernail bed, the percentage of carbon monoxide in your blood. Six percent or more identifies you as a smoker. Proposed uses: "screening smoking status in … smoking cessation programs, high schools, hospitals, and the workplace." Test developers' arguments: 1) It's quick, cheap, and noninvasive. 2) It helps doctors catch patients who falsely deny that they smoke. 3) It's better than testing saliva or blood. One doctor already "routinely uses the test as part of a patient work-up." Related: To trim health costs, some companies already use random urine or breathalyzer tests to spot nicotine.

California became the third state to banobligatory implantation of radio-frequency identification chips in people. The chips are used to track consumer goods and animals. Recent developments: 1) The FDA approved a chip for people, to encode your medical history so doctors can call it up if you can't speak. 2) A company required some of its workers to accept chip implants. 3) Several Mexican officials were chip-implanted for access to restricted premises. 4) An elementary school ordered students to wear chip-implanted badges. 5) At least 2,000 people have been implanted. Rationale for implanting chips: If you let people wear the chips externally, on ID cards or badges, they can be transferred, thereby thwarting surveillance. Electronics industry's argument against further regulation of chip implants: "There are uses where subcutaneous chips are highly useful—with Alzheimer patients or diabetes." Related: 1) Mandatory GPS for felons. 2) Bar codes are turning the physical world into an Internet. Human Nature's view: Chip implants in people will become common thanks to parents.

The leader of the worldwide Anglican Church warned that society is losing its respect for unborn human life. Archbishop of Canterbury's concerns: 1) One of every three European pregnancies is aborted, which means abortion has become normal. 2) This is far from what reformers had in mind 40 years ago, when they legalized abortion as a last resort in severe circumstances. 3) "The development of embryo research has brought with it the hint of a more instrumental approach to the human organism." 4) The same thing is happening to marriage: Divorce and unmarried co-habitation, once exceptional, have become normal. On-message pro-choice reaction: Abortion isn't casual; women agonize over it. Off-message pro-choice reaction: Abortion is nothing to agonize about; it's just "a necessary back-up for women when they don't want to have a child." (Human Nature's take: The archbishop is right about abortion and embryo research.)

The biggest fat-prevalence study ever suggests that most of the world's people may be overweight. Sample: 168,000 people who visited doctors in 63 countries on five continents. Findings: 1) One of every four people measured was obese. 2) Another 40 percent of men and 30 percent of women were overweight. 3) The pattern held for all regions except South and East Asia. Researchers' pitch: Our results reflect the whole world, including representative samples of rural areas. Skeptical view: The sample consisted of people visiting doctors, and since poor people in developing countries don't visit doctors, the study overestimates fat and underestimates malnutrition. (Human Nature's view: The global fat epidemic is real.)

Analysts say terrorist bombs are coming to the U.S., and we're not prepared for them. Expected threats: truck bombs, suicide bombers on foot, and small boats and planes. Warning signs: bombings in Madrid and London, and a Jordanian car bomber who showed up in Chicago four years ago. Old U.S. attitude: IEDs are a problem in Iraq, so let's spend $15 billion to fight them there. New realizations: 1) Iraq has become a testing and training ground for IED technology. 2) The Internet is spreading Iraq's technical lessons to jihadis worldwide. 3) The U.S. is spending peanuts on bomb prevention at home. (Human Nature's view: The bombers will start hitting us soon, and we'll look back on these complacent years the way we now look back on the years before Sept. 11. So learn the lessons of Iraqi IEDs now.)

Parents are debating schools' provision of prescription birth control to girls aged 11 to 13. Middle schools in Baltimore are doing it; Portland, Maine, is now joining them. The Maine GOP and the local bishop are pressing the Portland school board to reverse itself. Arguments against it: 1) It violates parental rights. 2) It encourages premature sex. 3) Sex with a 13-year-old isn't just wrong; it's illegal. Arguments for it: 1) Middle schoolers are getting pregnant, so let's face the reality that some are having sex. 2) The schools' job is to protect girls so they can finish their education. 3) Providing the pills doesn't cause more sex. 4) We won't give them to prepubescent kids. 5) We'll report illegal underage sex. 6) Parents still have control, since kids can't use the clinics without a waiver. Human Nature's view: The average age of puberty has already fallen from high school to middle school, so wake up and smell the teen spirit. (Would you sign the waiver? I would.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 2) The lessons of Iraq. 3) Rethinking the age of consent. 4) The best sex stories of 2007. 5) Are conservatives stupid? 6)  Larry Craig's anti-gay hypocrisy. 7) The jihad against tobacco. 8)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited.