A carbon tax on parents for procreating.

A carbon tax on parents for procreating.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 13 2007 8:12 AM

Birth in the Balance

A carbon tax on parents for procreating.

(New column 12/7 on political robo-calls. For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Philosophers are embracing experiments. Old method: armchair theorizing. New methods: surveys to find out how people think; brain scans to detect whether they're calculating or emoting. Buzzwords: "experimental philosophy," "x-phi." Old-style claim: It's human nature to say or do such-and-such. New-style claim: In our sample, humans said or did such-and-such. Example: Philosophers traditionally infer an act's blameworthiness from its intentionality, but experiments indicate that ordinary often do the opposite. Case for x-phi: It "helps keep us honest and enforces a useful modesty about how much weight to give one's personal hunches." Case against it: 1) The point of philosophy is to clarify questions data can't resolve. 2) Philosophical truth isn't settled by a vote or MRI. 3) And on that point, real people agree with philosophers. (Human Nature's Question: Can brain scans determine what's right or wrong?)

William Saletan William Saletan

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


Australian doctors proposed a carbon tax on couples for procreating. Current policy: To promote population growth, Australia pays each couple about $3,500 per baby. Counterproposal: "Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behavior, a 'Baby Levy' in the form of a carbon tax should apply, in line with the 'polluter pays' principle." Details: You get two kids free; thereafter, you pay a $4,400 tax at birth, plus $350 to $700 per year "for the life of the child." Rationales: 1) This is a conservative estimate of the cost of planting enough trees to offset your kid's carbon effects. 2) "Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, we should control the population to ensure the survival of the environment." 3) "We deserve no more population concessions than those in India and China." The good news: You'd get a carbon tax credit for using birth control. (Related: The deluded world of air conditioning.)

Scientists proved drugs can trigger homosexuality in fruit flies. Authors' report: 1) "We found that we could turn homosexual behavior on and off in a period of hours by genetic alteration … and/or by pharmaceutical manipulation." 2) Altered male flies became "attracted to normally unappealing male species-specific chemosensory cues" and "attempted to copulate with other Drosophila males." Theory: The altered males "were no longer recognizing male pheromones as a repulsive stimulus." Hype: 1) Orientation isn't "hard-wired" after all. 2) We'll discover how to "quickly alter humans' sexual orientation." Fine print: 1) Humans aren't flies. 2) Altered male flies "showed no alteration in heterosexual courtship or copulation," i.e., they were actually bisexual. Speculations: 1) "Designer libido." 2) Should parents be allowed to drug their gay kids? 3) Maybe straight losers will try becoming gay, or vice versa. 4) Maybe conservatives will embrace biotech as a cure for homosexuality. Human Nature's view: Some already have. (Related: Gay sheep and anti-gay medicine.)

A genetic analysis suggests James Watson is 16 percent African. Watson's genome is publicly available here; a company analyzed it and concluded his genes are "what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African." Watson previously said he was "inherently gloomy about the prospects for Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really." Critics' reactions to the DNA test: 1) Oops—looks like "their" genes are "ours"! 2) Why the gloom? A part-African kid can even grow up to become James Watson. 3) This shows Watson has "black genes." 4) This shows race isn't genetic; it's a social construction. Cautions: 1) Current genome analyses are often inaccurate. 2) The real impact of this one will be to scare people about genetic privacy. Fine print: "9% of Watson's genes are likely to have come from an ancestor of Asian descent." (Related: Human Nature's summaries of the Watson uproar.)

Michael Vick was sentenced to nearly two years in jail for running a dog-fighting ring, killing two dogs, and lying about it. A failed polygraph test led him to admit to hanging one dog. Judge's statement: It's a "cruel and inhumane sporting activity." Vick lawyers' spins: 1) He's a "young man." 2) He's clinically depressed. 3) He's already suffered financially. 4) His pot smoking while out on bond was just an attempt to "self-medicate." Animal welfare spins: 1) This is a landmark case in establishing the seriousness of abusing animals. 2) It'll deter other abusers. 3) We'll never forgive and forget what Vick did. NFL teams' spin: We will! Come sign with us when you get out, Michael. (Human Nature's view: Please don't eat the animals.)

A study says human evolution has accelerated and is increasing human differences. Key evidence: Comparative mutations in genomes around the world, plus estimations as to when each mutation arose. Researchers' conclusions: 1) "Humans are changing relatively rapidly on a scale of centuries to millennia. … We aren't the same as people even 1,000 or 2,000 years ago." 2) "Races are evolving away from each other. … Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin." Examples: malaria resistance in Africa, lactose tolerance in Europe, earwax dryness in Asia. Proposed reasons: 1) More people, so more mutations. 2) Higher population density, so more fatal epidemics. 3) Migration, so new habitats, so new selective pressures. 4) Agriculture, so dietary changes, so new diseases. 5) Little "flow of genes between the regions." Old idea: "Once people developed culture, they protected themselves from the environment and from the forces of natural selection." New idea: Selection actually increased, because "people also had to adapt to the environments that their culture created." Side comment: "Among the fastest-evolving genes are those related to brain development." Critiques: 1) Brought to you by the same guys who think Jews evolved high intelligence in this millennium … 2) and who now think "milk drinking gave lactose-tolerant Indo-European speakers more energy, allowing them to conquer a large area." 3) Research on genetic differences will lead to racism. 4) We don't know why most new genes were advantageous. 5) We're still 99 percent alike.

Annual deaths among children worldwide have been halved since 1960, according to a UNICEF report. Good news: 1) "In 2006, for the first time, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday fell below 10 million." 2) "The number of primary-school-age children who are out of school [fell] from 115 million in 2002 to 93 million in 2005–2006." 3) "The prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting has declined slowly but steadily during the past 15 years." 4) "Between 1990 and 2004, more than 1.2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water." Bad news: 1) "158 million children between ages 5 and 14 are engaged in child labor." 2) From 1990 to 2005, "insufficient progress has been made globally to reduce the maternal mortality ratio." 3) "In sub-Saharan Africa, only one out of four children of secondary school age attends secondary school." (For more data, read the whole report.)

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is under fire for having urged a quarantine of HIV carriers. Huckabee 1992: 1) "Homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk." 2) "We need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague." 3) The government spent too much money on AIDS research compared to other diseases, so maybe "celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and others who are pushing for more AIDS funding" should sponsor the research instead. Huckabee 2007: 1) "There was still too much confusion about HIV transmission in those early years." 2) "My concern was safety first, political correctness last." 3) I now favor spending billions on AIDS relief. Rebuttals: 1) Actually, by 1992, "it was well established that the virus could not be spread through casual contact." 2) How could a disease be dangerous enough to quarantine but too frivolous for federally funded research? Fray Contest: Try explaining this as Huckabee's press secretary. (Related: HIV, condoms, and the Vatican; HIV, condoms, and prosecution; HIV and blood donations; HIV and microbicides; HIV and circumcision; HIV and anal sex.)

The U.S. teen birth rate increased, and births tounmarried women jumped 8 percent to a new record. . The teen birth rate had fallen by more than a third over 14 years until now; nearly 40 percent of births are now to unmarried women. Liberal spins: 1) Abstinence programs have failed to stop teen sex. 2) They've scared teens away from contraception. 3) They've made kids sexually ignorant. Last year's conservative spin: Teen pregnancy is down because abstinence programs are working. This year's conservative spins: 1) Teen births are up because liberal sex ed isn't working. 2) The abstinence message is being drowned out by our sick culture that pushes kids into sex. 3) The birth rate is up because teens want more babies, not more sex. 4) The real problem is that we're failing to preach the evils of illegitimacy. Associated facts: 1) Birth rates are up generally. 2) Acceptance of illegitimacy is up. 3) Teen sex rates are up since 2001. 4) Condom use is up since 1991 but apparently down since 2003. 5) The decline in condom use might be due to a decline in fear that AIDS will kill you. Human Nature's view: Contraception is a net positive in reducing the abortion rate. (Discuss.)

Scientists are trying to fight global warming by changing animal flatulence. Emissions from livestock reportedly account for up to half of greenhouse gas emissions in some countries. Kangaroos have stomach bacteria that eliminate methane from their gas; scientists want to transfer these bacteria to sheep and cattle. Bonus: The bacteria could improve digestive efficiency by 10 to 15 percent, thereby reducing feed costs. Alternative proposal: Eat less cattle and more kangaroo meat: "It's low in fat, it's got high protein levels," and "it's the ultimate free range animal." (Related: HN's previous update on global warming and animal flatulence.)

China says it will stop sending women to labor camps as prostitutes for carrying condoms. Prevailing practice, according to an expert: "We have investigated many education-through-labor camps and we have found that for those sentenced for prostitution, the sole evidence was that they possessed condoms." New concern: AIDS prevention. New policies: 1) Police will "no longer take condoms as the proof of illegal sex activities in entertainment venues." 2) The government is calling for condom vending machines in public places. 3) "All hotels in Beijing will be required to provide condoms in every room by the end of next year." Related: 1) Hurray for condoms! 2) Do spray-on condoms count?

Car washing is the next target of environmental regulation. One county has banned rinsing car-wash detergent down storm drains; another city plans to restrict Boy-Scout car-wash fund-raisers; another has proposed to ban washing your car at home. Potential penalties include tickets or jail. Reasons: detergent pollution and water waste. Alternatives: commercial car-washes or "waterless" soaps that require no rinsing. Complaints: 1) The car-wash nannies will come for you next. 2) Car-wash detergent is nothing compared to all the other crap that gets washed into storm drains by nature. 3) Car-washing teaches kids teamwork and effort. 4) What if a dog poops on my sidewalk? 5) What about homeless people who wash themselves in public waterways? Human Nature's view: This is an easier call than regulating salt (see below) or trans fats—and it's better than wasting water and praying for rain.

A chimp beat trained college students at a number memory game. The game: You get a quick glance at numbers spread around a screen. The numbers turn into white boxes, and you have to click them in the order of the now-hidden numbers. Results: 1) At the beginner level, chimps matched humans at accuracy and beat them at speed. 2) At the most difficult level, the sole chimp competitor smoked the humans, getting 80 percent right vs. 40 percent. Human rationalizations: 1) The only reason chimps can beat us at this petty memory stuff is that we evolved a better use for our brain space: language. 2) It wasn't a fair fight because kids are better at this than adults are. (Related: 1) Humans are more spiteful than chimps. 2) Are we the offspring of human and chimp ancestors?)

A study says divorce is bad for the environment. Reason: Two households use more heat, light, and water than one. Cost: More than 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and more than 600 billion gallons of water in the United States in a single year. Unapproved conclusions: 1) Don't divorce. 2) Marry earlier. Approved liberal conclusions: 1) This isn't a matter for public policy. 2) Be more energy-efficient in your divorced household. 3) Get your own apartment instead of a house. 4) Remarry. 5) Cohabitation is just as good as marriage. 6) Polygamy is even better. 7) In fact, how about a commune? Unapproved conservative conclusions: cough, abortion, cough, gay marriage. (Related: 1) The case against polygamy. 2) It doesn't even work on TV.)

Doctors restored amputees' sensations of lost limbs. Method: They took nerves that used to connect to the patients' (now amputated) arms and hands, and they connected these nerves instead to the patients' chest muscles. Results: 1) The nerves spontaneously "traverse through muscle and breast tissue to the skin and occupy skin territory" on the chest. 2) "When this reinnervated skin is touched, the amputee feels as if the missing hand is being touched." 3) Received sensations include touch, heat, cold, and pain. Authors' conclusions: 1) Through mechanical transmission of stimuli to reinnervated skin, "An amputee may one day be able to feel with an artificial limb as although it was his own." 2) The more naturally you can feel things with your artificial hand, the more naturally you can use it. 3) Sensations from one body part can be relocated to another. Prurient view: We've seen that movie already. (Related: cyborg soldiers; cyborgs and transhumanism.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) The travesty of political robo-calls. 2) Are Jews genetically smart? 3) Newt Gingrich, environmentalist. 4) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 5) The lessons of Iraq. 6) Rethinking the age of consent. 7) The best sex stories of 2007. 8) Are conservatives stupid? 9)  Larry Craig's anti-gay hypocrisy. 10) The jihad against tobacco.

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