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. Follow him on Twitter.


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.)