Michael Crichton takes on a critic, female geckos don't need mates, and scientists study families that feel no pain.

Swinging Both Ways
You may have heard that handedness, like sexual orientation, is not a choice. And for the majority of us inflexible, pre-oriented losers, this is true. But the few, the proud, the ambidextrous can not only write with either hand, but also have a higher likelihood of being bisexual or dyslexic. According to a recent study published in the journal Brain and Cognition, people who are comfortable writing with either hand have a higher prevalence of bisexuality, homosexuality, dyslexia, asthma and hyperactivity than people who strongly favor one hand. Researchers used data gathered online from 255,000 participants in a BBC survey. Previous studies have not been able to make conclusions about ambidextrous people, because they comprise such a small portion of the population. But even though less than one percent of respondents said they could comfortably write with either hand, the incredible size of the subject pool gave the researchers an analyzable sample of switch-writers. While the authors found no significant difference between left-handed people and right-handed people, they discovered that the ambidextrous performed worse in mental rotation tasks, indicating they have poor spacial ability, and that they were over-represented in sexual minorities, especially bisexuality. The authors emphasize, however, that bisexuals, dyslexics, asthmatics, and hyperactive people still only comprise a minority of ambidextrous people. They also write, “We conclude that contradictions in the literature as to whether or not these variables are linked to handedness stem largely from different definitions of hand preference.” Guys, it’s not a preference. It’s an orientation.

The Pen Is Mightier
According to The New Republic editor Michael Crowley, in the novel State of Fear, “[Michael Crichton] creates one character, a pompous bleeding heart clearly modeled after Martin Sheen, and then feeds him to cannibals.” When Crowley wrote this passage, part of an essay criticizing Crichton for presenting global warming as a conspiratorial hoax (shorter, freer version here), he didn’t know how lucky Mr. Sheen was. Crowley, a Yale grad and Washington political journalist, reports that Crichton’s newest novel, Next, contains a character named “Mick Crowley,” a “Yale graduate” and “Washington-based political columnist” charged with “the sexual assault of a two-year-old boy.” And, oh yeah, the fictional Crowley’s “penis was small.” Crowley (the real one) says he’s actually somewhat flattered by the hat tip, noting that, “If someone offers substantive criticism of an author, and the author responds by hitting below the belt, as it were, then he’s conceding that the critic has won.” Crowley’s 3,700-word essay, published last spring, criticized Crichton’s influence on President Bush and environmental policy, noting that Crichton testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and conservative Senator James Inhofe tried to make the fictional State of Fear required reading for the committee. While Crichton has not yet responded to the accusations that he turned his critic into a poorly-endowed child-rapist, I eagerly await the day when I can open his next novel and find an abusive, ruler-wielding fourth grade teacher named Miss Crooney. We’ll be so proud.

Save the Best for First
If you ever face the decision of whether to get a Ph.D. in economics or in a real science, a new study may help steer you in the right direction.  Hey, White, Yang, and Zeller, I’m talking to you: According to a paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, faculty with last names earlier in the alphabet are significantly more likely to get tenure at the top ten economics departments in the country than faculty with alphabetically late surnames. The early Birds and Aaronsons are also more likely to become fellows of the Econometric Society and are marginally more likely to get the Clark Medal or the Nobel Prize. The researchers controlled for country of origin, ethnicity, religion, and other factors. The authors, Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv (the latter of whom will no doubt promptly fade into obscurity), contend that the convention in economics of listing authors alphabetically instead of by degree of contribution has likely led to this slight discrepancy. In the field of psychology, where coauthors are ordered in a more civilized, non-alphabetical way, there is no relationship between tenure status and alphabetical placement, the researchers found.

No Sex, Please, We’re Geckish
Men—who needs them? If you’re a human female looking to reproduce, you do. But if you’re a mourning gecko in the Northern Territory of Australia, forget the bastards; they’re nowhere to be found and totally unnecessary. Recently, the Northern Territory Environmental Minister announced that the female mourning gecko has learned to simulate sex and produce eggs, and these ladies are now reproducing without the help of males. While sexual reproduction may confer the benefit of weeding deleterious mutations from the species, these geckos seem to be doing just fine without it. While the daughters are genetically very similar to their mothers, they do not appear to be exact clones. This serpentine sisterhood, which invaded from Asia, is threatening native geckos, and the bulk of the Northern Territory’s 38 gecko species have been pushed out into the bushland. To add insult to sexual-selection-theory-injury, the Australian city most affected by the gecko sorority party is, of course, Darwin.

Not Everybody Hurts
While headaches, burns, and bruises detract from our daily lives, they usually deliver useful life-lessons: Drink water; don’t touch the stove while it’s on; don’t fight the steel bars, they’ll win every time. In other words, no pain, no gain. But scientists, clever buggers that they are, have managed to gain knowledge from three related Pakistani families who are unable to experience pain. In a study recently published in Nature, researchers found that an unusual mutation in a gene called SCN90 disrupts the function of sodium ions in certain nerve fibers, so damage-sensing cells have no discernible current. The authors began their research by studying a young street performer in Pakistan who walked on hot coals and drove knives through his arms. The boy-who-never-cried-uncle was perfectly healthy aside from his inability to feel pain—other people who don’t feel pain have experienced problems from damaged nerves. The boy died at age 14 after jumping off a roof, and the researchers moved on to study his relatives, many of whom had broken bones and some of whom had chewed off parts of their tongues. They hope their findings will lead to painkillers that act by blocking this sodium pathway.

Make the Cut
And God said unto Abraham, “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13) God may not have been thinking in 21st century terms when he talked about slavery, but he was sure on top of his game when it came to HIV prevention. The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently announced an early end to two clinical trials in Kenya and Uganda, with a combined subject pool of over 7,500 men, concluding that circumcision reduces HIV acquisition through heterosexual intercourse by about 50 percent. The researchers suggest that medical circumcision could lower HIV rates in Africa, where many men are uncircumcised and HIV is transmitted mostly through heterosexual sex. They say it would probably be a less effective technique in the U.S., where the majority of men are already circumcised, and many of the men infected with HIV have sex with other men—the effects of circumcision on HIV transmission via homosexual sex have not yet been tested. The research team will offer circumcision to all of the men placed in the uncircumcised test group. While circumcision is turning out to be surprisingly effective tool for reducing rates of HIV infection, the NIH says it should be used with other preventative measures, including condoms.

Yo, Soy!
The blogosphere was hit with a wave of that “I can’t believe it’s science” feeling this week, when the headline of a WorldNedDaily opinion piece declared “A devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals.” (The title of the article has since been changed.) In the article, Megashift Ministries chairman James Rutz points a manly finger at the soy bean, destroyer of worlds that it is, claiming that large quantities of soy will suppress a man’s “masculinity” and may decrease the size of his penis and/or redirect his sexual orientation. Rutz says, “when you eat or drink a lot of soy stuff, you’re also getting substantial quantities of estrogens.” He’s not totally off-base right there: Soy does contain isoflavones, which can weakly mimic estrogens. However, there is also some evidence to indicate that soy can decrease estrogen synthesis and aid in preventing breast cancer. There is also no research to indicate that soy consumption decreases penis size or makes people gay. There is some marmoset research showing that infants fed with soy formula milk experience puberty normally and have the same penis length as their twins. Soy formula milk-fed marmosets actually had greater testis weight than their twins. Take that, James Rutz: Soy gives you big balls.

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Originally published December 18, 2006

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