Reality TV takes on organ donation, semen may be an antidepressant, and Kanzi shows off his language skills.

Reality TV has just gotten a little more unreal. Last friday, Dutch television network BNN aired De Grote Donorshow (The Big Donor Show), where a terminally ill brain tumor patient chose which of three contestants would receive her kidney. Viewers were able to advise the donor via text message. The show has generated more than a little controversy, with Dutch Minister of Health Ab Klink and minister in charge of media Ronald Plasterk deeming the show “inappropriate and unethical because of the contest element.” Dutch doctor’s federation KNMG issued a statement saying, “The suffering of people should never be the object of an amusement show”—apparently they’ve never watched the American Idol audition episodes—and noting that the transplant would not necessarily succeed. BNN defended its program saying it hoped to raise awareness about the need for organ donors and several people had called in volunteering their kidneys for the show’s losers. Dutch health authorities say there has been no overall rise in the rate of donor registry.
UPDATE: The show was revealed to be an elaborate hoax.

Addicted to Love
While catching a sexually transmitted infection or having an unwanted pregnancy is hardly cause for joy, a controversial 2002 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior concluded that semen may act as an antidepressant, and women who do not use condoms are less depressed and may actually become addicted to semen. The author of the study, SUNY Albany psychologist Gordon Gallup, says he has recently replicated his findings with an increased subject pool of 700 women, and he plans to examine whether “semen withdrawal” during periods of likely abstinence could put women at a higher risk for depression. In the original study, Gallup surveyed 293 college women and found that those who did not use condoms during sex were less depressed and less likely to attempt suicide than those who did. He also found that they became more depressed as time elapsed since last intercourse—an effect not present in those who used condoms—which led him to the possibility that chemicals absorbed from semen might be addictive. Gallup emphasizes that his study does not mean heterosexual couples should stop using condoms. There’s nothing like a smelly diaper to kill a high.

Alley Cats
Cheetahs play fast and loose. We always knew they were fast, able to run at an impressive 65 miles per hour, and now a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B concludes that female cheetahs are indeed less than uptight. The authors of the study used noninvasive genetic sampling to test paternity of cheetah cubs, and they found that 43 percent of litters with more than one cub had multiple fathers, and some litters had as many as three fathers. The researchers conclude that female cheetahs are highly promiscuous, often choosing to mate with multiple males during a single estrus cycle. Lady cheetahs release eggs via induced ovulation: When they mate, the act stimulates hormones, which cause the production of a new egg. This way, they can successfully mate with multiple males, conjuring up a new egg for every batch of sperm. The researchers say that while promiscuity could expose cheetahs to disease, the genetic diversity that results may help the endangered species’ chance for survival. A single litter with multiple fathers could also prevent infanticide. “It may create confusion in the males,” said one of the study’s authors. “In that case it’s better not to kill any cubs in case they were yours.” 

But Can You Talk the Talk?
This week, ABC news aired an interview with Kanzi, a 26-year-old bonobo currently living in the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. Correspondent John Berman asked hard-hitting questions such as, “Kanzi, can you show me an egg?” and “Kanzi, can you show me M&Ms?” They may not be “Did you have a part in firing those federal prosecutors?” but at least Kanzi’s answers were to the point. Upon each request, the ape touched one of 350 lexigrams, symbols that represent objects and ideas. When Berman asked for the egg, Kanzi touched the egg…several times. Let’s work on singulars and plurals, Kanzi! Director of Ape Language Research William Fields told Berman, “Qualitatively, there is no difference between Kanzi’s language and my language. It’s a matter of degree.” Fields says that the key to getting apes to understand English is teaching them while they’re young and impressionable. “It allows Kanzi to tell me if his stomach hurts, his head hurts or if he’d like to be alone or if he’s afraid or scared,” he said. The apes aren’t quite up to the task of recursion or even, well, simple sentence structure, so some might argue there’s more than a little qualitative difference between our language and Kanzi’s. But after watching questioning sessions where “Can you show me the emails?” is met with a blank stare, Kanzi starts to look like an excellent and dependable interviewee.

How You Use It
Size matters…to men. Take, for instance, the Topinama of Brazil, who try to get bitten by poisonous snakes so their penises will enlarge for six months. After examining 50 international research projects carried out since 1942, authors of a review paper recently published in the British Journal of Urology can firmly conclude that anxiety over penis size is a normal part of the male experience, while women care far more about a man’s personality and physical attractiveness. They found that in a survey of over 50,000 heterosexual men and women, 85 percent of the ladies said they were satisfied with their man’s size, but only 55 percent of the men were content with themselves. Men who were of normal size were far more likely to experience “small penis syndrome”—excessive concern and anxiety about penis size—than men with a micropenis. The researchers also tackled the ever-important “what’s average?” question, and found that in the 12 studies that measured the penises of 11,531 men, the average length of an erect penis ranged from 5.5 to 6.2 inches in length and 4.7 to 5.1 inches in girth. And despite many interesting stereotypes, the researchers found no solid evidence of size difference between races…although one study of Korean men suggested a somewhat smaller average. The researchers suggest that normalizing the situation and providing accurate information could help them calm their anxiety.

Originally published June 4, 2007

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