There is nothing special about dying at 27

This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The National Times on 26 July 2011 under the title “Sad Amy’s legacy adds up to more than 27”. Head there to see the comments, which split more or less evenly between folks who question the characterisation of addiction as a disease (which comes from the Russell brand quote near the end of this article) and those who have some sympathy for addicts. I was pleased to receive an email from Dr Ingrid van Beek AM (addiction physician who ran the King’s Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, and who thus knows a great deal about addiction), saying “I just wanted to let you know that as an addiction physician I totally agreed with your article in this week’s SMH about Amy Winehouse’s recent death”. According to Ingrid, “drug dependence is a chronic relapsing condition, and aim to mobilise support to keep people alive throughout its natural course”. Very well put!

The other issue that folks riased in the original comments is whether Amy deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other members of Club 27. I’m only a distant admirer of Winehouse’s music, and I’d question her merit myself, but these comments suggest a believe that this Club 27 is some kind of real thing, attained by merit. As though musicians are only able to be admitted (by dying) once they reach a certain level of influence and stardom. Not only is this ungenerous, but it is also ridiculous.

Every one of the so-called members simply had the misfortune to die at a certain, arbitrary, age. Just because we can discern a pattern in the world does not mean that the pattern is real. it’s like our ability to see Mother Teresa in the shape of a bun, or the Virgin Mary in a fencepost at Coogee beach. It’s the kind of psuedo-profound drivel that props up cultish and religious supersition.

The only sense in which Club 27 is real is that it adds fuel to the publicity fire, elevating the artist’s sales even more than dying at a less coincidental age like 26 or 30 might do.


Continue reading There is nothing special about dying at 27

Sex, Genes & Rock is Back to Black

Many of you will have noticed that this website was recently hacked. Thanks to Gary Eckstein who sorted out my troubles super-quick. Please use him if you need a WordPress expert. Sorry if the problems with this site inconvenienced you or made you feel dirty.

Today, I published my first-ever op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald, on Amy Winehouse’s death and the fact that there is nothing special about dying at 27. Nothing special about the age of 27, and nothing special about dying. I criticise those who benefitted from her death, but resisted the temptation to argue that by dying of 27 she’ll be elevated to the status of a Cobain/Hendrix/Joplin, whether she deserves that or not. That said, any attempts by me to shift some sweet units of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll were purely ironic.


To share is human

This commentary on a Nature paper by Katharina Hamann and collaborators was first published in The Conversation on 21 July 2011.

Is children’s tendency to share the spoils of their collaboration due to our hunting and gathering past?

One glance at our species can give the impression that we’re conniving, selfish and pretty greedy.

But look at other species and you’ll get a broader perspective: compared to other animals, people are superbly cooperative, and able to collaborate on a breathtaking scale. And we share a strong sense of how to fairly share the spoils.

As a parent I know that there are few more acute forms of embarrassment than when a young child refuses to share with another. By school age, children usually know how to share and do so freely – especially with close friends and family.

The rules that shape how we collaborate with one another and how we divide the spoils are critical to the functioning of human societies. But we still don’t know much about these rules, and how we acquire our knowledge of them. Continue reading To share is human

Why poor people in wealthy countries are at greatest obesity risk

This article was first published in The Conversation on 18 July 2011 under the title “From scraping by to pizza and pie: how protein price drives obesity”. It is based on part of the argument in Chapter 2 of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World

Adult male and female obesity rates in relation to National Income. Dot size indicated Gross National Income in Purchasing Power Parity (GNI PPP). The line indicates equal percentage of adult men and women are obese. Data are fromt he WHO Obesity databases.

For the first time ever, the number of overweight people on Earth outweighs the number that are undernourished.

From the obesity crisis flows a cascade of health and social problems: it burdens healthcare services, hobbles workforces and ruins lives. Yet despite its tragic importance, we still don’t fully understand the causes of the obesity crisis. Energy-dense foods are definitely part of the problem though.

Pizza and French fries contain  twice the energy of lean meat, and ten times as much energy as broccoli.

Tackling the obesity crisis requires us to reverse the rising tide of energy-dense take-away and pre-prepared foods, substituting them with simpler old-fashioned foods, such as meat and veggies.

But why do we scoff these energy-dense foods in the first place? Well, perhaps because they are more affordable. A consumer gets more kilojoule for their buck from chips and pizza than from broccoli and lean meat – why spend more on healthy foods when pizza or chips are cheaper (and tastier)?

We tend to think of obesity as a side-effect of Western opulence. It isn’t: the seven countries with the highest obesity rates are all relatively poor Pacific island nations (see the graph). And in wealthy nations the obese are far more likely to be poor than wealthy. The rich can afford to eat well, but poor people are trapped into eating unhealthy energy-dense foods. 

Continue reading Why poor people in wealthy countries are at greatest obesity risk

The rules controlling IVF-based sex selection need to stay as they are

This is the full text of an article I published in ABC Science Online on 15 June 2011 (Where it stimulated some discussion). The article builds on some of the ideas in Chapter 8 of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Pressure is mounting to allow parents using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to choose the sex of their child.

This is an emotive issue with many private tragedies at its heart. Like the Melbourne couple with three sons who lost a daughter soon after birth, and then sought to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure they had a baby girl. Some insights from evolutionary biology, and a massive tragedy that is now unfolding in Asia, illustrate why the Victorian Patient Review Panel was right to reject the bid of these grieving parents.

When there is a real chance of a baby of one sex (but not the other) inheriting a genetic condition like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, IVF clinics routinely use PGD to ensure that they only implant embryos of the sex that cannot inherit the disease. And so they should. But until 2005, many Australian clinics also used PGD to let parents “balance” their families, or even to simply choose the preferred sex of their child. That is now illegal. But as new sex-selection technologies like sperm sorting emerge, many IVF clinics are lobbying to legalise these technologies — at least for those parents who can pay the hefty fees.

Libertarians argue that if no public money is used to subsidise sex-selection, then governments should butt out. But there are costs of sex-selection that will be borne not by the people who choose the sex of their children, or even by those children themselves, but by the sons of those families too poor to select the sex of their child and by society as a whole.

In most societies, far more women marry upward into wealthier families than downward into poorer families. As a result, daughters born into wealthy families have a harder time finding husbands than their brothers have finding wives (because those wealthy daughters compete with one another and with girls from poorer families for the few wealthy boys). Conversely, sons in the poorest families find it far more difficult to marry than their sisters do (because few girls will stoop to marry the poorest men). Continue reading The rules controlling IVF-based sex selection need to stay as they are