Pharyngula

i-78554838ebee49edca0c28edcdf41f55-3armboy.jpg

Call me perverse, but my first thought on seeing this kid was that I desperately want to see an x-ray of the pectoral girdle. It looks to me from this one picture that the lower arm must lack a scapula or a clavicle, or at best have fragments with screwy and probably nonfunctional connections. I don’t understand why the doctors are even arguing about which arm could be more functional, if the article is correct. Or why they’re even considering it important to lop one off: if there aren’t circulatory defects or it isn’t impairing the function of the ‘best’ arm, why take a knife to him?

Poor kid. It does look like a very weird and fascinating developmental aberration, though, and it sounds like there are other internal asymmetries that are going to make life rough for him.

Comments

  1. #1 ulg
    May 30, 2006

    Admit it, PZ. You’ve always dreamed of having a darling baby with not two, not 3, but EIGHT fully functional arms …

  2. #2 Peter Hollo
    May 30, 2006

    I suspect you mean TEN though, ulg.

  3. #3 Left_Wing_Fox
    May 30, 2006

    This reminds me of a Science Fiction short story I read as a kid in school. A father is taking his reluctant son to the zoo. The zoo holds a variety of animals, including a grey cheetah, now found only in captivity. Apparently, nuclear radiation from a past war had wiped out the camoflauge coloration of the cheetah, and they had gone extinct, along with many other animals that radiation had played holy hell with.

    The kid is too busy flicking peanuits at the animals though, and winds up getting his hand pauled by a three-eyed grizzley. Unfortunately, it has to be amputated. Tough break, but it’s not that bad; once upon a time humans only had two arms, so the loss of the third isn’t the handicap it used to be.

  4. #4 Elf M. Sternberg
    May 30, 2006

    No, you’re not crazy, PZ. That was exactly my thought when I first saw the kid: Man, where does the shoulder go in this case? I bet there’s not much hookup in there.

  5. #5 ulg
    May 30, 2006

    I suspect you mean TEN though, ulg.

    Arg. I revised my post 4 times, dithering back and forth between the octopus and the squid…

    Pedantically, I could argue that a squid has 8 arms as well, terming the other two appendages as tentacles – see this article for an example use of said terminology. Embarrassingly, I don’t know if that’s actually ‘correct’ terminology – I only know (a) it’s pretty common in popular science articles, and (b) it always seemed unfair that a squid’s tentacles deserved special terminology and an octopus’s arms, quite remarkable in their own right, seemingly did not deserve special terminology.

  6. #6 Kristine
    May 30, 2006

    Yep, Intelligent Design. Let’s put it in our schools.

    I hope they leave the kid alone. Who knows if he could end up with three functioning arms? Is surgery in this case about health concerns, or social conformity? Isn’t it dangerous to operate on someone so young?

  7. #7 woofsterNY
    May 30, 2006

    When I saw the pic at an online news site, my first thought was that there’s been a lot of this “freak show” news in the past few years. Conjoined twins, face transplants, etc.

    It always makes me feel cheap and sleazy when I come upon stuff like this. Cheap and sleazy as a person, and cheap and sleazy as a journalist.

    The motivation for the photographer who took this picture, and the media who originally rushed it into print, was simple pandering at the level of a cheap carnival sideshow. The kid himself is the only part of this “story” that isn’t disgusting.

    (BTW, I’m not whacking at you, PZ.)

  8. #8 lytefoot
    May 30, 2006

    Often, deformities like this are the result of an incompletely formed conjoined twin (I don’t recall the term). It looks like this might be the case here (looking at the way the lower arm is jointed).

    Now, I suspect, from the description that the child “cried when either of his left arms was touched, but smiled and responded normally to other stimuli” that the reason they plan to remove one arm or the other is that they suspect they’re giving some discomfort. Of course, it’s also being done for social conformity… whether a little social conformity better or worse for a child is a seperate issue (one I’m torn on myself). Certainly it’ll be easier for him to have the arm removed now than to have it removed later in life, if he opts for social conformity. Just one of those decisions parents have to take for their newborns, like whether or not to circumcise.

    The article is unfortunately lacking in anything resembling technical detail… As far as I’m concerned, that’s the key issue with these “freek show” news stories. Not that they exist, but that they fail to provide any information, just a photo and a barker’s pitch. Wouldn’t it be great if they’d shown the X-ray, discussed expected causes of the deformity, etc.?

  9. #9 ulg
    May 30, 2006

    Wouldn’t it be great if they’d shown the X-ray, discussed expected causes of the deformity, etc.?

    Keep your eyes peeled for an article in Journal of Comparative Freak Anatomy.

  10. #10 Dark Matter
    May 31, 2006

    PZ Myers wrote:

    if there aren’t circulatory defects or it isn’t
    impairing the function of the ‘best’ arm, why take a knife to him?

    Well, the kid is going to have to compete in a world where
    jocks, movie stars and frauds get the most attention. If the
    extra arm works, and the parents decided not to remove it,
    the kid would be in for a lifetime of “You’re a nice guy, but……..”

    As with abstinence, those kind of principles sound feasible
    in theory, but much harder to actually live out.

  11. #11 tigger
    May 31, 2006

    On the gripping hand…

  12. #12 Lydia
    May 31, 2006

    Would this kid be an example of what the sonic hedgehog gene can do?

  13. #13 valhar2000
    May 31, 2006

    As Dark Matter implies, defending your right to exist as you are, loving yourself for who you are and expecting others to do so works well in movies, but not so well in real life.

    Does anyone think that poor kid stands a chance to have sex with a third arm hanging down? And, as we all know, sex is one of those things people get nervous about when they miss it…

  14. #14 ryoga
    May 31, 2006

    Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, both married and fathered about 20 kids. It’s sounds as if neither arm is fully developed and are missing bones needed to function. Could the arms be treated as arms with broken bones? Can either arm grow the missing bones?

  15. #15 Johnny Vector
    May 31, 2006

    This child obviously doesn’t exist. First of all, adding another arm is clearly creating information, and we know mutation can’t do that. Secondly, think of the vast number of genes that had to mutate or magically appear poof! in order to make that extra arm. Why, you’d need finger genes and wrist genes and elbow genes and who knows what-all else. The odds of all those things happening at once are clearly beyond the DBL (Dembski Believability Limit). Therefore this child doesn’t exist.

    I’m adding this one to the list of images to show creationists when they display their misunderstanding of development.

  16. #16 David Harmon
    May 31, 2006

    As lytefoot comments, the article suggests “between the lines” that neither left arm is really complete, and they hurt! This might actually be a genuine developmental “duplication” rather than the conjoined-twins thing — say, something like a limb bud that got a stray ripple in its localization gradients.

    Frankly, I don’t think “he shouldn’t have to be different” is sufficient reason for amputating a limb, if it were functional. In this case, I’m guessing they’ll need to combine parts from both arms to construct a new one.

    But was anyone else thinking “Motie”?

  17. #17 Colin
    May 31, 2006

    Apparently Tigger was.

  18. #18 Caledonian
    May 31, 2006

    Just one of those decisions parents have to take for their newborns, like whether or not to circumcise.

    Ah, but it seems the more distant the relationship of the decider, the less likely they are to tolerate anything out of the normal range. So parents decide to have parts of their sons’ penises cut off, and doctors decide to have parts of female infant patients’ clitorises cut off when they’re too big.

    Parents are simply not capable of making that kind of decision rationally and responsibly. The problem is that doctors are even less capable of doing so, which presents quite a problem.

  19. #19 quork
    May 31, 2006

    It says they’re calling the boy “Jie-jie”. I think Vishnu would be better.

  20. #20 woofsterNY
    May 31, 2006

    Circumcision has long bothered me too. Basically it’s

    1. Elective SURGERY

    2. On a BABY

    3. Because it’s like, uh, healthier. Or something.

    Heh. After Moties got mentioned, I had to scroll back up and look at the pic. Yep, strong right arm, two smaller left arms. But will he be a Master, an Engineer, a Mediator? I’m picturing a little booth at the next big SF convention …

  21. #21 lt.kizhe
    May 31, 2006

    But was anyone else thinking “Motie”?

    First thing that popped into my head.

    As Dark Matter implies, defending your right to exist as you are, loving yourself for who you are and expecting others to do so works well in movies, but not so well in real life.

    What he said.

    I was born with protruding ears, due to missing one of the customary folds (a trait that crops up in a few of my paternal relatives, apparently stemming from some ancient British ethnicity now long swallowed up in the melting pot). I got unmercifully teased for it at school (Anyone who thinks children are such sweet and innocent darlings has forgotten what completely obnoxious little bastards we were. All the nastiest cruelties of human tribalism play out daily in your nearest schoolyard.) So when I was about 8, I had plastic surgery to pin them back by adding the missing fold.

    I sort of regret that now (although I’m not sure what else I would have done). It’s a feeling that I somehow compromised my “self” for the sake of others’ arbitrary standards. In addition, I suspect I might hear better with those acoustic bowls sticking out.

    One of my sons has the same trait to a lesser extent. Fortunately, by the late 80’s there seemed to be more tolerance for minor differences, and boys’ hair styles were longer, so AFAIK it’s never been an issue for him.

  22. #22 Bill Dauphin
    May 31, 2006

    (First comment here, but I’ve been enjoying y’all’s discussion for several months now.)

    Motie? Absolutely… as with It.kizhe, it was the first thing I thought of. I’d seen headlines about this kid yesterday, but hadn’t seen pictures ’til I came here. I was surprised to see how well formed the extra arm seems to be, and I agree with PZ: If it’s even remotely functional, and not degrading the function of the “better” arm, I don’t see any reason to take it off. After all, the Moties had three arms as an evolutionary adaptation (you evolutionary biologists cut me a break; it is science fiction, after all): One strong arm on one side for power and two more delicate arms on the other side for fine work.

    As for…

    “Does anyone think that poor kid stands a chance to have sex with a third arm hanging down?”

    …if the third arm is functional, it’s not hard to see it as a sexual advantage, and it’s also not hard to believe that potential partners with imagination (the kind you want, no?) will instantly recognize that advantage. I’d actually expect a guy with three functional hands to do pretty well with the ladies! ;^)

  23. #23 Apikoros
    May 31, 2006

    I do not know these “Moties” of whom you speak. I am very uncool. No, my first thought was “Well, it will probably help him with his ski boxing.”

  24. #24 Bill Dauphin
    May 31, 2006

    “I do not know these ‘Moties’ of whom you speak.”

    They’re the aliens in the “first contact” SF novel The Mote in God’s Eye and its sequel The Gripping Hand, both by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. There are actually several classes (breeds? species? races?) of Motie, but the characteristic they share — and why they’re relevant here — is that they have three arms: One large, strong arm on one side and two smaller, more delicate arms on the other.

  25. #25 squeaky
    May 31, 2006

    As a percussionist, I have to admit I’m a bit envious of the kid! And what a great advantage at receptions and buffets!

  26. #26 Molly Newman
    May 31, 2006

    Wow, he looks really strong & alert for a two-month-old… I’d’ve guessed at least four or five.

    Maybe he cries when his left arms are touched ’cause people prod at them ALL the freakin’ TIME and have skeeved-out looks on their faces when they do so?

  27. #27 wintermute23
    May 31, 2006

    They’re the aliens in the “first contact” SF novel The Mote in God’s Eye and its sequel The Gripping Hand, both by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

    The Gripping Hand was Niven’s title for the sequel. Pournelle wanted The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye. The editors decided to use The Gripping Hand in America, and The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye in Europe.

    I’m glad my copy is British. Niven’s choice of title was awful.

  28. #28 PennyBright
    May 31, 2006

    What caught my eye was the tag end of the article – it seems to suggest that there may be something hinky in the genetics or environment of the Anhui province.

    Hopefully someone out that way will take a look at that – it sounds like an interesting research possibility.

  29. #29 Jay Denari
    May 31, 2006

    Yeah, Penny, that’s what caught my eye, too.

    IIRC, the Moties didn’t GAIN a third arm, they LOST a fourth.

  30. #30 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 31, 2006

    The third arm will be a social issue, and if there are the least concern (and realistically there is) it should come off ASAP. If the guy wont accept his arm he will be reminded every time he must fix clothes. I don’t think the opportunity to have two wedding rings are much comfort…

    “Because it’s like, uh, healthier. Or something.”

    Both male and female circumcicion means risks and pain. If we stick to male circumcision there are apparently several issues, which one can find on the web. If they are supported or not is often difficult to tell, it is a loaded quation apparently.

    It can have its uses when treating specific medical conditions, but it is debated.

    It can mean health benefits for women with sloppy male partners, but not if the man uses normal hygiene.

    Part of the removed tissue is used to present infectous material to the immune system. Circumcised males have more health issues. (As a private speculation, I’m not sure if it also affect the chance of pregnancy. Perhaps preparation of the male immunse system is beneficial for sperm quality.)

    It means lower sexual satisfaction for both partners. (Sexual mechanics with or without foreskin is apparently different!) Whether that is a healt problem or not, is depending on the point of view.

    My reflection is that since the removed tissue has at least two different functional uses, it is a clear case of amputation. How anyone can condone amputation on a healthy body I don’t understand.

  31. #31 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 31, 2006

    “How anyone can condone amputation on a healthy body I don’t understand.”

    Heh! I have a big logical inconsistency here. Assuming the three arm baby can be considered healthy, I must agree that social and estetical issues is also a concern. But I still find circumcision somewhat less understandable.

  32. #32 David Harmon
    May 31, 2006

    Tigger: Sorry I missed your comment, you got it first.

    Wintermute23: Actually, I think the British title is the dumb-sounding one! And yes, I am an American. Perhaps the publishers knew their audiences? 😉

    I’m noting an interesting split here between the (comparative) xenophobes and the xenophiles. The former group is arguing “that thing’s gotta go, or he’ll be an outcast”. Whereas the xenophiles are saying “three arms? cool!” I’d say both those positions partake heavily of projection, representing the speaker’s own reaction to this three-armed person. Obviously, I’m with the xenophiles!

  33. #33 David Harmon
    May 31, 2006

    Oh, and the Motie books have one interesting bit of baggage:

    It happened that in the years between the two books, I took Gould’s classic “tour of evolutionary concepts” course at Harvard. (Though I can’t remember the actual title, it was a Core-Curriculum course that was widely lauded.) At one point, he actually projected some cover-art for Mote, and proceeded to hold the Motie depiction up to some ridicule, as the muscle and bone structure was quite visible and entirely human, aside from the grafted-on arm.

    Well, apparently that or similar criticisms reached the authors, because the sequel included a lengthy discussion of Motie anatomy, highlighting the non-human aspects. (IIRC, their anatomy had only been casually described in the first book.) But of course Niven had already shown a good willingness to listen to his readers. (“The Ringworld is unstable!” led to some major plot elements in the later Ringworld books.)

  34. #34 Bill Dauphin
    May 31, 2006

    Why does it not surprise me that this crowd includes some very well read and detail-oriented SF fans?

  35. #35 wintermute23
    June 1, 2006

    David Harmon:

    The Mote / Moat thing is just perfect. You clearly know nothing.

    Also, I recently read Pandora’s Star by Peter F Hamilton (actually, I read it when it was first published, as I’m a big Hamilton fan, and then re-read it when I got the sequel recently. And both times, I couldn’t help but think that the major alien species in that was heavily influenced by the Moties. There are huge differences, but also some very telling similarities. No spoilers, in case people are reading it, but did anyone else feel the smae way?

  36. #36 Lydia
    June 1, 2006
  37. #37 Schizohedron
    June 1, 2006

    Ladies and gentlemen, we present baby Zaphod Beeblebrox.

  38. #38 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 1, 2006

    “I’d say both those positions partake heavily of projection, representing the speaker’s own reaction to this three-armed person.”

    I think you conflate your explanation with an anticipation of the worst (xenophobe) reaction.

  39. #39 daver
    June 5, 2006

    Motie was my first thought as well. The green fighting men of Barsoom was my second–i’d love to see the shoulder joint.

    If the kid was going to be growing up in a society that emphasized conformity, amputation may be a reasonable choice.

    My dad had told me about a cousin being born with six fingers–the doctor cut off the extra one pretty early on. I don’t know the reasoning behind this–I seem to remember that the sixth finger on people born with six is often only partially functional, so that may have been the reason. Or it may have been purely for the sake of conformity.

  40. #40 Bill Dauphin
    June 6, 2006

    “Motie was my first thought as well. The green fighting men of Barsoom was my second…”

    Didn’t the Barsoomian fighting men have four arms? (It’s been a couple decades since I last read the books.)

    “If the kid was going to be growing up in a society that emphasized conformity, amputation may be a reasonable choice.”

    Reasonable or not, it’s apparently a fait accompli. I gather both arms were “well formed,” and though neither was fully functional, the level of function was roughly equal between the two. I suppose in rural China the social implications of being a “freak” may be different than it would be in the U.S. or Europe. If it were my child, here in middle-class New England, it would’ve been very difficult for me to authorize removing an arm that was just as useful as the one we were keeping.

  41. #41 daver
    June 6, 2006

    Yeah, the green fighting men had four arms (or four legs, depending on what mode they were in).

    They mentioned that the arm that was removed couldn’t fully extend, and the elbow on the one that remains flexes both ways.

  42. #42 Lucy Gambrill
    March 5, 2008

    I want to buy this baby and put it in my boxing ring. How much will that cost?
    I hope this message is not offensive to certain cultures.

    Shing Hao,
    Lucy Gambrill the Shinged

  43. #43 Taimur Malik
    March 5, 2008

    I agree. I think today’s circuses (circi?) have been compromised by the explosion of capitalistic informational technology. We need to utilize this existence for the circuses (circi?) of America.

  44. #44 Sara 'Circus Freak' Friedman
    March 5, 2008

    My hair is crazy and so I’m on a circus.
    It is also known as the Circus.
    the ‘Circus’ refers to Sara Friedman’s Circus in Alabama Michigan.
    I will offer $5007 for the baby, but I want permission to put it into a seal-shaped glass vase before I enter any social contract, dammit dang.

    Sara Friedman

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