Sunday, August 19, 2018

Freedom and Aging Paper (Update)

A followup on my previous post, I was very pleased to learn that my new paper on freedom and aging has been accepted for publication in the scientific journal Rejuvenation Research.

I decided to write this paper because I believe that, for the first time in human history, senescence itself poses the greatest threat to our freedom. And yet aging is basically not on the radar of any political theorists or philosophers. Hopefully that will change.

I am very pleased the 8000 word article will be published in a high impact science journal, and will hopefully reach a large readership to garner greater societal support for modulating the aging process.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Genetic Ethics new available!

My latest book titled Genetic Ethics: An Introduction is now available from Polity Books for those interested in how the virtue ethics tradition can help us address the societal challenges posed by the genetic revolution.

I did a publisher's blog about the 5 years I spent writing the book here. An excerpt from that blog post:

When I first decided to start writing Genetic Ethics: An Introduction (nearly five years ago), I wanted the book to accomplish two, inter-connected, goals- the first goal was practical, and the second goal was more theoretical.

The practical goal was to help the reader confront the myriad of ethical and societal concerns that arise from the rapid advances in genetic knowledge and technologies like genome editing, sex selection and a potential anti-aging intervention. And I wanted this engagement with the ethical quandaries posed by the genetic revolution to be empirically informed not only about the science behind these innovations, but to also be informed about our evolved biology (e.g. why we age?) and the relevant realities of the world today (e.g. the global disease burden, patriarchy, climate change, etc.).

Is the prospect of “genetically engineering” humans- to make us live longer, healthier and happier lives- something to be hailed or feared? Would going down this path necessarily take us in the direction of re-visiting the unjust eugenic policies of the past? Is it desirable to extend human life longer when doing so could threaten to exacerbate problems like climate change and population density? And should parents have the liberty to select the sex of their offspring? These are pressing questions we must answer this century as the science is rapidly progressing, making these technologies a reality.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Centenarians and Cognitive Resilience

The June issue of The Journals of Gerontology: Series A has this interesting study which suggests that the offspring of centenarians are more successful at preserving their cognitive functioning at older ages than offspring from parents that do not live so long. And if this is so, it would make the benefits of an applied gerontological intervention even more significant.

A sample from the study's abstract:

After adjustment for age, sex, education, stroke, and diabetes, offspring were 46% less likely to have baseline cognitive impairment (adjusted odds ratio 0.54, 95% CI 0.35–0.82) and were 27% less likely to become cognitively impaired over a median follow-up of 7.8 years (adjusted hazard ratio 0.73, 95% CI 0.53–0.99). Female gender was also independently associated with lower odds of baseline cognitive impairment and lower risk of incident cognitive impairment.

Familial longevity may confer exposure to genetic and environmental factors that predispose centenarian offspring to preservation of cognitive function at older ages. Centenarian offspring cohorts may provide an opportunity to study cognitive resilience associated with familial longevity.


Friday, July 06, 2018

Fulbright Visiting Research Chair

I am on sabbatical in the Fall term. I posted substantive posts on my two previous posts- the first one at Oxford University in 2006 here, and my last sabbatical in 2013 at UCLA here.

"What is the purpose of a sabbatical?" my non-academic friends often ask me. The statement on Academic Leave from Queen's University explains:

The primary purpose of granting academic leave to members of faculty is to enable them to enhance their quality as scholars, teachers, and researchers, thereby assisting the University to achieve greater excellence in its basic areas of responsibility - effective teaching and the advancement of learning.

I am very happy to report that I will be spending my sabbatical as the Fulbright Research Chair in Social Sciences at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Queen's University has compiled some promotional news items about this, which is where the picture featured here is from. Details about the award are here, and a new autobiography about me for the University is here.

While away I will invest my energies into two main projects. Further research on the grant project titled "Justice in the Genomic Age", and some ground level research on a new book project about play and a realistic utopia.


Monday, July 02, 2018

Plateau of human mortality?

The latest issue of Science has an interesting study on the plateau of human mortality in advanced ages. The abstract:

Theories about biological limits to life span and evolutionary shaping of human longevity depend on facts about mortality at extreme ages, but these facts have remained a matter of debate. Do hazard curves typically level out into high plateaus eventually, as seen in other species, or do exponential increases persist? In this study, we estimated hazard rates from data on all inhabitants of Italy aged 105 and older between 2009 and 2015 (born 1896–1910), a total of 3836 documented cases. We observed level hazard curves, which were essentially constant beyond age 105. Our estimates are free from artifacts of aggregation that limited earlier studies and provide the best evidence to date for the existence of extreme-age mortality plateaus in humans.

Naturenews has the scoop on the controversy here.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Soccer (and Play)

With the World Cup of soccer on, and me coaching boys U9/10 again this season, I thought I would write a brief post on the power of play. My next major book project is a book on the playful society as a "realistic utopia". And in addition to reading extensively on play, I have also immersed myself in different types of play over the last 4 years. Here I will just briefly mention soccer.

For 14 years I have coached young kids soccer. The age group (boys 9-10) that I am coaching this year is my favourite age to coach. The games have referees, we place 6 vs 6. And it is the first age where the kids in our league play with goalies.

I find it fascinating to observe how, when assigned to the goalie for the first time in their lives in a soccer game, the young boys respond. Most of them have only played offense or defense before, and the most basic rule of soccer is: DON'T USE YOUR HANDS!! It can take a few years before a young soccer player really internalizes this basic expectation with soccer. So when they first become the goalie, their training to internalize the rule "don't use your hands!" can be strained. Many of them find it difficult to make the transition to a goalie. Once in net they either simply don't use their hands, or if they do, it is with great hesitation and ambivalence.

After a bit of experience inhabiting the conflicting imperatives of "don't use your hands!" and "use your hands!", most boys come to realize that the imperatives of soccer are role-specific. With some experience, they eventually learn to effortlessly shift back and forth from the one imperative to the other. But initially this is very hard to do for most of them. What soccer teaches them, among many other things, is to inhabit the multitude of identities of a team player in soccer. When in offence you are a striker, with a chance to please the crowds and bend it like Beckham. When on defence you realize that this is basically the bread and butter of a team at this age. If you lack a solid defence you are done for. And when goalie you take on a radically different identity- having the ability to touch and grab the ball.

A physical form of play like soccer, which obviously develops many physical skills (e.g. endurance, strength, balance, etc.) also facilitates emotional and cognitive development. You learn to play as part of a team, you learn the virtue of having an effective division of labour, you learn to inhabit different roles/identities and rules within sport. Having the opportunity to observe and coach young children soccer for the past 14 years has been an invaluable experience for me.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Freedom and Aging (New paper)

I am finishing up writing a brand new paper on freedom and aging. My central thesis is that senescence is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. I exam two conceptions of freedom- negative and positive liberty- and argue that my thesis can be substantiated by both accounts of freedom.

The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference. Coercive measures like limiting free speech or enforcing a “one-child” policy are obvious examples of a violation of negative liberty because both involve the imposition of external obstacles on our menu of options. This negative account of freedom can be contrasted with the “positive” conception of freedom which equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. The positive conception of freedom is often invoked to help emancipate collective groups of people (e.g. low-paid workers). Marxists, for example, endorse this account of freedom in their attempts to reveal how a whole class of people (e.g. the proletariat- persons who must sell their labour power in order to survive) remain unfree despite the removal of many external obstacles (e.g. slavery, the monarchy, etc.).

I then exam what both accounts of liberty might say about the inborn aging process. For negative liberty, my critic might argue that I conflate liberty with capacity. And so I consider 3 points critics might raise against my thesis. These involve the following points:

(1) The paradigmatic threat to freedom is coercion.
(2) Threats to freedom must come from human-created limitations.
(3) The interference is a violation of freedom when it limits a moral right we have as humans.

After critically examining these three points I conclude that even proponents of negative liberty ought to agree that aging does limit our freedom (even if it is not coercion), that humans are (at least partly) responsible for this limitation, and that the interference does violate a moral right (to health) that we have as humans.

The positive conception of freedom more naturally presents advocates of geroscience with an account of freedom that can readily explain why tackling senescence itself, rather than just specific diseases of aging, would promote freedom for the world’s aging populations. And this is so because positive liberty emphasizes the importance of the internal factors necessary for living an autonomous life. That autonomy might be compromised, for example, when an individual has a drug addiction and thus lacks self-determination. Or collective autonomy might be compromised when a class of persons (e.g. proletariat) must sell their labour power doing work they find alienating or when citizens lack the ability to contribute to their own self-governance.

How might the story of the aging of humanity be integrated into this account of positive liberty? Perhaps the most natural way of doing so is to emphasize the connection between our physical and mental health and our autonomy. The latter means having the ability to act on one’s free will. And thus the positive conception of liberty, unlike the negative conception, equates freedom with possessing a capacity. The capacity to be self-determining.

When a person is younger, in the prime of health during their 20s for example, they will have many capacities that diminish later in life. Capacities such as running long distances without experiencing joint pain, playing contact sports without risking serious injury, and possessing a higher cognitive processing speed, better memory and attention that help aid with many cognitive tasks in life. Because senescence has detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health, it can be said to diminish a person’s ability to be self-determining. And this means that, according to the positive conception of freedom, aging reduces our freedom. Our menu of options are diminished as we acquire more and more physical and cognitive limitations.

I anticipate, and reply to, two objections to my argument at this stage. One line of criticism is the popular belief that exercise itself is sufficient for liberating humans from the limitations/harms of senescence. And a second objection might come from those who believe my argument promotes a negative stigma about aging- that getting older brings only negative things for society and older persons as individuals. Thus my suggestion that aging diminishes our freedom is, the critic might charge, “ageist”. To hear my reply to these two objections you will have to wait till the paper (hopefully!) finds it way into print in the coming months!