Monday, April 22, 2019

Evolutionary Psychiatry (Reading Group) Part 1

Over the coming months I am participating in a reading group on Nesse's latest book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. The members of our reading group are pretty diverse, with a few people who have educational backgrounds and professional experience in the field of mental health and those who, like myself, are interested in the way evolutionary biology can be applied to help us better understand some of the societal predicaments we find ourselves grappling with.

So on this blog I want to post my thoughts, and summary of notes on the chapters, so I have a resource it is easy for me to go back to when I, eventually, write something more substantial on these issues.

I will begin with why I am interested in this topic, and this book in particular. About 6 years ago I came across Why We Get Sick and was really impressed by the importance of applying insights from evolution to the study of disease. For nearly 15 years I have been following the field of biogerontology which studies the biology of aging and so I was fascinated with the question "why do we age?" Given the reality that aging is the major risk factor for the chronic diseases of late life I felt it was imperative to consider the significance of science that could lead to the alteration of the aging process if this could delay disease and disability, and possibly compress the period of morbidity at the end of life. The crux of the story on aging, from what I have learned over the past decade and a half, is that primary aging is the result of evolutionary neglect (the disposable soma theory of the tradeoff between reproduction and longevity) and that secondary aging is the result of a mismatch between our biology and the environments we have created for ourselves in developed countries (e.g. high caloric diets and sedentary lifestyles). My hunch is that a similar story could be told about our emotional lives, especially personality disorders, mental illness, anxiety and depression. And it is with those expectations that I decided to get some friends together to read through Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.

It is worth starting this summary of the book by noting the central tenet of evolutionary biology: "selection shapes organisms to behave in ways that maximize their reproductive success" (11). Nesse notes that, when he and George Williams began working on evolutionary medicine they tried to find en evolutionary explanation for disease. Nesse refers to this as VDAA- Viewing Diseases as Adaptations. But he notes this is a mistake. Diseases are not adaptations. The diseases themselves were not selected for by evolution, but rather "aspects of the body that makes us vulnerable to diseases do have evolutionary explanations" (14).

In Chapter 3 "Why Are Minds So Vulnerable?" Nesse provides the following 6 reasons why evolution by natural selection has left us so vulnerable:

1. Mismatch: our bodies are unprepared to cope with modern environments
2. Infection: bacteria and viruses evolve faster than we do.
3. Constraints: there are some things that natural selection can't do.
4. Trade-offs: everything in the body has advantages and disadvantages.
5. Reproduction: natural selection makes reproduction, not health.
6. Defensive responses: responses such as pain and anxiety are useful in the face of threats. (34-35)

Details on Part 2 of the book to follow in a few weeks.


Friday, April 05, 2019

Changing the Definition of Ageing

Wired has a great article by Sinclair and Barzilai on treating aging as a disease. A sample:

In June 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases. It contained an important addition: “Code MG2A: Old age.”

This tiny line of text could be one of the most important documents in human history, potentially leading to medicines designed to tackle the world’s most common ailment – ageing itself – and one that causes almost all others. It could lead to a new regulatory attitude to ageing (currently the United States Food and Drug Administration does not see ageing as a legitimate target for healthcare), and to doctors being able to prescribe medicines to slow the condition.

That change in regulatory attitude may still be far off, but in the meantime, research is pressing ahead, and in 2019 we will see significant breakthroughs in the sector.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

WHO Global Registry on Genome Editing

NatureNews reports that the World Health Organization advisory committee recommends a registry be created for studies that involve editing the human genome. A sample:

“The committee agrees it is irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing,” said Margaret Hamburg, the panel’s co-chair and foreign secretary of the US National Academy of Medicine.

But she emphasized that the WHO panel is not calling for a permanent moratorium on such research. “We are trying to look at the broader picture and a framework for responsible stewardship,” said Hamburg, a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. “I don't think a vague moratorium is the answer for what needs to be done.”


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

TedX Talk on "Global Aging and Longevity Science"

On the weekend I will be giving an 18 mins TedX talk to the event here in Kingston. The theme of the event is:

In 2050, what will our world look like?
Who is going to get us there?
How will you be a part of it?

My talk begins by noting that, by the year 2050, there will be over 2 billion people over the age of 60. And this will rise to 3 billion by 2100. In my opinion the aging of the human species is the most fascinating, and the most significant, story of the 20th century.

The full details of the talk should be available once the recorded talk is posted!


Sunday, January 27, 2019

Podcast Interview

Right of Reply at Queen's University interviewed me last week on the topics of eugenics, virtue ethics, longevity science and teaching philosophy in prison and elementary school. You can listen to the 45 minute interview here.


Monday, January 14, 2019

NatureNews Piece on Rare Genetic Disorders and Clinical Trials

NatureNews has this interesting piece about the challenges of balancing the requirement for rigorous scientific research with the moral imperative to foster medical innovation. A sample:

We do need rigorous and robust scientific processes,” says Alastair Kent, former director of Genetic Alliance UK, an umbrella body for more than 200 rare-disease patient groups. “But we also need new ways of proving the quality, safety and efficacy of new drugs.” Nick is trying to ensure that the journey will be smoother for others than it has been for him and his family.

....Around the world, regulators are under pressure to speed up the approval of therapies without sacrificing safety and efficacy assessments. Some of these efforts are controversial — a scheme in Japan to approve stem-cell treatments before they are known to work, for example and ‘right to try’ laws in the United States that allow people who are terminally ill to take unlicensed medicines. Nick co-founded another charity in 2012 to help people with rare diseases and their carers advocate for orphan-drug development.


Sunday, January 06, 2019

Back to Teaching!

My Fall term sabbatical is over. And tomorrow I jump straight back into teaching, offering my "Science and Justice" 4th year seminar and the large 2nd year lecture course "An Introduction to Political Theory". Below are the trailers for the two courses, which help get me pumped for the first classes!