Thursday, August 27, 2009

Play and Politics

This 10 minute video summarizes the thrust of the central hypothesis (the unjust society = the play deprived society) I have been pondering lately.

I thought it appropriate to express these ideas in a more “playful” manner than a regular text blog post!


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Annals of NY Academy of Sciences paper on "Why Aging Research?"

My paper entitled "Why Aging Research?" has been accepted for publication in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

This paper was presented to this conference back in May.

Here is the abstract for the paper:

A fair system of social cooperation is one that is both rational and reasonable (John Rawls, 2001). Is it rational and reasonable for societies that (1) are vulnerable to diverse risks of morbidity (e.g. cancer, heart disease) and mortality, and (2) are constrained by limited medical resources, to prioritize aging research? In this paper I make the case for answering “yes” on both accounts. Focusing on a plausible example of an applied gerontological intervention (i.e. an anti-aging pharmaceutical), I argue that the goal of decelerating the rate of human aging would be a more effective strategy for extending the human healthspan than the current strategy of just tackling each specific disease of aging. Furthermore, the aspiration to retard human aging is also a reasonable aspiration, for the principle that underlies it (i.e. the duty to prevent harm) is one that no one could reasonably reject.

And a sample, addressing the concern that prioritizing aging research contravenes the demands of global justice:

....Rather than permit our frustrations about existing global health inequities to impede the development of new health innovations (by eschewing aging research), we should instead champion both innovation and greater access to existing (and future) health interventions. It is true that medical advancements are not equally available to everyone in the world. The benefits of the sanitation revolution, which is among one of the greatest medical advancements in human history, are still unequally accessible to the world’s 6.7 billion people. The World Health Organization estimates that 2.6 billion people lack sanitation worldwide. This is a human tragedy that ought to be rectified. However, it is also important to recognise that over 4 billion people, which is four times the size of the entire global population at the beginning of the nineteenth century, now enjoy access to the benefits of the sanitation revolution. And that is an amazing achievement.

A realistic time-frame for realizing the benefits of any health innovation must take seriously the diverse logistics involved in making these benefits accessible to diverse populations. The tasks of monitoring water quality and pollution are complex and large-scale endeavours. Governments face many coordination challenges, such as enforcing compliance, for both rural and densely populated urban settings. And so the general affluence of a country, as well as its natural resources, profoundly influences the quality of sanitation it can offer its citizens. But in the case of developing an “anti-aging” pill to protect against chronic disease, there is good reason to believe that many of these obstacles will be less of a challenge.

Unlike sanitation, the main costs associated with the development of an anti-aging pill will most likely be with research and development, rather than the manufacturing and dispersion of such a pill. So I believe there is good reason to be optimistic that such an anti-aging intervention could be enjoyed by most of the world’s population in a relatively short time from when it is first developed. Especially if we make, as we ought to, the commitment to retard human aging a global, and not just domestic, health priority.


Monday, August 24, 2009

PNAS Article on Climate and Malaria Risk

It is often claimed that global warming will lead to a greater risk of malaria. If one looks at the malaria "hot spots" in the world (see here) it is not hard to see that climate influences malaria risk. There is no malaria in Alaska (a cold region of the world), and most of the 1 million malaria deaths in 2006 were among children in Africa (a warm region of the world). And thus it just seems intuitive that that warmer regions of the world will be yet even more prone to malaria risk if temperatures increase this century. But is this actually true?

Like most things in life, the story of malaria risk is much more complex than our intuitions would lead us to believe. Consider, for example, the impact the wealth of a country has on risk of malaria. When the United States was much poorer, Americans had a much higher risk of malaria (even though the climate was roughly the same as it is today). These useful maps show how malaria risk slowly declined in the United States from 1882 to 1935, and was eventually eradicated in 1951.

This paper in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the impact of climate on malaria risk is far from settled. Temperature fluctuation can substantially alter the incubation period of the parasite, and hence risk of transmission. And the influence fluctuation has on transmission rate is much more complex, and has been studied much less extensively, than most people think.

Here is the PNAS abstract:

The incubation period for malaria parasites within the mosquito is exquisitely temperature-sensitive, so that temperature is a major determinant of malaria risk. Epidemiological models are increasingly used to guide allocation of disease control resources and to assess the likely impact of climate change on global malaria burdens. Temperature-based malaria transmission is generally incorporated into these models using mean monthly temperatures, yet temperatures fluctuate throughout the diurnal cycle. Here we use a thermodynamic malaria development model to demonstrate that temperature fluctuation can substantially alter the incubation period of the parasite, and hence malaria transmission rates. We
find that, in general, temperature fluctuation reduces the impact of increases in mean temperature. Diurnal temperature fluctuation around means >21°C slows parasite development compared with constant temperatures, whereas fluctuation around <21°C speeds development. Consequently, models which ignore diurnal variation overestimate malaria risk in warmer environments and underestimate risk in cooler environments. To illustrate the implications further, we explore the influence of diurnal temperature fluctuation on malaria transmission at a site in the Kenyan Highlands. Based on local meteorological data, we find that the annual epidemics of malaria at this site cannot be explained without invoking the influence of diurnal temperature fluctuation. Moreover, while temperature fluctuation reduces the relative influence
of a subtle warming trend apparent over the last 20 years, it nonetheless makes the effects biologically more significant. Such effects of short-term temperature fluctuations have not previously been considered but are central to understanding current malaria transmission and the consequences of climate change.

And a sample from the article:

Our analysis reveals that diurnal temperature fluctuation will alter the length of parasite incubation compared with estimates based on the equivalent means, with both DTR and day length shaping the relationship. Under warmer conditions, for example,
diurnal fluctuation increases the EIP due to the nonlinear effects of short-term exposure to sub- and superoptimum temperatures. Consequently, in areas with mean temperatures in the range of 22–28°C (representative of large parts of sub-Saharan Africa),estimates of R0, or other metrics of malaria risk, based solely on measures of mean temperature could be too high so that by extension, malaria may be potentially more controllable than currently assumed. The effect is likely to be greatest for mean temperatures >26°C, which tend to be representative of areas with high transmission intensities. A more pronounced effect, however, occurs at lower temperatures, where malaria transmission is more likely to be epidemic rather than endemic. In these transition environments, EIP becomes markedly shorter as day length and DTR increase. Indeed, temperature fluctuation could enable parasites to complete development within the lifespan of their vector at lower mean temperatures than previously predicted. Hence, in areas with mean temperatures below 20°C, current estimates of risk could be too low.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 4: Intellectual Play)

Ten years ago this month I defended my dissertation “Rights and Responsibilities: An Examination of Rawlsian Justice” here, and then I started my first full-time position at this department in Scotland.

I believe it is important for an academic to periodically reflect upon their experiences in academia and the trajectory of their career. I do this quite often. I find it helps me orient my research interests, learn from my mistakes, and think more creatively about my future. So to mark the 10th year anniversary of my transition from being "a grad student" to being a "faculty member" (though still a student in spirit, as I explain below), I thought I would write this rather lengthy post.

And I intend to interweave these personal reflections into my continuing narrative about the importance of play (Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here). So what I have to say will draw from my own experiences in academia, but no doubt one could draw parallels to other types of jobs and experiences.

Let's start then with a brief re-cap of "play". What is play? And why play? Playful activities are those that possess the kind of properties Brown identifies. These are:

(1) play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake).
(2) voluntary
(3) inherent attraction
(4) freedom from time
(5) diminished consciousness of self
(6) improvisational potential
(7) continuation desire

And we play because it helps us develop the diverse skill-set needed to flourish in a constantly changing and challenging world. Perhaps no other trait has as much survival value as a playful disposition. And humans, thanks to our large and plastic brains, are the biggest players of all.

My understanding of my own job, as an academic and, more specifically, political theorist and philosopher, is that I am in the business of promoting and celebrating intellectual play. I do this through teaching undergraduates, supervising graduate students, attending conferences, publishing papers and books, blogging and by conversing and interacting with people in my day-to-day life. I love my job; who wouldn't love to get paid to play? Every day I am grateful for the opportunities I have to engage in intellectual play and thus I seek to make the most of those opportunities and share the rich and diverse rewards of this play with others. After all, taxpayers pay my salary, and thus I take the responsibility of fostering intellectual play very seriously.

Just as a brief aside: I haven't always lived the charmed life of an academic. Before becoming a full-time academic my previous occupations included office cleaner, factory worker, dish washer, cleaner and then line worker in a pig slaughter factory, photo developing, mobile washer, directing traffic in construction zones, amongst other things. And these experiences, many of which were also enjoyable and rewarding, played an important and formative role in fuelling my desire to pursue the risky (jobs in my field are pretty scarce) and sometimes turbulent (you have to be willing to move where the jobs are) life of intellectual play that I now enjoy.

When I first began university as an undergraduate in 1990 I was actually registered in engineering rather than the humanities. As the first person in my family to get a university degree, my parents hoped I would pursue a degree that would get me a good job. And engineering seemed like a safe bet. But in my last year of high school I took one (and only one) course that wasn't a math or science course. It was a history class that had a section on the history of political ideas. So we covered Marx and Mill. I loved in. And when I started my first week of University in engineering I recall one of the professors saying that perhaps the most important questions we could consider did not involve how to build stronger bridges or faster computers. But rather they involved figuring out what constitutes a good society and the responsibilities we have to others. That professor inspired me. Indeed, his lecture motivated me to switch from engineering to the humanities after just the first week of term. And instead of taking calculus, chemistry and physics, I ended up taking courses in political science, history, philosophy and art history. My life was changed forever.

When people ask me what I do for a living, the exchange typically focuses on what political theory is, and what it is for (e.g. what can students do with it in terms of a job). Over the last few years this exchange has grown less awkward (at least from my perspective) as I have become more convinced of the importance of the lasting value of intellectual play (and political theory is an important form of this play). So here are the typical questions I am asked, and what I am now inclined to say in response to them:

Q: What do you do for a living?

Me: I teach at the University.

Q: What do you teach?

Me: Political theory.

Q: What is that?

Me: [long answer here] I am interested in political ideals, like equality and justice. I also teach students about the history of political thought, so thinkers like Plato and Marx. [I often also mention my interest in aging research, which also takes the conversation in interesting and surprising directions, but I won't address that here]

Q: What can students do with that?

Me: Hopefully they will think more clearly, consistently and imaginatively about the kind of society they want to live in.

Q: Why?

Me: So that our society can be better than it would otherwise be if students were not encouraged to think clearly, consistently and imaginatively about the kind of society they want to live in.

Q: But what job will they get with that?

Me: I don't know... I do believe the skill-set I aspire to help my students develop and hone can be transferred to many other areas of their lives, including any jobs they happen to take on during their lifetime. However, I am not a career counselor, I am a play counselor. My job is to ensure my students have the opportunity to engage in intellectual play. If I do my job successfully, my students will enjoy doing this (it is intrinsically rewarding) and their lives will be enriched by the experience. So will the lives of the people these students then influence when they discuss these ideas and aspirations with others. Play is infectious.

Q: Isn't it just a waste of time then? [this question is to be expected when one keeps in mind the first property of play--it is apparently purposeless]

Me: No, I don't think so. Before we expect students to decide which careers to pursue (and we should assume they will have more than one over their lifetime) they should have the opportunity to discover who they are, understand the world they live in and ponder the potential futures they hope to realize. Then they will be better positioned to tackle the issue of deciding what they want to spend most of their time doing after they leave university.

Do I have a "playful" role model that inspires me most? Yes. He was a Greek chap named Socrates, and he lived long ago and was persecuted for his playful mind. Socrates embodied the ideal of an intellectually playful mind. He was always asking questions and challenging the conventional wisdom of his contemporaries.

Many aspects of being a professor can help one keep the fire for "intellectual play" burning. In the ten years since defending my dissertation I have held positions at 6 different universities. From 1999-2000 I was here, then I spent two years (from 200-2002) here, one year here (2002-2003), five years in total here (2003-2008), a sabbatical year here and here (2006-7), and the last year (2008-present) here in my current position. In that time I have had the privilege to learn from a diverse range of wonderful colleagues and taught over 1500 bright students in Scotland, England and Canada. It has been an amazing adventure, one few jobs could match in terms of life and intellectual rewards.

Without a doubt the most important part of being a professor is having the opportunity to discuss and debate things with all the bright students one gets the privilege to teach. My students are the most important component of my own education. They inspire me to continue a life of intellectual play. They constantly expose me to fresh ideas and perspectives, and even though the faces of the students in my lectures change each year, their enthusiasm for knowledge, wisdom and debate remains a reassuring constant. And that is the fuel that keeps my passion for intellectual play burning.

All this brings me to this final and important thought. What constitutes real success for an academic? If you had asked me that question early on in my career I would have invoked certain "esteem" indicators that weigh heavily in tenure and promotion. So getting articles published in a particular journal, or the number of books published or impact one makes on a specific debate in the field. While I still do care greatly about these things, I no longer invoke them as the benchmark for real success.

So what do I think ought to constitute the benchmark of success for a play counselor? Well, most of the colleagues I have had over the years were much more senior than I. Some colleagues near retirement greet it with great enthusiasm. They no longer enjoy teaching and some had long abandoned any new research aspirations. But there are others who enter retirement at the other end of the spectrum. They retire with as much (if not more!) zeal for teaching and research as they had at the start of their career. My friend Jan is one such example of these rare, motivated individuals.

In a way the intellectual minds of these motivated scholars have remained "ageless"; they are just as curious and energetic as when they started grad school. And I believe that is the real benchmark of success for an academic. To retain one's enthusiasm and curiosity over a lifetime. If I end my career with the same zest with which I began graduate school then I believe my career will have been a genuine success. For I would have achieved "intellectual immortality" [I am using the term immortality loosely here to mean "the absence of a sustained decline in one's capacity and desire for intellectual play"; I do not mean immortality in the sense of "beyond this life on earth"!] I do not think a philosopher could aspire to achieve anything more worthwhile than that. And 10 years on I am cautiously optimistic about the prospect of my reaching that goal.

So the secret to "intellectual immortality" is play. I aspire to cultivate an appreciation of the playful life in my students by engaging their intellects and inspiring them to explore the value and viability of our possible political futures. I am not an ideologue. Education is not about brain-washing young minds to be "left-wing" or "right-wing", or to make my students (or myself) become a devotee of a particular theory or thinker. Real education encourages intellectual growth and exploration. And I aspire to grow and explore with my students. I learn much more from them than they learn from me.

I believe the good life is the playful life. Of course it encompasses much more than just intellectual play. But for now, I'll end things here with these brief personal reflections on the role of intellectual play in my life.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Neurogenetics of Exploration

Nature Neuroscience has this interesting study which examines the neurogenetic contributions involved in exploratory behavior. Here is the abstract:

The basal ganglia support learning to exploit decisions that have yielded positive outcomes in the past. In contrast, limited evidence implicates the prefrontal cortex in the process of making strategic exploratory decisions when the magnitude of potential outcomes is unknown. Here we examine neurogenetic contributions to individual differences in these distinct aspects of motivated human behavior, using a temporal decision-making task and computational analysis. We show that two genes controlling striatal dopamine function, DARPP-32 (also called PPP1R1B) and DRD2, are associated with exploitative learning to adjust response times incrementally as a function of positive and negative decision outcomes. In contrast, a gene primarily controlling prefrontal dopamine function (COMT) is associated with a particular type of 'directed exploration', in which exploratory decisions are made in proportion to Bayesian uncertainty about whether other choices might produce outcomes that are better than the status quo. Quantitative model fits reveal that genetic factors modulate independent parameters of a reinforcement learning system.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 3: Science Article)

This is part 3 of my posts on play (Part One, Part Two).

Perhaps no other intervention can help an individual realize the importance of play more than becoming a parent or grandparent. Children, unlike most adults, are unabashed about their desire to play and expressing the joy play gives them. We thus have a lot to learn from children. Sadly, as adults we tend to suppress these primal urges and emotions, and often view play as wasteful and unproductive.

The "Life & Career" section of the latest issue of Science has this excellent article that describes the valuable lessons one scientist has learned from her grandaughter. Here is an excerpt:

Among her many talents, my granddaughter Sophie, who has just turned 2*, has a clear vision of what would make her happy, coupled with the persuasive skills and executive function to make it happen. "Slide?" she says, cocking her head to one side, meaning the nearby park in New York City, which has slides, swings, and a sandbox. I'm tired and would really rather not, having planned a quieter evening of baby-sitting her, with books and toys. I try to distract her but to no avail. "Slide," she repeats, forgoing the questioning tone and nodding her head repeatedly, as if to hypnotize me into agreement. To remove all obstacles, she fetches her sand pail, wedges her shovel and ball neatly into it, and repeats, even more assertively: "Slide, Tayta" (i.e., Grandma). "Go to slide." She brings me my shoes and my purse and waits expectantly at the door. Of course, I succumb.

....She pours a bucketful of sand over her feet with glee. "Tayta, take off shoes," she commands, with the repeated nodding. "In for a penny," I think to myself, and off come my shoes. Of course, I'm persuaded to stick them in deeper as Sophie pours her bucketfuls onto them. Amazingly, the sand feels great on my tired feet. I would have never imagined sitting in the middle of New York City, wearing black business pants, with my feet bare, burrowed into the sand. But it makes her happy, I think to myself, with a smile. It makes me happy, I realize! Then I have an odd thought--where is "happy" in my brain?

....On that day in the park, I realized that Sophie knows something essential that we adults tend to forget: Having fun is important! It entails unexpected sensations, novel situations, body contact, and physical challenge (as long as these are not extreme or threatening).


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Short Sleep Gene

The latest issue of Science has this interesting report on how the transcriptional repressor DEC2 regulates sleep length in mammals. Here is the abstract:

Sleep deprivation can impair human health and performance. Habitual total sleep time and homeostatic sleep response to sleep deprivation are quantitative traits in humans. Genetic loci for these traits have been identified in model organisms, but none of these potential animal models have a corresponding human genotype and phenotype. We have identified a mutation in a transcriptional repressor (hDEC2-P385R) that is associated with a human short sleep phenotype. Activity profiles and sleep recordings of transgenic mice carrying this mutation showed increased vigilance time and less sleep time than control mice in a zeitgeber time– and sleep deprivation–dependent manner. These mice represent a model of human sleep homeostasis that provides an opportunity to probe the effect of sleep on human physical and mental health.

And a brief excerpt from the "perspectives" piece on sleep:

Sufficient sleep is necessary for optimal daytime performance and well-being, yet there is a large difference in how much sleep people need, ranging from less than 6 to more than 9 hours. People at all points along this range exhibit no noticeable differences in health and waking performance. Those of us who envy short sleepers would like to reduce sleep duration to the minimum necessary for normal functioning, but do we know what this minimum is? Short sleepers are found in families, as are long sleepers, which suggests a genetic basis for sleep duration. On page 866 of this issue, He et al. (1) add new evidence by showing that a mutation in a transcriptional factor, DEC2, is associated with short sleep in humans and mice.

....Sleep amount, like weight and height, is a quantitative phenotype normally distributed in the population. Total daily sleep duration has an estimated heritability of ~50% in humans and mice, suggesting complex underlying genetics with contributions from numerous genes. But mutations in single genes that yield dramatic effects cannot be excluded.

....The question "How much sleep do we need?" is not only of practical interest for obvious societal reasons, but is also of major importance for understanding sleep function. Recent hypotheses in the field favor a role in memory and/or synaptic plasticity. However, an unbiased approach may turn out to be more efficient. Molecular genetic approaches remain our best hope to find, without a priori assumptions, molecules that regulate the complex phenotype of sleep.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bioengineered Tooth Replacement

The latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has this study on bioengineered tooth replacement, which illustrates the exciting potential of organ replacement in future regenerative therapies. Here is the abstract:

Current approaches to the development of regenerative therapies have been influenced by our understanding of embryonic development, stem cell biology, and tissue engineering technology. The ultimate goal of regenerative therapy is to develop fully functioning bioengineered organs which work in cooperation with surrounding tissues to replace organs that were lost or damaged as a result of disease, injury, or aging. Here, we report a successful fully functioning tooth replacement in an adult mouse achieved through the transplantation of bioengineered tooth germ into the alveolar bone in the lost tooth region. We propose this technology as a model for future organ replacement therapies. The bioengineered tooth, which was erupted and occluded, had the correct tooth structure, hardness of mineralized tissues for mastication, and response to noxious stimulations such as mechanical stress and pain in cooperation with other oral and maxillofacial tissues. This study represents a substantial advance and emphasizes the potential for bioengineered organ replacement in future regenerative therapies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Report on Organic Food

People often claim that organic food is healthier and that this justifies paying higher prices for it. The organic food industry is now a rapidly growing multi-billion dollar industry. But are these proposed health benefits actually true? Does the scientific evidence support these claims?

It appears not. This recent report for the Food Standards Agency, which was a systematic examination of 162 articles published between 1958 and 2008, and involved 3558 comparisons of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced food, found that "organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content".


Monday, August 10, 2009

Can Development Help Reverse Fertility Decline?

This letter in the latest issue of Nature suggests that it can. A sample:

During the twentieth century, the global population has gone through unprecedented increases in economic and social development that coincided with substantial declines in human fertility and population growth rates1, 2. The negative association of fertility with economic and social development has therefore become one of the most solidly established and generally accepted empirical regularities in the social sciences1, 2, 3. As a result of this close connection between development and fertility decline, more than half of the global population now lives in regions with below-replacement fertility (less than 2.1 children per woman)4. In many highly developed countries, the trend towards low fertility has also been deemed irreversible5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Rapid population ageing, and in some cases the prospect of significant population decline, have therefore become a central socioeconomic concern and policy challenge10. Here we show, using new cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of the total fertility rate and the human development index (HDI), a fundamental change in the well-established negative relationship between fertility and development as the global population entered the twenty-first century. Although development continues to promote fertility decline at low and medium HDI levels, our analyses show that at advanced HDI levels, further development can reverse the declining trend in fertility. The previously negative development–fertility relationship has become J-shaped, with the HDI being positively associated with fertility among highly developed countries. This reversal of fertility decline as a result of continued economic and social development has the potential to slow the rates of population ageing, thereby ameliorating the social and economic problems that have been associated with the emergence and persistence of very low fertility.

....our findings are highly relevant in the debate on the future of the world's population. Whereas a decade ago Europe, North America and Japan were assumed to face very rapid population ageing and in many cases significant population declines6, 7, 21, our findings provide a different outlook for the twenty-first century. As long as the most developed countries focus on increasing the well-being of their citizens, and adequate institutions are in place, the analyses in this paper suggest that increases in development are likely to reverse fertility declines—even if we cannot expect fertility to rise again above replacement levels. As a consequence, we expect countries at the most advanced development stages to face a relatively stable population size, if not an increase in total population in cases in which immigration is substantial. For countries in which immigration is a minor component of demographic change, our analyses suggest a slower population decline than is at present foreseen in official demographic forecasts. Although significant population ageing is still certain in countries at the highest development levels, its magnitude may have been exaggerated by the widely held current perception that, as social and economic development progresses, fertility is bound to fall further. Policies targeted at further increasing HDI levels in advanced societies may therefore be suitable as a general strategy to reduce demographic imbalances caused by very low fertility levels. Consistent with current scientific knowledge, our findings also support the view that progress in development contributes to lower fertility levels in countries with low to moderately high HDI levels. Moreover, countries remaining at intermediate development levels are likely to face a decline in population size because these countries have attained low TFR levels and they do not yet—and may not in the foreseeable future—benefit from the reversal of the development–fertility relationship.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Framing Effects and Age

This paper in the latest issue of Journals of Gerontology (Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences) is worth noting. Especially given my intereset in "framing" the rate of aging itself.

Studies like this may yield important insights for biogerontologists in terms of helping to explain why (unfortunately!) many people do not perceive aging research itself as an important science worthy of more public funding. And much depends on how you frame the benefits of age retardation- as preventing "a loss" (disease and death) or promising "a gain" (extended lifespan).

Here is the abstract from the paper on framing effects and age:

Studies of the framing effect indicate that individuals are risk averse for decisions framed as gains but risk seeking for decisions framed as losses. However, findings regarding age-related changes in susceptibility to framing are mixed. Recent work demonstrating age-related decreases in reactivity to anticipated monetary losses, but not gains, suggests that older and younger adults might show equivalent risk aversion for gains but discrepant risk seeking for losses. In the current study, older and younger adults completed a monetary gambling task in which they chose between sure options and risky gambles (the expected outcomes of which were equated). Although both groups demonstrated risk aversion in the gain frame, only younger adults showed risk seeking in the loss frame.


Friday, August 07, 2009

Research Statement (2009)

Every now and then it is useful for a scholar to reflect upon the general direction of their research. This can be done by linking related themes and concerns to help get some "perspective" on the value and importance of the questions that one is trying to answer, considering new directions one might take things in the future, and help one keep track of new ideas and resources worth investigating. I find this exercise very useful in terms of helping to keep my "enthusiasm for research" batteries fully charged! What follows is a statement of the direction of my current and future research.

More than 2000 years ago Aristotle described politics as a normative practical science. He believed that politics was the most authoritative of all the sciences (prescribing which sciences ought to be studied) because the central concern of politics is the good of humans. This ancient conception of the discipline inspires my current research which integrates ethics and political philosophy with the empirical findings of evolutionary biology, genetics and psychology. Aspiring to help bridge the gap between the biological sciences and political theory, I am primarily interested in how our species’ evolutionary history impacts (for better and worse) our ability to flourish, as both individuals and collectively as societies. Two general (related) topics encapsulate this research:

(1) Our susceptibility to late-life morbidity and mortality.

The leading cause of disease and death in the world today is evolutionary neglect. Because the force of natural selection does not apply to the post-reproductive period of the human lifespan, aged persons are highly susceptible to the chronic diseases of aging, like cancer, heart disease and stroke. In an aging world perhaps no other field of scientific research is as important to the health prospects of today’s populations as biogerontology. This science might enable us to eventually modify the biological clocks we have inherited from our Darwinian past, thus permitting humans to enjoy more years of disease-free life. My research focuses on the social and political obstacles that impede aging research and the aspiration to decelerate the rate of aging. Some published work of mine on these topics include:

“Towards a More Inclusive Vision of the Medical Sciences” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 2009.

“Has the Time Come to Take on Time Itself?” British Medical Journal, 2008

“Aging Research, Priorities and Aggregation” Public Health Ethics, 2008

A Tale of Two Strategies: The Moral Imperative to Tackle AgeingNature’s EMBO Reports, 2008.

And this video expresses my position on this topic:

(2) Our potential for happiness.

Political scientists have long asked the question: "Why vote?" But this question presupposes a more fundamental question: "Why do anything?" This latter question requires us to consider what kind of animal humans are. The ultimate (or evolutionary) causes of human behaviour have typically been ignored by political scientists who invoke rational choice theory or focus on the proximate causes of political behaviour. My interest in these topics seeks to integrate political theory with the recent findings of evolutionary biology and positive psychology. Aristotle argued that we are a "political" animal; and Socrates famously claimed that "the unexamined life is not worth living". I believe these sage insights from Ancient Greece actually possess a great deal of empirical plausibility. And my current research explores the similarities between love, play and politics, the goal of which is to help bring to the fore the different range of activities, relationships, institutions, habits and dispositions that a good society ought to cultivate and celebrate if it is to flourish in the twenty-first century. Useful sources that I am utilizing in this research include:

Stuart Brown, Play (see this video)

Barbara Fredrickson, Positivity (also see this video)

Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (see this video)

Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness

Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge

John Dewey, Democracy and Education

And the new field of "genopolitics"

In this video I outline the importance of play:

So in the spirit of Aristotle's prescriptive vision of politics, I try to make a compelling case for the importance of two new areas of scientific research- (1) the science of aging; and (2) the science of happiness . The knowledge yielded by biogerontology and positive psychology could help us dramatically improve the health and wellbeing of all. And I believe these goals ought to be among our top priorities.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

G.A. Cohen (1941-2009)

I am very saddened to learn the news that Jerry Cohen has passed away.

Last year Jerry retired from the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, a post he held since 1985. While I was never a student of Jerry's, the frequent occasions I did have the opportunity to get to know him always confirmed his reputation as a caring, generous, humorous man that possessed a razor sharp analytic mind. He profoundly influenced contemporary political philosophy. Here I wish to reflect a little on the ways in which Jerry has influenced me.

I first met Jerry when I was interviewed for a temporary position at Oxford in 2000, shortly after having finished my PhD. After I arrived (very anxiously!) at the porter's front desk at All Souls, Jerry came down to meet me and took me to the interview room. He started the interview by noting he had just read my recent paper (this one)- in which I criticised his critique of Rawls's theory of justice- and had a few questions about what I argued in the paper. When I think back to how nervous I was, having one of my first job interviews at Oxford (and this was the first time I had been to Oxford), and then having the interview with Jerry and having him start by bringing up the paper I had just published criticising him, I am amazed I was able to hold it together at all!

But the amazing thing about Jerry is that he was a "down to earth" person. He made me feel comfortable and it became obvious from the start that he was genuinely interested in hearing what I thought, and trying to resolve our disagreement about how to interpret Rawls. So despite the tense situation I found myself in, Jerry actually made me feel very relaxed and thus we had a very spirited and interesting exchange on these topics. And after the interview he encouraged me to take in the sites of Oxford.

And while I didn't get the job, Jerry sent me some detailed and useful comments on my paper a few days later and that was enough to lift my spirits from the disappointment of not getting the job. I had some periodic email correspondence with Jerry after that. But it wasn't until I had a sabbatical year at Oxford in 2006/7 that I had the opportunity to really interact with Jerry. I organized a reading group which he participated in, and there were also regular meetings with the members of the Centre for the Study of Social Justice. On all of these occasions Jerry's passion for philosophy, and sharp analytic mind, were in ample supply. I also read a draft of this new book and sent Jerry my comments. While I disagreed with much of what Jerry was arguing he genuinely appreciated hearing what these criticisms were and responding to them.

The last time I saw Jerry was back in March when he came to Queen's to give a few talks. He gave a very interesting paper on conservatism and then a bunch of us went for lunch. Jerry had an excellent sense of humour as well. On the way back from lunch we had our last conversation which involved a discussion of why the description of an image like that above is called "overlapping hands" rather than "underlapping hands". He will be sorrily missed.

In terms of Jerry's impact on my own research interests, the biggest influence has been Jerry's work on Analytical Marxism. Most contemporary political philosophers have long given up on Marx. But I believe that the explanatory power of historical materialism has yet to be fully realized and appreciated. And Jerry's ability to bring precision and clarity to Marx's work is second to none. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence is, at least in my opinion, the best book written on historical materialism.

Perhaps it is fitting to finish with a quote from Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses (a poem Jerry cites in this recent talk and read once a week for 50 years):

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 2: Play and Politics)

This is Part 2 of this post.

Political scientists have long asked the question: "Why vote?" But this question presupposes a more fundamental question: "Why do anything?" This latter question requires us to consider what kind of animal humans actually are. The ultimate (or evolutionary) causes of human behaviour have typically been ignored by political scientists who invoke rational choice theory (e.g. Downs) or focus exclusively on the proximate causes of political behaviour. Here I want to link some parallels between play and politics.

Let us start then with the obvious question- of all the behaviours one could focus on, why focus on play? Politics is serious stuff (influencing the life prospects of billions of people in the world today), so how could I compare it to play?

Much of course depends on our understanding of both play and politics. When we think of play we typically think of children playing at the park or riding their bikes down the street. “Play is for kids, and politics is for adults” the common view tells us. I believe the common view is completely wrong. It is premised on an impoverished view of play (as well as politics).

Why focus on play? Stuart Brown provides the answer:

Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play? (5)

So what, exactly, is play? Brown resists providing an all-inclusive, succinct definition. "Play is preconscious and preverbal-it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or ability to speak" (15). Brown does identify some general properties typical of play. These are:

(1) play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake).
(2) voluntary
(3) inherent attraction
(4) freedom from time
(5) diminished consciousness of self
(6) improvisational potential
(7) continuation desire

My comments on play and politics will focus primarily on (1) (though 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 also come into play in important ways).

Play is apparently purposeless. And there are different kinds of play (see here): body play, object play, social play, imaginative and narrative play. And all these activities appear purposeless. We dance and sing, play soccer, read novels, forge friendships, watch scary movies, etc. because we enjoy them (not because we simply want to realize the instrumental benefits that often accompany some of them).

One reason our culture currently undervalues play is that playful activity is not perceived to promote useful activities (though it does do so). Rather than having citizens "playing" on weekends, most politicians and governments are more concerned with ensuring citizens spend their leisure time "spending and consuming" (no politicians are calling for a "play stimulus" to help our societies flourish!). Hence the epidemic of childhood and adulthood obesity and the erosion of common public spaces for physical and social play (“down with the parks, up with the malls”).

Rather than permitting their children to have the free and spontaneous time to "hang out with friends", today’s hyper-parents prefer to control and plan all aspects of their children's lives. A consequences of this is that their children may not develop the social skills needed to judge and finesse the "give-and-take" of different social groups. It is more prudent to learn how to develop and refine these skills when the stakes are relatively low (e.g. working out disagreements with a fremeny at high school) than in adulthood when the stakes involved in healthy social relations are typically much higher (e.g. at work or in a marriage).

So while play appears to serve no purpose, it actually serves many important purposes. Physical play (e.g. sports) raises our awareness of the importance of endurance and strength, as well as our physical limitations and vulnerability to injury. Playing sports can help develop balance, speed and agility. These types of play, which we find intrinsically valuable, also promote other capacities, like bodily health, thought and the senses.

Most physical play is also a form of social play. Playing helps socialize an individual, exposing them to the importance of negotiated rules, how to control their emotions and the benefits of cooperation. Social play helps build trust, communication, empathy, etc. Once a person participates as a member of a team they become psychologically connected and continuous with the team. The player’s own cognitive states track the trials and tribulations of the team. A team win can bring the individual player elation, while a loss disappointment and a determination to try even harder next time. Indeed, this phenomenon is not limited to just the direct participants of a sport. Even spectators who care passionately about a sport and team often experience similar levels and degrees of “connectedness” to a team. Play shapes our brain and stimulates many positive emotions.

This brings us to politics. What can political scientists, and political theorists in particular, learn from the study of play? A lot!

In his seminal book An Economic Theory of Democracy published in 1957, Anthony Downs argued that it was irrational to vote. And if it is irrational to vote, it must also be irrational to become informed about politics. This followed, for Downs and rational choice theorists like Downs, because voting incurs a cost on the voter but has no benefit given that one’s vote will not likely make a difference to the outcome of an election. But Downs’s account of human behaviour is an impoverished one because it fails to understand what kind of animal humans actually are (we are not Homo Economicus) and how our preferences are shaped by our evolutionary history.

I believe that much of our political behaviour, like voting, the desire to debate politics with others, etc., is a form of play behaviour. Aristotle argued that humans were political animals, and thus there is a rich tradition in political theory that permits one to integrate the insights from evolutionary biology and positive psychology with the traditional concerns of political theorists.

To help make the idea that politics is a form of play more vivid consider the following. A few friends get together for a dinner party. After enjoying some nice wine and pasta, the conversation turns, as it often does, to politics. The friends take turns highlighting what they see as the pros and cons of potential political leaders, the platforms of different political parties and the general challenges facing their society and the world at large (e.g. economic crisis, the environment, global poverty, threat of terrorism, etc.). At times the debate becomes rather heated, as opinions differ on many issues. Some feel particular politicians cannot be trusted. Others feel that certain parties lack the skills and expertise needed to meet the challenges of today. And disagreement also extends to what the most important challenges of today actually are.

Despite the sometimes heated exchanges (which included a few loud emotional outbursts and sharing of private experiences relevant to the issues under debate) and bruised egos, by the end of the evening the friends go back to their own homes still being friends. In fact, they all enjoyed the evening of debate and conversation (and wine!).

An outsider might ask- “What was the point of this experience? Little agreement was reached among the friends. Furthermore, none of them have much political clout so it does not really matter. No one is going to actually create public policies based on the opinions these folks expressed over dinner. So it was all just a waste of time!”

But this is an impoverished way of looking at what transpired that evening. What the friends engaged in is something that occurs at social gatherings, evening family meals and work places every day in a democratic society-- it was political play. Political play is both social and imaginative. It is social play in that it involves a plurality of people that are conversationally present; and it is imaginative play in that it also involves many people who are imaginatively (rather than conversationally) present. For example, the ideals and pragmatics articulated by political leaders might be invoked, or the interests of those more less advantaged, etc.

So when one asks: why engage in politics? The answer is two-fold.

One the one hand, many find the social and imaginative play typical of politics intrinsically rewarding. If we think about it we all know that, as just one person in a democracy of millions, we do not have the ability to sway the outcome of an election or determine public policy. None-the-less, we enjoy the psychological connectedness and continuity with others that we experience when we act and think that our one opinion does have such sway. We enjoy the challenge of trying to accurately perceive the emotional states and factual assumptions of others. And we enjoy learning how to respond, in a civic and yet persuasive way, to those states and assumptions.

The group of friends debating politics over wine one evening find it enjoyable to pretend they are the leaders of their political parties, or a Presidential candidate trying to win a televised debate, or even members of the G8 seeking a compromise on how to respond to the global financial crisis or climate change. We enjoy doing these things. Even if they appear, to the rational choice theorist, as “irrational”.

The second answer is to go beyond the subjective well being that participates might consciously experience when engaging in politics. Political play also helps us develop and refine skills that we need, as individuals, to flourish. In his book Play Stuart Brown tells the story of a renowned expert in animal behaviour who was asked why bears play. At first the expert responds that these things are pleasurable, and that is why bears play, birds sing and people dance. But the questioner persists. “Why, from a scientific point of view, do animals play?” The answer then given is this:

In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet. (29)

I think a similar answer can be given to Down’s challenge of “why vote?” If we understand the behaviour of voting to be simply one action in the social and imaginative play of a political life, then we really need to ask “why be political?” And my answer is:

In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, political play prepares humans for an evolving planet.

Following, participating in, and aspiring to resolve political debates helps promote the diverse skill-set (emotions, facts, etc.) needed for us to flourish in a constantly changing and unpredictable world. Listening to potential Presidential candidates debate issues of national security, the economy, education, etc., and then commenting on, re-enacting and improvising upon, their answers helps us get a better understanding of the challenges we face today and tomorrow, as well as inspire us to make the changes necessary to create a better world.

There is much more to be said here and no doubt I’ll add some more things down the road. But for now I just wanted to offer these tentative reflections on why play is an important issue for political theorists to seriously ponder. I cannot think of an more fascinating, important and yet neglected topic in the field than play.