Sunday, September 13, 2009

Political Theory and Aging Research

As a political theorist who works on issues that intersect the biological sciences and medicine, I frequently get puzzled looks when I tell students and colleagues I am working on aging and longevity science. Their puzzlement is understandable, as these topics do not currently receive much attention in the discipline.

When we one thinks of the subject "the study of politics", we tend to think of voting behaviour and political parties, or institutions like the Supreme Court or Congress. It is only natural to associate the study of politics with the study of the issues that dominate the evening news- so high-profile government decisions like the war on terror, the economic bailout or tackling climate change.

Images like these three thus capture the stakes and concerns we currently associate with the study of politics:

These images resonate with our understanding of political science. Political scientists are interested in power: what is it?, who has it?, how do different institutions and cultures influence power?, and when (if ever) can power be legitimate? The different sub-fields of political science reflect the diversity of concerns that arise here- comparative politics, international relations, political theory, etc.

While these images and sub-disciplines are important and cover many diverse issues, I also think it is important for us, as political scientists, to critically reflect upon the adequacy of the tools and concepts we utilize to adequately diagnosis the pressing challenges we face today in the twenty-first century.

The first (and in my opinion the best) political scientist was the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. For Aristotle politics is a normative practical science. The primary concern of politics is the good of humans. And this made politics the most authoritative of all the sciences as the political scientist could prescribe which sciences ought to be studied (e.g. economics, biology, etc.).

Aristotle inspires me, and when I reflect upon the current state of contemporary political theory I feel we have forgotten how sage Aristotle's insights are. A concern with the good of humans has given way to the concerns which the professionalization of the discipline places a premium on- like narrow specialization. The puzzlement I encounter when I tell people I am a political theorist who has an interest in aging and longevity science confirms this sad state-of-affairs. Unlike Aristotle, who was genuinely concerned with the good of humans and had a curious intellect that ranged across many different disciplines (philosophy, biology, politics, etc.), political theory in the twenty-first century reflects the constraints and incentive structure of academia. The concern for tenure and promotion and RAE submissions underlies a great deal of the research in the field today. And this creates pressures to become more and more specialized and risk-adverse. If there is a sub-field in political science that should not be overtly specialized and risk-adverse it is political theory.

So when I reflect upon the state of contemporary political theory the thing that strikes me most is how parochial and atemporal we theorists have become. Debates in theory move slowly, very slowly. In some ways this is a good thing. Theorists like to take our time to think things through. This is important. Rushing things usually doesn't yield sage insights. There are often subtle, yet important, distinctions and provisos that need to be made. So I want to emphasise that I recognise that and agree it is important.

However, the pace of technological innovation today means that novel and unprecedented challenges face humanity. Challenges that theorists ought to be investing their thoughts and energies into tackling. And, at least for me my tastes, we are moving too slowly, and our focus is too narrow. This inertia stems mostly from the fact that we wear "blinders" that shield us from the realities of today's world and the new knowledge which evolutionary biology yields. Aristotle would scoff at the insularity and specialization of contemporary political theory. While concerns for the good of humans do populate debates in the field (some more than others), that concern is peripheral rather than central.

The neglect of science and technology, for example, easily illustrates how wide the gap is between debates in political theory and the real world. If you were born 200 years ago you probably wouldn't live to see your 30th birthday. If you are born today you will most likely live long enough to suffer from one of the chronic diseases of aging in late life (after age 60). We have more than doubled the life-expectancy of humans in just 200 years. And yet the significance of the advances that made this possible- like the sanitation revolution, vaccinations, material prosperity, changes in behaviour, etc.- go largely unnoticed by the political theorist. Such "macro-level" considerations typically aren't on the radar of theorists because we tend to form our theories and principles on the basis of micro-level considerations (e.g.: "Look, the Jones's have more money than the Smith's do. Is this inequality in one small dimension of their life prospects fair if it is the result of "brute luck"?)

So, how does one go about linking political theory to aging research? This is my project. It is one that constantly weighs on my mind given that one does not encounter journal articles on this topic, nor conferences addressing these themes, etc. But this challenge helps sharpen my intellect. If I chose to work on multiculturalism or global justice I wouldn't have to justify my chosen topic to anyone. Those are topics almost all theorists work on. And thus one can just display the "membership" badge to the club and proceed with little or even no justification for why one has chosen to work on these topics.

So tackling something new or neglected in a field comes with risks. Maybe others don't write on this topic because it actually is unimportant. I have taken this prospect very seriously. But after researching these topics for the past few years my confidence in the importance of aging research, for both society and political theorists, has grown. There will be 2 billion humans over age 60 by mid-century and these people will be at a high risk of chronic disease. We live in an "aged-world". A world where most humans alive today will die from the diseases that afflict us in old age. Death and disease are very serious things. They ought to be among the top few things on our list of what undermines the good of humans. And this means we ought to place a premium on the knowledge and innovation that could help us alter the biological clocks we have inherited from our evolutionary history.

Even though the evening news does not report breaking headlines concerning the unprecedented numbers of people suffering chronic disease does not mean it is not an important issue worthy of serious study and reflection. Rather than have the media shape my research interests, or simply follow the existing trends in my field, I have adopted a different approach (at least for this stream of my research). To see why aging is so important I want you to consider the importance of fossil records. If we examine the fossil records of our distant ancestors from thousands of years ago we see what posed the greatest threats to their health and prosperity. The fossil records of our distant ancestors reveal the toll inflicted by violence, poverty and infectious disease. Very few humans lived long enough to suffer from the chronic diseases of aging.

The fossil records from the twenty-first century, however, will reveal something truly unique in human history- that the inborn aging process is now the leading cause of disease and death. Of course it's possible that an asteroid could destroy humanity this century, or we could destroy ourselves in a nuclear war. But the most likely scenario is that most humans alive today will die from cancer, heart disease and stroke, and these diseases will kill them after the age of 60. These future projected fossil records, rather than the evening news or a chapter in Rawls's A Theory of Justice, is what shapes my thinking about these issues. But we may be able to alter this likely future. It is irrational for humanity to ignore the leading cause of disease and death. Of all the things to ignore, the last thing should be the leading cause of disease and death!

So, let me be more precise as to why this matters to us political theorists. Much of course depends on what we take political theory to be. Recall my account of what theory is. Here is an excerpt from that earlier post:

Dunn claims that the purpose of political theory is to diagnose practical predicaments and to show us how best to confront them. Doing this, he adds, requires us to develop the following three distinct skills.

1. Ascertaining how we got to where we are and understanding why things are this way.
2. Deliberating about the kind of world we want to have.
3. Judging how far, and through what actions, and at what risk, we can realistically hope to move this world as it now stands towards the way we might excusably wish it to be. (Dunn, 1990, p. 193)

So the theorist in me says that understanding our evolutionary biology and aging research apply to all of these. Let me fill in the relevant details.

1. How did we get to the situation where 220 million humans will die from the chronic diseases in just the 10 years from 2005-2015? The first part of the story is the story of the triumph of human ingenuity. Over the past 200 years we have been able to increase life expectancy at birth from below 30 to over 67 years by reducing early and mid-life mortality. This has been an amazing accomplishment. Yet it is important to recognise that preventing death and disease early in life has brought about the dramatic rise in population and age-related disorders. Why do we age? And why does aging make us vulnerable to frailty, disease and death? To make a long story short- because the force of natural selection does not apply to the post-reproductive period of the human lifespan. So most disease and death today are caused by evolutionary neglect. And given the size of today's populations, unprecedented numbers of humans will suffer the ravages of chronic disease.

2. What is the ideal? Less disease, more health!

3. How to get there? To put things very generally- We need to think outside the box. The medical sciences are currently dominated by the "disease-model" approach to health extension. This approach is costing more and more money, and yielding smaller health dividends. The real culprit is aging itself. Retarding aging would bring individuals and societies greater opportunities to flourish. For political theorists we must transcend our fixation on the distribution of external goods like wealth and income and take more seriously the natural determinants of health. Rather than start from Rawls's A Theory of Justice we should start from Darwin's Origins of the Species. Rather than assuming all members of society are healthy and productive we should strive to understand the constrains which an aging population face. Rather than bury our heads in the sand with respect to science we must stay abreast of the incredible progress being made, especially in the biomedical sciences.

This has been a long post. Thanks for your patience in permitting me to work these issues out in my own mind as I attempt to strengthen my case to get political theorists to take people for what they really are (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

So I want to finish by appealing to my fellow theorists to take more seriously the importance of images like these:

These images illustrate the real challenges of the 21st century. With adequate funding, creativity and innovation, today's governments might help us achieve one of the most laudable of goals- modulating the biological clocks we have inherited from our evolutionary history. The sooner we begin to think seriously about addressing this issue the better.