Sunday, January 31, 2010

Study on Misprediction of Happiness in Old Age

The Journal of Happiness Studies has this interesting study on mispredicting Happiness Across the Adult Lifespan. Here is the abstract:

Using data from a 2007 survey in Northern Ireland (representative sample, N = 1036), we replicate and extend the US-based findings of Lacey et al. (Journal of Happiness Studies 7:167–182, 2006). Consistent with Lacey et al., we find that young people mispredict happiness levels in old age, believing—wrongly—that happiness declines with age. We explore the possible implications of this under-estimation of happiness in old age for the risky health behaviours of young people. We find that young male binge drinkers are particularly prone to thinking that happiness declines with age.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hypatia Paper on Patriarchy and Historical Materialism

My paper entitled "Patriarchy and Historical Materialism" has been accepted for publication in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? And why do patriarchal practices and institutions evolve and modify the way they have tended to over time in human societies? This paper explores these general questions by integrating a feminist analysis of patriarchy with the central insights of the functionalist interpretation of historical materialism advanced by G.A. Cohen (1978, 1988). The paper has two central aspirations. Firstly, to help narrow the divide between Analytical Marxism and feminism by redressing the former’s neglect of the important role female labor has played, and continues to play, in shaping human history. Secondly, by developing the functionalist account of historical materialism to take patriarchy seriously, useful insights for diagnosing the emancipatory challenges that women face in the world today can be derived. The degree and form of patriarchy present in any particular society is determined by the productive forces it has had at its disposal. According to historical materialism, technological, material and medical advances that ease the pressures on high fertility rates (such as the sanitation revolution, vaccinations, birth control, etc.) are the real driving force behind the positive modulations to patriarchy witnessed in the twentieth century.

I integrate Cohen's functionalist account of historical materialism with Gerda Lerner's account of the history of patriarchy.

A basic summary of my central arguments are:

(1) basic materialism: Humans have basic needs, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for any other form of life (e.g., social, political or intellectual life). To meet our basic needs humans had to labour. And the precarious situation of early hunter-gatherer societies meant that a priority had to be given to two important, and interdependent, kinds of labor: (a) warfare labor-- protecting one’s tribe from invasion by other tribes, as well as invading others when need be; and (b) reproductive and caring labor- the labor necessary to create and raise offspring. A group highly vulnerable to either predation or low birth rates would not survive long in the external conditions typical of the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene. This early division of male and female human labor thus set the foundation for the class relations that arise in slave, feudal and capitalist societies. For these are the relations of production of patriarchy. Relations that are further shaped, molded and reinforced by the legal and political institutions that arise in early states.

(b) synchronic materialism:
The subordination of women becomes formalized, and intensified, by the creation of superstructures that help stabilize these oppressive relations of production. Such relations give men effective control over the reproductive and caring labor of women. These patriarchal superstructures begin in slave societies, but continue through feudalism and capitalism.

(c) diachronic materialism: the productive forces of capitalism permit the modification of the worst forms of patriarchy. Once the pressures on maintaining high levels of fertility subside, due to declines in infant, maternal, and mid-life mortality, a greater portion of female labor can (and must be) utilized outside the home. Working outside the home permits women to make important impacts on the superstructure of society, thus resulting in greater political inclusion and equality. Diachronic materialism maintains that the degree and form of patriarchy in a society is determined by the productive forces it has at its disposal.

The ideas for this paper were first expressed on this blog a while back (see here and here).


Monday, January 25, 2010

Talk at Queen's This Week

Sunday, January 24, 2010

PNAS Article of Our Genetic Future

The latest issue of PNAS has this fascinating article on the consequences of human mutations. If we don't develop new genetic interventions, then the populations of industrialized societies will experience a substantial reduction in human fitness due to the rise of deleterious-mutation accumulation.

Critics of new genetic interventions typically invoke the precautionary principle as a reason to not tamper with our genes. But what these critics fail to realize is that our lifestyle and reproduction decisions have already "tampered with" the gene pool. And this article suggests that the status quo is leading us to a dire situation (the solution to which will require new genetic interventions). This particular passage caught my eye:

At least in highly industrialized societies, the impact of deleterious mutations is accumulating on a time scale that is approximately the same as that for scenarios associated with global warming—perhaps not of great concern over a span of one or two generations, but with very considerable consequences on time scales of tens of generations. Without a reduction in the germline transmission of deleterious mutations, the mean phenotypes of the residents of industrialized nations are likely to be rather different in just two or three centuries, with significant incapacitation at the morphological, physiological, and neurobiological levels.

Here is the abstract:

Although mutation provides the fuel for phenotypic evolution, it also imposes a substantial burden on fitness through the production of predominantly deleterious alleles, a matter of concern from a human-health perspective. Here, recently established databases on de novomutations formonogenic disorders are used to estimate the rate and molecular spectrum of spontaneously arising mutations and to derive a number of inferences with respect to eukaryotic genome evolution. Although the human per-generation mutation rate is exceptionally high, on a per-cell division basis, the human germline mutation rate is lower than that recorded for any other species. Comparison with data from other species demonstrates a universal mutational bias toward A/Tcomposition,andleads to thehypothesis that genome-wide nucleotide composition generally evolves to the point at which the power of selection in favor of G/C is approximately balanced by the power of random genetic drift, such that variation in equilibrium genome-wide nucleotide composition is largely defined by variation inmutation biases.Quantification of the hazards associated with introns reveals that mutations at key splicesite residues are a major source of human mortality. Finally, a consideration of the long-term consequences of current human behavior for deleterious-mutation accumulation leads to the conclusion that a substantial reduction in humanfitness can be expected over the next few centuries in industrialized societies unless novel means of genetic intervention are developed.

And one last sample from the article:

Innovations spawned by agriculture, architecture, industrialization, and most notably a sophisticated health care industry have led to a dramatic relaxation in selection against mildly deleterious mutations, and modern medical intervention is increasingly successful in ensuring a productive lifespan even in individuals carrying mutations with major morphological, metabolic, and behavioral defects. The statistics are impressive. For example, fetal mortality has declined by approximately 99% in England since the 1500s (52), and just since 1975, the mortality rate per diagnosed cancer has declined by approximately 20% in the United States population (53). Because most complex traits in humans have very high heritabilities (54), the concern then is that unique aspects of human culture, religion, and other social interactions with well intentioned short-term benefits will eventually lead to the long-term genetic deterioration of the human gene pool. Of course, a substantial fraction of the human population still has never visited a doctor of any sort, never eaten processed food, and never used an automobile, computer, or cell phone, so natural selection on unconditionally deleterious mutations certainly has not been completely relaxed in humans. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are progressively moving in this direction.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

David vs Goliath (re-posted)

*This was originally posted in Nov. 2009*

The story of humanity is a fascinating and inspiring one.

Despite the great adversity our species has, and continues to, face, we are capable of great compassion, imagination and inspiration. Indeed, it is perhaps these human traits that have helped us overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles we have faced in our species' evolutionary history.

What we are today reflects the challenges we have had to overcome in the past. From our two eyes and two hands, to our emotions like love, hope and fear, we are a complex history of biological and, more recently, cultural evolution. The inhospitable and unpredictable environments in which our species lived has given us aggression and compassion, emotion and reason, fear and happiness.

To help us overcome starvation we developed tools for hunting and farming. To help us overcome infectious disease we created the sanitation revolution and vaccinations. Our ability overcome diverse and complex forms of adversity is admirable.

The history of humanity is thus one of struggle (with all of its accompanying tragedy) but also one of hope (with all of its accompanying inspiration). Hope for a better state of affairs. One where humans have more opportunities to enjoy health, love and happiness. This aspiration to make things better is, I believe, what makes us truly human. And it is an aspiration that links us to our distant ancestors.

The title of this post is "David vs Goliath". Humanity is David, and Goliath represents all the things that have, and continue to, challenge the health and welfare of humans. The specific form of Goliath alters over time. Reflecting on the causes of death in the 20th Century, for example, we see that Goliath was warfare (including two World Wars), totalitarianism, and, most importantly, infectious disease. The Flu pandemic of 1918, for example, killed an estimated 50 000 000 people, which is more than 3 times the estimated number of deaths caused by four years of “Great War” in 1914-18. And small pox is estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people in just the 20th century.

In the 21st century, Goliath is CHRONIC DISEASE (e.g. cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.). Just 1 year of chronic disease today kills as many people as 300 years of the Black Plague.

In the decade from 2005 and 2015, the World Health Organization estimates that 220 million people will die from chronic illness, 144 million of these deaths will be in lower middle income countries like China and India.

To slay the Goliath of today humanity must be more compassionate, more imaginative, and more inspiring than it has been in the past. Slaying Goliath in the 21st century will require, I believe, an aggressive effort to understand the biology of aging, and then the development of interventions that modulate the rate of aging, so that humans can enjoy more disease-free life and a compression of morbidity at the end of life.

Why we age, and become frail and diseased, is a legacy of our evolutionary history. In short, because life in the state of nature was "nasty, brutish and short" 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 aged populations, unprecedented numbers of humans will suffer the ravages of chronic disease.

The vision of David battling Goliath came to me today as I happened across the following video this morning and was deeply moved by it. It is an interview with J.M. Smith, an evolutionary biologist who died in 2004. While a student Smith studied fruit fly genetics with J.B. Haldane.

In this interview Smith discusses the illness and death of his teacher, who died of cancer. This brief video moved me in many ways. It captures the human ability to display humour and determination in the face of adversity, as well as love and friendship. It captures humanity's most redeemable qualities, as told by one the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

It is only fitting to quote a passage from Haldane's famous poem on cancer:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma
Which kills a lot more chaps in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked

To slay Goliath this century we must build on the work of great minds like Haldane and Smith. We must transcend the "disease model" approach to the medical sciences, and develop Darwinian medicine.

And aging research is at the frontier of this more robust and ambitious vision of medicine. Modifying the biological clocks we have inherited from our Darwinian past would be this century's most important advance in public health. For age retardation would help protect the 2 billion people who will be over the age of 60 by 2050 from the chronic diseases that currently ravage unprecedented numbers of aged people in the world today. In order for this biological revolution to occur we must also undergo a cultural revolution. We need a rational and humane culture. We need more compassion, more imagination and more (new sources of) inspiration.

And we all have a moral responsibility to help spur on this cultural revolution and become 21st century humanists.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Fostering a Culture of Science Appreciation

In my earlier post I noted the failure of political leadership in Canada when it comes to a vision of science. What is science for? And what constitutes "well ordered science"? These questions do not crop up in the political arena very often, nor are they given serious reflection and debate by political theorists interested in justice.

As I suggested in my previous post, the fact that there is little leadership on science policy reflects a number of deeper problems within our culture. As academics we should aspire to equip our students with the skill-set that will best position them for meeting the challenges that lay ahead. Students in the humanities and social sciences, students who will go on to take up positions in government, the media, education, law, etc. ought to come away with an appreciate of the importance of science, as well as the complexities that face sound science policy.

The current political leadership, or rather lack thereof, on science is thus the expected outcome of a system of higher education that stifles interdisciplinary engagement and creates little (if any) incentives for fostering greater dialogue and understanding between the natural and social sciences.

But the responsibility of fostering a culture that celebrates the accomplishments of science, and dares the next generation to think in bold and innovative ways, also falls to us as parents. Our children need to be raised with an appreciation of the importance of knowledge, innovation and technology. And they need to understand that this knowledge has the potential to do great good, as well as harm.

Last night I had two of my children engage in a fun, creative thought experiment to help foster a "science-ethos" within our family. I asked them to come up with the idea for a new invention. I set them three tasks:

(1) come up with a name for your invention
(2) describe how it would work
(3) explain how it would improve our lives.

The two images above are the end-products of their deliberations. One invention is the "appearing cup", which is a cup that can be controlled via magnets on a table to help bring a drink to someone who can't walk over and pick it up. Furthermore, a mechanical arm would be fixed to the wall so that the cup could move to each room in the house and bring whatever drink a person might need.

The second invention was "life-saving medicine", which my other son described as a new medicine that can help people, young or old, who are sick and might die. And in his picture he has arrows pointing to the chemicals the scientists make and put in a "mixer" before giving them to the patient.

A simple exercise like the invention game (keeping with my favourite theme of late-- play!) can help a family discuss, and celebrate, science in a fun and engaging way. It is an activity that parents should also get involved with as well. Have all the members of your family play the "invention play" one Sunday afternoon. To come up with the idea of an invention you need to first think of a problem that it would be nice to have solved. In my case my two children think it is a problem that some people can't walk over to get a drink when they want to, and that some people get sick and die.

Framing things so the focus is on solutions (rather than just problems) can help foster a sense of optimism and positive-thinking in everyone. It can also provide the kids, parents and grandparents with unique insights into different generational aspirations. It can help you see the world through your kid's eyes, and they through yours. This fosters a sense of solidarity. Playing the invention game together as a family helps a family develop their imaginative capacities, and promote innovative thinking about the possible futures that could await us. And it reinforces the belief that human ingenuity can make the world a better place.

If all families take the time to help cultivate an appreciation of science and knowledge then perhaps the next generation of political leaders will have more vision and leadership skills than the current generation.


Where is the Political Leadership on Canada's Vision of Science?

This lead editorial in the latest issue of Nature is apt. A sample:

Canada is in many ways a powerhouse of academic science: its university researchers are prolific publishers and strong contributors to the national research and development enterprise. Yet Canadian government policy does far too little to support and utilize this strength.

....More generally, Canada has no group comparable to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the United States for focusing attention on science policy. Lobbying of the government bodies that have power over science is fragmented. And Canada has nothing comparable to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is headed by a science adviser who reports directly to the US president. Canada did have a science adviser to the prime minister during 2004–08, but he was largely sidelined before the position was terminated. (There is currently only a 'minister of state' for science and technology, a junior post that lies within the industry ministry.) The council that replaced the science adviser is entirely reactive to government queries, and produces reports that traditionally are not made public.

....Some critics say Canada has no science policy at all. Others say it has unwritten laws that seem to let it muddle along. But muddling along isn't good enough in today's tough economic climate. Canada needs a bigger vision of where its science is going: a vision informed by organized scientists, and voiced by a strong position in government.

The editorial suggests that the fact that Canada is so big but the population so small is perhaps part of the explanation for this situation. But I would lay a large part of the blame on Canadian academics. Recall this editorial from last month about the divide between the social and natural sciences. How many undergraduates in political science, for example, finish their degree with a solid understanding of the importance of science, and sound science policy, for society?

What makes this problem a particularly acute problem is the fact that the greatest challenges our societies face this century are ones that will require advances in science in order to address them. If we want to help create a vision of science in Canadian society we need to start by critical examining the culture of higher education.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Expanding the Use of Statins (Implications for Aging Research)

A "News of the Week" piece in the latest issue of Science notes that an advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has endorsed a wider use for Crestor, a statin traditionally only prescribed to people with high cholesterol to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Back in 2008 the results of the JUPITER trial were published, and they showed that statins could reduce the incidence of major cardiovascular events in people with normal cholesterol levels. The FDA is considering permitting as many as 6 million people whose cholesterol levels fall within a normal range to take statins.

I find the case of statins interesting to follow for I believe it foreshadows the challenges that await the first anti-aging drug that will come to market in the not-too-distant future (perhaps one of these drugs).

Such a drug will first be prescribed only for patients suffering a particular disease, like diabetes. But if this drug not only has a therapeutic benefit, but also delays the other diseases of aging with little or no side effects, then the door would be open to prescribing everyone take it.

The case of statins addresses issues that commonly arise with concerns about an aging intervention- like equality of access. These statins cost about $3 a day.

But the issue I found most fascinating about the Science piece is that the public's attitude about taking a drug that reduces risk of cardiovascular disease is different than one that reduces cancer risk. A sample from the News story:

If history is any guide, approving Crestor for a much wider audience could result in many takers. Statins are already enormously popular, and physicians working in prevention in other fields have been intrigued by the number of people who willingly take them for years. In breast and prostate cancer, on the other hand, for which drugs exist that can cut 5-year risk of those cancers by as much as half, relatively few opt for them. "We apply a different standard when it comes to cancer risk reduction" than when slashing cardiovascular risks, says Victor Vogel, national vice president for research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. In cancer, "there was a lot of criticism that drugs used for prevention have to be absolutely safe," a standard Vogel considers unrealistic—and one that doesn't apply to statins, either.

If people are willing to tolerate a higher level of adverse side-effects from a drug that reduces cardiovascular risk than they are for cancer risk, I wonder what the attitude would be for a drug that reduced the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, AD, arthritis, disability and all the other afflictions of aging?

The case of statins is important as it highlights many of the challenges of moving towards a more inclusive vision of the medical sciences.

This recent article on public attitudes towards life extension also reveals the challenges that lay ahead for tackling aging. For the following attitude is a common obstacle:

The fundamental religious belief to me is a belief and acceptance of the natural course, or I hate to use the term ‘God’s will’. . . there’s kind of a higher entity and we shouldn’t be interfering with what’s been kind of determined for us whereas part of our—yeah, our life plan
(Individual Interview 40)

This shows the importance of "framing" the issue. Asking what a person's attitude about "life extension" is is the wrong question to ask. Would you really need to ask is what someone's attitude is towards chronic disease. When it comes to preventing disease few people will think that it is part of "God's will" that they suffer a stroke or die from cancer. So aging researchers need to be careful about how they describe the aspirations of the field. Emphasising how an aging intervention can prevent disease, rather than simply adding years of health, is more likely to illicit a more rational response from beings with the cognitive biases and limitations that we possess.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Public Affairs Quarterly Paper on Aging and Beneficence

My latest paper "Mind the Gap: Senescence and Beneficence" has been accepted for publication in the journal Public Affairs Quarterly. A sample from the paper:

Over the past four decades philosophers have tackled a broad range of topical issues in applied ethics and political theory. These range from abortion and animal rights , to multiculturalism and the distribution of wealth and income. There now exists a plethora of normative theories (e.g. utilitarian, contractarian, egalitarian, libertarian, etc.) and principles (e.g. priority, sufficiency, inclusion, etc.) that moral and political philosophers can invoke to tackle a diverse range of practical issues. And yet oddly science and science policy remain relatively marginalized topics in moral and political philosophy. Few normative theories take seriously the question “What constitutes just science policy?”.

....To help narrow the gap (hence the title “Mind the Gap”) between science policy and philosophical debates in ethics and distributive justice, I invoke a foundational principle of ethics- beneficence- and apply this principle to the topic of senescence (or biological aging). I address some of the ethical and social issues that arise in the field of biogerontology which studies the complex biological processes of aging in the hopes of extending the human healthspan. Well-ordered science, argue Flory and Kitcher, must inevitably be selective. However, the current “disease-model” approach to health extension, which is the strategy of tackling each specific disease of aging one at a time, is unsatisfactorily selective because it neglects the reality that “age is by far the biggest risk factor for a wide range of clinical conditions that are prevalent today”. Many different kinds of cellular and molecular damage contribute to aging, such as DNA damage (like telomere shortening and chromosome rearrangements), protein damage, oxidation and cell migration and cell death. However, unlike specific diseases of aging, like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, aging research currently receives very little public funding.

....The neglect of science and science policy in contemporary normative ethics and political philosophy is unfortunate because (1) science has vastly improved the health and economic prospects of those alive today ; and (2) some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity this century, like the projected rise of chronic diseases (which will be addressed shortly), will require the development of new knowledge and medical technologies. The genetic revolution of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries raises many new and interesting questions concerning what the demands of morality are when it comes to harnessing the transformative potential of the new biomedical sciences. From gene therapy and stem cell research, to anti-aging pharmaceuticals and cognitive enhancers, advances in the biomedical sciences might permit humans to alter valued phenotypes like health, intelligence and longevity in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade or two ago.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Real Challenge of our Times (the condensed version!)

“Science is still too recent to have been absorbed into imaginative and emotional disposition” Democracy and Education (1916)

Nearly a century ago John Dewey nicely summarized the greatest challenge we face today. If we don't rise and meet this challenge we shall be overwhelmed by a tsunami of chronic disease.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

NEJM Article on Emotional Epidemiology of H1N1 Vaccine

The latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has this apt perspective piece on the public's reaction to the H1N1 vaccine.

Here is a sample:

Last spring, when 2009 H1N1 influenza first came to our attention, my patients were in a panic. Our clinic was flooded with calls and walk-in patients, all with the same question: "When will there be a vaccine?"

It was all so new then, and we didn't have an answer. That lack of answer seemed to fuel anxiety to a fever pitch. A substantial cohort of my patients continued calling, almost on a weekly basis, to ask about the vaccine.

These, of course, were the same patients who routinely refused the seasonal flu vaccine. Each year we'd go through the same drill: I'd offer them the flu shot. I'd explain the clinical reasoning behind this recommendation. I'd strongly encourage vaccination.

"No, thanks," they'd say. "The vaccine makes me sick." Or "My brother had a bad reaction." Or, simply, "I don't do flu shots."

The irony was painful. No matter how often I trotted out the statistics of 30,000 to 40,000 annual deaths from influenza, the patients would not be moved. So when they demanded the H1N1 vaccine last spring, I reminded them of their reluctance over the seasonal flu shot. "Oh, that's different," they said.

Six months have passed. Flu season is now here. After repeated delays, H1N1 vaccine finally arrived in our clinic earlier this month to the uniform relief of the medical staff. But my formerly desperate patients were now leery. "It's not tested," they said. "Everyone knows there are problems with the vaccine." "I'm not putting that in my body."

I was unprepared for this response, but maybe I shouldn't have been. For weeks now, in the schoolyard of my children's elementary school, other parents had been sidling up to me, seemingly in need of validation. "You're not giving your kids that swine flu shot, are you?" they'd say, their tone nervous, if a bit derisive.

How to explain this dramatic shift in 6 short months? It certainly isn't related to logic or facts, since few new medical data became available during this period. It seems to reflect a sort of psychological contagion of myth and suspicion.


Monday, January 04, 2010

Globe Article on Dementia and Aging

The fact that this morning's online Globe has a headline about the biggest story of this century- aging- is encouraging. In this case the story focuses on one specific impact of aging -- the rise of dementia.

A sample from the story:

The annual cost of dementia is projected to soar tenfold in the next generation, a stark illustration of the impact an aging Canadian population will have on the health-care system.

By 2038, dementia will cost a staggering $153-billion a year, up from the current $15-billion a year, according to a report being released today.

From 2008 to 2038, the number of Canadians living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia will jump to 1.1 million from 500,000 today, the new projections show.

Dementia is just one of the chronic health conditions on the rise as the grey tsunami washes across the country. The number of seniors living with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung disease and arthritis is also increasing.

The report referred to in the story is here.


Friday, January 01, 2010

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 6: Families at Play)

I haven't finished my read on the history of play yet, so I thought it might be more appropriate to post some personal thoughts about play.

The winter holiday season is a special time of year for many reasons. And while I find the rampant consumerism of the season distasteful, as a father of three I do embrace and celebrate those aspects of the season that I believe are redeeming and worth celebrating.

And one of those aspects is the celebration of play. So I thought I would offer a few reflections, focusing on the different aspects of play that I participated in over the past two weeks. These included different kinds of social and imaginative play.

The holiday season is a celebration of play for many reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, is that it is a time a year that affords us the most important prerequisite for play-- *time*. Having a few extra days to spend time with friends and family permits one to pursue activities that are much harder to pursue during the time constraints of the regular hectic work week.

As a father of three, this time of year involves many toys and games. One of the toys my children really enjoy was also a childhood favourite of mine-- lego. When I played with lego as a child they were mostly building blocks and what we built was determined by our imaginative capacities. So I would make airplanes, houses, etc.

Lego has changed a great deal since the 1970's (here is the Lego website). Lego is now sold in "themed packages" and comes with instructions! So last week I spent a few hours helping my son build a lego ship (this one here).

Rather than being something a child can build and re-build continuously, like the original lego, the new themed lego functions more as a model. You follow the instructions, build it, and then once it is built you can play with it (very delicately because Daddy's patience for putting these complex things back together is very limited!).

But unlike the original lego, where the possibilities of things to build was endless, the new lego encourages rule following and more fixed imaginative play. Of course this is a great marketing strategy. For once the child has built the designed construction, which is typically extremely complex and time-consuming, there is little incentive to take it apart and play with it. If you want to build something else you buy another themed lego set, thus maximizing profits but minimizing the benefits of the traditional lego experience. I wonder what impact this might have on children as they develop later in life.

I often struggle to come up with ideas for the kid's presents. I want to choose something they will (a) enjoy and (b) something that will last (at least a couple of months rather than hours). But finding something with longevity is a real challenge. Many toys today are made with very cheap materials, or are simply poorly made, so many of the toys we have bought over the past few years break within just a few days (I doubt if any toys made today would survive a century to be featured on a show like The Antiques Roadshow, which is one of my favourite shows to watch).

But the other challenge is that children can often lose interest in certain toys. This is probably a combination of having a surplus of toys (provided by loving family members and friends) coupled with the fact that many toys today are compelling "gimmicks", but not lasting toys. They appear to be a good toys (the packaging and advertising is effective), but don't pass the muster when actually played with. They simply don't engage a child enough for them to play with them for a sustained period. Children grow, their interests change, and what was fun to play with when 3 might not interest them in the slightest by age 4.

[[In fact, as I was writing this last paragraph my youngest son brought me his Mr Potato Head "darth tader" to put together, which is a real hit this year for him. I think Mr Potato Head is a great toy, and my older sons also have fun making funny faces with it. And we all love this video:

This year I decided to get my kids something different- a white board (in addition to the "regular" suspects like some lego and video games). I realize that this won't strike many as something for kids to play with as it is something they use in school every day (indeed I didn't include it with the presents, I just put it up in the living room and encouraged them to draw on it). But having the opportunity to make drawings on the wall of your own living room will, I hope, help tap their creative and imaginative minds.

The image above is one of the first pictures that my two older sons did on the white board. I also utilize the white board to make some more formal educational activities more fun, like adding and subtracting, printing and writing, etc. Doing these activities while standing and holding a marker can be more fun that sitting at a table with a pencil in hand (which is what they do all day at school).

Moving from the themes of toys and childhood games to play for adults, I will address the themes of cinema and music. Over the past few weeks I have seen a diverse range of movies, both in the cinema and ones we rented at home. I saw Invictus which was an excellent movie. It demonstrated the power of play to help unite people. I also saw a bunch of mediocre comedies and the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Sherlock Holmes was good (I love anything to do with Holmes), though no one can come close to Jeremy Brett's classic portrayal of Holmes. The TV series with Brett is my all-time favourite show, just beating out my #2 show-- Peter Falk's Columbo. I have always been drawn to detective shows. I guess I like the idea of the right-- armed with reason, evidence and determination-- triumphing over deception, greed and evil.

Watching movies is a great form of imaginative play. Laughing out loud with everyone in a crowded movie theatre to a skit that makes an awkward social moment humorous helps us become more human, we become psychologically connected and continuous with others in important ways. Or shedding a tear for a tragedy, like Titanic (which I also watched at home), can help connect us to history and appreciate the fragility of life and the human condition. When engaged in a movie we experience freedom from time and diminished consciousness of self.

Cinema helps expose us to different emotional stimuli, and can enhance and broaden our imagination and emotional responses to different stimuli. A good movie, like a good book, can help you simulate the experience of many different lives and minds. This is intrinsically rewarding and also confers many important instrumental benefits-- developing our empathy, making more vivid our own cognitive limitations and limited perspective, etc.

The final kind of play I would like to briefly mention is music. As I noted in a previous post, I only recently re-kindled my love of music after two decades of neglect. So over this holiday break I have set myself the challenge of trying to learn this song on piano (I still have a ways to go). Messing around on the piano has inherent attraction for me-- I have much more improvisational potential trying to teach myself songs I actually like, which is a welcome change from the rigidity imposed by the lessons I took as a child. The rigidity of lessons was a large part of the reason I eventually gave up on the piano. I didn't like the music I was learning to play! So now I try to learn songs I enjoy, and that motivates me to try to improve.

Last night we had some friends over for New Year's and after the children played some piano for everyone the parents did some karaoke and guitar.

My two older sons have only been playing the piano for 5 months and they really enjoy playing (and taking lessons). My wife and I never pressure our children to play for friends and family, they are the ones that request we do a recital for everyone (which means my wife and I also play and we practice with the same beginner's book they have!).

Listening to my sons play the piano, whether they are creating their own music or practising the songs assigned for their lessons, brings me the most intense and lasting happiness I have ever experienced. Such moments stir many different emotions in my mind. I admire their determination and self-discipline. I empathise with their frustration when struggling to master a song, and when they play for others I admire their willingness to take the risk of making mistakes (in front of adults they do not know well) and the humility they display when others congratulate them on their performance.

One parent played an old favourite of mine on acoustic guitar- the WHO's Baba O'Riley.

Listening to a song that played a formative role in my own, somewhat rebellious youth (when I had hair down to my shoulders!), helps me transcend time and make vivid past ambitions, desires and anxieties. Forging such connectedness with one's past self can be intrinsically rewarding and help one develop as a moral agent.

Sadly contemporary moral philosophy places little emphasis on introspection, let alone play, friendship, music or love. The professionalization of the discipline has meant that moral "philosophy" (understood as "love of wisdom") has given way to love of the primacy of the concerns of careerism. The Ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, appreciated the importance of art and love.

Why, one might wonder, does a political philosopher spend so much time thinking about play when there are so many pressing societal concerns facing humanity? I realize that my preoccupation with play will sound like idle triviality to many in the field. But I believe that play is the key to the good life, and that contemporary capitalist societies are "play-deprived". We value work over play, career and money over family and our physical and mental health. And this creates an unhappy and unhealthy polity.

I am still working out my ideas concerning the diagnosis of play deprivation in our culture. And I find reflecting on my own personal experiences, as well as reading about the history and biology of play, helps sustain my enthusiasm for this neglected topic.

Even though my ideas on this topic are still in their early stages, I suppose I would be willing to make one general prescription that we can all consider as individuals. And that is to ask yourself-- what role does play play in your life? Reflecting on that question might help one prioritize play in their lives, whether it be forging stronger relationships with family and friends, exercising, reading, watching movies, listening to music or composing and playing music.

The world is full of fascinating people and cultures. And there are many diverse and rewarding ways of becoming psychologically connected and continuous with others (in both distant times and distant places, as well as those local and immediate). Doing so can help foster one's own eudemonia. The playful life is the good life! All children already know this. And we adults could learn a lot by following their example.