Monday, December 27, 2010

Year in Review 2010

Puzzles tackled this year include:
Why don't we perceive biological and global aging as the pressing health challenges they actually are? What are the moral arguments in favour of decelerating the rate of human molecular and cellular decline? 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?

Puzzles I started seriously thinking about this year include:
Why do anything? What are the determinants of happiness? What is play, and what role does play play in the "good life"? What are the intellectual virtues and vices? And how is democracy the best epistemic device available?

Summary of research activity in the year 2010:


(1) “Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science” Biogerontology 11(3) (2010): 377-85.

The medical sciences are currently dominated by the “disease-model” approach to health extension, an approach that prioritizes the study of pathological mechanisms with the goal of discovering treatment modalities for specific diseases. This approach has marginalized research on the aging process itself, research that could lead to an intervention that retards aging, thus conferring health dividends that would far exceed what could be expected by eliminating any specific disease of aging. This paper offers a diagnosis of how this sub-optimal approach to health extension arose and some general prescriptions concerning how progress could be made in terms of adopting a more rational approach to health extension. Drawing on empirical findings from psychology and economics, “prospect theory” is applied to the challenges of “framing” the inborn aging process given the cognitive capacities of real (rather than rational) decision-makers under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Prospect theory reveals that preferences are in fact dependent on whether particular outcomes of a choice are regarded as “a loss” or “a gain”, relative to a reference point (or “aspiration level for survival”). And this has significant consequences for the way biogerontologists ought to characterise the central aspirations of the field (i.e. to prevent disease versus extend lifespan). Furthermore, it reveals the importance of shifting the existing reference point of the medical sciences to one that is shaped by the findings of evolutionary biology and biodemography.

(2) “Mind the Gap: Senescence and Beneficence” Public Affairs Quarterly 24(2) (2010): 115-30.

Beneficence is a foundational principle in bioethics, and yet it has not been applied to the topics of biological aging and longevity science. This paper explores the connection between the demands of beneficence and the aspiration to retard human aging in the hope of bridging the divide between debates in ethics and research in biomedical gerontology. My ethical argument brings to the fore a number of empirical considerations, including (1) the fact that aging is a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality (domestically and globally); (2) that numerous experiments, in a variety of different species (including mammals) have demonstrated that aging is not immutable; and (3) that a deceleration of the aging process in humans would likely yield significant health benefits.

(3) “Why Aging Research?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1197 (2010): 1–8.

The American philosopher John Rawls describes a fair system of social cooperation as one that is both rational and reasonable. 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 antiaging pharmaceutical), I argue that the goal of decelerating the rate of human aging would be a more effective strategy for extending the human health span 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.

(4) “Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging” Bioethics

Where does the aspiration to retard human ageing fit in the ‘big picture’ of medical necessities and the requirements of just healthcare? Is there a duty to retard human ageing? And if so, how much should we invest in the basic science that studies the biology of ageing and could lead to interventions that modify the biological processes of human ageing? I consider two prominent accounts of equality and just healthcare – Norman Daniels's application of the principle of fair equality of opportunity and Ronald Dworkin's account of equality of resources – and conclude that, once suitably amended and revised, both actually support the conclusion that anti-ageing research is important and could lead to interventions that ought to be considered "medical necessities".

(5) “Patriarchy and Historical Materialism” Hypatia

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.

(6) “Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science and Prospection” Rejuvenation Research

Aristotle described the study of politics as an ‘‘architectonic’’ science that aspires to bring together insights from different fields of scientific inquiry to ensure that citizens have the opportunities to flourish. To meet the health and economic challenges of aging populations, we must revive this Aristotelian vision of politics. Prioritizing biogerontology is a requirement of well-ordered science. But a number of cognitive limitations and biases impair our ability to perceive both the harms of the inborn aging process and the magnitude of the likely benefits of age retardation. Thus, well-ordered science also requires us to address the social and cultural, and not merely scientific, obstacles that impede the aspiration to retard human aging.

Ongoing research projects:

(1) The playful life is the good life (Parts 6 and 7)

(2) Virtue epistemology and democracy (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

(3) Sen on justice (Parts 1, 2, and 3