Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Year in Review (2011)

And so yet another year comes to a close. This year has been an especially busy one for me on all fronts-- research, teaching, admin and family -- hence the light load of blogs over the past 6 months.

Highlights from the year include the CPSA conference and my promotion to full professor.

Favourite blog posts from the year include:

The Timeless Rousseau
New Aging Video
Notes on Fatherhood (ch. 1)
Life Extension, "Sacred Values" and Taboo Tradeoffs
POLS 250 End of Term
Abstraction and Sacred Values (The Preamble)
Happiness and Mood Enhancement
The Life History of Men
Bentham, Sacred Values, and Ideal Theory
Patriarchy and Historical Materialism
Why Do Political Theory *Today*?
The Detective's Virtues
The Importance of History

New puzzles/questions/topics I started to think seriously about this year include:

The medical sciences today are predicated on the assumption that the most important questions to answer concern the causes of pathology rather than the causes of exemplar examples of valued phenotypes (e.g. longevity and happiness). A new paradigm of "positive biology" might help us better realize the demands of well-ordered science in today's aging world.

What are the "intellectual virtues"? What is their relation to the "moral virtues"? What fosters, and impairs, the intellectual virtues?

Why incarcerate? Subjective wellbeing is adaptive, so what are the implications of this for theories of punishment and the practice of incarceration?

Other questions seriously pondered this year include: why is there gender inequality? What can evolution tell us about the biology of males? (e.g. our higher propensity towards violence, shorter lifespan, investment in parenting, etc.).

Why do political theory? And what constitutes success and failure in political theory?

Why advance an account of "genetic justice"? (i.e. an account of what constitutes a fair distribution of genetic endowments).

Summary of research activity in the year 2011:


(1) Virtue Epistemology and the "Epistemic Fitness" of Democracy (forthcoming) Political Studies Review

Abstract: In this paper I explore three distinct advantages of linking virtue epistemology to an epistemic defence of democracy. Firstly, because intellectual agents and communities are the primary focus of epistemic evaluation, virtue epistemology offers political theorists the opportunity to develop an epistemic defence of democracy that takes ‘realism’ seriously (e.g. the cognitive limitations and biases of humans). Secondly, because virtue epistemology conceives of epistemology as a normative discipline, it builds normative criteria into the exercise of assessing the ‘epistemic fitness’ of a political arrangement (e.g. democracy vs epistocracy). Thirdly, by assessing the epistemic powers of democracy from a virtue-epistemological perspective, a more robust (Deweyan) conception of democracy needs to be employed and assessed than the ‘minimalist’ conception employed by the Condorcet Jury Theorem.

(2)Biogerontology and the Intellectual Virtues (forthcoming) Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences

Abstract: The case for prioritizing the study of the biology of aging can be persuasively made by making explicit its connection to the exercise of the intellectual virtues needed to realize well-ordered science. These intellectual virtues include a range of attitudes and dispositions integral to all areas of science (e.g. sensitivity to details, adaptability of intellect, the detective’s virtues), but the so-called “teaching virtues” are especially important for biogerontology. Without the foresight to anticipate how your audience will likely respond, biogerontologists risk marginalizing the field’s importance to well-ordered science as the general public are likely to dismiss, or underestimate, the health and economic benefits of an intervention that retards the rate of biological aging.

(3)”Positive Biology” as a New Paradigm for the Medical Sciences (forthcoming) Nature’s EMBO Reports

Abstract: Most basic and applied research in the medical sciences today is premised upon the presumption that well-ordered science requires us to prioritize what one can call “negative biology”. Negative biology is the intellectual framework that presumes the most important question to answer is- what causes pathology? Positive biology, by contrast, focuses on a different set of questions and priorities. Rather than making disease the central focus of our intellectual efforts and financial investments, positive biology seeks instead to understand exemplar examples of health and happiness. Understanding why some (rare) individuals can live a century of disease-free life, or why some individuals enjoy more well-being (e.g. positive subjective experience, optimism, perseverance, high talent) or possess greater memory or resilience than the average person could lead to new knowledge that permits us to significantly expand the opportunities today’s populations have for health and happiness.

(4) Normative Theorizing about Genetics (forthcoming) Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics

Abstract: Most contemporary theories of distributive justice are ill-equipped to tackle the kinds of concerns that arise once we expand the domain of justice to include the distribution of genetic endowments. One cannot begin from an account of distributive justice that was designed with the distribution of wealth in mind and then simply “add genetics and stir”. The genetic revolution requires us to undertake a major re-conceptualization of what the demands of justice are. And this means that the fundamental (or first-order) principles or theories we begin with must be open to revision in light of the new empirical discoveries in genetics and human biology.

Genes are special, from the perspective of theorizing about justice, because they (a) have been neglected in our normative theorizing (and thus warrant special attention in order to redress this neglect so that we are better prepared to fairly regulate new genetic technologies); (b) are unique resources and thus require the normative theorist to develop a skill-set that is unique from the skills required for tackling the distribution of external resources like wealth; and (c) genes are special because they play an important role in the development of a wide range of valued phenotypes.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Patriarchy and Historical Materialism

My paper entitled "Patriarchy and Historical Materialism" was published in the winter 2011 issue of the journal Hypatia. The video above is a general discussion of my motivations for writing this paper and an outline of the central arguments I advance in the paper. Below is the abstract of the paper:

Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? Why have patriarchal practices and institutions evolved and changed in the ways 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. The paper has two central aspirations: first, 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. Second, by developing the functionalist account of historical materialism in order to take patriarchy seriously, we can derive useful insights for diagnosing the emancipatory challenges that women face in the world today. 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, and so on) are the real driving forces behind the positive modulations to patriarchy witnessed in the twentieth century.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Fossil Records: Past and Present

*originally posted in May 2010*

Fossil records provide some of the most valuable bits of information about the past. These records provide us with a sense of the diversity of species that once, but no longer, roamed this planet. They provide valuable information about the migration, biology, diet, etc. of different species.

Fossil records can also help provide us with a sense of the risks that our species historically faced in different places, and at different times, in the 150-200 000 years that homosapiens have roamed the planet.

Looking at our species' history through the lens of fossil records can also help us get a better sense of our priorities, with respect to public policy. Here I offer a few reflections on how they can do this.

Looking back over our species' history, as told in fossil records, what do we find? This insight from Hayflick is important:

Prehistoric human remains have never revealed individuals older than about 50 years of age, and humans had a life expectancy at birth of 30 years or less for more than 99.9% of the time that we have inhabited this planet.

For 99.9% of our species' existence most humans died in early or mid-life. The extrinsic risks of infectious disease (1415 species of infectious organisms in the world have been identified as causing disease in humans) , poverty, war, etc. meant that our species' survival depended on high fertility rates. And our biology reflects this reality.

Comparative biology teaches us that reproduction is life’s solution to the inevitability of death in the hostile environments of Earth (source). Reproduction is thus made a higher biological priority than the longevity of a parent.

So for most of our species' history there was little progress in terms of increasing life expectancy at birth. But things began to change in the 19th century. Advances in technology (e.g. the sanitation revolution), medical knowledge, material resources and changes in behaviour helped change the future course of our species. The hard work and innovation of people like Chadwick, Snow, and Jenner, Pasteur, helped humanity escape a world dominated by early and mid-life morbidity and mortality.

The fossil records of the 21st century will be unique in our species' history for two reasons. Firstly, there will be more human remains this century than in any other century (because of the size of the human population). Furthermore, the vast majority of these deaths will be caused by chronic disease and will afflict people after the age of 60.

Isn't it odd, given how many people are projected to suffer and die from chronic disease and given the rapid progress that is being made in the biomedical sciences, that we don't invest more of our energies into tackling the leading cause of chronic disease? Namely, aging.

When future generations look back at the 21st century they will wonder why we didn't act sooner to try to ameliorate the high risks of morbidity and mortality that currently ravage our bodies and minds. They will wonder why we were so easily distracted by the stories that dominate the evening news. And why so many bright academics who were employed to educate future generations seemed so detached from the realities of their own time.

If only a population could see, analyze and react to, fossil records in "real time". That might help us take a more rational approach to improving the health prospects of today's aging populations.