Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Myth of "Homo Primaeva"

This long post is really part 2 of my earlier post on "The Missing Piece? The Fight for Science (and Justice)" which I posted back in December.

I am preparing a talk I am giving to a group of scientists who work on biomedical gerontology. The title of the conference session I am participating in is "Why Aging Research?" Over the past 3 years this question has consumed my deliberations and research. So I am really looking forward to giving this talk.

In fact, if it weren't for the question "why aging research?", I probably would have finished my book on "genetic justice" about 3 years ago! By considering the topics of aging and aging research I have been forced to think much deeper about a number of issues, like:

(1) who are the least advantaged?

(2) what ought we to say about the unchosen health inequalities between the young and aged

(3) the projected rise in chronic disease this century

(4) how to handle the concerns of aggregation that arise in a population that is getting older

(5) the complex challenges of mitigating disadvantage

(6) the impact natural selection has had on our lives

and (7) inspired me to read new books I never would have likely read....

This lengthy diversion into the field of aging and biogerontology has meant that the draft of the 90 000+ words of my book continues to accumulate dust while I indulge my curiosity about these other (related) concerns.

Has this diversion of my attention been worth it? Absolutely! I have published articles on aging research in journals in bioethics, science and medicine. I have a much firmer grasp of the things that actually cause most disease and death in the world today. And I now appreciate the brilliance of Darwin and the potential of Darwinian medicine to revolutionize our approach to the medical sciences.

But perhaps one of the most valuable lessons of this diversion into the field of aging research is that it has taught me a lot about the shortcomings of my own discipline- political philosophy.

The fact that I work on issues that are, to but it mildly, "on the margins" of the discipline mean that I have had to critically reflect much harder on the question- why ageing research? If I decided to tackle a more mainstream issue (like multiculturalism or global justice) I wouldn't be expected to justify why I decided to invest my time and energy into topics. But because the topic of aging research lacks "intuitive appeal", I am compelled to think much harder and deeper about these issues. For example, I have had to consider what the role of science is in a fair and just society. And how a fair society should respond to the challenges of changing demographics. Sadly neither of these questions get much attention from political philosophers. So over time I have come to realize that my interests in science and aging are not odd after all. Far from it. What is odd is that the political philosophers who claim to have an interest in justice neglect both of these important issues. So let me offer a brief diagnosis of why I think this is the case.

Political philosophers ask many questions, but one of the central questions in the field is: what constitutes a just society? For contemporary theorists, this has largely involved asking questions like: What principles should govern the distribution of wealth and income? How should a just government respond to value pluralism and the reality of cultural inequality? How much weight should be placed on the protection of basic rights and freedoms? etc. These are questions most of us probably have pretty detailed answers to.

But when it comes to science policy things are very different. Earlier this month President Obama give this excellent speech to the National Academy of Sciences. He pledged to invest 3% of GDP for science research (basic and applied research). He also vowed to improve education in math and science. This represents the largest investment in scientific research and innovation in American history. With such a monumental investment being made in science one has to wonder: what do we (i.e. political philosophers) have to say about all this? Surely the National Academy of Sciences are part of the "basic structure" of society and thus an investment of this scale must raise some important questions of justice that we can contribute some insights to. But I wonder how many of us have discussed this issue in our classes? How many conferences and edited volumes are in the works tackling the diverse issues of justice that arise in this context?
.......long awkward silence.........sound of crickets.....(well there is at least one encouraging sign of life here)...............

I think our silence on these issues is a real shame. We have little to contribute to these issues because we have chosen to invest our time and energies elsewhere. And I think we need to take a long, hard look at where we have taken the discipline.

If we are asked about the distribution of wealth and income we have a handful of principles and theories at hand. Ditto if you ask us how governments should respond to the cultural inequalities that exist in multicultural societies. And ditto again if you ask us about what we owe to the poor in distant lands, or the value we ought to place on basic rights and freedoms. But ask us what constitutes good and bad science policy and you are bound to hear nothing but a long, awkward silence.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I push us on these points not because these interests and questions just happen to be ones I am interested in tackling. Rather, these issues and questions have come to preoccupy my own interests in recent years because they are so important to society. But it is hard to make headway on them because one has to basically start from scratch. There are few sources to turn for inspiration on how to broach these topics (though I have recently discovered the work of John Dewey, which has proved extremely valuable and inspiring).

To move things forward in a constructive fashion I believe it is helpful to look at how we arrived at this situation. So what I offer now is my attempt at a partial "diagnosis" of our neglect of one area of science policy- biogerontology.

Political philosophers like to gang up on economists so let me drawn a parallel between the shortcomings of economics and the shortcomings of contemporary debates about justice among political philosophers. The dominant theoretical paradigm in economics is rational choice theory which presumes humans are "homo economicus" (rational man). That is, that we are rational agents that act in ways that will maximize our utility. However, there is growing empirical evidence from many fields (like psychology, neuroscience, etc.) that shows that people often do not act this way. We suffer many cognitive biases and commonly invoke faulty heuristics that lead us to make irrational decisions. We also care about reciprocity and are willing to reward those who act in a cooperative manner while punishing those who do not even when these actions are costly to the individual.

Given the reality of our decision-making capacities, if economics is to thrive as a discipline it will need to be re-cast in ways that are not constrained by assumptions which have been shown to be untenable (like the assumption that we are homo economicus).

Similar concerns apply to the assumptions of political philosophers and our debates about distributive justice. But instead of invoking a vision of "homo economicus", we employ what I will call the myth of "homo primaeva" (which means "youthful man"). Why do I say this? Well, imagine that Martians came to Earth and could only learn about human life on our planet by reading just the past 40 years of debates in political philosophy. While they might learn that some inequalities in our life prospects are caused by brute luck (some people are born into rich families, others into poor families), others by expensive tastes, and that the philosopher John Rawls expanded his theory of justice from the domestic realm to the international arena, etc., the Martians could be forgiven for thinking that adult humans did not age. That is, they would assume that adult humans when through life with the same health and economic prospects of an adult in their 20's.

Of course this assumption is obviously false. Our economic and health prospects vary as we age. But we seldom acknowledge this reality in our discussions of the demands of justice. What explains this implicit assumption of "homo primaeva"? Maybe part of it has to do with the nature of the insulation of academia. While it is true that we, as professors, age, the students we teach don't appear to age. When I started teaching 10 years ago the average age of my students was 20. Ten years later they are still 20! And in 20 more years they will still be 20. So the insulation of academia might explain part of what is going on here.

But more seriously, a more likely explanation has to do with the skill-set contemporary political philosophy seeks to develop. And so one main culprit (though I admire him greatly!) is John Rawls. One of Rawls's "simplifying" assumptions is that all the participants in the social contract are healthy, productive members. And "poof!"... just like that, the myth of "homo primaeva" was planted and flourished over the next 40+ years.

Rawls invoked this simplifying assumption to help bracket particular complexities like healthcare, and in so doing come to an understanding of how wealth and income should be distributed and the weight to place on rights and freedoms. The problem is that this one simplifying assumption pretty much erases many of the central questions of justice that are in need of being addressed. To bracket them, so that attention can be placed on wealth, income and rights and freedoms gives one the impression that science and health policy are secondary, or even tertiary concerns. And that has certainly been the (unfortunate) consequence for the field 4 decades later.

The reality today is that the inborn aging process is now the major risk factor for disease and death after around age 28 in the developed countries and limits average life expectancy at birth to approximately 85 years (source) Aging predisposes our bodies to fall apart, making us vulnerable to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke. Advances in evolutionary biology point us in the direction of potential interventions in the aging process that could expand the opportunities humans could have for health. Our neglect of human biology and science in general is unjustified.

As I have noted before, I subscribe to the ancient conception of "philosophy"- that is, "love of wisdom". And practical wisdom requires us to grasp the "big picture" and develop a sense of proportionality. Unfortunately I fear I am in the minority, for the field currently favors precision over proportionality. Hence it is unlikely that aging will likely become a "hot topic" in political philosophy any time soon. Maybe 20 years after an anti-aging intervention is developed and significantly improves global health by reducing the risk of chronic disease political philosophers will take note and then begin to contemplate what would happen if you add a person's age to the list of things that we don't know behind the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance". And then, after another 20 years of further debate, a consensus would arise that, like the sanitation revolution, it was a good think we funded some aging research.

But wait a minute.... I'm not even sure there is a consensus that the sanitation revolution was an important event. So perhaps things look even more grim for the discipline!

The short-term carrot sticks of academia (like tenure and promotion) provide strong incentives for philosophers to burrow away with their specialization rather than forge interdisciplinary interests and insights. This is odd given that philosophy, of all disciplines, should be receptive to interdisciplinary aspirations. Where would the contributions of Aristotle or Hobbes be if they shared the current disdain for science and empirical knowledge? Let's quash the myth of "homo primaeva". By doing so we can help narrow the gap between ideal and non-ideal theory, the gap between the humanities and the sciences, and the gap between theory and practice. And I think this would reap a fruitful and important bounty.