Obesity and Naturalness

High profile anti-obesity activist Meme Roth writes on her blog: “Let’s finally recognize obesity as abuse—abuse of our children, abuse of ourselves—and together take action.” Roth has recently trademarked the term “second-hand obesity”, playing on “second-hand smoke.” She writes that second-hand obesity is passed along from parent to child and from citizen to citizen. Roth makes numerous television appearances every year and continually underlines the association of fat with sickness, death, and unnaturalness.

New research by Dr. Arya Sharma is beginning to break the elision of fat and sickness with his new research:

“The back-to-back studies come as more evidence emerges that a significant proportion of overweight people are metabolically healthy and that the risks associated with obesity do not make for a one-size-fits-all formula.” More can be found here: http://www.canada.com/health/Heavy+healthy+formula+slims+down+definition+dangerously+obese/5257089/story.html

If the risks associated with obesity are less dramatic than once believed, then what is feeding this culture of obesity panic that aims to “blast away fat” and “burn belly fat” away in 10 days or less?

What surprises me about much of the writing on obesity, like Roth’s and Richard Carmona, the Surgeon general of the United States who compared the obesity epidemic to terrorism, is that Continue reading

A reply to Allen Buchanan on Cognitive Enhancement

The interview with Allen Buchanan has spawned numerous discussions throughout the web, including Brendan Foht’s response. In it, Foht looks to address Buchanan’s claim that the nature of our evolution in some sense justifies cognitive enhancement, and the existence of other technologies.

It is strange that Buchanan thinks that opponents of genetic engineering who find something worth preserving in our nature must believe that evolution is analogous to some sort of “master engineer.” Considering that evolution is a slow process by which biological order spontaneously emerges from highly complex networks of highly conserved genes, there would seem to be an obvious analogy for it in the conservative view of society.

Another article on the topic by Allen Buchanan can be found here. And you can watch a lecture by Buchanan through Youtube, titled “Using Biotechnology to enhance normal humans: Why nature isn’t good enough.” 

Disability, Sport, and Ableism Conference

For anyone interested, there will be a series of talks on the topic of disability and sport in various locations on the University of Alberta campus on Tuesday (February 14) and Wednesday (February 15) as part of the Disability, Sport, and Ableism Conference.  Here is a quick run-down of talk titles, locations, and times:

1. From Pistorius to Para-Olympism: Contentious Paralympic Issues

(Panelists listed below)

Feb 14, 12:30 to 2 pm, PE E-120

 

2. What Can One Do With Ableism?

Lecture: Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Feb 15, 3 to 4:30 pm, ETLC ELO18 Followed by social at Leva Cafe

 

3. Albeism, Obsolescence & Body Technology

Seminar with Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Feb 15, 11am, Tory 14-28 (rsvp peers@ualberta.ca)

 

Featured Panelists & Speakers:

David Greig MHK, ChPC is a National Talent Development Coach for Para-Athletics, Athletics Canada.

Dr. P. David Howe is a former Paralympian, a coach, a journalist and a sport anthropologist who studies social theories of embodiment.

Jean Laroche, ChPC is the Lead Coach for Para- Athletics at the Sherbrooke (QC) High Performance Centre.

Danielle Peers, M.A. (U of A) is a former Paralympian, a coach, a Ph.D student and a Trudeau Scholar who studies disability, sport & human rights.

Dr. Gregor Wolbring (U of C) is an Assistant Professor in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, who studies ethics and governance of science and technology with a focus on issues faced by disabled people.

“Finding Purpose After Living With Delusion”

An article from the New York Times tells the story of Milt Greek, who experiences psychotic delusions to save the world.

So after cleaning the yard around his house — a big job, a gift to his wife — in the coming days he sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, supporting a noise-pollution ordinance.

Small things, maybe, but Mr. Greek has learned to live with his diagnosis in part by understanding and acting on its underlying messages, and along the way has built something exceptional: a full life, complete with a family and a career.

Greek, and a growing number of others, have looked to their delusions as being rooted in fears, and other psychological wounds, with the goal of recovery through understanding. It’s a process that Continue reading

“Why Cognitive Enhancement is in Your Future (and Your Past)”

For those interested in transhumanism, cognitive enhancement, and the potential ethical problems that follow, this interview with Duke Philosophy Professor Allen Buchanan might be of interest. Buchanan has written extensively on the ethical implications of human enhancement, notably in his book Better than Human, and has argued forcefully in favour of pursuing cognitive enhancements.

Buchanan disagrees with critics who suggest that cognitive enhancement should not be pursued, in part, because it’s antithetical to human nature. In fact, he argues that the desire to improve our capacities, and our ability to do so, constitutes an important part of our nature.

I think that any appeal to the notion of human nature, on either side of the enhancement debate, is tricky and problematic and has to be handled with care. Yes, in one sense we might say that it’s part of human nature to strive to improve our capacities. Humans have done this in the past by developing literacy and numeracy, and the institutions of science, and more recently we’ve done it with computers and the Internet. So, yes, if an alien were looking at humanity and asking “What is human nature?” one of the ingredients is going to be that these beings seem quite concerned with improving their capacities and they seem to have a knack for doing it.

Check out the complete, and lengthy, interview for more discussions on this topic, the films Gattaca and Limitless, the potential to exacerbate social inequalities, and other ethical debates surrounding cognitive enhancement.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t fix It, But What if It’s Enhanced?

Gary Karp, who sustained a spinal injury in 1973, which prevents him from using his legs states that although his spine is technically broken, he is not.  Although he confesses that he would want to walk again, he clarifies that he would not want to do so at any cost.  He writes (click here for the entire blog post):

Well, it’s not about whether I want to walk. Of course I want to walk. That is, if I could walk the way I did before my injury. Easily, without fatigue, secure in my balance, painlessly. That’s a pretty tall order (especially given that I’m six foot two!).

The problem with paralysis, Gary argues, is that it is viewed as a thing to be fixed and thus people with injuries like Gary’s are viewed as damaged or broken.  He writes:

If the prevailing view of paralysis—or having a disability of any kind—is that the most important thing is to try and fix people (because, of course, what else could broken people want?), then how will I be viewed as the whole person I am—in the context of my paralysis? If I’m damaged goods, then I’m a person whose life can only be improved—much less be a meaningful and satisfying life—if someone repairs my brokenness.

His view on technological advancements like the exoskeleton is this:

What, then, of the exoskeleton? I don’t see it as something that will fix me, that will fill in something horribly missing in my life. After 38 years I’m so thoroughly adapted that not being able to walk is normal. For me.

The exoskeleton, however, is just a hint of what is possible.  What lies beyond is far from mere fixing; the possibilities point to enhancement.  If Gary and others like him decided to “upgrade” their legs with some future technology inspired by the exoskeleton, would those with “regular” legs be in need of fixing?  In a world of enhanced humans, would all people be born damaged or broken?

Oscar Pistorius is a contemporary example of what may one day be possible.  Oscar is a double amputee and a world class sprinter.  His legs, which were made by the same company the CEO of Ekso Bionics worked for at the time, have been the cause of the IAAF’s ruling making him ineligible for competitions conducted under its guidelines.  This decision was eventually reversed, but the reasons for reversal were not that the use of artificial legs is not an issue, but rather that they do not give him any advantage over other competitors.

Of course, there must be some restrictions set on competitions.  For instance, using a bicycle or a motorized vehicle to win the 100m dash certainly does not seem to be in the spirit of that particular sporting event and so the use of mechanized legs can surely lead to questions.  However, the issue of advantage in sport due to technological advancements does not begin with Oscar Pistorius.  Shouldn’t better running shoes fall into this same category?  What about better diets and certain dietary supplements?  What about the advancement in training efficiency?  Are these not technological improvements?  I doubt that Coroebus of Elis, who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.E., would be a match for Usain Bolt, who won several races at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Does fairness dictate that athletes should have equal access to advantage conferring technologies?  So, in the case of the IAAF’s objections to Pistorius,  was the underlying issue of fairness related to the fact that his legs were not equally accessible to other athletes?  What about Usain Bolt’s physiology?  Is it on par with mine?  If I trained as he does, ate as he does, slept the same amount of time he does, etc., would I also be able to run 100m in 9.72 seconds?  I doubt it!  Does Bolt have an unfair advantage over me?  Insofar as he is better predisposed than I for such great sprinting performance, I guess he does have an unfair advantage.  Do I need fixing?  Am I broken?  Well, no.  I’m not a sprinter, so I don’t need fixing, right??  What about Coroebus of Elis?  Was he broken?  Well, no.  He won the first ever recorded Olympic race!

I am certainly not making claims about the IAAF’s decision, nor about the reversal of the IAAF’s decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  I also am not questioning the logic behind the rules and boundaries in sporting events.  What I question, however, is whether any competitors can truly be said to be advantage-less?  And I think the answer is no!  If that is the case, however, then it would seem that the point of contention about Pistorius’ alleged “edge” over his co-competitors might actually stem from a deeper apprehension about what our society considers to be abnormal.  Could it be that both Gary (who cannot walk) and Oscar (who can outrun much of his “normal” competition) are somehow viewed in terms of being in need of “fixing” because they are abnormal?  If this is the case, then it’s not merely an ableist fear because Oscar Pistorius, to my mind, is more than able to win races against “normal” sprinters.  Perhaps people are suspicious of difference?  I just hope they never figure out that taller people take bigger steps when they sprint.

Guessing Genders Ain’t Gonna Fly

Air travel for transgender Canadians is made difficult by worrisome regulations (click here for details).  Sec 5.2(1)(c) of the ID screening regulations of Aeronautics Act states:

“An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents.”

The Canadian” states that this is problematic to say the least (and it strikes me as outrageous to say a bit more).

What if you’re from a province that will not allow you to change gender markers on your ID without surgery?   The Canadian government also will not allow you to change the gender marker on your passport without proof of surgical reassignment or a letter guaranteeing you will undergo SRS within a year.

This issue becomes even more absurd considering not only that surgery is invasive, but also that it is a big decision.  A columnist for the Montreal Gazette explains:

The “passing” issue is a touchy subject with some trans people, particularly Male-to-Females (MtFs). When fully transitioning, it can be a dealbreaker, which is one of the reasons why we have to undergo a minimum one-year real-life test before having sexual reassignment surgery. For those who don’t know, the real-life test for MtFs involves living as a woman 24/7. During that time, we find out how people view us.

Undergoing a test should be just that, trying it out.  Providing documentation guaranteeing SRS within a year seems a little odd!  Does this mean that transgender individuals should get all their travelling done and out of the way before they decide to transition?  But the absurdities seem to pile on: Continue reading

Is Mount Everest the Proper Political Podium for Individuals with Disabilities?

Sudarshan Gautam, a 25-year old Nepalese man living in Calgary, lost his arms in an accident 15 years ago.  The experience of being both pitied and laughed at by his family and school friends, as well as the general negative attitude of others toward his disability prompted him to prove that losing his arms did not make him disabled.  To this end, he learned to drive a non-modified motorbike and a car with manual transmission.  He also declared that he would summit Mount Everest in 2012.

Mount Everest, being the highest point on earth, gets its share of “firsts.”  Following the famous first successful ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay, there had been a constant number of both legitimate and eyebrow raising “firsts.”  On the one end of the spectrum, there was the first ascent without oxygen (1978) by Reinhold Messner as well as the first winter ascent by Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki in 1980.  On the other end of the spectrum, there was a dangerous helicopter landing in 2005, an insane ski descent, a sleep-over on the summit, etc.  Although the mountain has been commercialised for many years now (with “tourist” climbing companies charging as much as $70,000 per person to lead clients to the roof of the world), the mountain continues to be both a dangerous place and a place of infinite “firsts” with individuals always willing to risk their lives (and the lives of other people on the mountain since rescue efforts at such extreme altitudes are very dangerous endeavours) to be the youngest, the oldest, the fastest, etc. to reach the summit.

Climbing Everest is definitely a personal accomplishment and it has certainly been quite a political endeavour ever since people had set their minds on climbing it.  I am not surprised that Sudarshan Gautam is hoping to promote his noble cause (of advertising abilities of individuals with disabilities) by attempting to climb the highest mountain in the world.  There have been other individuals with disabilities who have successfully navigated the treacherous ridges of Everest.  Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind person to summit Everest and Mark Inglis was the first to do so without legs.

The questions, however, that seem to bother me are Continue reading

University of Alberta International Week

For those in Edmonton, some of the events at the University of Alberta International Week may be of interest. On February 3, the event will be hosting numerous presentations and discussions related to “Women, Decision-Making, and Development.”  Janet Keeping will be giving a talk on “The Ethics of Complacency” at 9am, and “Bill 44: Democratic or Dangerous?” at 3pm. Mahvish Parvez and Sabrina Atwal will also be talking about “Son Preference: Implications on the Status of Women” at 1pm. These are just a few of the many interesting talks and events being held. Click through to the web page to get a full listing of events.

“I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly.”

An interesting Op-ed from the New York Times titled “I had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly” explores the process, and history, of asperger syndrome. Benjamin Nugent writes,

The general idea with a psychological diagnosis is that it applies when the tendencies involved inhibit a person’s ability to experience a happy, normal life. And in my case, the tendencies seemed to do just that. My high school G.P.A. would have been higher if I had been less intensely focused on books and music. If I had been well-rounded enough to attain basic competence at a few sports, I wouldn’t have provoked rage and contempt in other kids during gym and recess.