Future Past: Disability, Eugenics, & Brave New Worlds

Future Past: Disability, Eugenics, & Brave New Worlds. A public symposium on the history and ongoing implications of eugenics ideologies and practices for people with disabilities.
Why do these issues matter? How can we address them in teaching and pedagogy, in policy and activism, and in art?

On November 1, 2013 at San Francisco State University, Seven Hill Conference Center from 9:00 am – 8:00 pm.
The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada is co-sponsoring a conference, dinner and reception plus the screening of FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. Conference organizers include: Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, and the Center for Genetics and Society.

Registration is free:  geneticsandsociety.org/futurepast

Future Past is the result of a cross-national collaboration among advocates and academics interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the long and tangled relationship between disability and eugenics, and the contemporary implications of genetic technologies to the lives and futures of people with disabilities.

Program – November 1, 2013

9:00 – 9:15: Welcome

  • Provost Sue Rossier, San Francisco State University
  • Catherine Kudlick, Director, Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability

9:15 – 9:30: Table Introductions

9:30 – 11:30: What? Eugenics and Disability: Past and Present

Many people are unaware of the history of eugenics movements in North America, yet they are disturbingly relevant today.


  • Alexandra Minna Stern (moderator), Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Culture, and History at the University of Michigan.
  • Marcy Darnovsky, Center for Genetics and Society
  • Glenn SInclair, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada
  • Nicola Fairbrother, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada

Table Discussions

11:30 – 12:30 : Lunch

12:30 – 2:30: So What? The Consequences of Misremembering Eugenics

What are the social and ethical consequences of omitting eugenics from historical memory or misrepresenting it? What is the price of the pursuit of “human betterment” for reproductive and disability justice?


  • Marsha Saxton (moderator), World Institute on Disability
  • Rob WIlson, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, University of Alberta
  • Troy Duster, Warren Institute for Law and Society Policy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University

Table Discussions

2:30 – 3:00: Break

3:00 – 5:00: Now What? Looking Ahead to Brave New Worlds

What is being done – and what can be done – to increase public and student understanding of the legacies of eugenics through teaching, activism and art?


  • Milton Reynolds (moderator), Facing History and Ourselves
  • Gregor Wolbring, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, University of Calgary
  • Kate Wiley, Lick-Wilmerding High School
  • Patricia Berne, Sins Invalid

Table Discussions

5:00 – 6:30: Dinner and Reception

6:30 – 8:00 Sneak-preview screening

FIXED: The Science/FIction of Human Enhancement

Producer/DIrector Regan Brashear will answer questions

 Future Past Nov 1

FIXED:The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement

How do technologies that claim they will change our bodies and minds challenge our views of disability and normalcy? How might this affect what it means to be human in the twenty-first century?

These are the questions tackled in FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. It’s a haunting, subtle, urgent documentary that takes a close look at the drive to be “better than human” and the radical technological innovations that some are advocating we embrace. Producer/director Regan Brashear has working on labor, race, youth, LGBTQ, and disability issues for over twenty years through documentary film, union organizing, community forums, and grassroots activism. She is co-founder of Making Change Media, which produces videos for non-profits and labor unions, as well as independent long-form documentaries such as FIXED.

Regan will be interviewed by Gina Maranto, Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center, and author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings.  Please join us on Thursday October 3 at 11 am PT/ Noon MST / 2 pm ET for Talking Biopolitics a live web-based interview and conversation with Regan Brashnear, Gina Maranto, and you.

Registration is required! You can register here: registration. You can read more about the film and Regan and Gina here

The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada is hosting the Alberta Premiere of FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement with co-sponsors the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, on Friday October 18, 2013 at the Telus Centre 150, University of Alberta. Doors at 6:30 pm, film at 7:00 pm. Dr. Gregor Wolbring will join us after the film for questions and answers via SKYPE. Admission is FREE and this event is open to the public! Plan to attend!

Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards

Apparently, I’m an “honorary distinguished senior advisor” to this project, where I assume that “honorary” means “unpaid”, “distinguished” is a typo, “dis” for “ex”, and “senior” means “old”.  The complete information on the award recipient projects may be of interest to some readers of the blog. Congratulations to Laurie Santos especially for her grant on the origins of altruism!

Positive Neuroscience, U of Penn

Positive Neuroscience / Psychology

Award-winning researchers to explore human flourishing
from neural networks to social networks

The Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation (www.templeton.org) have announced the recipients of the Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards. The project will grant $2.9 million in award funding to 15 new research projects at the intersection of Neuroscience and Positive Psychology.

The winning projects will help us understand how the brain enables human flourishing. They explore a range of topics, from the biological bases of altruism to the effects of positive interventions on the brain.

The Positive Neuroscience Project (www.posneuroscience.org) was established in 2008 by Professor Martin E.P. Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, with a $5.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In 2009, the project announced the Templeton Positive Neuroscience Awards competition to bring the tools of neuroscience to bear on advances in Positive Psychology. Seligman founded the quickly-growing field of Positive Psychology in 1998 based on the simple yet radical notion that what is good in life is as worthy of scientific study as what is disabling in life.  Read the full press release from the PNP website.

God as one’s moral compass

Creating God in One’s Own Image is great post from Ed Young at Not Exactly Rocket Science on Nicholas Epley’s just published PNAS paper reporting a scientific study of what happens when God talks to some people, perhaps even YOU

God speaks to George W. Bush

Right Here, Lord.

For many religious people, the popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” That’s the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs. Read the full post from NERS right here.

Ian Hacking’s critique of the Theory-of-Mind-deficit theory of autism

[This post is the eleventh in our series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. You can go to the Thinking in Action 10 pack, which links to the first 10 posts in the series; and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays, for the most part. The post below concerns talks by Ian Hacking and Victoria McGeer on theory of mind and autism at the conference.]


Theory of Mind and its deficit:

“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is a philosophical interpretation of a certain kind of cognitive psychology. The idea is based on what has been called folk psychology. This describes our ordinary understanding of each others’ behavior as analogous to a scientific psychological theory. Each individual’s own folk ToM hypothesizes that other people have unobservable (to the observer) intentions, beliefs, and desires. These hypothesized mental states are seen as analogous to theoretical conjectures in science. On this notion, we begin in childhood to construct a theory of mind about other people, and we elaborate that theory as we develop and mature. An underlying assumption is the double-edged notion that A) human behavior is based on (perhaps caused by) internal, language-like inferential structures in the brain (e.g. beliefs and desires), and B) we hypothesize (in our ToM) that other humans have the same kind of language-like structures that we ourselves use in reasoning about the world.

cartoon illustration of Theory of Mind; you hypothesize the cartoon character's innards

Beginning of a cartoon illustration of Theory of Mind; you hypothesize the cartoon character's innards

[To observe ToM for the above cartoon click here. Watch right away — on some browsers it only runs once. Your “theory” is about why the cartoon character is going downtown.]

ToM-deficit as a theory of autism:

Psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith and others built a theory of autism based on the ToM notion of cognitive psychology. People on the autistic spectrum often have difficulties interpreting the behavior of neurotypicals. For example, autistic children fail at certain “pretend” tasks at a later age than neurotypical children (especially tasks involving deception). These difficulties are said to be caused by a failure in the autistic children’s ToM process, which autistic children learn at a later stage than neurotypical people, and possibly never learn at all.

Hacking’s alternative:

Hacking rejects ToM in general, not only in the ToM-deficit theory of autism. He replaces it with a Wittgensteinian Form-of-Life (FoL) theory of language and social knowledge. On this view, language and social interaction is a norm-based practice, and such practices cannot be analyzed in terms of internal, language-like “theories” about the domain governed by the norms. Practices cannot be reduced to theories; you cannot learn to rollerskate by reading a book. The ToM notion that we infer people’s intentions based their behavior is a mistake (says Hacking); we intuitively and directly see people’s intentions. He callse these intuitive “seeings” of mentality are “Köhler phenomena” (after the Gestalt psychologist who, Hacking says, inspired Wittgenstein). The intuitive skills of neurotypicals are falsely described by ToM, and so autistics are falsely described as having a deficit of ToM.

Autistic Narratives:

Hacking proposes that the autistic narratives may actually contribute be constituting (rather than merely describing) the nature of autistic experience. This is especially true of reports of pre-linguistic experience that many autism narratives report — experience that which occurred before the autistic individuals (who wrote the narratives) had achieved linguistic communication. This final claim relates to Hacking’s earlier studies of fugue states and multiple personality conditions. These psychological conditions were, in part, constituted by the ways in which people decided to describe them. This is Hacking’s version of social constructionism, which avoids some of the epistemological relativism that accompanies other versions of constructionism. Continue reading

Animal Rights: Gorilla Sued for Sexual Harassment

[This post is the sixth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]

In a two previous post I argued against Peter Singer’s position that humans with profound intellectual disabilities should be considered nonpersons without moral status or fundamental rights. In this post, however, I want to support his concern for about the treatment of nonhuman animals and endorse his view that some fundamental rights should be recognized for nonhuman animals. In supporting his view that nonhuman animals deserve greater respect and better treatment, however, I do want to suggest that the arguments that he presents against respecting the moral status of humans hurts rather than helps progress in improving the status and treatment of nonhuman animals. Here are five reasons why. Continue reading

Getting into the body of another

courtesy of World Science

Ever wonder what it’s like to be in the body of another person, psychologically speaking? Sure! Well, now scientists in Sweden have created that feeling in a couple of experiments:

In a first ex­pe­ri­ment, they fit­ted the head of a shop dum­my with two cam­er­as con­nect­ed to two small screens placed in front of the sub­jects’ eyes, so that they saw what the dum­my “saw.” When the dum­my’s cam­era eyes and a sub­jec­t’s head were di­rect­ed down­wards, the sub­ject saw the dum­my’s body where he or she would nor­mally have seen his or her own.

Continue reading

New Version of the Moral Sense Test, Designed Especially for Philosophers

Howdy all! I’m new to What Sorts. For those of you who don’t know me, I work mainly at the intersection of philosophy and psychology — especially on what I now think of as the “psychology of philosophy”, the question of what the psychological causes and effects are of various philosophical positions. I’ve written extensively on variability, especially cultural variability, in people’s answers to questions about basic features of their conscious experience, and I’m working now on the question of what sorts of differences there are between ethicists and non-ethicists in their moral thinking and moral behavior.

Pertinent to that last point, Fiery Cushman at Harvard and I are running a new version of the “Moral Sense Test”, which asks respondents to make moral judgments about hypothetical scenarios. We’re especially hoping to recruit people with philosophy degrees for this test so that we can compare philosophers’ and non-philosophers’ responses. So while I would encourage all readers of this blog to take the test (your answers, though completely anonymous, will be treasured!), I would especially appreciate it if people with graduate degrees in philosophy would take the time to complete it.

The test should take about 15-20 minutes, and people who have taken earlier versions of the Moral Sense Test have often reported it interesting to think about the kinds of moral dilemmas posed in the test.

Here’s the link to the test.

[Cross posted at The Splintered Mind.]

Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity

Final Conference with Leading Scientists and Humanists

h/t to Gualtierri Puccinini at Brains

Outlines of some people

Outlines of some people

WHAT: The National Humanities Center will host the third and final conference that explores how modern scientific developments give more insight into what it means to be “human.” The 2008 “The Human & The Humanities” Conference will bring together philosophers, neurologists, cultural scholars and scientists from various disciplines to discuss the implications of technological advances, and how recent scientific findings alter our understanding of human autonomy, singularity, and creativity. Ultimately, the conversations will focus on how new knowledge is redefining the human experience.

The 2008 Autonomy, Singularity and Creativity Conference will feature an opening keynote address by renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks, M.D. from Columbia University, probably most well known for Awakenings, a 1990 movie based on his work in treating a group of patients with sleep-sickness. Sacks has conducted multiple groundbreaking studies on scientific and social issues surrounding neurology, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, and the hearing impaired. Continue reading

Autism spectrum research and disability language alternatives

Bryce Huebner, a superstarpostdoctoralphilosophygraduate currently working in Marc Hauser’s lab at Harvard, recently sent me the following query. Bryce is writing up descriptions of research on autism / autism spectrum disorder and theory of mind (ToM), research that explores differences between experimental subject populations (you know, controlled studies and all that), often different populations of children. He writes:

I am really struggling with the sort of language to use in discussing some of the developmental data on mental state ascriptions. Here’s my problem. I want to try to avoid ableist language in discussing ToM. But I’m not sure how to discuss the similar capacities that emerge for both ‘normally developing’ children and ‘developmentally disabled’ children in contrasting these capacities with the lack of one sort of ToM that we see in children with autism spectrum disorder. Do you have any suggestions about how to avoid the use of terms like ‘developmentally disabled’ in this case?

My short answer was that Continue reading

Where is our thinking about people thinking located?

Over at The Situationist there is a recent post on the work of Rebecca Saxe , a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, on the brain localization of thought about the minds of others, and about moral reasoning that involves the attribution of mental states to others. They basically cut and paste an article on Saxe from the MIT News office, but there’s much in this of potential interest to What Sorters (perhaps including the pattern of female descent in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences) here. I heard Saxe give a mighty fine talk (on prosody and listeners’ representations) at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology annual meeting last week in the City of Brotherly Love. A little more on the work itself on folk attributions, its location, and where it seems to be heading vis-a-vis work on autism and moral cognition, two current hot topics at the interface of philosophy and psychology. Continue reading


Anyone reading this have any experience with Citizendium? At the Minds and Societies summer institute today I went to a talk by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger on Citizendium, which aspires to be “the world’s most trusted encyclopedia and knowledge base”. Citizendium is Sanger’s alternative to Wikipedia, the outcome of his unsuccessful arm-wrestle to reform Wikipedia from within. Citizendium chiefly distinguishes itself from Wikipedia by two features: its privileging of editorial expertise (over the pandemonic egalitarianism of WP) and the removal of anonymous authorship. While they sound like relatively small and sensible changes to the structure that Wikipedia has, from the presentation, question period, lunch, and other conversation I got the distinct impression that Citizendium is likely to be significantly more stodgy and less fun than Wikipedia, even if it also contains fewer whacko and misleading articles. It may become Eliteopedia or Boringopedia if the governing council doesn’t loosen or liven up a little, but it’s likely to remain Radicallyincompletopedia for more than a while: it bats at around 7000 articles now, very few of which have been approved by the knowledgable editors that Citizendium prides itself on using, in contrast to Wikipedia, which prides itself on being the encyclopedia that Homer Simpson contributes to (and which also has around 2.5 million articles … just in English, and not all by Homer). Continue reading

Neuroethics Rising

Neuroethics is an emerging interdisciplinary field of inquiry that draws on ethics, cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, psychiatry, law, bioengineering, and good, old-fashioned neurology in whatever mixture those involved in a particular endeavour deem appropriate (for them, at least). The Canadian, CIHR-funded Neuroethics Net (in place since 2003), for example, has a focus on pediatric uses of fMRI and other imaging technologies, for example. A cruise through a couple of blogs, like Brain Ethics or Neuroethics and Law will give you a broader sense of what some include under the heading “neuroethics”.

Like nearly all hyphenated things neuro- — neurophilosophy, neuroeconomics, neurobiopsychoecoevodevomicronanoeverythingism, to take just three examples — there’s not just hyphenation but hyper-nation in them there starry-eyed neuroethical enthusiasms. But since this train has already left the station Continue reading

Minds and Societies

Summer InstituteWell, after managing to play Keystone Kops for the last 10 days as our departmental office has been moved without mercy across campus, I’m giving up. Featuring lost and collapsed book carts, on-the-wall shelving that quickly became off-the-wall, collapsable shelving, and many other adventures in chaos, I’m dropping out of this whole experience-thing: to Philadelphia and then Montreal, Toronto and Kingston. And as part of my almost unlimited capacity for distraction from actually writing a talk for the upcoming Summer Institute on Cognitive Science that is being hosted at UQAM in Montreal, June 28 – July 6th, which is, after all, the pre-text for my secret escape, I have convinced myself that it’s more important to know what everyone else is talking about here than to know what one will talk about oneself, and so devoted most of my attention today to checking out some of the details. The theme for the institute is Minds and Societies, and the two-week program features about 50 pretty damned interesting people. Heading the line-up is my favourite atheist philosopher, Dan Dennett, whose special guest appearance in Dickie D’s rap peez, blogged right here previously, must rank as an all-time high in his cameo appearances. Dennett will lead a public conference on the first Friday night of the conference: From Animal to Person: How Culture Makes Up our Minds. Other speakers include

Frank Keil, Kristine Onishi, and Rebecca Saxe (mind and developmental psychology)
Richard Byrne, Dan Kelley, and Elisabeth Pacherie (more theory of mind)
Jesse Prinz, James Blair, and Josh Knobe (morality and cognitive science)
Larry Sanger, Deb Roy, and yours truly (multi-agent cognition)
Pierre-Leonard Harvey, Pierre Levy, and Toru Ishida (collective intelligence)

As if that ain’t enough reason spontaneously to drop all one’s other plans and head immediately to Montreal, the Institute just happens to coincide with the Montreal Jazz Festival. Damn it, don’t just sit there: go!