Friday, 26 February 2010

Descartes and his missing letters

A letter written by Descartes to Father Mersenne has been recently discovered. A very interesting letter indeed, because it is about the effects of censorship. All the story here.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

DSM-V and debates about what is a mental disorder

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a manual of Psychiatry published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is due in 2013. But, if you are interested in this topic, you can have a look at the APA website, where drafts of the articles (initial versions) written by the DSM-V group can be read and commented upon (until April 2010). The originality of the DSM is the fact that it does not only describe disorders, it gives the criteria to identify each disorder and a diagnosis. The definition of what is a mental disorder is at the core of this enterprise, and is the topic of many debate about the DSM.

The third version, the DSM-III (1980), was strongly orientated by an operationalist definition of what is a mental disorder. Spitzer and Endicott (DSM-III's editors) were influenced by the work of C. Hempel in Philosophy of Science. According to this approach, in order to define what is a mental disorder, we only need the experimental procedures which enable us to tell the conditions through which the concept can be applied. If we want to define what is cerebral activity, we only need to say that a subject has a cerebral activity iff, linked to encephalograph, we see indications of his brain activities on an encephalogramm. The authors tried to define mental disorder according to the operationalist approach. Of course, the main points of this strategy were to avoid any circular definition based on normality and to use the means provides by an empirical approach. As Spitzer said, mental illnesses are subcategories of medical disorders.

Wakefield, in his famous 1992 paper, shows that the DSM-III's idea of mental illness is at its core fonctionalist and not at all operationalist, by reinterpretating the whole definition in fonctionalist terms. He holds an hybrid position, which takes into account 1) harm and sufferings according to social value and 2) dysfunction, based in evolutionary theory. Wakefield's remarks were taken into account by the committee of specialists of mental health who enclosed a clinical criterion among the official criteria to define mental illness in the DSM-IV ("distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning"), published in 1994.

So, what's new in the DSM-V ? 5 criteria are featured to define mental illness. Here they are :
  1. A behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual.
  2. The consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning).
  3. Must not be merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals).
  4. That reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction.
  5. That is not primarily a result of social deviance or conflicts with society.
First, the emphasis on the biological nature of a mental disorder is obvious (criterion 4), and is absent from the DSM-IV (here are the criteria of the DSM-IV). Second, the etiology is more and more evacuated from the criteria. Compare : "Is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom", in the DSM-IV, and "The consequences of which are clinically significant distress;(e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning)" in the DSM-V. The notion of risk (for the present distress or the disability to be the cause of death and pain) has disappeared. Third, the intensity of pain is taken into account into the DSM-V, which was not in the DSM-IV. Compare : "present distress" in the DSM-IV and "clinically significant distress" in the DSM-V. No universal scale is needed for this kind of scale. To be clinically significant, the scale is standardized by the patient himself.

Of course, all the anti-rationalists and all the anti-naturalists in the field of Psychiatry will be infuriated by the publication of the DSM-V. And it is not difficult to see why. I suppose that, as always, anti-DSM will state that the DSM-V is the product of the Western thought, that it holds a dogmatic approach, that it cannot account for behavior and disorder in non-Western areas of the World, and that it mixes up social features and behavioral syndromes. I wonder how long will they use the ineffective sophism of the origin to address the DSM. I wonder how long will they use old data (the debate about the presence of homosexuality in the DSM-II, in the 1960's and 1970's) to produce relevant, up-to-date and fruitful critics.

See also :
An article, by Anna Lieti, in Le Temps (19 février 2010) : "Tous des malades mentaux".
Wakefield, J. C, 1992, “The Concept of Mental Disorder: On the Boundary Between Biological Facts and Social Values.” American Psychologist 47:(3) 373–88.
Mental illness (SEP)

Friday, 19 February 2010

Philosophy and Human Evolution. Is it right to Clone a Neandertal ?

As it is shown in "Should we clone neandertals", we are facing a unique moment in the human history : the possibility to give a second chance to an old relative of ours, Homo neandertalensis, is within our reach. In the article, the author, Zach Zorich, analyses several issues concerning this possibility : biological, ethical and legal.

First things first. How are we (Homo sapiens) related to Homo neandertalensis ?

Our direct and common ancestor is Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species of the genus Homo, who lived less than 1 million years ago. Sometimes in the last 450 000 years, Homo neandertalis appeared and became distinct from Homo heidelbergensis. Neandertals may have disappeared 35 000 years ago. The modern Homo sapiens may have appeared 160 000 years ago and is now the only living species of the genus Homo.

Why re-create Neandertals ?

Scientists have two reasons :

  1. Knowledge : the more we know about Homo neandertalensis, the more we know about Homo sapiens. By re-creating a Neandertal, we can have the answers of many questions concerning our species and the genus Homo : Did all the members of Homo possess language ? (The fact that Homo neandertalensis possess the genetic ability -he possess the gene FOXP2-  is not a sufficient for having a language -birds have FOXP2 too-.) Were all members of Homo able to produce highly sophisticated reasonings ? Who was the smarter ? And so on.
  2. Therapy : If Homo neandertalensis is sufficiently distinct from us, he may be immunized to Homo sapiens specific diseases, such as HIV, Polio... Neandertals cells would be use to find cure, through gene treatments.

How can we re-create Neandertals ?

If the author asks the question "Should we Clone Neandertals ?", it is because he is taking seriously the latest technical progress, which put in our hands the very possibility to do so. According to the author, there are several possibilities : altering the DNA of the Neandertals to make it compatible with a living human cell (but this would required, according to George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, "10 million changes to make a modern human genome match the Neanderthal genome") ; transfering the DNA of the Neandertal in an donor egg, from which the cell's genetic material has been removed (but most frequently, the cell dies) ; creating stem cells that have Neandertals' DNA, and, from the state of pluripotency of the cell, creating parts of a body or a living Neandertal. And it is highly probable that this last solution may work.

Are the reasons to clone Neandertals sufficient to do so ?

The author shows several arguments against the cloning of a Neandertal. For Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, it would be unfair to put a human into an environnment in which he does not belong. That is precisely why scientists considered the possibility to clone not only one, but a group of Neandertals, and the possibility to re-create their entire environnment. But is it right ?

For Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, the fact that the Neandertal has access to human rights will automatically undermined the reasons why he has been created. Well, if cloning a Neandertal is not a paradox, I am no philosopher. From a scientific, medical, and legal point of view, if a Neandertal is cloned, since he has access to every human rights, he cannot be experimented upon and studied according to the willing of the scientists. Thus the reason why scientists want the Neandertal to be cloned is the cause that he can neither be the object of scientific and medical experimentations. Even the success or the failing of the cloning is a paradox : from a legal and ethical point of view, if we succeed to clone a Neandertal, then, since he has immediate access to human rights, it is not right. But if the cloning fails, since he has immediate access to human rights, he is the victim of a murder.

This is why the alleged-reasons are not sufficient. But, since a mammoth is currently being cloned or will soon be, some scientists do not see why we should not clone a Neandertal...

How it feels to have a stroke ?

Prof. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, experienced a stroke in her 30's. In this video (click on "more"), she tells what she experienced and analysed what was happening from a neurological point of view. A very powerful story. And not a sad one.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Doctoral Positions in Philosophy

The PETAF FP7 Marie Curie Initial Training Network is pleased to announce seven 3-year pre-doctoral positions in philosophy:

Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the University of Barcelona
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the University of St. Andrews
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the University of Geneva
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the University of London
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at Stockholm University
Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher at the Central European University, Budapest.

PETAF is the first research and training network exclusively in philosophy ever to be financed by the European Commission. It aims to serve as a European research and training platform for joint philosophical research on perspectival thought, its linguistic expression and its consequences for our conception of objective, mind-independent reality. PETAF’s research programme, which runs for 4 years, addresses both general issues in metaphysics and in logic and semantics and specific issues in more specialised areas in which perspective-bound cognition plays a pivotal role.

Successful candidates will be recruited by the respective institution under renewable one-year contracts (starting date: 01 October 2010). Salaries vary according to the country where the appointing institution is located, reflecting differences in living expenses. Successful applicants will immediately be admitted to the local doctoral programme without having to pay tuition fees. Throughout the time of their appointment, they will pursue research in one or more of the four philosophical subdisciplines covered by PETAF’s research programme, i.e. the philosophy of logic and language, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the theory of norms and value. They will spend up to 30% of the time of their appointment with other network partners, some of this percentage in secondment at PETAF’s non-academic partners.

This call is open to candidates of all nationalities as long as they comply with the European Commission’s Mobility Requirement (see Further Particulars). Eligible candidates must be in the first 4 years of their research careers, starting at the date of obtaining the degree that would formally entitle them to embark on a doctorate in philosophy. The appointing institutions endeavour to ensure a fair female representation by promoting real equal access opportunities between men and women throughout the selection process.

All applications must be submitted by email to the Coordinator under Applications must include a completed Application Form, an up-to-date CV, a two-page research proposal, a written work sample of preferably no more than 5000 words, and two letters of reference. Candidates should ask their referees to write to the Coordinator directly. Proof of a master’s degree, or equivalent, in philosopy or cognate disciplines, and proof of English language proficiency must also be provided. Applicants can apply for more than one position, but must provide one application per position applied for and submit a Preference Form. (Only one set of reference letters is required.) The deadline for applications is 19 March 2010, 12pm (Central European Time).

Further Particulars can be found under PETAF.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Altruistic Behaviours and Insects.

We all know that certain species of animals which can have a social life are altruistic : human, elephant... All are vertebrate and mammals. But what about invertebrate ?

We know that certain species of social insects can have altruistic behaviors. The example of the kamikaze bees is well-known (Hamilton, 1964). The behavior of the bees can be explained altruistically : they are dedicated to their community. And despite the fact that this behavior can contribute to the extinction of the species, the sterile kamikaze bees have a genetic material which is selected by evolution. Since the bees have only one set of chromosomes (the same mother, no father), they have a common genetic heritage with their sisters. This is precisely why it is interesting for them to sacrifice themselves rather than trying to preserve themselves. By sacrificing themselves, they lose their genetic material, but they save the one of their sisters. Of course, this type of selection may be applied to human being, more specifically, in the context of parental love.

Jurgen Heinze and Bartosz Walter decided to study a difficult case -difficult because occasional, non-systematic, and difficult to predict- : why, in certain cases, an individual from a certain society isolate himself from the others, in order to die ? The question is quite general because it can be applied to elephants, human beings and other species. But they did a thorough examination of the question with the help of a colony of ants (Temnothorax unifasciatus).

They introduced in the vivarium a lethal parasitic fungus called Metarhizium anisopliae. And the result of the observation is univocal : a large part of the workers who died from the fungal infection left the colony before death (hours or days before), and died isolated, far from the colony.

But the researchers had to make sure that the fungus was not the cause of this behavior. Because it is a parasite that manipulates the host to improve its transmission. It happens that this fungus "transforms" the ants into zombies, impelling them to climb up a stem where they die. From this elevated position, in the wind, the fungus is well distributed to others. But, by exposing the surviving ants to CO2, and significantly reducing the lifespan of the ants, they observed that ants left the colony before death took hold (which leads to the interesting observation that agonizing ants are not carried away from the colony by others, they leave by themselves). Thus, this altruistic behavior is not caused by the manipulation of the fungus, but by death.

But why can this behavior be considered "altruistic" ? I think that the researchers used a very intuitive definition of altruism :
a behavior is said to be altruistic if the consequences of the behavior are the well-being of the others rather than its own. In this case, the consequences of the dying ants are the well-being of the others ants, rather than death in a social environment. The dying ants leave the colony and face death alone rather than risking to infect the others. They may struggle against the impelling need to climb up a stem, as the parasite required, to face death in a remoted and isolated area. Behaving this way, they are choosing the well-being of the others rather its own.

Hamilton, W.D. 1964. "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour". I & II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 pp.1-52.

Chapuisat, M. 2010. "Social Evolution: Sick Ants Face Death Alone". Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp. 104-105.

See also : Current Biology and a summary at the BBC website.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Constructivisme versus Naturalisme sur la question de la maternité

Un entretien très intéressant avec Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, auteur de Mother Nature: A history of mothers, infants and Natural Selection (1999) et Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (2009), sur le site Biblios, à propos de son approche naturaliste sur la question de la maternité et des problèmes posés par l'approche constructiviste d'Elisabeth Badinter : réponse à Elisabeth Badinter.

Maj. :
1) Un entretien d'Elisabeth Badinter, "Tyrannie de la maternité", qui répond à Sarah Hrdy.
2) Merci à Florian Cova, Laura-Maï Gaveriaux et Jennie Gellé pour le débat passionnant sur Facebook !