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The Moral of the Story 7/e is Out! April 15, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Education, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy Profession.
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I’m happy to announce that the seventh edition of my ethics textbook The Moral of the Story is now available:

The cover painting is by Karen Barbour, Bay Area artist, and every edition of the book has had a painting by her on the cover. She has a wonderfully visionary style, and I love being able to maintain the visual consistency in this new edition. This image in particular perfectly illustrates the maze of thoughts we often find ourselves in, in regard to moral issues. (And as with all mazes, there is always a way out, even if it is not within view…)

McGraw-Hill has a website where you can check out the Table of Contents and other features of the new edition. Instructors can request a desk copy. Among the new sections are a thoroughly updated Chapter 1, and sections on Happiness studies, Moral Naturalism, updated research on ethics and neuroscience, ethics and empathy, a new Nietzsche section, an updated Ayn Rand section, and several new movies and novels including Avatar, State of Play, True Grit, The Invention of Lying, and A Thousand Spendid Suns. And  Chapter 10 has a picture of Dwight Furrow! 🙂

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Titanic–a Tale to Remember April 14, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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So now we think we know what happened, on that night exactly 100 years ago. Divers have explored the wreck, animated computer models have been presented, rescued artifacts are making their rounds around the world, stories of lost souls and survivors have been told, documentaries and movies have been made. So after the 100th anniversary, can we now close the book on Titanic? Or will it become one of the stories of humankind that we will never quite be done with? If so, it will be because, for one thing, it speaks to something perennial in the human psyche—and for another, because the story is broad and deep enough that different times and ages can find their own reflections in it.

When the disaster happened, the world was different—and I’m not talking about technology. The very mindset of the western world in 1912 was vastly different from today, because of the enormous optimism felt on two continents: the new century was going to be magnificent; the advances in medicine would soon conquer all diseases; technology would take humanity to far-away places on the planet, at break-neck speeds; politically, democracies were spreading, and war seemed like a primitive option, left behind in the turmoil of the 19th century (and few people were in the position to be able to predict the start of the Great War (WWI) just tw years later). And nature, in all its forms, would soon be conquered by human know-how and willpower. And what better symbol of the new age than the sister ships being built in Belfast, the Olympic and the Titanic? And when the Titanic, the carrier of the dream of the future, sank on April 14, 1912, the dream of an invincible 20th century perished, too, and in its place rose a wave of cynicism that we have, in effect, been riding ever since.

As we all know from Cameron’s movie (if we didn’t know already): It wasn’t the architect who claimed the ship was unsinkable—the concept came from the owners and the advertisers. The sinking of Titanic gave rise to cynicism and skepticism about what authorities tell you (don’t worry, there will be another lifeboat), about what advertisers tell you, about the promises of technology and even the wisdom of applying it. In short, Titanic now became a symbol for human hubris and nemesis, and that is the mirror Titanic has held up to us for a century.  

But now? With the 100th anniversary the drumbeat of the moral lessons of Titanic is sounding a new beat, coming from James Cameron himself. Two themes are emerging that one hundred years ago were not high on the agenda; one wasn’t even on the horizon. The recently corroborated fact that of the 1500 people who died that night, a great number were 3rd class passengers, locked up in steerage like rats, without even a change of escaping, has become a new theme: When disaster strikes, everybody suffers, but some may be suffering more than others: the have-nots. According to statistics, 75 percent of steerage passengers died, while among the first class passengers “only” 37 percent were lost. So the social aspect of Titanic as a class experience has emerged as a moral lesson, added to the hubris theme. But Cameron sees yet another moral caveat in the story of Titanic: the hubris of a planet thinking it can go full steam ahead without worrying about icebergs, for the sake of profit. For him, Planet Earth is a Titanic forging ahead into climate change.

So is that an appropriate lesson to be learned from the story of Titanic, or does it somehow deflect and detract from the actual tragedy happening to real people 100 years ago? Are they being used merely as a means to a political end? That is up to us to decide, individually. What fascinates me is that the doomed ship can take on a new narrative role as a teacher of moral lessons that go far beyond the concerns of 100 years ago. But perhaps that is the case with all good stories; they not only tell a timeless tale, but their lesson can be adapted to new ages and different problems.

The Young Brain—Why Does it Take So Long to Grow Up? January 30, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Education, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Welcome to the Spring 2012 semester, where we will post occasional blog entries as our schedules and moods allow! Here is something that I think will interest those of you who are under 25, or happen to know someone who is! Finally we understand the adolescent brain, and furthermore, that the adolescent brain will last well into young adult years these days, because what makes a brain “adult” is that is has responsibilities. Uh-oh! Does that mean some people will never grow up? Maybe…and there is a name for that: the Peter Pan Syndrome. Perhaps there will be a neurological explanation for that, now…

But in the meantime, this is what professor of psychology Alison Gopnik writes in her article, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?”: Puberty is happening earlier, but adulthood seems to be delayed. So we will have to live with “teenage weirdness” longer than in past centuries.

The crucial new idea is that there are two different neural and psychological systems that interact to turn children into adults. Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.

The first of these systems has to do with emotion and motivation. It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards.

Recent studies in the neuroscientist B.J. Casey’s lab at Cornell University suggest that adolescents aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love, the never-to-be-recaptured glory of the high-school basketball championship.

The second crucial system in our brains has to do with control; it channels and harnesses all that seething energy. In particular, the prefrontal cortex reaches out to guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making, that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.

This control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them.

In the past (from hunter-gatherers all the way to the recent past) those two systems were in sync, but they are no longer.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

This doesn’t mean that adolescents are stupider than they used to be. In many ways, they are much smarter. An ever longer protected period of immaturity and dependence—a childhood that extends through college—means that young humans can learn more than ever before. There is strong evidence that IQ has increased dramatically as more children spend more time in school, and there is even some evidence that higher IQ is correlated with delayed frontal lobe development….

But there are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.

Recognize the problems of Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting? He has all the theoretical knowledge in the world, but has no idea how to live (and doesn’t even dare to). So what to do about it? Gopnik suggests to increase the level of varied hands-on experience of the young person, an extended apprenticeship-adolescence with responsibilities:

Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision.

“Take your child to work” could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, now so common for children whose parents have means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs, with real responsibilities.

Hmmm…maybe we professors should recruit teams of secretaries and teaching assistants from among our students, for their own good?

 

 

Time to Rethink the Concept of Sexual Harassment? November 13, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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I came across an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times: “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks,” by Katie Roiphe. The title alone made me do a double-take, especially since I’ve been having second thoughts about recently deleting a box on sexual harassment from the upcoming 7th edition of The Moral of the Story. The debate just seemed so “Nineties” to me, and here we are in the second decade of a new century; surely we’ve come a longer way than that, Baby? And then the Cain story unfolds, and all of a sudden sexual harassment is in the news again. Apparently I’m not the only one who experienced a temporary time warp: According to Roiphe,

After all these years, we are again debating the definition of unwanted sexual advances and parsing the question of whether a dirty joke in the office is a crime. Conservatives have mocked the seriousness of sexual harassment; liberal and mainstream pundits have largely reverted to the pieties of the early ’90s, with the addition of some bloggy irony about irrelevant old men just not getting it.

The truth is, our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.

…The problem is, as it always was, the capaciousness of the concept, the umbrellalike nature of the charge: sexual harassment includes both demanding sex in exchange for a job or a comment about someone’s dress. The words used in workshops — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are vague, subjective, slippery. Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.

The creativity and resourcefulness of the definitions, the broadness and rigor of the rules and codes, have always betrayed their more Orwellian purpose: when I was at Princeton in the ’90s, the guidelines distributed to students about sexual harassment stated, “sexual harassment may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” It is, of course, notoriously hard to control one’s unconscious, and one can behave quite hideously in one’s dreams, but that did not deter the determined scolds.

If this language was curiously retrograde in the early ’90s, if it harkened back to the protection of delicate feminine sensibilities in an era when that protection was patently absurd, it is even more outdated now when women are yet more powerful and ascendant in the workplace. In her brilliant and enduring critique of the women’s movement in 1972, Joan Didion wrote that certain strains of feminism were based on the idea of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets… too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties and ambiguities of adult life.”

And, in fact, the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.

Roiphe concludes by suggesting that we get back to living life dangerously with the risk of exposure to bawdy lingo. Regardless of the Herman Cain situation which is anything but clear at the moment, she brings up some interesting points: Perhaps women in the ’80s and ’90s needed protection from the Old Boys’ Network which was still intact and powerful, but can’t a woman simply speak up for herself today if she feels bothered by someone’s attention? We’re not being protected from rudeness in general, or office manipulation, so why this puritan focus on sexual harassment, which has ended up being a matter of perception rather than intention?

I think most of us who feel capable of speaking up for ourselves feel that we could probably handle a return to the days when a compliment on a dress, even if equivocal, wasn’t reason for suspension. But a couple of things should be taken into consideration before we return to the dirty jokes and cute compliments: that, for one  thing, the power structure where sexual harassment—the innuendos and sly glances, and “accidental” unwelcomed touches—was a matter of intimidation is still in effect in many workplaces. And a woman may not feel shy about speaking up to her peers in the workplace,  but it is still another thing entirely to remonstrate with the boss. And then, when you add the fact (also quoted by Roiphe) that,

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.”

In other words, for young people who have not been through the Nineties with their sensitivity training and so forth, and without any instruction about what is appropriate and what is not, sexual harassment as intimidation runs rampant. So yes, we have come further than the Nineties, those of us who remember, and some of the concerns of the past may seem petty and overbearing now. But that doesn’t mean the discussion was for naught, or that it should be abandoned today. There is a new clueless generation on the way, with social networks, texting, and a plethora of new ways of being nasty to each other, but sex has always been available as a power tool. It should be possible, today,  to distinguish between shy attempts at getting someone’s attention at work or at school, or simply friendly remarks, and manipulation using sexual harassment as a weapon. I think I’ll consider putting the section back into the 7th edition of The Moral of the Story

Culture–It’s Not Just for Humans Anymore October 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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What a difference a couple of decades make. Back in the Twentieth Century they used to tell us that humans were the only beings who had culture, and whatever traditions nonhuman animals displayed in their groups could be explained as instinct. That concept began to erode already with Jane Goodall’s research, although we still encounter holdout animal behaviorists who maintain that whatever it is that chimpanzees do when they share and transmit inventions and traditions, it isn’t culture (which brings to mind long-range visionary David Hume who not only thought that emotions have primacy over rationality, but also that if nonhuman animals display emotional and intellectual behavior similar to humans, it should be given similar labels). So what would an example of a  chimp culture be like? From a Scientific American blog, “Cultural Transmission in Chimpanzees”:

While nonhuman primates don’t have obvious cultural traditions the same way humans do, such as variation in their clothing or adding extra spice to their food, primatologists have nonetheless identified behavioral practices that vary between communities and which are transmitted through social learning. For a behavior to be considered a cultural practice in nonhuman primates it must meet certain conditions: the behavior must be practiced by multiple members of the community, it must vary between societies, and the potential for that same behavior must exist in other societies.

A good example of such a cultural trait was just discovered last year and published in the journal Current Biology (review here). Kibale Forest chimpanzees were found to use sticks to get at the honey in a fallen log, whereas Budongo Forest chimpanzees used chewed leaves as sponges to collect the same thing. Both societies had the same tools at their disposal, but they each chose a different approach. A single individual first used one of these techniques and other members of the group adopted it through imitation and social learning. This is merely the latest example of cultural traditions in different chimpanzee societies.

So let’s assume that we are convinced that chimps invent and transmit culture; the question now becomes how? In a Swedish study  quoted by the Scientific American blog a new idea has been proposed: that culture is being transmitted by female chimps. Chimp societies are patrilocal (the males stay put, the females move between groups), so whatever traditions the females have learned from growing up within a group they will bring with them to their new home, and teach them to their kids:

Because females express and transmit more culture than males, and because females transfer between communities bringing with them their cultural knowledge, the number of cultural traits present in any given chimpanzee community should depend on the number of females in that community. Thus, we hypothesize that the number of cultural traits in chimpanzee communities should correlate with the average number of females in chimpanzee communities, but not with the average number of males.

This implies that females are critical in chimpanzees for transmitting cultural traits and maintaining cultural diversity. The reported pattern may be explained by the fact that females transfer between communities, bringing with them novel cultural traits and consequently increasing the cultural diversity of the community as a whole.

And that’s not all: from a  group of Swiss anthropologists  we now hear that orangutans also have culture–particularly interesting, because orangutans aren’t perceived (by most of us laypeople) as being as social as chimps:

Researchers from the University of Zurich have now studied whether the geographic variation of behavioral patterns in nine orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo can be explained by cultural transmission. They have concluded that it can.

The team analyzed more than 100,000 hours of behavioral data and created genetic profiles of more than 150 wild orangutans. They measured the ecological differences between the habitats of the different populations using satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques.

Co-author of the study, published in Current Biology, Carel van Schaik said: “The novelty of our study is that, thanks to the unprecedented size of our dataset, we were the first to gauge the influence genetics and environmental factors have on the different behavioral patterns among the orangutan populations.”

It seems that the days when researchers would claim that only humans have culture will be over fairly soon. No word on whether orangutan females play the same role as chimp females.

 

 

 

September 11 September 11, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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On this 10th anniversary of 9/11 we are reminded of how we felt on that day of horror. Appropriately, we are asked to remember those lives that were lost—Americans and foreigners, businessmen and -women, tourists, maintenance workers, vendors, police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. And the passengers on the four hijacked planes, including the now legendary Flight 93 where resolute people saved our nation from utter chaos by fighting back, resulting in the plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, and not into the White House or the Capitol.  So is it now time to “Move On”? That depends on what we mean. Time to forgive? That is not an option open to most of us. Forgiveness can only come from those directly affected—the victims and their relatives. Time to forget? For the survivors that is not possible. And for the rest of us? Whether it fits into our world view or not, time will now make 9/11 recede into history, and what we are left with ought to be a memory of the pain, of the unity we felt as a people that day, and an understanding of the enormity of the event, untrivialized. Individually, we can choose our own interpretation of why it happened, from our chosen perspective—as long as it doesn’t differ from the accumulated evidence. Whatever our personal version and our political leanings, there is something we should indeed not forget: that while close to 3000 people lost their lives, more than an estimated 20,000 people were rescued that day by fellow human beings who risked their lives to save others, in many cases at the cost of their own. The passengers of Flight 93 will be remembered, but in the Towers, on the ground, and at the Pentagon there were also people who selflessly put their own lives at risk to help others—civilians as well as police, firefighters and military men and women. When we think back at the losses, we should also think of the lives saved, and the heroic decisions made by ordinary people facing an inconceivably horrible and chaotic situation…

So Did or Did We Not Interbreed with Neandertals? August 26, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Back on the perch, folks–time for a new season of occasional insights or at least sharing of interesting stories from the web!

Only last week I watched another show in a long line of mocumentaries/supposedly nonfictional shows with a good deal of play-acting about Neandertals and early humans, the Cro-Magnons. I’m a sucker for those. I love to see human actors in some kind of crude make-up depicting the latest ideas of what our closest relatives ever on this planet may have looked and acted like. I also love to see the scientists act in front of the camera, in fairly minimal make-up. But I was surprised to see that the scientists interviewed came down massively against the idea that there might be Neandertal DNA in the human gene pool—after all, in 2010, after the Neandertal genome was decoded, researcher at the Max Planck Institite Svante Paabo was quoted as saying that 1-4 percent of genetic material in the human population that left African around 60,000 years ago came from sexual encounters with Neandertals. So why the categorical denial? Of course it could have been a dated show, but my impression was that it was recent. The fact that the show was centered around renowned paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall could have had something to do with it—he has, for years, argued that (1) there is in all likelihood no genetic connection between living humans and Neandertals, and (2) Neandertals probably couldn’t speak or even think rationally because they lacked symbolic thinking. (The fact that crude jewelry has been found among Neandertal remains apparently hasn’t been enough to change his mind, although philosophically I’d have to say that deliberately adorning oneself with body art/ornaments shows some kind of symbolic thought, and their brain and throat structures do not exclude the power of speech.) Otherwise the show had interesting moments, such as floating the theory that perhaps Cro-Magnons didn’t actually exterminate the Neandertals by force, but by transferring diseases to them to which they had no immunity, much like it happened to the American Indian population in the 19th century.

And then we have the news, now quoted and tweeted all over cyberspace, that it seems that we—at least the descendants of those who migrated out of Africa—have Neandertal DNA in our genes after all! And it may have helped us become the extraordinarily successful species that we are (at least in the short term–who knows how long we’ll last?) by adding an immunity boost to our constitution. That, and possible interbreeding with that mysterious new-found Siberian hominin species the Denisovans may have secured our survival:

Indeed, DNA inherited from Neanderthals and newly discovered hominids dubbed the Denisovans has contributed to key types of immune genes still present among populations in Europe, Asia and Oceania. And scientists speculate that these gene variants must have been highly beneficial to modern humans, helping them thrive as they migrated throughout the world.

This DNA has had “a very profound functional impact in the immune systems of modern humans,” said study first author Laurent Abi-Rached, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of senior author Peter Parham of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

From the analysis, the scientists estimated, for example, that more than half of the genetic variants in one HLA gene in Europeans could be traced to Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA. For Asians, that proportion was more than 70%; in people from Papua New Guinea, it was as much as 95%.

“We expected we’d see some, but the extent that these contributed to the modern [genomes] is stunning,” Abi-Rached said of the findings, released Thursday by the journal Science.

Though the researchers haven’t proved it, the vast reach of these gene variants in people today suggests that they probably gave some early modern humans an advantage over others, he said.

Our ancestors’ HLA systems may have been perfectly tailored for Africa but naive to bacteria, viruses and parasites that existed in Europe or Asia, rendering them susceptible to disease.

Mating and mixing their genomes with those of their Neanderthal and Denisovan relatives could have been a speedy way to set up their immune systems to combat new, unencountered threats.

What is philosophically interesting from the point of view of speculations about human nature (philosophical anthropology) is not so much whether we slept with Neandertals or not. My own hunch is that we did interbreed and created viable offspring, but like I posted in an earlier blog entry, it was probably because of hunters raping women of the other species rather than nice, romantic interspecies marriages. What is philosophically interesting is our reaction to these theories: Why is it so important for some people to see it verified that we didn’t interbreed? And what makes it so vital for others that we did? I’m not saying that the scientists work out theories that fit their preferred view, but many laypeople (such as myself) who follow these stories have usually taken sides. Can this be boiled down to on the one hand a wish to keep human nature separate and special, and on the other hand a wish to see us closely related to all life on this planet? Competing visions of exclusivity vs. inclusivity? And where will such visions take us? Just remember Kennewick Man and the battle over his origins: Was he an early European, an American Indian ancestor, or perhaps a visitor from Asia? Each explanation carries its own political slant. Ask yourself, in your heart, would you rather that humans who migrated out of Africa were distantly related to Neandertals, or would you rather they/we weren’t? And then ask yourself, Why?

Two Little Girls–One Mind? June 2, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Two little girls in British Columbia will grow up as conjoined twins;  they are craniopagus, connected at the head, sharing a part of their brain structure. Separating them is apparently not an option. That phenomenon, disturbing as it may be, is not in itself the reason why these little 4-year old girls are getting attention from cognitive neuroscientists. It is because they apparently share not only brain matter, but also sensory experiences:

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

The girls surely have a complicated conception of what they mean by “me.” If one girl sees an object with her eyes and the other sees it via that thalamic link, are they having a shared experience? If the two girls are unique individuals, then each girl’s experience of that stimulus would inevitably be different; they would be having a parallel experience, but not one they experienced in some kind of commingling of consciousness. But do they think of themselves as one when they speak in unison, as they often do, if only in short phrases? When their voices joined together, I sometimes felt a shift — to me, they became one complicated being who happened to have two sets of vocal cords, no less plausible a concept than each of us having two eyes. Then, just as quickly, the girls’ distinct minds would make their respective presences felt: Tatiana smiled at me while her sister fixated on the television, or Krista alone responded with a “Yeah?” to the call of her name.

Although each girl often used “I” when she spoke, I never heard either say “we,” for all their collaboration. It was as if even they seemed confused by how to think of themselves, with the right language perhaps eluding them at this stage of development, under these unusual circumstances — or maybe not existing at all. “It’s like they are one and two people at the same time,” said Feinberg, the professor of psychiatry and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. What pronoun captures that?

The average person tends to fall back on the Enlightenment notion of the self — one mind, with privacy of thought and sensory experience — as a key characteristic of identity. That very impermeability is part of what makes the concept of the mind so challenging to researchers studying how it works, the neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio says in his book, “Self Comes to Mind.” “The fact that no one sees the minds of others, conscious or not, is especially mysterious,” he writes. We may be capable of guessing what others think, “but we cannot observe their minds, and only we ourselves can observe ours, from the inside, and through a rather narrow window.”

And yet here are two girls who can possibly — humbly, daily — feel what the other feels. Even that extraordinary dynamic would still put the girls on the continuum of connectivity that exists between ordinary humans. Some researchers believe that when we observe another person feeling, say, the prick of a pin, our neurons fire in a way that directly mimics the neurons firing in the person whom the pin actually pricks. So-called mirror neurons are thought to foster empathy, creating connections of which we are hardly aware but that bind us in some kind of mutual understanding at a neurological level.

The article, written by Susan Dominus (New York Times Magazine) who visited with the girls, includes several incidents that would indicate some form of shared sensory experience. I recommend that you read the rest of the article. The girls have not been studied extensively because of their young age, but if they remain healthy we may be treated to insight about one of the many ways of being human that just hasn’t been scientifically explored yet—the sharing of a mind…The philosophical implications of this phenomenon are overwhelming, to say the least.

Genderless, or Clueless? May 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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First of all, Hi everybody—sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. Just finishing the stacks of papers to be graded, and other work to be completed before the summer—it’s been a busy semester. Good classes, good discussions, but very little energy left over for blogging. I have, however, been tweeting! You can find my tweets under “@Socalethicsprof.”

Next, the story: I read it this morning, and it has been poking at me ever since: A family in Toronto has made a decision which seems to me right out of the Seventies (yes, I remember them well): they are raising their third baby without telling anyone his/her gender.

“When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’” says Witterick, bouncing Storm, dressed in a red-fleece jumper, on her lap at the kitchen table.

“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

When Storm was born, the couple sent an email to friends and family: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

It seems to me that the parents are trying to do two different things, and they aren’t necessarily compatible: For one thing, they’re trying to educate the world about its knee-jerk ways of gender assumptions. Well, that’s been attempted since the 1960s, and while it is a noble thought—and I’ve done my share of attempting to Educate the World over the years, giving my cousins’ and friends’ babies stuffed toys and farm animal figures instead of dolls and toy trucks, and choosing green and yellow baby clothes instead of pinks and blues—you’re up against 100,000 years of Homo Sapiens stereotypes. And it is somewhat naive of the parents to think they can put a dent in hardwired human nature. However, things have changed since the mid-20th century, and gender roles have become more flexible, due to new ideals and a willingness to be nonconformist. But the other side to their project seems to me far less noble, and mostly self-serving: They are trying to force Storm into a mold that they consider politically preferable: a world where gender roles are a matter of choice. They’re waiting to see what kind of person s/he will choose to be—but after the sad case of David Reimer in the 1990s and other failed attempts at enforcing the psychosexual neutrality theory, haven’t we all had to realize that a fair amount of sexual identity is hardwired? In other words, Storm will discover who s/he is, not choose it, and no amount of societal pressure from people making assumptions about her/his gender is going to make a bit of difference. I’m afraid the only thing the parents will accomplish is turning their child into a social experiment. In a way all of us, as children, have of course been social experiments, and most of us have turned out fairly well-functioning, but part of being a child is being allowed to feel safe, and to belong. Children are hungry for rules and predictability, and little Storm is being set up so s/he will be the oddball of whatever community s/he will be a part of. Choice is great, but not until one is mature enough to know what one is choosing.

A psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made, has some good comments to the story:

Ehrensaft believes there is something innate about gender, and points to the ’70s, when parents experimented by giving dolls to boys and trucks to girls.

“It only worked up to a certain extent. Some girls never played with the trucks, some boys weren’t interested in ballet … It was a humbling experiment for us because we learned we don’t have the control that we thought we did.”

But she worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.

“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them.”

Ehrensaft gets the “What the heck?!” reaction people may have when they hear about Storm. “I think it probably makes people feel played with to have that information withheld from them.”

As Socrates would say, a well-balanced person is not just someone who understands himself or herself, but who also is a well-adjusted citizen. You can’t become a well-adjusted citizen in a world where other people think you’re trying to fool them…

Facebook Revisited–New Policies for Professors April 25, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Education, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Teaching.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

It’s taken a while, but there is finally a growing realization among professors that “friending” their students is not such a good idea.  And school administrators are certainly also catching on. This from The Guardian (UK):

Teachers are being warned not to “friend” pupils on Facebook amid concerns over the blurring of boundaries between school staff’s professional and private lives.

In a fringe meeting at the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference on Sunday, teachers were told that pupils are getting access to potentially embarrassing information about teachers on their Facebook pages, while headteachers and school governors are increasingly using information posted on social networking sites to screen candidates for jobs.

Karl Hopwood, an internet safety consultant and former headteacher, told the NUT fringe meeting: “The line between private life and professional life is blurred now because of social media.”

The same concerns extend to the world of college professors and students, sharing a daily environment—but on a professional level, not a personal one. That distinction needs to be reestablished in this age of the social media, regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg may think about the declining value of the concept of privacy. I talked about the subject on this blog last year, where I explained my take on professors friending students (and got a great deal of very interesting comments), and my concerns then have only been confirmed in the past year. In the real world you have to be able to distinguish between who is your colleague, who is your client (for lack of a better word), who is your acquaintance, and who is your Friend…and then all the others who are just faces on Facebook.