August 21, 2012

Autonomy, humanism and a sleep like unto death

Trust me, I'll tie all of this together in just a few paragraphs.

Secular humanism is, among other things, about human autonomy and choice (to the degree there's an "I" which has a conscious choice, which is by no means likely to be the case, but that's a whole nother issue).

And, where are two cases where such autonomy comes most clearly to mind? And, brings in other issues of secular humanism, namely, social justice and equality?

Assisted suicide and sleep patterns.

Dr. Richard Wesley/New York Times
The New York Times shows that, despite fear-mongering that largely was driven by religious conservatives, the assisted suicide laws in Oregon and then Washington state have not seen their use primarily by poor, often minority poor, who might be getting pushed into a final decision by relatives who couldn't afford their care, either financially or timewise.

Rather, it's largely white, upper middle class folks who are opting to take the final step into their own hands.

Including, in Washington, a physician who pushed for its law.
Dr. Wesley is emblematic of those who have taken advantage of the law. They are overwhelmingly white, well educated and financially comfortable. And they are making the choice not because they are in pain but because they want to have the same control over their deaths that they have had over their lives. 
And, it's also not about fear of one big issue related to dying.
Dr. Linda Ganzini, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, published a study in 2009 of 56 Oregonians who were in the process of requesting physician-aided dying. 

“Everybody thought this was going to be about pain,” Dr. Ganzini said. “It turns out pain is kind of irrelevant.” 
A proposed similar bill in Massachusetts may be attracting some conservative support. Meanwhile, the AMA opposes such ideas, while many individual doctors, the ones who have shed the Superman idealism, favor them. That too makes it clear this is an issue of autonomy.

So, too, is sleep comfort — at least if you're a minority.

Moleendo Steward, sleep-challenged./New York Times
I think this issue is almost certainly nurture-driven. I simply cannot imagine any great evolutionary environmental pressure, or even the likelihood of evolutionary drift that got selected for, that would say why black Americans such as Moleendo Stewart have more trouble sleeping than their white counterparts. 

I deliberately don't say "peers" because of the higher poverty rates, which often mean housing situations less adequate for quality sleeping. Beyond that, the story notes that minorities often have less structured bedtime patterns for children, another environmental effect.

Of course, there's an easy way to study this. Take two or three relative "primitive" groups, from different ethnic backgrounds, such as the San! people of the Kalahari's edges and Siberian reindeer herders, and compare their sleep patterns.

Ultimately, the different socioeconomic groups in America have different degrees of autonomy.

And, true secular humanism still has its work cut out there. That includes "friendly fire" from confrontationalist Gnu Atheists, or Center for Inquiry suck-ups like Ron Lindsay, unworried about high income inequality, which directly undercuts autonomy.

The second story, in addition, is a reminder of how little we still really know about sleep, and why it, or its lack, has the effects it does.

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