The 20th century gene: From eugenics to epigenetics

Semester: Spring
Offered: 2014, 2015

From the eugenics movement at the beginning of the century to the global initiative to sequence the human genome at its close, the gene has figured prominently into twentieth century history. How did genetics come to occupy a prominent place in both scientific and popular thinking? What are the consequences of the attention devoted to genes? In the first unit, we’ll start by addressing the intertwined origins of biometrics, classical genetics, medical genetics, and eugenics; focusing in particular on the history of eugenics in North America. The second unit will examine how ideas about human destinies and free will are shaped by and expressed through genetics. We’ll travel back to a time before notions of heredity existed, and study science fiction stories about the power of nature and nurture. The third unit will use a series of contemporary cases as starting points for discussions about where genetics is headed and how science and society intersect in its future directions. Students will have the opportunity to choose what topics they would like to discuss—such as three parent embryos, controversies over the heritability of intelligence, or personal genomics—in the final weeks of the course.

The course is discussion-based; with occasional in-class lectures that provide additional background on topics not covered by the course readings. Assignments for this course include oral presentations and essays, with a focus on developing revision skills. This class is suitable for students in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and no prior knowledge of genetics is required.

Click here for the HoS 133 Spring 2015 syllabus.