Biology and Society

Semester: Spring
Offered: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

From medical advancements to environmental crises and global food shortages, biology and the life sciences are implicated in some of the most pressing social issues of our time. This course explores events in the history of biology from the mid-twentieth century to today, and examines how developments in these scientific fields have shaped and are shaped by society. The course is divided into three thematic units. In the first unit, we investigate the origins of the institutions, technologies, and styles of practice that characterize contemporary biology; such as the use of mice as “model organisms” for understanding human diseases. In the second unit, we delve into areas of biology that have raised controversies about regulation, governance, and public participation; such as the introduction of genetically modified plants into the food supply. The final unit examines how we use biological facts and theories as a resource for understanding ourselves. Within the units, each week begins with an examination of an historical event or controversy that provides an entry into a discussion about how biology and society interact. The creation of a cloned sheep named Dolly and the ensuing media coverage and controversy, for example, demonstrates how new reproductive technologies are challenging fundamental categories that we use to describe the life course such as “parent” and “offspring.”

The course consists of two lectures and one discussion section per week. You will also read a selection of historical, sociological, and popular articles each week in preparation for class, which will be contextualized and discussed in lecture and section. Evaluation is based on two exams, two short writing assignments, and discussion section participation. This course is aimed at helping students in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities to develop the analytical and writing skills needed to confront complex social issues involving the life sciences. No prior knowledge of biology, history, or social theory is required.

Click here for the HoS 133 Spring 2017 syllabus.