14 January 2012

Posts towards a course on "Society, Culture and Biology"

Evolutionary psychology; proteomics; genomics; neuroscience; sociobiology;  molecular biology; ethology; genetics; biology; physiology; zoology, botany - the twentieth-century biological sciences transformed multiple dimensions of human life. With many applications in industry, bio-medicine, agriculture, and technology, there were few domains of human life untouched by biology's footprint.

Yet to describe these topics without also recognizing their social, cultural, and political dimensions would be naive. And to ignore as well the way in which the human sciences - medicine, psychology, history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science - intermingled, translated, connected, extended and critiqued biological theories and facts across the nineteenth- and twentieth century would be a mistake too.

But what would a course analyzing the co-construction of the human and biological sciences accomplish? In what ways would it be useful for our postmodern society? Why would we need it? Would it simply be another boring, truncated chapter in the ideological script of triumphant science? Should it be a critical course that analyzes and evaluates in an almost Whiggish way "the good", "the bad", and "the ugly" of the human and biological sciences? Or should such a course seek, rather, to provide a contextualized, empirically-situated account that does not dwell in a large way upon the political questions such material raises?

Such questions cannot be simply answered. The history of biology is filled with noteworthy achievements. From Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to the contemporary discovery of the biological mechanisms underpinning the production of proteins, biology has transformed human understanding of our place in nature and also brought us closer to understanding the origins, variability and diversity of life on our planet. Yet, at the same time, such tragic legacies as forced sterilization in the United States, the Tuskegee syphilis study, Nazi racial hygiene policies, Lysenko-ism, and the frontal lobe lobotomy, reveal to us that biological knowledge sometimes converges frequently and sharply with dominant social and cultural values. Such instances remind us that on many occasions biology has served as a poorly-designed tool of power.

Science is a means of pursuing knowledge. Yet scientific knowledge has often been allegedly useful for determining social and politic ends. On many occasions scientific knowledge has been used to reinforce dominant ideologies, naturalize ascendant human institutions, and to justify claims of civilizational superiority. The biological sciences have not been alone in this project: biology, psychology, genetics, anthropology, sociology, economics, and even history have been prominently used for these ends. The consequences, both positive and negative, are deserving of deeper analysis, evaluation, and critique.But where to go from here?

Below are prospective topics: What's missing? Is the approach too traditional? How could it be more vanguard? Comments would be greatly appreciated.

Topic 1: Taxonomies of Biology, Society, and Culture
Topic 2: Nature and Nurture: The History of the Human Sciences and ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’
Topic 3: Homo Economicus: Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus
Topic 4: Phrenology, Mesmerism, and Animal Electricity
Topic 5: Proto-Evolutionary Ideas: Darwin, Lamarck & Chambers
Topic 6: The Origins of Species: The Darwinian Revolution and the Descent of Man
Topic 7: The New Phrenology: Physical Anthropology and the Cerebral Localization of Function
Topic 8: Emotions in Animals and Man: Darwin and the anti-Vivisectionists
Topic 9: Barbarians, Savages, and Civilization
Topic 10: Population Statistics: Francis Galton and Alfred Binet
Topic 11: The Reception of Darwin: Religion, Social Darwinism, and Sigmund Freud
Topic 12: Hysteria, Neurasthenia and Degeneration: The Cultural Construction of Disease
Topic 13: Mendelian Genetics: Neo-Darwinism, Population Genetics, and “The Scopes Trial”
Topic 14: The Role of the Environment: Franz Boas’s Cultural Anthropology
Topic 15: Biological Utopianism: Conservation, Eugenics and Social Engineering
Topic 16: Human Experimentation: From Epilepsy Research to Nazism
Topic 17: Medical Lapses: Tuskegee, Thalidomide, and Lobotomy
Topic 18: Animal and Human: Behaviorism, Animal Behavior, and Human Consciousness
Topic 19: The Structure of DNA: James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin
Topic 20: Race & IQ: The Social Construction of Both
Topic 21: Psychometrics and the DSM: Standards and Social Discipline
Topic 22: Anti-Psychiatry: From R. D. Lang’s anarchism to Franz Fanon’s resistance
Topic 23: The Return of Social-Darwinism? Wilson’s Sociobiology & Gould’s Critique
Topic 24: Selfish Determinisms: Genes, Memes, & Fatalism
Topic 25: Pharmacological Futures: Industry and Organized Medicine
Topic 26: Being Human: Critiques of Evolutionary Psychology and Biocultural Anthropology
Topic 27: Biochemical Holisms: Proteomics, Genomics, and the Problem of Systems
Topic 28: Memory: Neurobiological Models and its Cultural Construction
Topic 29: Addictions and Free Will: Biological and Social Understandings
Topic 30: Brain-scans and Ethical Decision-Making: Pills, Consciousness, and Law
Topic 31: Whither Human Equality?: Human Rights, Legal Rights, and Universal Rights


  1. If you haven't got coverage of some of the research in bio-engineering (synthesizing life, engineering dna to grow machines etc) it might be worth looking at.



    i'm sure your familiar with the general area


  2. Thanks for your comment! Its funny you should mention bio-engineering - I am in the process of preparing an essay on experiments with primitive earth gases to see if life is possible. So your idea is very much in my mind.

  3. I definitely want to see the syllabus for this one! If I were teaching it, I'd probably start with the empirically-situated accounts, and then move onto some of the big political questions. I'd also be doing less history, of course, and focusing more on the anthro topics that come up.

    And that brings up the need to select - what are the best case studies? which points in history? how broad/narrow?

    Other topics might be the creation, first, of drug/pharmacological use as a social problem (early drug laws in US), and then the subsequent creation of addiction as a disease/biological problem starting in the 1950s. That's different than just the free will angle.

    I'd probably also focus on the creation of the double blind experiment, drug companies, placebo effects, and the like.

    As a medical anthropologist, the increasing impact of the medical professional in general might be a framing I'd use, probably with a focus on the training of physicians and the creation of institutions.

    Just some thoughts. If you do put together bibliographies for all this, I'd love to see them.