Special Topics BIS 393A, W05
Biology and Society

Home Page -- Syllabus

Instructor: Joanne Woiak
Email: jwoiak at u.washington.edu

Office: UW1-246
Office Hours: M&W 2:15-3:15 and by appointment
Telephone: 425-352-3364


download Essay #2 assignment, due M Mar 14, 3:30 pm, via email (jwoiak)

A few more "extra" texts have been added on topics of eugenics (Feb 2) and genetic testing (Feb 7)

download HW #6 assignment, due W Feb 23

download Essay #1 assignment, due M Feb 7

download HW #5 assignment: due date is changed to Wed Feb 2, and it must be EMAILED to jwoiak@u.washington.edu

download HW #4 assignment: you may hand this in either M Jan 24 or W Jan 26

Meeting Times and Locations

M&W 3:30-5:35

course email list: bis393a_wi05@u.washington.edu

Course Description & Objectives

This course will critically examine the social contexts and significance of historical and contemporary controversies over evolutionary theory and genetics. Biological knowledge about human life, as a product of cultural forces and an influence on social policy, often interacts with religious and philosophical beliefs, political and economic agendas, and diversity issues such as race, class, gender, and disability. Biology has been used to justify and refute ideas about human nature, group differences, social behaviors, and even the meaning of life. For example, we will see that in the 19th century new biological theories had the radical goal of challenging theological notions about “man’s place in nature” and the political status quo. When Darwin announced his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859, public reactions were mixed. Some saw it as dangerously materialistic, but others managed to reconcile natural evolution with belief in divine design, and cruel struggle for existence with ethical principles. In the US, fundamentalist anti-evolutionism emerged by 1925 at the infamous “Scopes monkey trial,” where the authority of the Bible and the morality of Darwinism were debated. Around this same time the biological doctrines of Social Darwinism and eugenics (1900-1940) were being used to sanction “improving” the human race by eliminating the “unfit” through such means as militarism, class oppression, immigration restriction, and forced sterilization.

The second half of the course will focus on recent examples of how evolution and human genetics have been invoked for religious and political purposes, in problematic and contradictory ways, by people that Stephen Jay Gould calls “Darwin bashers and boosters.” The “creation science” and “intelligent design” movements bash evolution, based on moral concerns about secular education and mistaken notions about the scientific enterprise, and with the ultimate political goal of eroding the church-state separation. Some of the Darwin boosters have revived controversial and often eugenic-sounding claims about the biological causation of human behaviors and abilities. There needs to be more public dialogue critiquing the science and ethics of their research on genomics, sociobiology, and racial intelligence. We will consider the political motivations on both sides of the debates: opponents of genetic determinism demand that science serve liberatory ends for women, people of color, and people with disabilities, whereas supporters such as evolutionary psychologists and the Bell Curve authors complain of liberal “censorship” of their contested ideas about innate inequality. The goal of this course is to encourage critical perspectives on the varied social contexts and uses of the life sciences.

Assignments, Readings, Participation
Participation in class discussion, value 15%
Written homework exercises, total value 35%
Essay #1 (4 pages, due Mon Feb 7), value 20%
Essay #2 (5 pages, due Wed Mar 9), value 30%

Readings and participation:
The required readings are posted on the COURSE WEBSITE (as pdf files), to be accessed using your UWB ID. The required novel for Jan. 26, H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, is in the UWB bookstore and on library reserve. You must visit the website regularly in order to download the readings and assignments, and check for updates to the course content. The “extra” links are supplementary readings that give further information on the subject matter covered in class; these might be useful for discussions or for preparing your essays. A number of supplementary books have been placed on the library reserve shelf. You are expected to do all of the day’s required reading before the start of class and to be prepared with questions and opinions to talk about. Class meetings will include time for both lecturing on and discussing the material. During the first few weeks the instructor will give formal lectures on the historical material, while the contemporary topics will lend themselves to more informal student-initiated discussions. This course is designed to sharpen your practical skills in critical textual analysis, written and oral communication, and the synthesis of knowledge gained from several fields of study. We will read history of science scholarship, popular science writing from the past and present day, and some fiction and films that address relevant biological themes. Your participation grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions. Participation includes expressing your own reasoned arguments, as well as constructively responding to your classmates. Many of the topics to be covered are controversial and politicized, so my aim is to create an atmosphere of open and respectful sharing of ideas.

Documenting sources: When writing an essay, ALL direct quotations, paraphrases, information, interpretations, and opinions taken from another person’s work must be identified. Providing documentation will answer your reader’s questions such as “Where did you get that?” or “Why should this claim be believed?” Use quotation marks and citations whenever you use someone else’s exact words. Citations are also required to indicate that you have borrowed ideas or facts from a particular source, even if you are not quoting from it. Every essay submitted for this course must have a bibliography listing all sources cited and consulted. I prefer that you use MLA documentation style, which includes giving exact page numbers. For MLA guidelines see  <webster.commnet.edu/mla/index.shtml>.

Academic integrity: All work submitted for evaluation and course credit must be an original effort. Plagiarism means presenting the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own, for example by turning in someone else’s work or failing to document material you have quoted or borrowed. It is a serious offence and punishable under the provisions of the University’s Student Conduct Code. If you are unsure about your use of sources or are having other difficulties with your writing, please come to my office hours or make an appointment with the UWB Writing Center (425-352-5253, UW2-124). Any evidence of plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, will result in a grade of zero for that assignment. Additional sanctions may also be imposed by the University. You are responsible for understanding all aspects of the regulations regarding academic integrity.

Submitting work: Homework assignments and essays will be collected at the start of the class period. Late homework will NOT be accepted unless there was an emergency. Late essays will receive grade penalties of 5% per day. All work must be submitted in hard copies, and will be returned with comments. I will accept NO work electronically unless you have obtained permission from me in advance. Keep copies of all submitted work for your protection. No extra credit or paper re-writes will be permitted. If you want your final essay returned, please provide a large mailing envelope, self-addressed and stamped.

Incompletes: In accordance with University policy, I can give an incomplete only if the student has been attending class and doing all the major assignments until within two weeks of the end of the quarter, and if proof has been provided that the work cannot be completed because of circumstances beyond the student’s control.

Disabilities: I will do my best to accommodate all documented disabilities. See <http://www.bothell.washington.edu/students/dss/index.html> for information. 

Communication: All requirements and policies of this course are outlined in this syllabus. The schedule of readings and assignments may change, and it is your responsibility to get updated information from the course website. The best way to get hold of me reliably is via email. You are also encouraged to use the course email list for questions and discussion.
Send mail to: Course Email
Last modified: 3/03/2005 5:50 PM