History 490 B/C, Winter 2007
Biology, Society, and Human Diversity


Course Description

Class meetings: T/TH 7:00-9:20 pm, Communications 230

Instructor: Joanne Woiak


Office: Smith 208A; 206-543-6924

Office hours: Tues and Thurs 5:30-6:30, and by appointment


“We used to think that our fate was in our stars. Now we know that, in large measure, our fate in is our genes.” James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix.


Course description: This course explores episodes in the history of the biological and social sciences involving nature vs. nurture debates. Science makes authoritative claims about gender roles, sexuality, racial differences, and disabilities, in interaction with cultural assumptions about normality, bodily and mental variations, and hierarchies of human worth (racism, sexism, ableism). Why have certain kinds of beliefs about innate and permanent qualities, group differences, and human nature enjoyed recurring popularity? How is this scientific knowledge presented to the public and utilized in social policies? How has ideology shaped biology and the body throughout history? The theories and practices we will explore include intelligence testing, criminal anthropology, eugenics, sociobiology, pre-natal genetic testing, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, genomics, neuroscience, and sex hormones research. In studying historical and contemporary examples of biological determinism, we will critique some of the evidence on which these have been based and analyze how science can have political and ethical implications for social justice and diversity issues. Major themes, approaches, and objectives are to:

  • Learn about significant episodes, ideas, and actors in the history of biology.
  • Utilize the approach called science studies, which investigates the political and social contexts in which theories are developed and disseminated.
  • Introduce and use the concepts of disability studies (medical and social models).
  • Explore intersections between disability, race, and gender discrimination.
  • Identify continuities in biodeterminist thinking and ideologies; identify historically specific circumstances and arguments.
  • Debate bioethical, legal, and social issues concerning human genetics.
  • Evaluate some examples of data, methods, and statistics (e.g. The Bell Curve).
  • Understand concepts of the body as “natural” vs. “socially constructed.”
  • Critique how scientific findings are communicated to the public.


  • 5 Response papers (1-2 pages each) 25%
  • 2 Essays (5 pages each, due Feb 6 & Mar 8) 50%
  • Media project (collect articles/artifacts about genetics) 10%
  • Participation 15%

Readings and participation (value 15%): The required readings are posted on the COURSE WEBSITE as pdf files, to be accessed using your UW ID (http://faculty.washington.edu/jwoiak/hist490.html). The required textbook, Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1996 edition), is in the UW bookstore and widely available used. 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. This will be an intense discussion and participatory course, so 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. During the first few weeks the instructor will give lectures on the historical topics, 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 science studies, feminist, and disability studies scholarship, popular science writing from the past and present day, and videos that address relevant biological themes. Your participation grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions to discussion. There will also be some in-class writing and small-group exercises. Missing classes will prevent your involvement in activities and adversely affect your grade. Participation involves expressing your own reasoned arguments, as well as constructively responding to your classmates. The topics to be covered are contentious, sensitive, and politicized; my aim is to create a respectful and open atmosphere where people should feel comfortable sharing ideas and speaking their opinions.

Students with disabilities need not disclose. The instructor can work in conjunction with Disability Resources for Students (448 Schmitz, 543-8924) to provide accommodations of any sort due to disability. Please feel free to talk with me about any aspect of accommodation.

Written work (5 responses value 25%; 2 essays value 50%):You are required to write TWO argumentative essays, from a choice of topics to be provided. One will cover the historical material and the other contemporary genetics issues. Each essay must have a clear thesis statement and supporting arguments. The required and supplementary course readings should provide plenty of source material, so no extra research is expected. Essays must use copious citations and have proper bibliographies documenting all your sources. Length should be five pages, typed, double-spaced, and each will be worth 25%. Topics and details will be provided on separate handouts.
To encourage you to engage with the readings and themes of the course, you will write a total of FIVE short response papers. The due dates are listed on the schedule at the end of this syllabus; you have seven options to choose from. Only five grades will be counted (5% each). For each paper, write a minimum of one and maximum of two typed double-spaced pages. You may analyze, expand upon, or challenge any of the required readings for each designated day. Choose just one or two texts and develop your analysis as thoroughly as possible. You must turn in the paper on the day we are discussing your chosen reading(s). Give in-text citations, e.g. (Gould 95), to show exactly which pages the material you are commenting on came from. Show that you carefully read the entire text(s) and can briefly explain the main points. Your responses should be informed opinions about the author's arguments, using approaches you're learning in the course and your critical thinking skills.

Media project (value 10%, collect 4 items, brief written and oral report March 6):Genes are big news. We'll read scholarly pieces critiquing the ways that the media and scientists themselves report to the public (popularize) the latest genetics research and biotechnologies. Forms of popularization include journalistic articles, popular science writing in magazines or books, TV/movies, advertisements, cartoons, artwork, websites run by government agencies or activists pro and con, and so on. Information, assumptions, controversies, and messages about genetics are everywhere in our culture, and this assignment will get you thinking about how and why this is happening. For this research project, you'll be searching for "cultural artifacts" in the media that discuss or depict genetics or other nature/nurture issues. Be on the lookout throughout the quarter for relevant materials as you go about your daily reading and web surfing. Especially keep in mind the themes of the course such as determinism, discrimination, political agendas, bioethics, etc. I will put some examples of media articles and web artifacts on the course website. For class on Feb 15, you must bring 2 items you've found so far, and then on March 6 you must have a total of 4 items ready to report on informally in front of the class. You must also hand in a written bibliography and description of all your articles/artifacts (1-2 pages long).


Communication policy: All requirements and policies of this course are outlined in this syllabus. Any changes to the syllabus, announcements, and handouts will be posted on the course website, and it is your responsibility to check the website for updates. The best way to contact the instructor is via email, and you are always welcome to come to office hours.


Policies for submitting and returning work: At least one assignment will be due every week during the quarter, so it is your responsibility to keep careful track of requirements and due dates. Be sure to check the website regularly for any changes to the schedule. No late response papers will be accepted. Essays will be collected at the start of the class period. Essays received late will receive grade penalties of 5% per day. Work will not be accepted via email, unless prior arrangements have been made. No extra credit or paper re-writes will be permitted. Keep copies of all submitted work for your protection. Papers will be returned with comments as quickly as possible. You are encouraged to consult with the instructor about your ideas and questions regarding the assignments.


Documentation of sources and academic integrity: When writing an essay, all direct quotations, paraphrases, information, interpretations, and opinions taken from another person’s work must be identified. Every essay submitted for this course must have a bibliography listing all sources consulted and copious citations (either footnotes or in-text) to indicate where facts or ideas have been borrowed. All work submitted for 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. Any evidence of cheating or plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, will result in a grade of zero for that assignment. Additional sanctions may also be imposed by the University administration under the provisions of the Student Conduct Code. You are responsible for understanding all aspects of University regulations regarding academic integrity.


Send mail to: jwoiak@u.washington.edu
Last modified: 1/18/2007 11:02 AM