Brave New Worlds: Biology and American History from the 1860s to the 1990s

History 103D.006

Fall 2005
Instructor (text): 
210 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
Tu 12-2
This course is also listed as 103S.002

At the turn of the 21st century, with the sequencing of the human genome complete, scientists and politicians hailed the coming of a new biotechnological age. Craig Venter prophesied "a new starting point" in human history, while James Watson promised a "giant resource that will change mankind, like the printing press." President Clinton announced that "today we are learning the language in which God created life." These bold visions were accompanied by deep anxieties and fears. New technologies posed new ethical challenges, and the eugenic programs of the first half of the 20th century cast a long shadow.

In this seminar, we will broadly historicize our current biotechnological moment by considering the place biology has occupied in American history since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Topics we will address include Social Darwinism, the growth of biology as a professional discipline, the eugenics movement, the emergence of Mendelian genetics, the Scopes Trial, the conservation movement and environmentalism, public displays of nature in zoos and museums in the 1950s and 1960s, the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the relation of film and literature to biology, biology and gender, and the place of biology in American politics. Along with focusing on well-known biologists like Thomas Hunt Morgan and Rachel Carson, our readings will also cover the history of the animals (like fruit flies and laboratory rats) that have been instrumental to creating our biological knowledge. We will read a wide range of types of sources: canonical texts, recent monographs, plenty of primary sources (including sizable excerpts from The Origin of Species and Carson's Silent Spring), some journal articles, a biography (of Barbara McClintock), and a novel (Huxley's Brave New World). Our readings will be supplemented by occasional short lectures on the history of biological thought.

Course requirements include weekly readings, active participation in seminar, three structured short essays (5-7 pages each), and occasional short weekly assignments. At the end of the semester, students will submit a writing portfolio that consists of revised versions of the three short essays.