Biology, Evolution, and Society (3) Exploration of the genetic theory of evolution and development, its history and application within Biology and beyond.
ANTH 471H Biology, Evolution, and Society (3)
This will be a reading, discussion, and exploration course that looks at the way theory about the nature of life and its origins and diversity have developed over time into today’s evolutionary theory. The course will examine the Darwinian theory, and then new elements that recent biological research have revealed about the nature of biological traits themselves and how genes produce them. These points were not part of evolutionary theory itself, but are an important supplement that could not have been made before results from the last 20 years have been available. A theory can be called a cosmology when its assumptions go beyond hypotheses to be tested, to become assumptions that are no longer under test but are used to devise future research and that then set the directions of science. This includes, but isn't restricted to the kind of cosmology that deals with life space. We have to use theory to order our work and to anticipate what we have not yet found (for example, that newly discovered species will be related to other known species). But in the case of biology, a modern ‘biocosmology’ has developed steadily since Darwin, increasingly centered on molecular genetics and genes as the ultimate units of biological causation. Sometimes that theory has become so unquestioned as to impair research and even to be somewhat misleading. Elements of biological theory, such as natural selection, are powerful and general, and are being borrowed by physicists and astronomers (a reverse of the borrowing that occurred in the last century), to account for aspects of the physical universe in explicit evolutionary terms (including natural selection). For somewhat similar reasons, also having to do with the role of science in society, modern biocosmology has routinely been extended to apply to sociopolitical issues, such as economic and educational policy, science funding decisions, and views about socially delicate issues such as behavior, sexuality, talents and abilities, and much else. This course will discuss how the modern theory of life has arisen historically and the evidence and research methods that have been used to develop that theory. A view of biological theory as a broader cosmology leads to the additional consideration of the nature of biological causation as a statistical rather than purely deterministic phenomenon, and the kinds of research approaches that are used to understand biological problems. The latter include the engineering of organisms, the health sciences, and the nature, evolution, and biological basis of behavior. The objective of this course is to give students a broad understanding of the evolutionary and genetic theory of life and a broader view of the way that theory extends to areas not yet understood, as well as to its origins in and relevance to human society. Everyone is familiar with Darwin’s basic theory that life is historical and evolves via natural selection, and that genes are the basis of it all. But these ideas are often only superficially understood—sometimes even by biologists—and many clearly central aspects of life have been left out of the Darwinian theory. That theory explains how organisms evolve, but not what evolves or how genes make those traits possible. These are topics in gene function and developmental mechanisms. Along with some modifications to Darwin’s ideas, largely involving elements of chance and population structure and ecology, the genetic theory evolution can be augmented by a few simple organizing principles to explain the nature of traits and flesh out a more comprehensive understanding of life. These principles are in daily use in research but it will be helpful for students to have them organized into a synthetic framework placed explicitly within evolutionary theory itself. This course will be generally related to all life science courses, and relevant to social and other sciences, philosophy, and history. But it is not tied to any particular other course, and as a kind of overview of the governing notions of life at the onset of the 21st century, complements the education of anyone in these related fields. This course will be of interest to students who have or will take courses in astrobiology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology and/or population genetics, or anthropological genetics and human evolution. The grade will be based on attendance and participation. Reading and/or research of some kind will be assigned most weeks, with students responsible for oral reporting or writing brief descriptions of what they have found. There will be a term paper or project, but no formal exams.
Note : Class size, frequency of offering, and evaluation methods will vary by location and instructor. For these details check the specific course syllabus.