Dr. Scott Gilbert        302 Martin     sgilber1         x8049




"Biology is politics by other means, and it also generates reliable information about the empirical world."

-Sandra Harding


Here is the paradox of modern biology. Biology is a crucially important science not only for giving us theories about how the living world functions but also for telling us how to package data into stories. So the first rationale for this course is to study the "stories biologists tell." We have not outgrown Aesop, and we often look to biology to tell us what is nature’s way of doing things. Biology has always been in a unique position to define race, gender, and humanity, to determine what is normal or abnormal behavior, what is normal or abnormal sexuality, and so forth. Biology also tells remarkably important "origin" stories--the origin of organisms, the origin of sex, the origin of humans, the origin of consciousness--that inform who we think we are. The "argument from Nature" has many philosophical fallacies, but it is still remarkably strong. To say that a behavior is "unnatural" is as bad today as it was in the time of John Stuart Mill (who wrote a major critique of that view.) So a critique of biology is important for constructing our own identities.


Second, my belief is that "Intro Bio" is replacing "Western Civ. " as the course required of voting members of the society to make informed decisions about government policy. We are now in national debates about pursuing research on human embryonic stem cells, teaching evolution, prohibiting genetically modified crops, protecting forestlands, allocating health care resources, regenerative biology, and selecting the sex of unborn children. In addition to its obvious importance in issues of health care and environmental concern, biology is also seen as the final court for issues involving legality, educatability, an even affirmative action. So a critique of biology is important for our understanding of social issues.


The purpose of this course is to look critically at the "stories" being told by biology (and biologists) and to see if they are the only stories that fit the data. To do this, we are going to look historically at some of the major stories of the past and see if they are linked to present-day biology. 




Course axis:


Course means pathway, like a watercourse. And pathways are both permissive and restrictive. They allow you to see some things and they hide other things. They also branch, and you cannot go down all possible paths. This year's path will extend from Aristotle to the projects of evolutionary developmental biology. I will give a lecture for the first half of the class. Then, after a brief break, we will get together for a more informal discussion of the issues raised in the week's reading. Each person is to bring to class a page containing some idea generated by the reading and three discussion questions. These will be turned in to me at the beginning of each class. These will be graded and used as the basis for the discussion session. The questions can be "internal", that is to say, they can relate directly to the content of what we read. Or they can be "external", relating what we read to something that you have read or discussed in some other course. We hope to take advantage of our heterogeneity. After the general discussion, one or two of the "laboratory groups" will be asked to report on their findings that week (more on this below).


The main books we will be reading are listed below. You may want to have a “partner” such that you can split the cost of the books. I have tried to pick titles that you will want to keep.


Lovejoy, A.  1933/1964. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an   

Idea. Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, MA.

Schiebinger, L.  1993. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science.

Beacon Press, Boston.

Richards, R. J. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy

in the Age of Goethe. U. Chicago Press.

Ruse, M. 1999. The Darwinian Revolution. Science Red in Tooth and Claw. U.

Chicago Press.

Desmond, A and Moore, J. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist.

Norton, New York. 

Amundson, R. 2005.  The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought.

Cambridge U. Press, New York





Laboratories in history and bioethics:


What?  What laboratories? No, we're not going to try to recreate the experiments of Pasteur or Nirenberg (although that would not be a bad thing). But there is going to be an ongoing "laboratory " to give this course some time parity with other biology courses. Here is where I want you to figure out what you are interested in and to “use” the course for your own ends. The axis of the course is the triple helix of evolution, genetics, and development. But there is so much biology that can’t be covered this way.  So I want you to work together in three-somes and to find a topic that excites you.


1.    You can work on some area of the history biology not represented in the core syllabus: History of ecology (e.g., How nature documentaries presented the outdoors, history of symbiosis, history of marine ecology, invasive species), Social history of biology (especially eugenics), history of medicine (e.g. experimentation on ex-slaves, history of how any organ functions; history of animals in biomedical research; history on any disease), history of the interactions between evolutionary biology and any particular religion; science and art; fertilization narratives; biotechnology, history of famous biologists.


2.     You can work on bioethical issues. If any group wants to update the bioethics book that came out of the last iteration of this course, that would be great. There is nothing, for instance, on the ethical consequences of induced pluripotent stem cells and the possibility of extending healthy lives indefinitely.


3.    You can study something in more depth than I can present it. If there is already material mentioned in the syllabus below that you wish to study in more detail, that’s great, too. You can discuss with me the type of thing you wish to pursue.


4.    Connect biology to your minor, your other major, or your concentration. If you’ve wanted time to look at the connections between embryology, Marxism, and Mexican art, go right ahead. 


During your first day in class, I want you to get into groups, and I hope to meet with you to help you narrow down your topics and start you on your projects. It is expected that you will work on separate episodes and will eventually write them up for your final (around 12-15-page) paper.




The grade will consist, in equal parts, of (1) leading and participation in the class discussion, (2) the papers turned in at the beginning of each class, (3) the final paper, and the (4) laboratory report. There will be no final examination.



TENTATIVE SYLLABUS: Monday afternoons Martin 213


Please read the material for the first week’s chapters before class. (You do not need to hand in a paper on this):


Week 1 (Aug 30 . Organization of the course and the Universe):

Great Chain pp. 1-66 (Chapters 1, 2).

Aristotle, Parts of Animals Book I, I and Generation of Animals Book II, I- III. These can be accessed at :


Lecture introduces metaphors, the characterization of life, and theories of change


Week 2 (Sept. 6; Major paradigms):

Great Chain of Being, pp. 66- conclusion

Reserve readings:

   Small, M. 1991. Sperm Wars. Discover (July) 48 - 53.

   Biology and Gender study Group. 1988. The importance of feminist

critiques for contemporary cell biology. Hypatia 3: 61 - 76.

   Horowitz, M. C. 1986. Aristotle and women. J. Hist. Biol. 9 : 183 - 213.


Week 3 (Sept. 13; Renaissance and enlightenment biology):

Nature’s Body

Lecture on types of bodies


Week 4 (Sept 20; The glory of natural theology):

Darwinian Revolution.


Week 5 (Sept 27; The even more glorious Romantic Biology):

Romantic Conception of Life.


Week 6 (Oct 4; Charles Darwin):

Darwin, pp. 1-390.




Week 7 (Oct 18; Darwin and Huxley):

Darwin, pp. 391-677.


Week 8 (Oct. 25 Haeckel and early evolutionary biology):

Role of Embryo, pp. 1- 138.

Churchill, F. 2007. Living with the Biogenetic Law:  A Reappraisal. In Laubischler, M. and Maienschein, J. 2007. From Embryology to Evo-Devo: A History of Developmental Evolution. MIT Press, pp. 37-81.


Week 9 (Nov. 1 The rise of genetics and eugenics)

Role of Embryo, Chapter 7.

Gilbert, S. F. 1978.  The embryological origins of the gene theory. J. Hist. Biol.

            11: 307-351.

Gilbert, S. F. 1998. Bearing crosses: The historiography of genetics and

            embryology. Amer. J. Med. Genet. 76: 168 - 182.

Sapp, J (1983) The struggle for authority in the field of heredity, 1900-1932,

            Journal of the History of Biology 16: 311-42.

Eugenics Archive:

Other readings TBA


WEEK 10 (Nov 8 The Modern Synthesis)

Role of Embryo, Chapter 8.

Gilbert and Epel, Ecological Developmental Biology, Chapter 8, Appendices A

and C.



Week 11 (Nov 15; The rise of experimental embryology)

Maienschein, J, 1991. “The origins of Entwicklungsmechanik” in Gilbert, S, A

Conceptual History of Modern Embryology, Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 43-59.

Gilbert, S. F. and Saxén, L. 1993. Spemann's Organizer: Models and molecules.

            Mechanisms Devel. 41: 73 - 89.

Wilhelm Roux (1894) The problems, methods, and scope of developmental

mechanics (introduction to the journal Archives of Organismal DevelopmentalMechanics) in Maienshein, J, 1986. Defining Biology: Lectures from the 1890s, Harvard University Press.

Driesch, H (1892) The potency of the two first cleavage cells in echinoderm

development. Experimental production of partial and double formations in

Willier, BH and JM Oppenheimer, 1974. Foundations of Experimental Embryology, Hafner Press.



Week 12 (Nov. 22;  Developmental Genetics):

Introductory biology book chapter

Gilbert, S. F. 1991. Induction and the Origins of Developmental Genetics. In A

            Conceptual History of Modern Embryology. (ed. S. F. Gilbert). Plenum

            Press, NY. pp. 181- 206.

Gilbert, S. F. 1996. Enzyme adaptation and the entrance of molecular biology

            into embryology. In The Philosophy and History of Molecular Biology: New

            Perspectives. (ed. S. Sarkar). Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. pp.

            101 - 123.

Gilbert, S. F. 2000. Genes classical and genes developmental: The different uses

            of the gene in evolutionary syntheses. In The Concept of the Gene in

            Development and Evolution  (ed. P. Buerton, R. Falk, and H-J.

            Rheinberger),Cambridge University Press. Pp. 178 – 192.

Morange, M. 2000. The developmental gene concept: History and Limits. In The

            Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution  (ed. P. Buerton, R.

            Falk, and H-J.  Rheinberger),Cambridge University Press.p. 193 – 215.



Week 13 (Nov 29; Evolutionary Developmental Biology)

Role of Embryo, pp. 169 – 257.

Gilbert and Epel, Chapter 9.

Davis, G., Dietrich, M. Jacobs, D., "Homeotic Mutants and the Assimilation of

Developmental Genetics Into the Evolutionary Synthesis, 1915-1952", In

Descended from Darwin: Insights into American Evolutionary Studies, 1925-1950, Joe Cain and Michael Ruse (Eds.), 133-154 (2009).


Lecture will probably be on (1) Ruse vs Gilbert:


Gilbert, S. F., Opitz, J., and Raff, R. A. 1996. Resynthesizing evolutionary and

            developmental biology. Developmental Biology 173: 357 - 372.


Ruse, M. 2006. Why evo-devo still makes me excited about my subject.

            Biological Theory 1: 35-37.


Gilbert, S. F. 2006. The generation of novelty: The province of developmental

biology. Biological Theory 1: 209 – 212.


Ruse, M. 2006. Bare-Knuckle Fighting: EvoDevo versus Natural Selection

Biological Theory 1: 402 – 403.


Gilbert, S. F. 2007. “Second to the right, straight on ‘til morning”: A reply to Ruse.

Biological Theory 2: 74 - 75.


And (2) New ideas in evolutionary developmental biology: Plasticity and symbiosis






A caveat: “Beware scientists writing history.”

             -- J. L. Heilbron, 1998. Nature 395: 339 – 340.