Honors 182-25: How Malleable is Human Nature? Brains, Genes, Culture, Biotechnology (2012)

Spring 2012
MW 2:35-3:50 BT 308

Prof. Michael Bess
208 Benson
michael.d.bess@vanderbilt.edu
322-3340
Office Hours: MW 1-2; R 3-5 

Course Description

What traits set humans apart from other animals? Are these distinctive traits mere matters of degree, or do they imply a deeper qualitative boundary?

In what ways are humans like, and unlike, complex machines?

Do all humans possess a common core of innate characteristics, or does the unique constellation of our abilities as individuals emerge primarily through environmental influences?

What exactly do we mean by the concepts of human personhood and human dignity?  Could personhood and dignity ever be instantiated in a robot or artificial intelligence?

Could the functions of a human brain be downloaded into an advanced computer?  Or is there something fundamentally misguided about this notion?

To what extent can fundamental human traits and capabilities be modified?  At what point does this tinkering with the human constitution start to undermine our identity?  What do we mean by the words, “sub-human,” and “super-human”?

Where are the boundaries of the human?  How malleable are those boundaries?

Who are we, as a species, and what are we in the process of becoming?

In this seminar we examine the concept of human nature, surveying the debates that have raged over this idea throughout human history and across human civilizations.  Our approach will be interdisciplinary, encompassing developments in the natural sciences, technology and engineering, socioeconomic change, politics, popular culture, science fiction, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

The course will be divided into four thematic parts:

I. What’s at stake?  Changing our natures through biotechnology

II. What is human nature?

III. What is human personhood?

IV. Peer review of each other’s research papers

Readings

  • Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin)
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Perseus)
  • Christian Smith, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up
  • Other selected readings on Oak

Assignments, Grading

You should ALWAYS finish each day’s assigned reading before class meets on Monday or Wednesday.  In order to carry out a satisfying discussion, it is ESSENTIAL that all students come to class well-prepared to contribute their thoughts and observations on the readings.  I encourage you to take notes on the readings as you go along; this will also help you considerably when you are writing your research paper.

Each student will be asked to choose one class session during the semester in which he or she will start off the discussion with a 10-minute analytical report on that day’s reading.  Please note: these presentations must not exceed 10 minutes, and must NOT comprise blow-by-blow summaries of the readings, but rather should present reflective questions targeted at bringing out the key issues in the readings.

There will be no examinations in this course.  Written assignments will include a one-page topic proposal for your research paper, two one-page papers on the major readings, an 8-10 page research paper, fourteen one-page (single-spaced) peer reviews of the first drafts of the research papers written by your fellow students; a revised version (8-10 pages) of your research paper; and a final one-page reflective essay on what you have learned in this course.  Late assignments will be penalized at the rate of 5% per day.  Peer review essays will receive no credit if they are handed in late because of an unexcused absence.

Semester grades will be determined according to the following percentages:

Discussion participation and oral peer review:                10%

Topic proposal paper (1 page):                                       7%

1-page paper on Pinker book                                         5%

1-page paper on Smith and Haidt books                        5%

Research paper, first polished (not rough!) draft:            30%

1-page peer reviews: 2% each x 14 =                             28%

Research paper, revised draft:                                        10%

1-page “What have I learned?” essay:                            5%

Laptops and cell phones: I have conducted informal surveys of my undergraduate students and have determined that many of them find it distracting when other students have their laptops up and running during class.  I therefore ask that you not open up your laptop during class and that you silence your cell phone and refrain from using your cell phone during class (this includes texting).  Students having a special need for laptop use during class should come see me to make the appropriate arrangements.

All assignments for this course will be governed by Vanderbilt’s honor code.  Please read carefully the description of the honor code in the student handbook and the section on plagiarism in the writing guidelines for this course.  If you have any questions about this very important matter, please come and discuss them with me.

Course Schedule

Part I.  What’s at stake?

Changing our natures through biotechnology

Week 1

Monday, Jan. 9 — Intro and overview; discuss research paper topics; start film, Transcendent Man (84 mins)

Wednesday, Jan. 11 — finish film and discuss it.  Discuss Bess “Icarus 2.0” article and Moravec, ch. 4 (on Oak)

Michael Bess, “Icarus 2.0: A Historian’s Perspective on Human Biological Enhancement,” Technology and Culture 49: 1 (Jan. 2008).  Available online at:

http://etc.technologyandculture.net/2007/12/icarus-2-point0/

Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, ch. 4

Week 2

Monday, Jan. 16 —  No class.  Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

Wednesday, Jan. 18 —   Discuss Stock, ch. 9 (on Oak) and Agar chs. 3, 4 (on Oak)

Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future, chapter  9

Nicholas Agar, Humanity’s End: Why we should reject radical enhancement, chs. 3, 4

Office hours: Meet with me to discuss your research topics

Week 3

Monday, Jan. 23 — Discuss Silver, ch. 18, epilogue, Afterword to paperback edition (on Oak) and Agar chs. 5, 6 (on Oak)

Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: How genetic engineering and cloning will transform the American family, ch. 18, epilogue, Afterword to paperback edition

Nicholas Agar, Humanity’s End: Why we should reject radical enhancement, chs. 5, 6

Office hours: Meet with me to discuss your research topics

Part II.  What is human nature?

Wednesday, Jan. 25 —  Discuss Jeeves, “Afterword,” (on Oak), Brown, ch. 6 (on Oak), and Haidt, Introduction and ch. 1

Malcolm Jeeves, ed., Rethinking Human Nature, “Afterword”

Donald Brown, Human Universals, ch. 6

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Introduction and ch. 1

Week 4

Monday, Jan. 30 — Discuss Pinker, The Blank Slate, Preface, chs. 1-3; Haidt, ch. 2

Wednesday, Feb. 1 — Discuss Pinker, chs. 4-6; Haidt, ch. 3

First paper due: research topic proposal (1 page single-spaced): Wednesday, Feb. 1 (copies to classmates: bring 15 copies to class)

Office hours: Meet with me to discuss your research topics

Week 5

Monday, Feb. 6 Discuss Pinker, chs. 7-9; Haidt, chs. 4

Wednesday, Feb. 8 — Discuss Pinker, chs. 10-12; Haidt, ch. 5

Week 6

Monday, Feb. 13 — Discuss Pinker, chs. 13-15; Haidt, ch. 6

Wednesday, Feb. 15 —  Discuss Pinker, chs. 16-18; Haidt, ch. 7

Week 7

Monday, Feb. 20 — Discuss Pinker, chs. 19, 20, Part VI “Voice of the Species”

1-page single-spaced paper due Mon., Feb 20: What have I learned from Pinker?

Tuesday Evening Films, Feb. 21, 6:00-10:15 pm: “AI” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (location TBA).  You may view these films on your own if you wish, but they must both be viewed by you no later than Feb. 21.

 

Part III.  What is human personhood?

Wednesday, Feb. 22 —  Discuss “AI” and “Apes” films; Wolfe, chs. 2, 3; Brooks, chs. 7-9 (both on Oak)

Alan Wolfe, The Human Difference: Animals, Computers, and the Necessity of Social Science, chs. 2, 3

Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, chs. 7-9

 

Week 8

Monday, Feb. 27 — Discuss Wikipedia article on “Emergence” (online); Conway’s Game of Life (online: see below); Bess essay, “Pros and Cons of the Machine  Metaphor in Understanding the Human Brain” (on Oak); Haidt, ch. 8

Conway’s Game of Life web site:

http://www.math.com/students/wonders/life/life.html

Wednesday, Feb. 29 — Discuss Smith, What is a Person?, Introduction, ch. 1; Haidt, ch. 9

Week 9

Spring  Break  (March 3-11)

Week 10

Monday, March 12 — Discuss Smith, chs. 2, 6

Wednesday, March 14 — Discuss Smith, ch. 7; Haidt, ch. 10

Week 11

Monday, March 19 —  Discuss Smith, ch. 8; Haidt, ch. 11

1-page single-spaced paper due Mon., March 19: What have I learned from Smith and Haidt?

Wednesday, March 21 — In-class film: The Measure of a Man; discussion follows

Paper swap. First polished draft of your research paper (8-10 pages) due.  Please bring one double-spaced, one-sided copy for me and 14 single-spaced double-sided copies for your classmates

Part IV.  Peer review of research papers

Week 12

Monday, March 26 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Wednesday, March 28 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

 

 

Week 13

Monday, April 2 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Wednesday, April 4 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

 

 

Week 14

Monday, April 9 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Wednesday, April 11 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

 

Week 15

Monday, April 16 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Wednesday, April 18 — In-class peer review of two students’ research papers.  (Each student hands in 1-page peer review of the two papers under discussion today.  No late peer reviews accepted.)

Week 16

Monday, April 23 — Closing discussion: What have I learned?

* One-page single-spaced reflection essay due: What have I learned? (Copies to classmates)

* Revised research paper due in Bess’s mailbox in History Dept., by 3 pm, Wednesday, April 25