On Teaching “Science, Nature, Self, and Culture”

Paul A. Gregory, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Washington and Lee University

In June 2007 I attended the three-week duPont Seminar, “Human Nature: Ethical Implications of Biological, Cultural, and Technological Transformation” at the National Humanities Center. Though my teaching in the philosophy of science and mind frequently touches on Darwinian and evolutionary themes, I had yet to develop a whole course centered on the social, ethical, and humanistic implications of evolutionary theory. Hence, one of my goals for the seminar was to develop such a course for the following fall. Coincidentally, my Dean was soliciting proposals for new First-Year Seminars, so (even before arriving at the National Humanities Center) I made a proposal. “Philosophy 180: Science, Nature, Self, and Culture” would investigate “the philosophical implications of natural selection, evolutionary theory, genetics, psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience for our conception of human nature, selfhood, and the interaction of self and culture”. The Dean was interested, the duPont Seminar was outstanding, and now I have taught the first-year seminar two falls in a row. Twice is enough to have a clear view of the challenges such a course presents, and perhaps enough to have a less clear view of how to address them. Here I will focus on three interrelated difficulties: the sheer volume of relevant but specialized material, student discomfort with the material, and the desirability (or otherwise) to teach students with more critical thinking experience.

Deciding what material to cover was the first major difficulty. From the cultural/legal clash between scientists and creationists, to the misleading simplicity of the nature-vs.-nurture debate, to the ethics of genetic enhancement, to issues of free will and identity—there is simply too much exciting and relevant material. What’s more, facilitating student discussion of these and other issues requires at least some familiarity with the scientific details and some command of ethical/philosophical frameworks. As suggested by the vague and sweeping course description I had proposed, I had left my options wide open, and the first time tried to do too much.

We started out reading and discussing Plato and C.S. Peirce to get a feel for philosophy and to problematize the dynamic between philosophy and science. Then we jumped into the design-evolution debate, the genetics of personality, and the evolutionary psychology and sociology of gender roles. My group of very bright students ate all this up, but our discussions were often more unruly and unstructured than seemed productive. The students consistently returned to two sorts of questions. First, there were broad philosophical questions about the existence of an immaterial soul/mind and the existence and nature of free will. Second, there were more specific scientific questions which I was ill-equipped to answer.

In response to the first sort of question, I modified the syllabus a month into the course. I assigned new readings to give the students a quick background in philosophical theories of mind and positions on freedom of the will. In my second iteration of the course I front loaded all of this foundational material, and tried to organize the course more clearly around the question of human nature: whether there is such a thing and whether it’s fixed or plastic. Once the second group of students hit the more scientific material we had a clearer set of frameworks within which to work. Laying a thematic foundation early in the course helped to organize the wide-ranging material.

In response to the more specific scientific questions, I frequently appealed to the students’ own expertise by, for instance, throwing the question back out to budding biology or chemistry majors. Frequently—but not always—this was an utter failure, but my very willingness to cede some expert status made for a more collaborative spirit, enhancing the discussion and general dynamic. The real solution is, of course, the greatest teaching tool ever: guest appearances by colleagues. I had a geneticist, a psychologist, and another philosopher assign readings and each lead a full class. Interdisciplinary sharing of expertise (not to mention sharing of teaching burden) has endless benefits. Students encounter professors and disciplines they might not otherwise, they get (at least some of) the answers to their questions, and both professors learn a great deal—not to mention getting a change of pace and collegial credit. After such classes, discussion was more informed and students even reflected critically on the presuppositions and methodologies of our visitors. Thus, liberal collaboration with colleagues—a tool I try to use at every opportunity—will greatly enhance both the students’ and your experience.

We discuss the issues of science, nature, self, and culture in part because of the deep challenges they present to traditional views of the human, human nature, and humanity’s place in nature. It is inevitable, and desirable, that students feel uncomfortable and deeply challenged by the readings and discussions. For me, this is the point—not that any student reach any particular conclusion—but that each student feels knocked out of her comfort zone and genuinely struggles in that position. Not every student will be interested in such work. You have the student who just does not want to speak in class. You have the very religious student who (whether she speaks or not) is more interested in fortifying and defending the trench than in exploring the countryside. You have the scientifically astute student, who is antecedently convinced that every answer (even those as yet unknown) is clear-cut and easily available. Students exhibit these forms of intellectual entrenchment in varying degrees, of course, but it is our task to get students questioning, thinking, and talking.

PlatoEach instructor has his or her own methods to prepare students for discussion: in-class writing, group work, online discussion boards, reading questions, brute force. I use a combination of these, and I try to set an enthusiastic example of the hoped-for questioning and discussion. Plato’s Apology and the Cave parable from Book VII of the Republic illustrate the value, dangers, and sheer arrogance of asking deep philosophical and scientific questions. C. S. Peirce’s “Fixation of Belief” is a modern take on the value and risk of deep inquiry, and presents a contrasting view of the role of science in that process. Both Plato and Peirce are keenly aware of the human ability to cling to comfortable and cherished views and habits. Each author has his way of directly and indirectly implicating our desire for comfort over truth in the failure of a good life. Each is multilayered and complex, flawed and not entirely consistent. Not everyone ought to use Plato and Peirce. Rather, starting out with authors who urge and exemplify deep inquiry, but whose works themselves are subjected to that same deep inquiry, is the best way I can think of to generate in the students a taste for the game—a willingness to seriously engage difficult ideas. Of course, none of this is guaranteed to work. Nor should one expect every student to catch the fire of serious critical thought—all we can do is cast sparks. One hopes that the very nature of these issues will fan the flames.

A final caveat :

I never really feel I have a class right until I’ve taught it at least three times—and I’ve taught this one only twice. Next time I teach it, I hope to offer it to juniors and seniors only. Doing it for first-year students has been very rewarding. They are enthusiastic, they are just learning to be college students and critical thinkers, and they approach these issues early in their college careers, which may help to shape how they think about a variety of subjects as they choose a major and move toward graduation. But I wonder what a more experienced group of students—more experienced in critical thought, with greater background in the humanities and sciences—might make of such a course. Perhaps discussions could go further more quickly, the critiques be more sophisticated. Not that it would be a better course, but different—less focused on critical thought itself, more focused on deep critical evaluation of the implications of our advancing human sciences and technologies.