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Biology in Society Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2009

A discussion of the nature of biology, and science in general, and of their reciprocal relationship to broader social and cultural activities. Students will participate in on-line forum discussion of papers on this general subject, as well as lead discussions and write web papers on topics of particular interest to themselves.  Others are welcome to join in the conversation by way of background readings and on-line forums.  

Learning objectives:

  • To acquire greater ability to engage in productive public discussion of biological research and its practical and conceptual significance for enhancing an understanding of life, human and otherwise.
  • To achieve critical and synthetic in-depth understandings of selected issues at the biology/society interface and make them available in a form that is engaging and useful to others.



1 September The need for a science code of conduct? Grobstein
8 September Classification: why and how?
15 September Sex/gender classification Brady
15 September Is there a distinction between art and science? Lewis
22 September Overuse of antibiotics and the response of scientists Truong
22 September Health care reform? Betz
29 September Dissociative identity disorder: questions of definition Dela Cruz
29 September Is pain a pleasure and why? Rieders
6 October Teaching evolution: why and how? Grobstein
6 October Issues in human evolution Grobstein
20 October Insomnia as a social construct Lewis
20 October Biological warfare
27 October The impact of environmental change on zoonotic diseases Truong
27 October Are colleges oversimplifying nutrition? Betz
3 November The subtle ethics of cell phone culture Rieders
3 November Synthetic biology: are we playing God?  Dela Cruz
10 November Parsing cancer metaphors Lewis
10 November Sex and gender Brady
17 November Ecology of infectious disease Truong
17 November The politics of breast cancer Betz
24 November H1N1 prevention: effective measures or psychological comfort? Rieders
24 November A persistent illusionary feedback system: does the mind exist? Dela Cruz
1 December Presentation rehearsals  
8 December Presentation rehearsals  



Paul Grobstein's picture

on categorization and norms and eating behavior

A recent relevant article: Heaver Americans push back on health debate.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Biology/science and public policy: issues arising

Recent conversations have caused me to think more about ...

  • Do scientists/biologists have a distinctive role to play in thinking about public policy issues?  If so, what is it?
  • Should scientists/biologists be deliberative about their own research activities/approaches/agendas?  If so, based on what criteria? 
jrlewis's picture


This semester we have discussed the various forms of drug resistence as problematic: antibiotic, chemo, and antiviral resistence.  At the chemical level there are some similarities between the drugs we use to fight cancer and the drugs we use for bacterial infections.  I curious if we could develop a biological perspective that treated these three conditions together...

jrieders's picture

on cancer, destruction and the media

Anne Dalke's picture

Re: transcending classification?

On Thursday, November 5, from 10-11:30 a.m., author, playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein will be holding an "Informal Conversation about Transcending Gender" in the Quita Woodward Room @ Bryn Mawr. Sandwiches and drinks will be served.

You may have seen one of Kate's performances; you may have read one of her books--Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us; My Gender Workbook; or (most recently) Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives To Suicide For Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws. Or you may not have heard of her and her work. But here's your chance to talk with her about artistry and activism; about sex positivity, gender anarchy, and building a coalition of those who live on cultural margins. She's eager to hear your thoughts and questions.

Sponsored by the Bi-College Program in Gender and Sexuality and the Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies consortium.
Questions? Please contact Anne Dalke:

Paul Grobstein's picture

biology and culture: health/research priorities re cancer

Apropos of past/recent/continuing conversations on cancer and how to approach research priorities/health issues:

Cancer society, in shift, has concerns on screening

Paul Grobstein's picture

biology and culture: themes and subjects arising

Adding on ...

The "classification" matter arises again in connection with mental health issues.  And many of the "code of behavior" matters are relevant as well.  In addition, we seem to be developing two additional themes:

  • the relation between life as a human being and life as other living organisms
  • the role of individual and group identities in some human lives (in contrast to other humans/living organisms?) 

Some possible senior paper topics

  • Is sex/gender bimodal in human beings?
  • History and future of the DSM
  • Problems in integration: biological/psychological/social
  • Codes of conduct in science: history and possibility
  • Distinctive features of humans among biological organisms and their implications
  • History of understandings of disease
  • Zero and non-zero sum games in biology and human social organization


Paul Grobstein's picture

biology and culture: meta-themes arising

Should we/can we change "classifications"?

  • human and less human
  • male and female
  • science and art
  • health and illness

Should we/can we have codes of behavior that go beyond money, immediate outcomes?

  • in science
  • in health
  • in athletics
  • in art

Should biology play a greater role in encouraging "broader perspectives" in social discourse?  Should it pay more attention to "broader perspectives" in its own activities?

Julianne's picture

So since I missed the first

So since I missed the first class, I will base this off the current discussion.

I was pretty excited when I saw this first topic and the comments above because only a few weeks before school started I got into a conversation about religion and science with two non-science major friends. As a biology major I surprised them by saying that our scientific system is not sufficient to accomplish many of the things we believe and hope it is capable of.

There are so many scientific breakthroughs that have permeated throughout society, their repercussions can be seen in every American home, but mostly people are slow to accept change and if they ever relished the convenience of some new technology it is soon forgotten.

On the other hand, I feel a large group of people that are part of social organizations (not just religious) by having more defined goals and ethical codes are more aware of its (the organization's) impact in their every day life, and perhaps more grateful and active. (not to say there isn't a lot of apathy within these social groups)

I think there might be several identifiable groups or goals, such as commercial, knowledge for knowledge, and progression, and each group might have their own set of ethics. As Ladd argues, there is no set of special ethics for professionals, but creating an explicit code to live by that non-professionals can relate to could be a way of unifying the common goal and giving more power behind the science.

RachelBrady's picture

  Why do we need a code of


Why do we need a code of ethics?
As members of a profession, we have an important role in society as trusted experts. In this role, we have a duty to maintain the highest standards of professionalism in our work, while acting in the public interest.
Codes of ethics should set members apart from others, who may purport to provide similar services to the public, by establishing a set of principles by which to work. However, in order for the code to have merit and respect, it must contain procedures for monitoring the members' adherence and for disciplining those members who act in breach of the standards.
As I was pondering the need for ethics it dawned on me that, if there was truly a need for such a code, then the numerous scientific organizations would probably have their own code of ethics established.
I must confess that my original search on the topic was merely for the egocentric satisfaction of proving that there are codes of ethics which were not focused around the idea of “science for the betterment of mankind” (a dubious statement that irked me in our discussions). In this endeavor I happened to come across the website for The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at ITT. It was not quite what I had been searching for, but it outlined the debate on the need for ethics much more eloquently than I could have. In addition, I came with an index of ethical codes, arranged alphabetically by organization.
I share with you the eye opening debate arguments and the links to the index of ethical codes, and selfishly point out that, while some ethical points call for consideration of societal needs, the codes are not centered on this ambiguous “betterment” of mankind:
Codes of ethics are controversial documents. Some writers have suggested that codes of professional ethics are pointless and unnecessary. Many others believe that codes are useful and important, but disagree about why. IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions is committed to the importance of codes of ethics, and we have undertaken the Online Ethics Codes Project in order to enhance access to a very wide variety of codes. Why are we so committed to this project?
It may help the user of these documents to understand something about the debate surrounding codes of ethics. At one end of the spectrum, John Ladd has argued that codes of ethics serve no good purpose whatever. Ladd argues that ethics should be open-ended and reflective, and that relying on a code of ethics is to confuse ethics with law. He further asserts that it is mistaken to assume that there is a special ethics for professionals which is separate from the ethics of ordinary human beings within a moral society. Professionals, he suggests, have no special rights or duties separate from their rights and duties as moral persons, and therefore codes of ethics are pointless and possibly pernicious.
A different sort of attack on the usefulness of codes of ethics comes from Heinz Luegenbiehl. Luegenbiehl acknowledges that codes of ethics do have some sociological value. Luegenbiehl writes,
The adoption of a code is significant for the professionalization of an occupational group, because it is one of the external hallmarks testifying to the claim that the group recognizes an obligation to society that transcends mere economic self-interest (p. 138).
But he believes that ultimately codes of ethics create moral problems rather than helping to resolve them. Luegenbiehl notes that practicing professionals rarely turn to their codes of ethics for guidance, and that the guidelines within the codes sometimes seem internally inconsistent. He also voices a concern similar to Ladd's -- namely, that implementation of a code of ethics may be in conflict with the moral autonomy we expect of individuals.
In response, Harris et al. argue that all three of Luegenbiehl's criticisms can be surmounted. They suggest that though most practicing professionals do not routinely consult their codes of ethics, it does not follow that they do not know about or care about the contents of their codes. Further, the fact that codes of ethics sometimes seem internally inconsistent can be addressed by understanding codes of ethics not as recipes for decision-making, but as expressions of ethical considerations to bear in mind. We should view them as an ethical framework rather than as specific solutions to problems.
Finally, the authors argue that moral autonomy is not really compromised by codes of ethics.
If a code's provision can be supported with good reasons, why should a profession not include an affirmation of those provisions as part of what it professes?...this does not preclude individual members from autonomously accepting those provisions and jointly committing themselves to their support. (p. 34)
Michael Davis makes a strong positive case for professional codes of ethics. Davis argues that codes of ethics should be understood as conventions between professionals. Davis writes,
The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures (for example, the pressure to cut corners to save money) by making it reasonably likely...that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct. A code protects members of a profession from certain consequences of competition. A code is a solution to a coordination problem. (p. 154)
Davis goes on to suggest that having a code of ethics allows an engineer to object to pressure to produce substandard work not merely as an ordinary moral agent, but as a professional. Engineers (or doctors, or clergy, etc.) can say "As a professional, I cannot ethically put business concerns ahead of professional ethics."
Davis give four reasons why professionals should support their profession’s code:
First…supporting it will help protect them and those they care about from being injured by what other engineers do. Second, supporting the code will also help assure each engineer a working environment in which it will be easier than it would otherwise be to resist pressure to do much that the engineers would rather not do. Third, engineers should support their profession's code because supporting it helps make their profession a practice of which they need not feel…embarrassment, shame, or guilt. And fourth, one has an obligation of fairness to do his part…in generating these benefits for all engineers. (p. 166)
Harris et al. summarize Stephen Unger's analysis of the possible functions of a code of ethics:
First, it can serve as a collective recognition by members of a profession of its responsibilities. Second, it can help create an environment in which ethical behavior is the norm. Third, it can serve as a guide or reminder in specific situations…Fourth, the process of developing and modifying a code of ethics can be valuable for a profession. Fifth, a code can serve as an educational tool, providing a focal point for discussion in classes and professional meetings. Finally, a code can indicate to others that the profession is seriously concerned with responsible, professional conduct
(p. 35).”
Anna Dela Cruz's picture

I find it disturbing that

I find it disturbing that psychology seems to have a stricter adherence to ethical standards (APA Code of Ethics) while all other sciences seem to be lax in the sense that there are no set rules. Sure, those in the medical field and those who conduct research using human participants are bound by the Hippocratic Oath. However, no universal code exists for the life and biomedical sciences according to Nancy L. Jones, a bioethicist from Wake Forest University.


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