Important Note

Tufts ended funding for its Open Courseware initiative in 2014. We are now planning to retire this site on June 30, 2018. Content will be available for Tufts contributors after that date. If you have any questions about this please write to

Tufts OpenCourseware


  • Look at the data that has been presented in support of controversial claims and assess their validity as well as the social forces that affect biological research.
  • Use writing to gain a clearer understanding of this material and improve our writing skills.

1. Grading Criteria and Writing Assignments

There are no exams in this course. Grades will be determined by:

Web Postings


Class Participation




Final Paper


1.1. Web Postings

Prior to most of the class discussion, you will be required to post a comment on the course site (for registered Tufts students only). These postings should reflect your responses to the reading; the questions that arise as you read the article, connections to other courses, notes on issues raised in current magazines, newspapers or TV, etc. You will need to provide a comment on at least 12 of the 16 scheduled discussion sessions . (If you comment on all 16, the lowest four scores will be dropped.) There is no specific length requirement for these postings, rather, I will be looking for thoughtfulness of content.

1.1.1. Example

For a reading assignment, you might use your posting to briefly deal with one or more of the following issues:

  • What is the main thesis or argument of the reading?

  • How does the author develop this thesis?

  • Are there problems with the author's approach? If so, what are they?

  • What questions are you left with?

  • What is your overall response to the argument?

  • Are there any parallels to material you have worked with in other courses?

See Supplementary Material folder for examples of Student Postings.

1.2. Class Participation and Attendance

This course will be run as a seminar course, and as such, students are expected to be active members of this class. Keep any eye on current newspapers, magazines, TV programs, and movies for examples of biological issues with social dimensions. Read the other students' postings prior to class and come prepared to contribute to the discussion. Students, working in groups, will give presentations or lead discussions later in the semester.

We will begin this semester by drawing up a Class Contract. During the first class period I will ask you to think about and write down those characteristics that made previous courses particularly worthwhile and enjoyable. We will then attempt to draw up a class contract that will define the obligations that both you and I will have to fulfill in order for this class to be successful. We will review the contract during the second class period and will carry out an initial evaluation about half way through the semester. (The Class Contract for fall 2006 is provided under Supplementary Materials)

1.3. Formal Writing Assignments

In addition to in-class writing and exercises, we will have one ungraded and four graded writing assignments.

1.3.1. Personal Statement (ungraded)

Some general guidelines to writing personal statements:

Although there are no general rules to writing a personal statement, I offer the following suggestions.

A personal statement gives you the opportunity to present yourself in an honest but favorable light. Reign in the temptation to wax too literary or philosophical (remember the reader is likely to be a manager or a human resources employee or a professor - none of whom have the slightest interest in nominating you for a Pulitzer Prize in literature). A personal statement needs to do several things including telling the reader:

  1. Who you are and what your background is

  2. What you are interested in and why

  3. What skills you will bring to their job/program

Over the next few years you will need to write several personal statements or resumes. This exercise is designed to help you start that process. We will begin by analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of an example personal statement (see Assignment under Seminar Notes Session 4). If friends of yours gave you this statement for suggestions, how would you help him/her? You will also each have the opportunity to write a short personal statement on which I will give you feedback.

Some random suggestions based on my reading a number of poor essays:

  1. A key point is not simply to declare something, but to rather show the reader why they should believe it (e.g. instead of simply saying "I am good at organizing my time" you need to say "having combined a full load of classes with a 15 hour per week job and an internship at XYZ, I have learned how to efficiently manage my time).
    You should relate your experiences in or out of the classroom, showing how they prepare you for the next stage of your career - but be careful about focusing on only one thing or one experience

  2. Edit, edit, edit. Paragraphs should be clear and crisp with a key central point. Your first draft may be wordy and wander about, but your second and third drafts should tighten up the writing, getting rid of vague generalities

  3. Many essays mention internships or research projects in passing. If this statement is going to professionals in the area, they will actually want to know more. Who did you work with (not the graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, but the director of the laboratory). Where did you work? What was your project studying? What skills did you learn (not necessarily limited to specific technical skills, but also insights into the practice of (whatever you did).

  4. Try to find a theme that holds the essay together. By the end of the statement, the reader should come away knowing you better

1.3.2. Essays

Short essays, 1000-1500 words each

We will write three short essays (each 4-6 pages double-spaced), exploring an aspect of the course material. These essays will give you a chance to make use of what you have learned to argue a point, critique published material, or connect this material to what you have learned in other courses. We will also be doing a number of in-class writing exercises.

Need help with your writing? Can't remember if you should use 'which' or 'that'? Stuck for ideas to incorporate into a paper?

There are a tremendous number of web resources for writing - indeed, so many it is easy to be overwhelmed by them. The guide for memo writing is a product of the Purdue OnLine Writing Lab (OWL), and features many guides to a variety of types of writing. To explore writing skills websites, go to Essay 1: Thinking About the Ethical Issues Raised in PAS

4-6 pages, double-spaced

We have read two short papers on physician assisted suicide (PAS), looked at the details of the Oregon law, read some recent news releases, and viewed a movie showing one individual's decision to terminate his life. This essay can take a variety of forms. You could elaborate on which specific argument for or against PAS you find most compelling. What are the strengths of this argument and what are its limits? Or, you might explore in more detail some of the issues raised in the movie or in responses to this movie from publications or the internet. Essay 2: Biology and Ideology

4-6 pages double-spaced

Pick one of the three following two questions (It is fine to write on a different topic.)

  1. Lewontin makes an interesting distinction between "agents" and "causes." He makes this argument with reference to the incidence of tuberculosis in Victorian England. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this argument? Present another example (or examples) in which we confuse agents and causes. Is there an ideological reason for this confusion?

  2. One of the key statements in Lewontin is "The transfer of causal power from social relations into inanimate agents that then seem to have a power and life of their own is one of the major mystifications of science and its ideologies." What does he mean by this? Think of an example of this and analyze it.

  3. Steven Roses' article on Neurogenetic Determinism is a carefully constructed analysis of some of the problems of the reductionist approach to causation. Analyze (with an example) how such an approach might have an implicit ideological content. Essay 3: Memo on Evolutionary Psychology

4 pages double-spaced

Hypothetical: The university president is trying to decide whether to expand the psychology department by hiring three new faculty who will develop a new focus on evolutionary psychology. He knows you are knowledgeable in this area and has requested that you write a memo either supporting or opposing this plan.

Note : Either view is acceptable as long as you make a convincing argument. How you structure your memo is up to you, but you might want to summarize the field, deal with its strengths and weaknesses and arrive at a recommendation. Keep it short! Memos are not meant to be research papers. Essay 4: Final Paper

2500-3000 words (10-12 pages double-spaced)

This should be a research paper, not just an opinion piece , in which you explore a topic in biology that has ethical, social, or political dimensions (not limited to those topics covered in class). Plan on using at least 5-10 sources , not all websites ! I expect you will read some journal articles and sections of books in preparing this paper. First drafts will be exchanged in class. The first draft is not a throw-away and will count as 20% of the final paper grade.

We have covered a number of topics. You could do your final research paper on any of these or any other topic that deals with the intersection of science and society. Papers from previous years covered such as xenotransplantation; environmental racism; controversies surrounding the FDA Reproductive Health Drug Advisory Committee; use of growth hormone with short, but normal children; moral issues in stem cell research; issues raised by gene patenting; controversies raised by the CDC reorganization of NIOSH; issues raised by the off-label use of prescription drugs; and the use of racial categories in medical care.

In the past, a number of these papers have been published in a campus journal. I would encourage you to do a careful job on this and to submit it for publication.


Week 6 : Decide on general topic

Week 7 Collect background information

Week 8 : Research topic/question posed

Week 9 : In-class presentation of topic

Week 10 : Research topic finalized

Week 11 : Written plan of paper (outline)

Week 12 : First drafts exchanged in class

Week 13 Final form due