21A.303J | Fall 2013 | Undergraduate

Anthropology of Biology


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first is becoming the century of biology. This subject examines the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of biology in the age of genomics, biotechnological enterprise, biodiversity conservation, pharmaceutical bioprospecting, and synthetic biology. Although we examine such social concerns as bioterrorism, genetic modification, and cloning, this is not a class in bioethics, but rather an anthropological inquiry into how the substances and explanations of biology—increasingly cellular, molecular, genetic, and informatic—are changing, and with them broader ideas about the relationship between “nature” and “culture.” Looking at such cultural artifacts as cell lines, biodiversity databases, and artificial life models, and using primary sources in biology, social studies of the life sciences, and literary and cinematic materials, we rephrase Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1944 question, “What Is Life?” to ask, in the early 2000s, “What Is Life Becoming?”




Students will write three 7-page papers, choosing from a selection of topics to be provided by the instructor for each paper. Each paper represents 25% of the subject grade. Late papers lose a full grade a day. Students will also be evaluated on class participation, including the preparation of occasional reading notes to prompt class discussion as well as contribution to classroom conversation (25% of subject grade). Punctual attendance is obligatory. There is no final.


Paper One 25
Paper Two 25
Paper Three 25
Class Participation 25

Required Books

Keller, Evelyn Fox. The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Duke University Press Books, 2010. ISBN: 9780822347316. [Preview with Google Books]

Landecker, Hannah. Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. Harvard University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780674023284. [Preview with Google Books]

Helmreich, Stefan. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. University of California Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780520250628. [Preview with Google Books]


1 Life Now    No film
2 What is Life?   A Nineteenth-Century Vision. David Lebrun, 2004
3 Evolutionary Narratives   Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg, 1993
4 Biopolitics   The Lynchburg Story, Stephen Trombley, 1993
5 Biology for Sale Paper One due

Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears, 2002

The Gene Hunters, PBS, 2001.

6 Animals, Wild and Domesticated Guest lecturer: Michaela Thompson

The Love Life of the Octopus, Jean Painlevé, and Genevieve Hamon, 1965

Primate, Frederick Wiseman, 1974

Cane Toads, Mark Lewis, 1988

Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog, 2004

7 Biodiversity, Natural and Artificial   The Future of Food, Deborah Koons, 2004
8 Race in the Genomic Age   African American Lives, “Episode 4: Beyond the Middle Passage,” PBS, 2006
9 Remixing Sex

Paper Two due

Guest lecturer: Emily Wanderer

One in 2000, Ajae Clearway, 2006
10 Biopolitical Technology  

Death by Design, Peter Freidman, and Jean- François Brunet, 1995

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Nicholas Meyer, 1982

11 Earthly Aliens  

The Andromeda Strain, Robert Wise, Michael Crichton, Nelson Gidding, 1971

Volcanoes of the Deep, Stephen Low, 2004

Aliens of the Deep, James Cameron, 2005

12 Class Conference Paper Three due  No film

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments