Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session


This course explores recent historical and anthropological approaches to the study of life, in both medicine and biology. After grounding our conversation in accounts of natural history and medicine that predate the rise of biology as a discipline, we explore modes of theorizing historical and contemporary bioscience. Drawing on the work of historian William Coleman, we examine the forms, functions, and transformations of biological and medical objects of study. Along the way we treat the history of heredity, molecular biology, race, medicine in the colonies and the metropole, and bioeconomic exchange. We read anthropological literature on old and new forms of biopower, at scales from the molecular to the organismic to the global. The aim of this seminar is to train students to be participants in scholarly debates in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences about the nature of life, the body, and biomedicine.




This is a seminar. Students are required to give at least one seminar presentation, offering a critical evaluation of positions represented in the readings for their chosen day. There are two writing assignments: a short paper (5 pages) on course readings up through session 6, and a 15-20 page paper that can be either (A) a research paper using course materials to discuss a case study of interest to you, or (B) a more extended argumentative literature review. A prospectus for this paper will be due session 8 and the final paper will be due session 12, in time for our class conference. Grading will be based on class participation and presentation (30%), the short paper (20%), and the final paper (50%).


Class participation 30%
Short paper 20%
Final paper 50%

Course Schedule

1 Introduction: What Is Life, and How Do We Study It?  
2 Before Biology: Experiencing and Organizing Bodies and Nature  
3 Biology, in Theory  
4 Biology Emerging: Heredity and Life in Formation and Evolution  
5 Form I: Genes, Molecular Biology  
6 Form II: Race, Then and Now Short paper due
7 Form III: Bodies and Religion  
8 Function I: Medicine and Difference Prospectus due
9 Function II: Medicine and Markets  
10 Transformation I: New Biopolitics and Bioeconomies  
11 Transformation II: Life at Sea  
12 Paper Presentations Final presentations

Collaboration Policy

Students should be aware that in this course collaboration on the two writing assignments is not permitted. While you may discuss your topics and ideas with your classmates, all written text that you submit must be your own. You must use appropriate citation practices to acknowledge the use of books, articles, websites, lectures, discussions, etc., that you have consulted to complete your assignments.

Required Texts

Please see the Readings Section for a list of required texts.