PH227      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jonathan Birch


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method and BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.



Course content

This course examines, from a philosophical perspective, the ways in which recent developments in genetics and neuroscience challenge our conceptions of what we are — and what we could become.

Topics covered include:

Human nature: Does the concept of 'human nature’ have any biological basis? Can we distinguish between those traits which are part of 'human nature' and those which are not? And is ‘human nature’ fixed, or can it be altered by technological means?

Sex and gender: Are ‘sex' and ‘gender' the same thing? Are gender categories natural or social? Are there robust psychological differences between men and women? If so, are they explained by genes or by culture? And should we reconcile ourselves to these differences, or should we try to eliminate them?

Race: Do races exist? Is there any objective biological basis for racial categorization, or are races socially constructed? Does the concept of ‘race' have a legitimate role in medicine?

Free will and responsibility: Has neuroscience debunked the notion of ‘free will’? If so, can we still be held responsible for our actions? Should neuroscientific data be used to predict—and prevent—wrongdoing?

Right and wrong: Has neuroscience shown that morality is more a matter of emotion than reason? Can we use neuroscience to help us choose between ethical theories, and to help us improve our own behaviour?


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

Lectures: Weeks 1 - 10

Classes: Weeks 2 - 11

Formative coursework

A critical analysis exercise (1,000 words)

Indicative reading

Suggested introductory readings:

Glover, J. (2008) Choosing Children.

Fine, C. (2005) Delusions of Gender.

James, M. (2011) “Race”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]

Greene, J. D. (2013) Moral Tribes.


Essay (45%, 1500 words) and wiki entry (10%) in the LT.
Essay (45%, 1500 words) in the ST.

There is no exam for this half-unit. There will be two summative essays, each worth 45% of the final mark. 10% of the final mark will be awarded for contributions to a collaborative wiki. 

Student performance results

(2014/15 - 2016/17 combined)

Classification % of students
First 22.4
2:1 63.8
2:2 12.1
Third 0
Fail 1.7

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 25

Average class size 2016/17: 13

Capped 2016/17: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills