Not available in 2019/20
PH427      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jonathan Birch


This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.



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? Should we attempt to improve human nature by means of technologies such as gene editing?

Gender and the brain: 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? Is gender 'hardwired' into the brain or the product of socialization?

Race and the genome: 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?

Animals and people: What is the evidence for animal sentience? What are the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in biomedical research? If we could reduce animal suffering through gene editing, should we? If we could replace animal-based meat with artificial meat, should we?

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, or even to help us improve our own moral behaviour?


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

Lectures: Weeks 1 - 10

Seminars: Weeks 1 - 10

Formative coursework

A critical analysis exercise (1000 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%, 2000 words) and wiki entry (10%) in the LT.
Essay (45%, 2000 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

(2015/16 - 2017/18 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 37.5
Merit 55.4
Pass 7.1
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2018/19: 36

Average class size 2018/19: 12

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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