PH227      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Ella Whiteley and Dr Michael Diamond-Hunter


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. 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? 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 these 'hardwired' into the brain or the product of socialization? Are our brains either ‘male’ or ‘female’, or are they ‘intersex’?

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? Do some non-human animals have ‘personhood’?

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? Should neuroscience inform the decision-making of our legal system? Can it be used to help us improve our own moral behaviour?


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

Lectures: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Classes: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Formative coursework

A critical analysis exercise (1,000 words)

Indicative reading

Suggested introductory readings:

  • Glover, J. (2008) Choosing Children.
  • Jordan-Young, R., (2010). Brain Storm.
  • James, M. (2011) “Race”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]
  • Greene, J. D. (2013) Moral Tribes.


Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the MT.
Essay (50%, 1500 words) in the LT.

There is no exam for this half-unit. There will be two summative essays, each worth 50% of the final mark. 

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2019/20: Unavailable

Average class size 2019/20: Unavailable

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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