PH427      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Ella Whiteley and Dr Michael Diamond-Hunter


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 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 15 hours of seminars in the MT.

Lectures: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Seminars: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Formative coursework

A critical analysis exercise (1000 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%, 2000 words) in the MT.
Essay (50%, 2000 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. 

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 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 differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching 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 2020/21: 37

Average class size 2020/21: 12

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

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