PH427      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Harriet Fagerberg


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 interplay between social, biological, and genetic causal factors in science and society.

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?

Natural Kinds and Social Kinds: Are some categories more ‘natural’ than others? How do we distinguish social kinds from natural kinds? In what ways do biological and social scientific kinds change in response to changes in the social world? Does this threaten the objectivity of science?

Biological Functions: In virtue of what do our bodies have functions? Are biological norms part of the natural world, or a human invention? What does it mean for a trait to fail to perform its function? How does biological function relate disease and disability?

Mental Disorders and Brain Disorders: What are psychiatric disorders? Are psychiatric disorders biological or social phenomena? Are mental disorders better understood as physical brain diseases, or are some psychiatric illnesses ‘purely mental’? What does all this imply for treatment?

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 these 'hardwired' into the brain or the product of socialisation?


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

Lectures: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Seminars: Weeks 1-5 and 7-11

Formative coursework

Essay (1500 words), due in the AT.

Indicative reading

Suggested introductory readings:

  • Garson, J. (2019). What biological functions are and why they matter. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hannon, E., & Lewens, T. (Eds.). (2018). Why we disagree about human nature. Oxford University Press.
  • Hacking, I. (2000). The social construction of what?. Harvard university press.


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours, reading time: 15 minutes) in the spring exam period.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2022/23: 15

Average class size 2022/23: 12

Controlled access 2022/23: No

Lecture capture used 2022/23: Yes (MT)

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

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.

Personal development skills

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