Teaching Science for Humane Survival: Basic Skills and More

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Teaching Science for Humane Survival: Basic Skills and More

by Jon Beckwith & Bob Lange

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 30 – 32

George Salzman is a theoretical physicist who believes that science and scientists ought to learn that life is even more important than science.

Science for Humane Survival is in its eighth consecutive year at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston Campus. Controversial from the start, it continues to trigger allergic reactions from various sensitized faculty members whenever it comes up for consideration at one or another college governance meetings concerned with curriculum, most recently last spring when its suitability to be included among the core courses of the College of Arts and Sciences was, predictably, challenged. As happened on each earlier occasion, the course — and the students, who have consistently been its strongest supporters — won out, and so it continues to fulfill “the science requirement” and officially to be a bona fide introductory science course, though suspect (or worse) in the eyes of various more conservative faculty members. 

It was spawned, as was Science for the People itself, by the tumultuous climate of the late 60’s and early 70’s, and by a growing realization that science in the real world was not a neutral, objective, value-free study of nature. I knew that some of the most elite physicists in the U.S. were directly involved in conceiving and rough designing the automated battlefield for use in Vietnam and the course grew out of my desire to try to shape my; own life so that, as a science teacher, I would have a positive social effect instead of just serving the system, which I saw through increasingly radicalized eyes. 

Science for the People played a large part in changing my perceptions from those of a normal theoretical physicist with the customary professional ambitions; ‘it helped transform me into a rebel physicist, and I tried to mold the course — initially called Science for Survival — to incorporate and help teach the value judgments which I saw as of at least as great importance as the body of traditional scientific knowledge. 

The course had hardly begun its second year when the Popular Unity Government of Chile was smashed by the brutal violence of the U.S.-supported military junta. I realized then that “Science for Survival” could be interpreted to mean “mere” ecological survival of the species, and I wanted it unambiguously to embrace the notion of survival under humane conditions, hence the change of name. 

The catalogue description sums it up as follows: Science for Humane Survival (is) an interdisciplinary year-long course that attempts to answer two main questions: How can long-term survival of the human species in humane conditions be achieved? How can individuals survive as healthy and vigorous humane beings in contemporary industrialized capitalist society? Topics include food, energy, pollution, population, ideology, social organization, transportation, exercise, clothing, shelter, competition. Open to all students, the course has no prerequisites, is organized topically, and may be entered in the Fall or the Spring and taken for either or both semesters. Three lecture hours and one film or guest lecture presentation weekly. Several field trips each semester. Offered on a pass/fail basis only (no letter grades), it carries 4 credits per semester and counts as a year of introductory science. 

In the fall of 1976 the Science Teaching Group of the Boston SftP Chapter agreed that it would be appropriate to call the course “a Science for the People course,” and beginning then that is how I subtitled the headings for all materials prepared as handouts for the course. In fact it really has been a Science for the People course, as reflected by the viewpoints that it develops and because most of the faculty teaching it have been members of SftP. Over the years ten faculty were involved teaching it, seven of whom are in SftP. And one of them also taught the course one year at Norfolk and Walpole State Prisons, near Boston. Another, on the faculty of the Univ. of Mass. at Amherst, has offered the course for a number of years in the Univ. Without Walls program. 

During the first twelve semesters that it was offered at the Boston Campus, over 3,000 students registered for Science for Humane Survival. My guess is that between 2,000 and 2,500 different students have taken either one or both semesters. Then last year I was on leave, and Joseph Alper of the Chemistry faculty and Sociobiology Study Group (of Boston SftP) who had co-taught the course with me for many years, continued to offer it, and is doing so again this year. Now I’m trying to develop a “physics for humane survival course” in the physics curriculum proper. Same general motivation, but more narrowly restricted subject matter. 

If you would like more information from any of those of us in SftP who have taken part in this course, you can write to: Science for the People, 897 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02139. 



Part I.
Introduction to Science as The Perception of Reality 

Domain, content, and practice of science. Science conceived as the study of conditions that affect life. 2 lectures 

  1. Science and non-science, conceptualization, reality vs. myths, education vs. indocrination. 
  2. Objectivity and ideology in science, the nature of the problem. 
Part II.
Global Considerations

Unit A. Environment and the science for understanding it. Air, Water, and radioactive pollution. Environmental impacts of population, affluence, technology, capitalist production. Perspectives of Commoner, Bookchin, Ehrlich. Scientific methodology. 6 lectures. 

  1. The ecosphere, introduction to global considerations and ecological concerns. 
  2. Basic ideas of chemistry, and their application to air pollution. 
  3. Threats to the stratospheric ozone layer, introduction to a current controversy. 
  4. Water pollution. 
  5. & 8. Population, affluence, technology, capitalism, their environmental impacts, and limits to growth. 

Unit B. Energy, from geophysical and geobiological perspectives. Sources, utilization, conservation, social factors. 5 lectures. 

  1. Energy, transformations from one form to another, resources, scales of energy. 
  2. Nuclear power, basic principles and problems. Watercooled reactors, breeder reactors. 
  3. Alternative energy sources, solar, wind, agricultural/biological. 
  4. Socio-political aspects of energy use in contemporary industrialized capitalism. 
  5. New ‘Alchemy.’ New agriculture/aquaculture low energy intensive technology, an ethic of land care. 
Part III.
Food and Nutrition

Unit A. Energy in the biosphere, genetic diversity in food crops, the so-called Green Revolution, and the danger of possible ecocide. 3 lectures.

  1. Biological energy flows, energy use in food production, agricultural technology. 
  2. The Green Revolution and its ecological and social implications. 
  3. Gene conservation, the necessity for maintaining genetic diversity. 

Unit B. Nutrition, hunger, food chemistry, biology of digestion, nitrogen fixation. 8 lectures. 

  1. Food types, organic chemistry, glucose, photosynthesis, dynamic equilibrium. 
  2. Respiratory quotient, proteins, nitrogen, amino acids, sour-dough whole grain rye bread baking. 
  3. Basic principles of human nutrition, food processing, and toxicity. 
  4. Food additives, fabricated and synthetic foods. 
  5. Contamination in the whole food “chain,” environmental/biological and in processing. 
  6. The physiology of human digestion. 
  7. Food molecules and their basic chemistry. 
  8. Risk vs. benefit analyses, their limitations, and the use and misuse of science. 


Our Synthetic Environment, by Murray Bookchin, 1974 edition, Colophon Books (Harper), New York, paperback, lxxvii plus 305 pp., $3.95. 

The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology, by Barry Commoner, 1971, Bantam Books, New York, paperback, 344 pp., $2.25. 

Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, by Adelle Davis, 1970 edition, Signet Books (New American Library), New York, paperback, 334 pp., $2.25. 

Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, 1975 edition, Ballantine Books (Random House), New York, paperback, 411 pp., $1.95. 

Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Samuel Moore’s 1888 translation from the original German text of 1848, edited by Engels), 1975, Foreign Language Press, Peking, paperback, 83 pp., $0.35. 


Part IV
Science, Mysticism, and Humane Survival 

Comprehending the world. Knowledge, belief. mysticism, wisdom, culture, understanding, expectations. 2 lectures. 

  1. The universality of partial ignorance, experience and conceptualization, expectations of the university. 
  2. Anti-science, mysticism, astrology, relationships to nature. 
Part V
Health Care 

Unit A. Elements in individual health. How we relate to ourselves (our body/mind), and the Malatesta imperative for the program of anarchism: “bread, freedom, love, and science — for everybody.” 5 lectures. 

  1. Food and science, bread and yeast, sprouts, yogurt, porridge, granola, peanut/sesame butter, muesli. 
  2. Feet for transportation, the human potential, and the poetry of the high mountains. 
  3. Mental well-being, testing, grading, pressures of a competitive society. 
  4. Centenarian-rich communities and factors apparently important for health, vigor, longevity. 
  5. My transformation from conservative to radical, and my vision of the future humane society. 

Unit B. Institutional factors in health. Societal goals. The commodification of practically everything essential for health. The role of ideology. 4 lectures. 

  1. Contemporary problems in American health care. 
  2. Community health care for people, not profit. Film, Taking Back Our Bodies. 
  3. Violence in sports, the teaching of ideology through phsycial education. 
  4. Mental health care in China. 

Unit C. Biology, psychology, and ideology of human behavior and of differences in human mental capacities. Social Darwinism. the I.Q. controversy, the “new” sociobiology, eugenics, behavior modification and social control. 10 lectures. 

  1. Contesting ideologies: Social Darwinism vs. Mutual Aid. class vs. egalitarian societies, social control vs. freedom. 
  2. The nature of biomedical research and women’s needs in a male-dominated society. 
  3. Psychology and women: myths and mistreatment. 
  4. The concepts of normality and pathology, and behavior modification. 
  5. & 19. The XX-XY problem: How research on biological bases of sex roles is used for social control. 
  6. Genetics. reproduction, diversity in and among populations. 
  7. Genetic engineering. 
  8. Race. I.Q., busing, and politics. 
  9. Sociobiology. 

Our Bodies, Ourselves, Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1976, Simon and Schuster, New York, paperback, $3.95. 

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1973, Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Connecticut, paperback, 304 pp., $1.25. 

The Opium Trail: Heroin and Imperialism, Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, 2nd Ed., 1972, New England Free Press, 60 Union Square, Somerville, MA. 02143, paperback, 85 pp., $0.60. 

Mirage of Health: Utopias. Progress. and Biological Change, Rene Dubos, 1971, Harper and Row, New York. paperback, viii plus 282 pp., $1.75. 

Away With All Pests: An English Surgeon in People’s China: 1954-1969, Dr. Joshua S. Horn, 1969, Monthly Review Press, New York, paperback, 192 pp., $3.75. 

Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, Theodora Kroeber. 1961. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, paperback, 258 pp., $2.45. 

The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography, Scott Nearing, 1972, Harper. N.Y. (available only from Social Science Institute, Harborside. Main 04642), paperback xi plus 308 pp., $2.45. 

The Web of Life, John H. Storer, 1972 Ed. with photographic insert, Signet Books, New York, paperback, 128 pp. plus 22 pp of photographs, $0.95. 

The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo, Colin M. Turnbull, 1961, Simon and Schuster, New York, paperback, 298 pp., $3.95.


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