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 email@example.com
Objecting to Objectivity: A Course in Biology
by Tom Strunk & Rita Arditti
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen—this is your pilot speaking. We are flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet and a speed of 700 miles an hour. I have two pieces of news to report, one good and one bad-the bad news is that we are lost, the good news is that we are making excellent time.
— Author unknown
During the second semester of the academic year 1971-1972, an opportunity to create a course dealing with the connections between biology and society a-rose at Boston University. We had been teaching general biology for a semester to freshmen students in the Division of General Education, a two-year program for first and second year students, where an interdisciplinary approach is supposed to be stressed. The program covers natural sciences (biology and physics), the humanities and the social sciences. As is the case in most academic institutions, the science courses have had difficulty in developing and maintaining student interest or even simply assuring their presence at lectures or smaller class meetings. No wonder. Teachers in general expect students to memorize facts and names while connections are not made between scientific knowledge and real life, and scientific work is made to appear as though happening in a vacuum, beyond and above the social and political conditions of the times. When the courses end, the ritual of exams cleanses the wounds and everyone goes home, relieved. The facts and names are quickly forgotten to make room for the next layer of “knowledge.”
At the end of the first semester a proposal was made by a group of teachers: instead of giving another semester of general biology to the freshman class, why not offer areas or study which differed in content, so that students would have some choice in their scientific curriculum, and we could thereby pursue our own interests as well. Students manifesting their discontent with the straight biology course helped to create a receptive atmosphere. Nevertheless, when the proposal was accepted we were surprised. The two other full-time teachers gave courses on human genetics and behavior and ecology. We chose to present a program which we called biology and social issues. Students reacted strongly in favor of the second semester reform and very quickly we found ourselves overwhelmed with applications for our course. Here is the outline of the course we presented:
- Introduction to Human Embryology and Genetics
- Genetic engineering
- Somatic cell alteration
- Virus therapy
- Control of sex
- Physical and social limitations and implications
- Human gene maps
- Polygenic inheritance
- Problems of prenatal diagnosis
- Genetic engineering
- Mechanism of hormone action
- Human reproduction
- Role of the female sex hormones
- Role of the male sex hormones
- Birth control, sterilization, and abortion
- History of contraception, abortion, and infantacide
- Theories of how the oral and intrauterine contraceptives work
- Current research
- Public policies and organizations
- Population growth
- Growth curves
- Theories of Malthus and Marx
- Social disease, a case study of venereal disease
- Human Beings as Experimental Animals
- Similarities with other laboratory animals
- Ethics and responsibilities
- The drug industry
- Role of the FDA
- Genetic or ethnic weapons
- Biological Basis of Some Human Behavior
- Biological theories of territoriality and aggression
- The effect of certain drugs on behavior
- Current theories of controlling behavior by chemical means
- The Scientific Community
- Methods of scientific communication
- The politics of pure versus applied research
- Who are scientists?
- The future of science
We could only accept a third of the freshman class, since there were only two of us engaged in the program. We had 140 students to whom we lectured once each week and met with for small discussion sections (15 to 25 students per section) three hours each week. Another weekly lecture was offered to the entire freshman class by the whole staff as an effort to “tie all the study areas together.” This second lecture was uniformly considered by our students to be a waste of time. From our point of view it represented the “price” we had to pay to get the reform accepted.
In the first semester we had covered material on the origin of life, structure and function of the nucleic acids and proteins, genes and heredity, mutation, the biological basis of sex, the cell, cell structure and function. We were therefore in good shape to assume a common core of knowledge and proceed from there.
Each week we lectured on one of the topics that we had announced and handed out articles that covered other aspects of the subject. We had recommended as background reading The Biological Time Bomb by Gordon Rattray Taylor and the New England Free Press pamphlet, Women and Their Bodies.
We deliberately chose articles that either had appeared in magazines for the general public or were written in a language that did not require special effort to understand. Also some of our articles expressed strong emotions and opinions like population (Dick Gregory’s My Answer to Genocide) or birth control (Off The Pill by Judith Coburn). We found them incredibly effective in exposing the social implications of biological knowledge.
We would like now to illustrate the way we presented the course by describing how we dealt with several different topics.
- Control of sex. We began by giving an idea of the ways in which it can be eventually achieved in humans and a description of the present status of the research. That naturally led into the question of what side effects this knowledge will have if spread freely in our society. We had to question the value or reasons for this kind of research, the need or lack of need for it, the idea of a society which regulates the number of people of a certain sex and the sex imbalances that would result, affecting the whole structure of society.
- Current advances in prenatal diagnosis. We described the primary technique, amniocentesis (taking a sample of amniotic fluid). We then spoke about the cases in which parents might want to abort a fetus after getting information of a genetic disease affecting it or the cases in which social pressures might play a role in trying to affect or obtain a certain type of decision. We looked at genetic counselling and talked about the delicacy and importance of such activity.
- Cloning. Watson’s article The Future of Asexual Reproduction was an instance where people best grasped the implications of the new biology for the future of mankind, and the absolute necessity for everybody to be informed about what is happening in science today. Just how close are we today to making replicas of humans and test-tube babies? Who is going to decide who will be replicated and how many copies would be made?
As the feelings of helplessness and frustration built up in the fact of the implications of a technology out of control, a way to deal with many of the questions, within the system, was introduced through a discussion of Senate Resolution 75. This is a proposal to form a commission to hold public hearings on questions of biomedical advances and ethical guidelines. We talked about the people and organizations who opposed the resolution, as well as those who favored it. Students offered many excellent revisions, most of which were designed to expand the responsibility of the commission and its availability to the public.
- Reproduction. On the subject of reproduction and birth control, one of us (R.A.) got, quite frankly, carried away. We discussed the basic biology involved and then got into the ideology of birth control research (almost exclusively devoted to control of the female reproductive system), a clear example of how the values in society influence the direction in which research develops. We carefully discussed the pill and examined the role of the FDA, AMA and drug lobby in suppressing information about known side effects. Virtually every facet of abortion was also exposed. How does a human fetus develop? When is abortion safe, what methods are used and when? How does the system work in New York? Whose rights are involved and how? And many more questions.
- Population growth and control. We approached this historically by reviewing the arguments of Malthus and Marx. An interesting parallel was offered when we examined to-day’s controversy between Ehrlich and Commoner of population and pollution, who argue, respectively (broadly), for “zero population growth” and “zero economic growth.” Technology’s inability to forsee and deal with its own side effects, already in evidence from genetic. engineering and contraception, was again obvious in the environmental crisis and forced us to ask if we really trusted the technology that brought us to this point to extricate us from it.
- Behavior and aggression. We discussed Lorentz’s views on human aggression, Erich Fromm’s theory and we presented the AFSC slide show on the electronic battlefield in Viet-Nam, a superb example of how corporations and war profit ideology exploit the potential for destruction in the human species.
In dealing with behavior, we asked what determines our own behavior, from TV to institutions, the role of obedience in maintaining social structure (Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience), drugs for children (see article The Case of Ritalin) and the revival of psycho-surgery. At the same time, other events were developing that would expand our learning environment greatly. After a two-year moratorium Marine Corps recruiters were invited on campus and a peaceful protest was turned into a violent confrontation as the Boston Tactical Police Force was called in by the BU administration to smash the demonstration. They did exactly that, with clubs and attack dogs, and arrested 33 students. By the time we were dealing with human aggression in class, anti-war activities and political retaliation were in full swing. Law and order, and political and domestic violence were seen in context with the immediate events as we moved into war, genocide and VietNam.
For our last lecture we invited Science for the People to talk about their organization and what it tries to accomplish. They discussed the university, the kinds of curriculum that is offered in our society and whose interests scientists serve. As examples of alternative actions we spoke about the Medical Committee on Human Rights, Science for the People, the Free Health clinics and pregnancy and abortion counselling services.
STUDENT VIEWS OF THE COURSE
(If the following student comments seem too favorable, i.e., we chose only the good ones, remember that they chose the course in preference to the other two. — Tom Strunk)
The overwhelming praise students in our track have placed upon this last semester’s course suggests that it was the most enjoyable if not the most educational thing DGE has done this year.
Its main virtue, I believe, is obvious. The subject matter was relevant to today. Somethings everyone could relate to and learn from. This, in turn, brought science down to earth, giving DGE’s Bio. course more meaning to ordinary un-scientific people. It was easily the first science course I’ve had that actually had some practical value.
I think if more outside speakers were brought in the course would have been more effective. The last “Science for the People” speakers were very good.
It’s a crime that the administration is terminating the program. But I suppose that’s only fitting for today’s anti-educational school system.
have a good life Rita
* * * *
Trying to communicate with a naive, gullible, programmed, brainwashed, scared, confused, and frustrated freshman girl is no easy task to attempt, but I believe that Track C not only accomplished this, but also contributed positively to what can be termed “The Great Growth”, which I experienced (and still am experiencing) this year. The greatest strengths of the track were the sincerity and honesty with which topics and students were dealt. Never did I feel any hesitation to question; nor did I feel that my questions or comments would be a “waste of class time”. I say that inquiry was encouraged, a refreshing and necessary part of this course because the topics dealt with were, or have been, considered to be controversial. Each comment was valued, and those brought up in lecture clarified and enlarged the subject of discussion.
Articles and reading material were excellent, offering a wide variety of topics, beyond what was discussed in class or lecture. Most were well written and interesting, and the most beneficial to me was Women and Their Bodies: Our Bodies, Our Selves, because it helped (is helping) me to break down the myth which has controlled my life from birth. This book provided me with just the right amount of biological technology about hormones and body functions so that I understand how the Pill works and the adverse effects that it can cause. One of the weaknesses, however, of this section of the course, was the concentration on women’s problems, with little attention given to the difficulties of being a man. I would have liked to have known more about the sexuality of men, and gone more into the psychology of birth control for men (although maybe that’s a little out of line of Biology and Social Issues, but we seemed to cover about anything that’s interesting). The only other problem of the course was the time element, because it seems we weren’t able to deal with drugs as treatment for mental illness; aversion therapy; nor neuro-surgery as much as I would have liked. However, at least we were made aware of these problems, which otherwise would have remained in the archives of society.
The main benefit of the course for me was that it changed my outlook on science completely. I began with the image of Mendel and his peas, Madame Curie, and Albert Einstein, but instead have left with the idea that science possesses a great potential in helping the world out of the mess it’s in, but also, through man’s misuse of it, has contributed and speeded up ecological deterioration, and created more Frankensteins than the public is aware of I also have removed it from the pedistal where it was an untarnished profession of dedicated workers, striving for man’s benefit and placed it with all other ungodly employment where competition and economical gain prevail.
The foundation of Track C’s strength is in its professors, Rita and Tom, who made an academic course into a relevant learning experience; in all honesty, I can say, two of the most human and best instigators of knowledge around. Thank you.
* * * *
The little blue handbook given to students at B.U. said the aims of DGE were to make the student better able to understand himself and the world in which he lives. This course met those goals better than any of the courses I have taken. It opened my eyes to new areas, and confirmed some of my thoughts concerning some important social issues. However, nothing is perfect, and there were some aspects of the course which did bother me. Perhaps I am just a male chauvinist, but I thought that too much time was directed towards the study of women and their problems. It might have been more helpful to the students if they were made aware of how much time was to be alloted to covering each aspect of the course, because I sometimes felt that all we were going to cover was the problems of women and their bodies and I asked myself what the hell am I doing here. I felt much of the course was designed for women and not for men, but that proved interesting because it showed me some of the frustrations a woman must feel in a society designed for men.
Also, we dealt with some heavy problems, and the solutions were not readily available to me. This caused me to think the problems over quite a bit, and when I still couldn’t find the answers I would become depressed. Isn’t there some problem that science has solved that you could make us aware of to show us that something 1s being done. This would serve to break up the consistency of unsolved problems and help to brighten up our day, rather than have us walk out of class frustrated with our own helplessness of solving the world’s problems. However, I’ve done enough complaining and now is the time to cover the virtues of your course.
My coming to B.U. was an experiment on my part to see if I was still capable of learning, or if the Marine Corps had succeeded in burning out my mind. Also I wanted to see if college had anything interesting to offer me, as I had discovered that high school, the service, and the small amount of employment that was available to me did not. Your course proved successful on both counts because it offered me something interesting and showed me I was still capable of learning.
It seems to me that the Administration (establishment). doesn’t want you to teach this course because they are afraid of change, and don’t want students to be exposed to these issues. Instead they want us to be exposed to the same crap they learned, so we can grow up to be like them. If they won’t let you teach this course here, you ought to go someplace where they will let you teach it, because this is the type of course that students want and need. You keep fighting them in your way, and I’ll keep fighting them in my way, and sooner or later we’re bound to win.
STATEMENTS BY THE AUTHORS
It is a myth that scientists must be what no human can be—totally objective, free of prejudice, unfeeling. No human is capable of this objectivity. How could I admit to neutrality concerning life, death, starvation or illness? Should scientists be emotionless, like the 7 o’clock news; so stripped of feelings, so impartial that all horrors finally become acceptable as they parade before our senses in the numbing shrouds of objectivity? I will not deny my feelings, not when I find that the study of life itself is creating terrors for the living, not when I know that science has created the means to plunder our minds and steal our genes.
— Tom Strunk
For the last 10 years, I have been working as a research scientist. However, in the last couple of years, the questions of elitism in science, science to the service of the ruling class and the position of women in our society have made it very hard for me to keep my aloofness. Gradually I began to feel the need to expand my contacts and my consciousness. Thus my decision to switch to teaching science to undergraduate non-science majors. This course is an attempt to unite my knowledge with my political beliefs.
— Rita Arditti
Articles, Books, Laboratory Practices, Movies
- The Future of Asexual Reproduction, Watson, Intellectual Digest, Oct. 71
- Reservations Concerning Gene Therapy, Fox and Littlefield, Science, 16 July 1971
- From Hippocrates to Senate Resolution 75, Trotter, Science News, December 4, 1971
- Ethnic Weapons, Larson, Military Review, Nov. 1970
- Prenatal Diagnosis of Genetic Diseases, Scientific American,
- Sickle Cell Anemia: An Interesting Pathology, Michaelson, Ramparts, October 1971
- Off the Pill? Coburn, Ramparts, June 1970
- Man and His Environment, Coale, Science, Vol. 170
- Population Care and Control, Snow, New Republic, May 1, 1971
- Population and Poverty, Hilton, SSRS Review, Sept. 1970
- Overpopulated America, Davis, New Republic, January 10, 1971
- My Answer to Genocide, Gregory, Ebony, October, 1971
- Is Pregnancy Really Normal? Hem, Perspectives (Family Planning), January 1971
- A Report on the Abortion Capital of the Country, Edmiston, New York Sunday Times, 1971
- The Conquest of Syphilis, Horn, Chapter 9 of Away With All Pests (see books)
- Experimental Pregnancy, Veatch, Hastings Center Report, 1971 Institute for Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences
- The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, Koedt, New England Free Press pamphlet, 791 Tremont St., Boston
- Psychology Constructs the Female, Weisstein, New England Free Press
- Child-rearing and Women’s Liberation, Wortis, Boston Area Child Care Action Group pamphlet, 12-14 Glenwood, Cambridge, Mass. 02139
- On Killing Members of One’s Own Species, Lorenz, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, October 1970
- The New American Militarism, Shoup, Atlantic, April1969 1969
- Science and Social Attitudes, Morison, Science, 11 July 1969
- Where Are Our Women in Science? Kundsin, Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, Winter, 1965
- Autopsy on Science, Roszak, New Scientist and Science Journal, 11 March 1971
- Education of a Scientific Innocent, Galston, Yale Review, 1971
- Margaret Sanger and Voluntary Motherhood, Sabaroff, Women, A Journal of Liberation, Spring 1970
- The Case of Ritalin: Drugs for Hyperactive Children, Charles, New Republic, October 23, 1971
- Brain Researcher Jose Delgado Asks, “What Kind of Humans Would We Like to Construct?”, Scarf, New York Times Magazine, November 15, 1970
- The Erich Fromm Theory of Aggression, Fromm. New York Times Magazine, February 27, 1972
For laboratory practice, we taught students how to do pregnancy tests, sickle-cell anemia testing, and blood typing. The equipment may be ordered from:
- Carolina Biological Supply Company
Burlington, N.C. 27215
(for blood typing kits, basic, $6.95, Rh, $13.95, Chromosome, $6.95.)
- Organon, Inc.
West Orange, N.J. 07052
(for Pregnosticon Dri-Dot Pregnancy Tests – 100 for $110.00)
c/o J.C. Poinier
Duxbury, Mass. 02332
(for Pregnancy Test “Gravindex,” 200 for $187.00 and Sickel Cell Test “Sickledex,” 400 for $190.00)
The following were consulted for the preparation of the course
- Away With All Pests, by Joshua S. H_orn, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1969-$2.45 (A British surgeon writes about his 14 years in medical practice in China)
- The Earth Belongs to the People, by Guiseppi Slater et al.., Peoples Press, San Francisco, 1970-$.75 for paperback booklet (Discusses ecology and resources)
- From Now to Zero—Fertility, Contraception and Abortion in America, by L. Alderidge Westoff and Charles F. Westoff. Little, Brown & Co., Boston
- Who Shall Live? Man’s Control Over Birth and Death—a report prepared for the American Friends Service Committee. Hill and Wang, New York—$1.75
- Microbes and Morals—the Strange Story of Venereal Disease, by Theodor Rosebury, Viking Press, New York, $7.95
- Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, edited by Ronald L. Meek, The Ramparts Press-$1.95
- The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1971 (Nature, Man and Technology)
- Women and Their Bodies, Our Bodies Our Selves, New land Free Press 1971, Boston Women’s Health Collective-$.35
- Each Child Wanted, 1-hour movie, about an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, from the Pregnancy Counselling Service, 5 Joy St., Boston. Contribution, $15
- The Earth Belongs to the People, IS minutes, about energy and resources, from Newsreel, a group of radical filmmakers
- Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience, 1-hour, from the Sociology Department of Harvard University, free
- Venereal Disease, 20 minutes, Educational Films, Dept. SN, 331 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, California, 90210, $25.00
- Pregnancy Testing in the ’70’s, Pregnancy Counselling, see above, $10.00 contribution