College 002: Biology, Language and Culture

Mark Liberman
Alan Mann
Gregory Urban

TA:                Emily Renschler


Over the last two centuries, the nature of human variation has been the focus of major intellectual, political and military struggle. Debates on slavery, colonialism, genocide, and the status of women have all centered on the nature and interpretation of differences among human individuals and groups, and in fact, this question has arisen in nearly every important political and cultural debate, from the choice of economic and political systems to the development of the arts. As times and places change, the political details also change, but the same basic questions about human differences emerge again in a new form.

Theories of social and biological evolution, research in psychology and genetics, empirical studies of geographical, social and temporal variation, archeological and paleontological discoveries and speculations, all have developed in the midst of these struggles, and have resulted in an enormous amount of overall intellectual progress. We know a lot more now than we did in 1800 about the relevant science; and we also have access to a much wider range of historical experiences and associated ideas about the politics, ethics, and economics of human variation.

The result is not a static consensus: neither science nor politics works that way. However, well-informed people can now discuss these questions at a much higher level than they could in 1800 -- or 1900, or 1950, or even 1990. Our goal in this course is to give you the basic knowledge and intellectual tools that you need in order to enter this discussion in an intellectually responsible way.

Because the relevant basic knowledge spans many disciplines and can often usefully be viewed from more than one perspective, and because these issues need reasoned discussion rather than didactic assertion of a single point of view, three of us from quite different disciplinary backgrounds have joined forces to present this course. We invite you to join our discussion, and hope that you will learn as much from it as we do.


The course will be divided into

  1. a one-week introduction;
  2. six two-week topical modules;
  3. a one-week conclusion.

See the on-line schedule for the list of topics, with associated lecture notes and readings.

Each week there are two plenary ("lecture") sessions, Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m., in Moore 216. Within each two-week module, three of these four sessions will be conventional lectures, one by each instructor. The fourth such session will be a panel discussion, moderated by Emily Renschler, in which all three instructors will answer questions and discuss issues with the class.

In addition, there are two recitation sections, which are scheduled to meet on Fridays from 2:00 to 3:00 in Williams 317 and Tuesdays from 3:00 to 4:00 in Moore 224. Each student should attend one of these sections.

Finally, there will be some movies relevant to the course, which will be on reserve in Rosengarden, but will also be shown each Monday evening at 7:00 in the fifth floor lounge of Memorial Tower (over the 37th St. gate to the Quad).

Assignments, exams and grading

There will be a midterm, a final exam, and two writing assignments.

The midterm will be administered in section meetings during the week before spring break.

The first of the writing assignments will be due 2/28, and the second will be due 4/11.

The grade will come 20% from the midterm, 30% from the two writing assignments, 40% from the final exam, and 10% from recitation-section participation.

Office hours

Mark Liberman
Monday 3:00--5:00
or by appointment
IRCS, 3401 Walnut St., 4th floor
Alan Mann
Tuesday 3:00--4:00
340 University Museum
Gregory Urban
Emily Renschler
By appointment