Biology and the future: science and science fiction

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Fall 2013: Wednesdays 6-8 pm, location VC323

Faculty: Nikolai Krementsov, Professor, IHPST

Office hours: Thursdays, 2-4 pm, at VC312


TAs: Gwyndaf Garbutt and Paul Greenham

Class Size: Cap of 130 students

Prerequisite: NONE

Exclusions: NONE

This lecture course explores the fantastic visions of humanity’s future inspired by the advance of the biological sciences during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Biology provided much of the scientific underpinning for societal dreams and anxieties, hopes and fears about the future, which became embodied in a range of powerful cultural icons of modern civilization, from Frankenstein’s “monsters” and clones, to robots and aliens, to “brains in a vat” and super-humans. The course is structured chronologically and thematically around a series of classic science-fiction novels and speculative writings by prominent twentieth century biologists. Through a close reading of these works in their historical, scientific, and thematic contexts, the course examines how major biological concepts—from (human) animal-machine to evolution to biotechnology—and their development over time dramatically affected the understanding of life, society, and the future of humanity, by providing answers to the perpetual existential questions that troubled humanity’s best mind for millennia: Who are we? Where did we come from and where are we going? What is the meaning of Life and Death? What is human place in the Universe? What is human nature? And what is human destiny?

1. To become familiar with a sample of speculative popular science writings by prominent twentieth century biologists and their political, social, and scientific contexts.

2. To become familiar with a sample of classic “SF” writings and their scientific, historical, and thematic contexts.

3. To develop the ability to think critically about the societal implications of (human) biology, past and present.

4. To deepen the understanding of major biological ideas in their historical and social contexts.

1. Introduction: Science, History, and Fiction
Part I. “Old” biology and its discontents

2. Mary Shelley

3. H. G. Wells I

4. H. G. Wells II

Part II. “New” biology and its visionaries

5. J. B. S. Haldane

6. Julian S. Huxley

7. J. D. Bernal (mid-term exam)

Part III. Dreams, Hopes, and Fears in Brave New Worlds

8. Aldous Huxley

9. Robert Heinlein

10. Isaac Asimov

11. Frank Herbert
12. Conclusions: CIBA 1963 symposium
The course is arranged into twelve two-hour lectures. Since there is no “textbook” that covers this course, lectures are a critical part of the course and are cumulative: diligent attendance is required and is crucial for your success. There will be no tutorials, but I encourage you to use the course’s “Blog” and “Discussion Board” (available through the Blackboard) to share your reflections and thoughts with your classmates. There will be a mid-term (week 7) exam and a final examination based on your home readings and lectures.
READING is an essential skill in this course: download and carefully study short “notes on critical reading” from the course’s Blackboard site. You should also consult the UofT website on reading and writing: Download a “Study questions” file to each particular reading from the course’s Blackboard site and find answers to all of the questions raised.
THE GRADING for the course will be based on the mid-term and final examination and will be distributed as follows:

Mid-term one hour exam (week 7) 40%

Final exam 60%
REQUIRED READINGS are available on-line and you should access/download/print them at least two weeks prior to the Lecture they are assigned for. The only exception is a paperback or e-edition of Heinlein’s novel that needs to be purchased/downloaded for a small fee from various websites (you can also find it at any of the secondhand bookstores in the area).
Recommended background readings:

For general overviews on the history of twentieth century biology, see Garland E. Allen, Life Science in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1975); and Jan Sapp, Genesis (Oxford University Press, 2003). Also look at the Journal of the History of Biology–available on-line through UofT.

For popular science writings see Popular science monthly (London, 1872-1950) available on the web at (and many other sites) and its current version Popular Science (1984-Current) available at the same site. For analyses of popular science, see Peter Broks, Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006); Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Peter J. Bowler, Science for All (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

For background on particular authors and themes of SF writings, see John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Orbit, 1999); Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, eds., Science fiction A to Z: a dictionary of great s.f. themes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982); Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2005); and online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction at

For readings on the history of SF, see Robert E. Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science fiction: history, science, vision (Cambridge University Press, 1977); Brian Aldiss, The Trillion Year Spree (Atheneum, 1986); James Gunn, Inside Science Fiction (Scarecrow Press, 2006); on SF films, Phil Hardy, ed., The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (Overlook Press, 1994).

For a more focused analysis of the relationship between biomedical sciences and science fiction, see George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin eds., Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Athens: University of Georgia press, 1996); and Gary Westfahl and George Slusser, eds., No Cure for the Future: Disease and Medicine in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002).

For readings on utopia, dystopia, and anti-utopia, see Harry Ross, Utopias old and new (Nicholson and Watson, 1938); Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopia (Viking, 1963); a special issue of Daedalus, Spring, 1965, Vol. 94, No. 2; Roland Shaffer, Utopia (New York Public Library, 2000); Andrew Milner, Matthew Ryan and Robert Savage, eds. Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia (North Carlton: Arena Publications Association, 2006); or read a classic utopia: Plato, The Republic; Thomas More, Utopia; Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis; or H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia. Many of the classic books are available on line at various sites, like this one:

The MAIN QUESTIONS to consider when you do your home readings:

What biological facts, ideas, concepts, and techniques serve as the scientific underpinnings of this particular piece of writing? What role do they play in the ideal of the future presented? How do they shape the understanding of human nature, human place in the universe, and human destiny by narrators, actors, authors? What is similar and what is different in this piece of writing as compared to the ones you’ve read? Why and how did various authors use the biological knowledge of the time in their stories? How science and scientists are portrayed in the stories?

Starting with the third week of classes, on every other Thursday, from 6 to 9 pm, we will run a “movie club” (location and the list of movies TBA). Attendance is not obligatory, but the discussions of the movies might help you in your reading and exam preparations.


Introduction to the course

Lecture 2. Mary Shelley: Life and Death

Frankenstein (any edition) available on-line via UofT library and at numerous websites

Key concepts: automaton, man-machine, materialism, dualism, vitalism, “animal electricity,” (human) anatomy, physiology, and behavior.

Suggested further readings: Mikhail Bulgakov, The Dog’s Heart (any edition); Brian Aldiss, Frankenstein Unbound (any edition).

Those who are interested in examining the novel in detail should look at

Lecture 3. H. G. Wells: Origins, Speciation, and Extinction

The Time Machine (available on line at Project Gutenberg:

Key concepts: evolution, Darwinism, Lamarckism, variability, diversity, heredity, speciation, adaptation, degeneration, extinction, Übermensch.

Suggested further readings: Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Sprach Zarathustra (any edition); G. B. Shaw, Man and Superman (any edition).
Lecture 4. H. G. Wells: Natural Selection

The War of the Worlds (available on line at Project Gutenberg:

Key concepts: factors of evolution, environment, struggle for existence, mutual aid, humans and aliens, germs, immunity

Suggested further readings: Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star (any edition); Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (any edition); Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (any edition).
Lecture 5. J. B. S. HALDANE: Science and the Future

Daedalus or Science & the Future (1923); on line at; or;

“The Last Judgment,Harper's Magazine, 1926-27, 154: 413-420; on line at UofT

Key concepts: speculative science, visionary biology, control of (human) nature, ectogenesis, terraforming, genetics and eugenics

Suggested further readings: Bertrand Russell, Icarus, or, the Future of Science (any edition); Olaf Stapledon, Last & First Men (any edition); C. S. Lewis, Perelandra trilogy (any edition).

Lecture 6. JULIAN HUXLEY: Religion without Revelation

Essays of a biologist (1923) on line at UofT or at (selection):

“Preface,” pp. iiv-xiv

“Progress, Biological and Other,” pp. 3-66

“Religion and Science,” pp. 235-302

“The tissue culture king,” Yale Review, 1926, 15: 479-504; and Amazing Stories, 1927, vol. 2, no. 5, pp. 451-459; on line at

Key concepts: evolution, progress, tissue cultures, embryology, hormones, organ transplants, behavior, science and religion.

Suggested further readings: Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (any edition); P. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (any edition).
Lecture 7. J. D. BERNAL: Metal and Flesh

(mid-term exam will be administered in the second hour!)

The world, the flesh and the devil (1929), available on line at or

Key concepts: body and mind, isolated organs, prosthetics, “brain in a vat,” cyborg, telepathy, immortality.

Suggested further readings: Alexander Beliaev, The Head of Professor Dowell (any edition); Robert Sheckley, Mindswap (any edition); Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain (any edition).

Lecture 8. ALDOUS HUXLEY: Brave New Worlds

Brave New World (1932) (any edition); available on line at

Key concepts: hormones, sex and reproduction, psychopharmacology, unconditional and conditional reflexes, human behavior

Suggested further readings: Evgenii Zamiatin, We (any edition); H. J. Muller, Out of the Night. A Biologist’s View of the Future (New York: Vanguard, 1935); George Orwell, 1984 (any edition).
Lecture 9. ROBERT HEINLEIN: Beyond This Horizon

Beyond This Horizon (1942/1948) (any edition). [available for purchase at or for download at: $7.50 or at $7.50

Key concepts: chromosomes, genetics, eugenics, selective breeding, fitness, “New Man,” telepathy, reincarnation.

Suggested further readings: Robert Heinlein, Methuselah's Children (any edition); H. J. Muller, Man's future birthright; essays on science and humanity (State University of New York Press, 1973).
Lecture 10. ISAAC ASIMOV: I, Robot

I, robot (Gnome Press, 1950), available on line at,%20Isaac%20-%20I,%20Robot.pdf

Key concepts: man and machine, cybernetics, laws of robotic/human behavior, robot, cyborg, android, instinct, reason, reflex, imprinting.

Suggested further readings: Karel Čapek, R.U. R. (any edition); Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (any edition).
Lecture 11. FRANK HERBERT: Dune

Dune (1965) (any edition), available on line at or

Key concepts: ecology, environment, limiting factors, cycles of matter and energy, the biosphere, biodiversity, SETI

Suggested further readings: Rachel Carson, Silent spring (any edition); Stanislav Lem, Solaris (any edition); James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (any edition).
Lecture 12. Conclusions: “Man and his Future”

Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism,” in idem, New Bottles for New Wine (London, 1957), pp. 13-17 available at

Man and his Future. CIBA symposium (Boston, 1963); available on line at (selection):

Julian Huxley, “The future of man—evolutionary aspects,” pp. 1-22;

Herman J. Muller, “Genetic progress by voluntarily conducted germinal choice,” pp. 247-262;

Joshua Lederberg, “Biological future of man,” pp. 263-273;

“Discussion. Eugenics and genetics,” pp. 274-298;

J. B. S. Haldane, “Biological possibilities for the human species for the next ten thousand years,” pp. 337-361;

Key concepts: molecular biology, genetic code, genetic engineering, clones, organ and tissue transplants, germinal choice, nature-nurture debates

Suggested further readings: Theodosius Dobzhansky, Mankind evolving (any edition); Erwin Chargaff, Voices in the labyrinth: nature, man, and science
(Seabury Press, 1977); C. P. Snow, The two cultures: and a second look (any edition).

Recommended SF movies that examine some of the main issues of this course:

Metropolis (1927)

Blade Runner (1982)

Brazil (1985)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The Twilight of the Golds (1996)

Gattaca (1997)

The Matrix (1999)

The Island (2005)

Idiocracy (2006)

The Surrogates (2009)

Limitless (2011)
We will view some of these movies at our “movie club.”
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