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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Fall 2009

E 314J • Literature and Biology

Unique Days Time Location Instructor


Course Description

Please refer to the course schedule for course days, time, room location, prerequisites and possible cross-listings:

"We are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff." -Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist

What does it mean to be human? Why do we behave the way we do? What's the difference between life and non-life, organism and machine? Where are we (the human species, the planet Earth) headed next? Acknowledging certain obvious and meaningful differences in methods and outlook, one might nevertheless argue that both writers and biologists travel similar terrain, presenting themselves as (often competing) authorities on the "big questions" about Life.

Instead of seeing literature and biology as necessarily antagonistic ways of looking at and understanding the world, we will read literature about science and literary science writing for their complementary insights. What do literature and biology look like at their interface? How do the scientific paradigms of their day influence how writers grapple with questions of human experience and identity? In turn, how do literary narratives about evolutionary biology or genetics shape the way we think about these disciplines, the way they're understood by non-scientists? What are the literary techniques that biologists use to persuade readers to accept their particular description of the world or to represent their field to general audiences?

No expertise in biology or in literary criticism will be presumed. The broad goals of this course will be to introduce science majors to the basic tools of literary analysis as well as to enable non-science majors to be savvier readers of the popular science they encounter. The course’s emphasis on students’ own critical writing will be helpful no matter what your major.

Grading Policy

3 (3-4 page) essays with optional revision: 20% each; Homework grade (regular posts to course blog): 10%; 5 (1-page) reading responses: 5% each; Presentation/discussion leader: 5%


Possible texts include fiction by Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as non-fiction by Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, and James Watson.


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