STSS 4420


Prof. Michael Fortun                                                    Meeting Times: T, F 2-3:50

Sage 5403                                                                   Place: Low 3116


Office Hours: T, F 4-5; also by appointment.


This syllabus is subject to change; the most recent version (with hyperlinks) can always be found at





An incredible array of new biotechnologies promise to transform not only our lives, but our bodies as well – and even our definition of “life.” Genetic technologies, stem cells, robotics, human organ transplantation and xenotransplantation, nanotechnology, and a long list of other inventions and developments demand our most enthusiastic and our most critical responses.  In this course we will analyze a number of these biotechnologies, and how scientists, legal scholars, novelists, activists, philosophers, and others imagine the biofutures that may be produced along with them.


Biofutures can be wild and imaginative: crazy schemes to bring about immortalized flesh, de-fleshed brains downloaded to silicon, new forms of “artificial life,” or enhanced memory, cognition, or sexuality.  Biofutures can be mundane: careful evaluation and planning  to prevent bioterrorism, to improve public health infrastructure for developing nations, to ameliorate the devastating effects of dimly-understood genetic disorders, to plan a secure and equitable agriculture.  But in all cases, biofutures demand multiple intellectual approaches – analyzing the science and technology, but also the social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of technoscientific change – and require that we become a more intelligent, engaged, and organized citizenry.


We will develop an understanding of how biosciences and biotechnologies, and the biofutures they inspire, embody the characteristics of an era which some have called “postmodernity.”  Postmodernity, or “the postmodern,” is characterized by a number of qualities that can be seen in biotechnologies and biofutures, including:







Course Requirements and Grading


The course will be run as a seminar; lecturing will be minimized, and the focus will be on discussion of the readings and development of individual projects.  Attendance and participation are therefore crucial, as is the desire to work independently on a topic of your choosing.  There are no exams.  Your final grade will be determined from:


Attendance and participation (30%): You are expected to attend each class session, to have read all assigned readings, and to participate fully in our collective deliberations about the topic.  Period.


Writing assignments (30%): due as indicated in the syllabus.  We will discuss format, content, and other specific issues as deadlines approach.


Final project and presentation (40%):  BY the end of the course you will have thoroughly researched a topic that you will choose.  We will discuss possibilities for these as the class progresses, and I will be happy to meet with people early in the semester to develop ideas.  A research librarian will come to the class to provide an overview of research resources and strategies.  The due dates of various assignments – brainstorming ideas, preliminary bibliographies, notes on articles, etc. – are indicated in the syllabus.  Alternative projects – such as developing a web page, analyzing a series of science fiction novels, or producing a video – are possible, but my approval is necessary for all projects and topics.  You will present your project to the rest of the class sometime in the last two weeks of the course.


In general, your project should center on a particular biotechnology, bioscience, or bioentity, and you will have to analyze it in all its hybrid complexity:


In the second half of the semester, we will spend a good deal of class time discussing your projects, how to research them, and how to present them.



Academic Dishonesty Policy


Academic honesty is especially important when students are developing independent research projects.  It is critical that all work that you turn in is your own, and that it has not already been used to fulfill the requirements of another class.  All parties to academic dishonesty are accountable.  If you allow your work to be submitted by another student, you, too, will be held responsible.  You should read the Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities so that you understand all the acts that constitute a violation of the Institute’s academic dishonesty policy.


 Plagiarism is the most frequent violation, sometimes because students are unfamiliar with what constitutes plagiarism.  You should read the brief but thorough description found at Indiana University's plagiarism page (


I have a policy of zero tolerance for plagiarism—no negotiation, no remediation.  If you commit any such act, you will – at minimum – receive an F for that assignment and be subject to RPI’s judicial process.  Failure of the entire course is also within my rights as instructor.


In all written assignments – including research memos -- citations must be included for both indirect and direct quotation, providing clear documentation of sources.  Note that I may request submission of all your sources so that I can check the accuracy of your citations.  For an example of the software tools available to me for detecting plagiarism, see  Simple Google searches have also been shown to be surprisingly effective.


gender-neutral language

Contemporary standards of language use encourage gender-neutral language.  Male-gender pronouns or words like “man” to refer to everyone are not empirically accurate.  In this course please use gender-neutral language, as reviewed by the Rensselaer Writing Center at



grade appeals

I consider myself – and my record backs me up – to be not only a fair, but a generous grader.  You are, of course, free to appeal any grade you receive on an assignment or for a final grade.  Be advised, however, that with the additional attention I would give to your request, it is possible that your grade may go down instead of up.

You may appeal a grade through a written statement describing the grounds on which a change of grade is considered appropriate.  The written statement should reference one of the three criteria identified in the Student Handbook as grounds for appeal.  According to the Handbook, the "allegation must be based upon a violation of the course syllabus, a violation of Institute policy, or a violation of the student's rights under the Student Bill of Rights."  


electronic citizenship and practice

Please familiarize yourself and abide by Rensselaer’s policy on electronic citizenship.  Also make sure to back-up your course material very frequently.





The following books should be purchased in the RPI Bookstore:


Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ballantine Books, 1990)

Chris Hables Gray, Cyborg Citizen

Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (Perseus, 1994) [also available on-line]

WEEK 1: First Brainstorm


Jan 18 Introductions


Jan 21 Mood Organs and Border Patrols


READ: Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, pp. 1-20.


WRITING ASSIGNMENT:  Any response you have, 1-2 pages, double-spaced, emailed to me by NOON.


WEEK 2: Second Brainstorm


Jan 25 Gods, Toads, and Tomb-Worlds


READ: Finish Do Androids Dream…?


Jan 28 Cyborgology 101


READ: Gray, Cyborg Citizen, pp. 1-20

            Appropriate pages at Cyborg Citizen Web Page

            Julien Offray de La Mettrie, "Man a Machine" (1748)


WRITING ASSIGNMENT:  Any response you have, 1-2 pages, double-spaced, emailed to me by NOON.




Donna J. Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto”:


WEEK 3 Third Brainstorm


Feb 1 Multiplicities, Networked


READ: Kelly, Out of Control, Chapters 1-2 (pp. 1-28) [or at Kevin Kelly -- Out of Control]

Gray, Cyborg Citizen, pp. 21-52, and on-line materials at Cyborg Citizen Web Page

Feb 4 Enhancement for Ethicists, And the Rest of Us


READ: President’s Commission on Bioethics, “Beyond Therapy,” pp. 1-24, 205-270. [PDF will be emailed]

Chris Walz,

"Air Force testing fatigue-combating drug," Pentagram, Feb. 13, 2003.

The Good Drug Guide to Modafinil

            Gray, Cyborg Citizen, pp. 169-174.






Feb 8 Beginning Research


Connie Fritz, Science Librarian at the Folsom Library, will conduct a special session on using electronic and other resources at the library.


WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Topics brainstorm

In 1-3 pages, provide brief description s of UP TO 3 biofutures that you would like to learn more about through your upcoming research..  Address as many of the following issues as you can:

-       What is the main research question that would guide your work on this biofuture?

-       What other questions would you like to address, or need to address to get at your main question?

-       What are your working hypotheses or ideas about your topic?

-        What data sets or literatures (scientific, social science, humanties) do you think will support your project?

-       What keywords can you use in further searches for existing material on the topic?

-       a thoughtful reflection on problems that you may encounter in trying to pull your project together.  This memo should be about 3 pages long, double-spaced.

Don’t forget that you are preparing for a research paper.  A research paper is not just a statement of your belief.  Research involves questions, inquiry and discovery.


Feb 11 Bodies With Organs


READ: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “The Global Traffic in Human Organs,” Current Anthropology 41/2 (April 2000).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “The New Cannibalism,” The New Internationalist (April 1998)

            Gray, Cyborg Citizen, 69-86, and on-line materials at Cyborg Citizen Web Page

Organ Transplantation, from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics

Determination of Death, from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics




Organ Donation -- We'll Make it Worth Your While

Is There A Difference Between Selling Eggs and Selling Kidneys?

Giving 'Til It Hurts


Craig S. Smith, “On Death Row, China’s Source of Transplants,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 2001.






Feb 15 Xenotransplantation

Video: “Organ Farm”


READ: Explore the website Frontline: Organ Farm thoroughly.




UNOS / Transplant Patient DataSource Home Page

Coalition on Donation

Organ Donation

World Medical Association Statement on Human Organ & Tissue Donation and transplantation

India Kidney Trade

National Academy of Sciences, Xenotransplantation: Science, Ethics and Public Policy (1996)

John McArdle, “Xenotransplantation: An Opportunity to Promote Alternatives,” Campaign for Responsible Transplantation

Medical Research Modernization Committee of the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation, Of Pigs, Primates, and Plagues


Feb 18 Cyborg Reproduction


READ: Gray, Cyborg Citizen, 87-130, and on-line materials at Cyborg Citizen Web Page

Explore the web site of the Center for Genetics and Society thoroughly.


WRITING ASSIGNMENT:  Any response you have, 1-2 pages, double-spaced, emailed to me by NOON.




Feb 22 – No class; Monday schedule

Feb 25 Stem Cells


READ: NIH Stem Cell General Information

At least one chapter from the more detailed NIH Report on Stem Cells




National Academy of Science (2002), Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine



WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Beginning bibliography

Provide 20-30 references, each of which must be briefly annotated.  Each annotation should be a few sentences long and describe both the content of the article, book or website, and why it should be relevant to your research project.    At least 5 references must be peer-reviewed.  No more than 10 of the references can be websites, and all annotations for websites must include a description of the “author” of the website.  Note that all of these references will not necessarily remain on your final reference list.  This memo should help you figure out which sources are likely to be most useful, and which ones can be cut.  You will be able to refer back to your full list as your project develops, since the references that you will need are likely to shift as your research focus shifts around and takes shape. 





Mar 1 Vivisystems Large and Small


READ: Kelly, Out of Control, Chapters 3 ,4, and 5 (pp. 29-90)  [or at Kevin Kelly -- Out of Control]

Gray, Cyborg Citizen, pp. 177-201, and on-line materials at Cyborg Citizen Web Page


Mar 4 VIDEO: Fast,, Cheap, and Out of Control


READ: Kelly, Out of Control, Chapters 6-8 (pp. 91-149)

OPTIONAL: Chung-Yuan Huang, Chuen-Tsai Sun, Ji-Lung Hsieh and Holin Lin (2004) ,  Simulating SARS, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation  vol. 7, no. 4





March 8 GM Foods


READ: Union of Concerned Scientists pages on Food and Environment

   (read through some of the press accounts to get a sense of what “Percy Schmeiser v. Monsanto” was all about)


March 11


READ:  "The Attack on Plant Biotechnology," Gregory Conko and C.S. Prakash (from the optimistic AgBioWorld)

            Principles Governing the Long-Run Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Agricultural Biotechnology, Charles Benbrook (from the Ag BioTech InfoNet)


WRITING ASSIGNMENT:  Any response you have, 1-2 pages, double-spaced, emailed to me by NOON.


March 11: Last day for undergraduates to drop a course.


March 14-18
Spring Break



WEEK 9  Bioterrorism

March 22


READ: Gray, Cyborg Citizen, 55-65.

Centers for Disease Control, Bioterrorism and public health preparedness (choose at least one “topics” link)

"Preventing Hostile Use of the Life Sciences: From Ethics and Law to Best Practice", November 2004 report of the International committee of the Red Cross

March 25


READ: Victor W. Sidel, MD; Robert M. Gould, MD; Hillel W. Cohen, DrPH, Bioterrorism Preparedness: Co-Optation of Public Health?, from web site of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nucelar War

Federation of American Scientists’ web page on Chemical and Biological Weapons





March 29 Neuroethics and Cognitive Liberty


READ: Martha J. Farah, “Neuroethics: the practical and the

Philosophical,” Trends in Cognitive Science 9:1 (January 2005): 34-40 [pdf to be emailed]

Explore the Vaults of Erowid


April 1


READ: Wrye Sententia, Director, Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, “Written Comments to the President’s Council on Bioethics Concerning Mind Enhancing Technologies and Drugs.”  [PDF to be emailed]


Explore the web site of the Center for Cognitive Liberty



WRITING ASSIGNMENT:Annotated bibliography

This memo should include annotations for at least five articles or books, two of which must be peer reviewed.  Each annotation should be approximately 300 words long, and should include the following: 1) A description of the main argument of the article or book. 2) A description of at least three ways the main argument is supported.   3) An explanation of how the argument and evidence in the book/article supports, challenges or otherwise relates to the argument that you are developing.  4) A list of at least three facts or examples from the article or book that you can use to support the argument that you are developing.


WEEK 11 


April 5 Grand Plans for Genetic Futures


READ: Questions on Germ-Line Engineering at UCLA’s Human Germ Line Engineering web site.

Explore some of the topics there, and read at least  one of the linked articles.



April 8


READ: Eric Kmiec,  Gene Therapy, American Scientist (May-June 1999)






WEEK 12 To Be Dec ided


April 12


April 15



WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Outline and Draft Chunks

Outline your full paper, including an introductory section, a background section, at least two middle sections and a conclusion. Include a draft 1-2 paragraph introductory statement that briefly articulates your main and sub arguments, and gives readers a sense of how your presentation of these arguments will be laid out in the remaining text.  A strong introductory statement often starts with a compelling example or story that draws readers in, and gives them a sense of the stakes.  The outline for the background section should lay out a discussion of your topic, and also a discussion of how the topic has been dealt with by other scholars. The middle section will pose the most difficulties because it is here that you must lay out your sub arguments, and the evidence and examples that you will use to support them.  If you think you have a conclusion, try to articulate it now.



WEEK 13 To Be Decided

April 19


April 22



WEEK 14 Student Presentations


April 26

April 29


WEEK 15 Student Presentations


May 3