In an increasingly technologically driven world, the accumulation of scientific knowledge often outpaces the ability of society to understand its full meaning, both in relation to the science itself and to its impact on the human condition. This is most apparent in the fields of biological and medical research. Here, the observations, experiments and theories that comprise contemporary biology have far-reaching implications for the way humans view themselves, interact with each other, and make decisions for themselves and others. This should come as no surprise since the systematic and scientific study of the natural world has raised broad societal questions for as long as the practice has existed.
Over the centuries, debates have raged about when human life begins and under what circumstances it is permissible to end it. These questions, reformulated in part by modern technology, remain important. The elucidation of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century focused attention on the seminal questions of the origins of life and of the human species. In addition, it has had profound effects on the way we view the development of society. Not surprisingly, the stunning achievements of modern biology have also had significant consequences for society. Breakthroughs in genetics, stem-cell propagation, mammalian cloning, and applications derived from the human genome project raise numerous ethical questions. The longevity resulting from new medical treatments poses major challenges as our society tries to develop appropriate public policies for an aging population. The emergence of viral pathogens, such as HIV and Ebola, the increasing prevalence of multi-drug resistant bacteria, and the specter of biological entities such as anthrax and smallpox being utilized as agents of terrorism, raise daunting social and scientific questions. The pollution we generate causes many of the cancers that afflict us, ironically just at the time when we have acquired a fundamental understanding of the molecular causes of this disease and have made enormous strides in developing new therapies. Addressing such issues, questions, and challenges requires both an understanding of biology and its context within the humanities and the social sciences.
The interdisciplinary Distinguished Majors Program in Human Biology was created for the purpose of allowing students the opportunity to examine and appreciate the extraordinary interplay between modern biology and society. The program draws its faculty from almost every school at the University, and is administered through the Department of Biology, in partnership with the Department of Public Health Sciences. Faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for Practical Ethics, the Center for Global Health, the Law School and the Medical School play significant roles in facilitating student research projects and participating in the 4th year capstone series. Furthermore, the individualized coursework of the major's students will bring to the program a broad survey of the scientific and humanitarian disciplines to be found across grounds. From our collective experiences, we will seek to create a tapestry of ideas from which we can approach the problems we will face in the future.