Clarkson University adds new minor to explore human behavior
Tuesday, October 30, 2012 - 8:48 am

POTSDAM – A new minor course of study has been added to Clarkson University’s catalog: Biology, Behavior and Society.

When professors recognized the same questions about human nature echoing throughout different subjects, they got together and developed the new interdisciplinary minor.

Professors Annegret Staiger, Tom Langen, Andreas Wilke, and Stephen Casper spearheaded the effort to put together courses that explore human behavior equally from biological and social scientific perspectives.

They tackle the subject from their respective teaching areas of anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology and history. This combination of material is intended to help students become informed, critical and reflective citizens who can make balanced decisions about the complex relationship of biology, psychology, culture and society.

“There’s no more hot button topic than human behavior,” says Langen, who teaches biology and psychology. “We all know it’s not a question of ‘nature or nurture.’ It’s a combination of both. We saw this as a great opportunity for an interdisciplinary program where we can have students look at different perspectives and decide for themselves. This is designed for students who are interested in the ‘why’ of behavior.”

Within academia, there are potentially heated differences of opinion about human behavior, the professors say. Debates swirl around the importance of genetics, natural environment, cognitive and socio-cultural influences. At times, research has been manipulated to support dark agendas. The Nazi holocaust is one horrific example where biological determinism became the rationale for eugenics and race wars.

“Today, ideas coming from evolutionary psychology often are popularized by the media in ways that don’t reflect what scientists intend. Our students need to be familiar with research frameworks so they can make informed decisions. Let them tell between good research and nonsense,” Staiger notes.

She adds, “I’m glad we have this minor and can bring these questions into the light.”

Humanities and Social Science Prof. Casper agrees it’s essential to understand the impact of ideas, saying, “I want my students to think about the relationship between evolution and society with the aim of making them socially responsible citizens and, when appropriate, scientists.”

He’s teaching a course in the history of biology and medical sciences looking particularly at the origins of Darwinism. Anthropology professor Staiger focuses on issues about gender and sexuality. Langen weighs in through the biology and psychology sides. Wilke teaches cognitive and evolutionary psychology.

“We are biological beings like every other on the planet, but cultural or social experiences shape human nature,” Wilke says. “By working with our social science colleagues in offering this program, we offer our students the benefit of multiple perspectives.”

This minor is open to students in any major, he said. The information is not just for intellectual enrichment. It translates to everyday life in approaches to nutrition and health, parenting, relationships, and how societies are run.

The program debuted this fall and students are starting to sign up. According to the course description, the BiBS minor is intended for students who want to acquire an interdisciplinary and comprehensive overview of the different perspectives on human behavior, human cultural evolution, and human social organization.

The objective is for students to understand the multiple disciplines that contribute to understanding human behavior and be able to weigh knowledgeably the perspectives of each, so that they are prepared to recognize arguments underlying claims about a putative human nature, or about women and men

Langen says, “We believe that this minor will attract students who are interested in biology, psychology, social sciences, health careers, law, politics, and economics and provide them with bio-cultural literacy critical to evaluating the multiplicity of scientific claims about human nature. Perspective will be critical to the students’ success.”

Details about the new BiBS minor can be found at http://www.clarkson.edu/psychology/bibs.html.