The Committee on General Education decided this week that it could not continue to count Nat Sci 36, "Biological Determinism," toward Gen Ed credit, although it plans to offer the course again next year.
Francis M. Pipkin, associate dean of the Faculty for the Colleges and chairman of the committee, says the committee found that because of the instructors' grading philosophies, Nat Sci 36 doesn't fit the Gen Ed requirement that courses be taken for a letter grade.
Richard C. Lewontin '50, Agassiz Professor of Zoology, and Stephen J. Gould, professor of Geology, guarantee students who write a ten-page paper at least a B, while students who write longer papers are eligible for an A.
Gould says he and Lewontin would prefer to give the course entirely pass-fail. It would eliminate competition, he says, and allow students to study the material out of interest rather than a desire for a good grade. But since a pass-fail course could not be offered under the Gen Ed rubric, and because the University does not offer lecture courses on a strict pass-fail basis, Gould and Lewontin chose to assure students they had no need to worry about the minimum grade level.
The Gen Ed committee looked at the grade distribution in a number of large courses before deciding how to deal with Nat Sci 36, and Pipkin says they found Nat Sci 36's grading no easier than that of several other courses--in fact, he says, it is harder than some. The difference is that Gould and Lewontin remove the element of insecurity by telling students beforehand what they need to do for a B. In the other courses, he says, "It's not a question of grading philosophies," just practice.
"We're being pilloried for being honest," Gould says. "If you say you're grading conventionally, you can do whatever you damn well please."
Nat Sci 36 will continue to be offered in Gen Ed, because the committee, Gould and Lewontin agree it cannot be offered in a department. The instructors' approach is interdisciplinary, Gould says, and should be open to a wider range of students than would take it if it was a departmental course. Gould says he is bitter about the committee's decision--though he is a member of the committee--because he says he believes the course enrollment will be restricted now to upperclassmen who have already fulfilled their Nat Sci requirement.
Biological determinism has become a political as well as a scientific issue, and Gould and Lewontin have always presented a radical perspective on it. Until scientific evidence proves otherwise, they say, human behavior can only be attributed to the environment; so far, it is impossible to tell how much genetic inheritance contributes to traits like intelligence. This view of man as essentially plastic conflicts with that of more conservative scientists, who believe genetic damage probably plays a large part in determining behavior.
Following its decision on Nat Sci 36, the committee passed a resolution stating that Gen Ed instructors must grade "in accordance with traditional Harvard practices."
The Gen Ed committee's decision on Nat Sci 36 passed by an extremely close margin--many of the committee members seem to have agreed with Gould that Nat Sci 36's grades are only nominally different from those in many other courses. But the committee's decision does suggest that many of the easily-graded Gen Ed courses will have to tighten up or move into the limbo in which Nat Sci 36 has just been placed.