Science can perhaps be experienced as an investigative approach to understanding the nature of the universe that is anchored by a philosophical triad of observation, hypothesis and experimentation. Science is also a process that involves people and is, therefore, influenced by social, political and historical forces that are prevalent at different times. Unfortunately, science is often presented to the general public, and especially to students, as a series of factual statements about the universe without an understanding of the process involved in generating these statements. The teaching of science in high schools is typically driven by a tightly corseted curriculum that is heavy on content and detail, and even if experiments are performed in class, the final approach is limited in its scope to help students to think in science. Teachers are typically caught by constraints of finishing the curriculum on time, and given administrative and results-orientated demands, and thus fail to consider this important aspect of science in approaching lessons. In the end, students largely remain ignorant of the process of science, its historical growth, and the contemporary social, political and philosophical concerns of science. This article describes some attempts at unravelling a few aspects of the philosophical, historical and social facets of science in a combined 11th and 12th grade biology classroom.
The class was about microscopy. The exercise was a comparison of the images under the microscope of normal lung tissue with photographs of lung tissue from a 1918 global flu epidemic. One of the students had a question on the process of preparing slides that had lasted nearly a hundred years and could be examined even today. He also commented that the colours in the photographs of old slides resembled the slides under the microscope in class and asked if the process involved in making the slides was similar. Another student had a question on the process of retrieving organs from dead patients and whether the autopsy required permissions of relatives. Another had concerns about the safety of retrieving the lungs from dead patients and wondered if the patients were infective even after death. Over the next few weeks, the discussions expanded to include other questions. We discussed the hospital and trench conditions in northern France that may have allowed this disease to spread rapidly. We also discussed the rapidity of death, often within three days after the first appearance of symptoms. A comparison of the slides showed physical differences in the condition of the lung tissue that could be linked to the symptoms. We approached the challenges involved in identifying the cause of the severe symptoms, since the influenza virus wasn’t identified from human tissue till 1933. How was the flu virus of 1918 different from the one prevalent today, and what made it so deadly?
The background to this exercise was a curricular approach that I had been following for some years now, to anchor a whole year’s course around a particular topic. The topic for this year’s course was the fascinating but deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 that had killed more people across the world in a span of a few months than both the world wars combined. The potential of the topic to address the curriculum, and in addition, to allow for discussions on the philosophy, history and sociology of science, made it an attractive one for that year’s batch of 11th grade biology students. A glimpse of the lab class given above might help the reader with an appreciation of the discussion potential for such a class. The curricular topics that I could cover ranged from physiology—gas exchange, blood, vascular and immune systems to basic cell biology—cell ultrastructure, enzyme kinetics, transport, cell division, and introductory molecular biology. I must note here that for a teacher preparing for such an approach to a course requires a thorough familiarity with the curriculum and with the topic at hand which would enable mapping curricular content with ideas central in the topic for discussions and lab work. As the course proceeded, I felt that this approach allowed for a detailed look at the various questions that emerged in relation to the topic, often implicitly conveying or resulting in experiencing the scientific process through practical classes. In these classes, we try to understand science as it unfolds across the world— observations, hypothesis, experiment— and then see if the hypothesis should be rejected or not. We did this in addition to proof-of-principle demonstrations of wellknown biological phenomena where the nature of a school lab limits experiments due to questions of scale, equipment, time and cost. At the same time, I felt we needed to get a bigger picture across historical time on a wider range of topics, including contemporary social and ethical questions around science. To address this, I conducted a separate reading and discussion course which explored the philosophy of science, with a focus on biology, for a combined class of 11th and 12th grade biology students.
In this six-month course, we spent one forty-five-minute session every week discussing a reading that I had assigned previously. The readings were largely excerpted from a book, Thinking about Biology (Webster 2003), with supple mental readings wherever necessary. They spanned a range of topics that were central in shaping modern biology over the past two centuries or so but were chosen in a manner that covered important philosophical questions in biology as well. One of the first issues that we discussed was looking at the scale of biological systems and processes and the nature of scientific investigation into these scales. In this we discussed the reductionist approach, looking at a system by looking at smaller units within it, which is such an integral part of modern biology especially with the advent of molecular biology over the past sixtyfive years, but also dating further back to the invention of microscopy and the opening up of the world of cells and tissues. We also discussed the development of evolutionary thought, involving whole organisms and across generations spanning millennia. The philosophical debate of the reductionist approach and the big picture approach, symbolized by Darwinism, became an important early question that we took up in the course.
The processes operating at the spatial-temporal scale of natural selection seemed very different from those operating inside cells and on DNA. But with the basic continuum that exists between these different levels of organization of life, one of the first questions we addressed was looking at examples of where and why micro and macro thinking clashed philosophically, and the possibilities that these clashes be reconciled in some way, especially in modern evolutionary theory. These are fairly big questions that biologists continue to grapple with today, and the students got a glimpse of important questions in debate from the past, and the way they have taken shape today. An important perspective that I aimed to introduce through this discussion was the diversity of approaches to understanding biological systems and processes, and the importance of the scientific approach to debating these questions with rational arguments based on experimental observations.
Another important angle to this course was to attempt an understanding of the interface of science and society, when the prevailing social norms and debates impact science and vice versa. This has become particularly sharp in modern times with the debates around genetically modified crops and the use of embryonic stem cells in research. In both these examples, we looked at a framework of understanding the outstanding points of contention between the scientific findings and questions emerging from society on the ethics of these findings. Is it possible to understand this debate within a rational framework based on some philosophical first principles? What are the elements of such a framework? How do various sources of social questions—religious or secular thinking, democratic and other political processes, and entrenched social hierarchies—contribute to this framework? What aspects of the debate remain outside such of a framework? How does science then accommodate social questions? Aren’t scientists full members of society with responsibility to their own work and to society? How do they as individuals reconcile their own belief systems with those of science, and to the questions raised in society? These became important questions for our discussion around this topic. The students eventually hosted a role play debate on the history and ethics of the eugenics movement as a concluding session to this part of the course.
The children participated enthusiastically throughout the course. It did mean extra reading every week, but most of them managed it despite other work pressures including other work from the biology course. It did mean a short class, but the time we had together was intense, and the discussions often became debates with students taking sides. What was impressive was their ability to listen to each other, not remaining settled in entrenched positions, but being able to move ahead while setting aside their favourite ideas. We did have a good laugh on days when we discussed the fiery nature of the public debate on genetically modified crops. One of the students wondered whether the questions that anti-GMO activists or pro-GMO scientists have are very much tied into their identities, whereas for the students perhaps it was more an academic exercise and it didn’t have the same significance. And so, we didn’t escape the inevitable discussion of the nature of the self which forces us to defend ourselves as individuals on a battlefield while all that we are discussing are ideas. Why should it be so?
In conclusion, I feel that the course attempted to raise questions and to offer glimpses of contemporary historical, social and philosophical questions in biology. It was a long course, and sometimes felt arduous but I hope it left students with questions that they will take forward with them beyond the course, to the realms of interrogating biological systems and the forces beyond the laboratory that shape these questions as well.
Webster, S. 2003. Thinking about Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.