Life in a Dish: an Introduction to Cellular Biology
When Robert Hooke discovered the cell in 1665, modern science acquired an enduring metaphor: the cell as the building block of life. Since then, cell theory has evolved three central tenets: the cell is the basic unit of life, all living organisms are composed of cells, and all cells come from other cells. But cells themselves have also come to be thought of in terms exceeding, if not opposed to, the biological: cellular biology is premised on our ability to culture cells outside of the living body, which has transformed our conception of them into a technology, sparking debates about how and whether we can, or should, intervene in our own cellular processes and provoking new uncertainty as to when exactly life begins. Beyond even all of this are still other, social and historical images derived from cellular biology—including the cell as a microcosm of the world in all its complexity, from which an argument for harmonious human social relations has evolved, and the proposition that cells are “events which progressively unfold themselves” and ought therefore “be studied like history.” How can we understand, on the one hand, the human cell as both biological fact and technological instrument? And what are we to make, on the other, of cellular structures and processes as metaphors and analogies of human social life?
In this course, we will explore the various identities of cells—as biological units, as technologies, and as ways of thinking about human history and social relations. Reading widely, from empirical scientific literature on cell biology to science writing, history of science, and theories of the cell, including works by Lewis Thomas, Hannah Landecker, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Rebecca Skloot, Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein, Ruha Benjamin, Jane Maienschein, and others, we will ask: how have the discoveries of cellular biology been applied in medical research, and to what end? What political and social imperatives shape the study and application of cellular biology? To what extent are cells useful or viable as metaphors for social and historical life? And, with a view to recent discoveries, how does cellular biology today attempt to answer the question, what is life?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 14 — April 04, 2023