Politics and the life sciences


POLS 322                                                                                           Dr. Rebecca J. Hannagan

Fall 2007                                                                                             406 Zulauf Hall

T/TH 9:30-10:45                                                                                rhannaga@niu.edu



Course Objective: 

Significant political debates involve issues raised by advances in the life sciences that create both promise and unease about transformations in the human condition.  Politics and the Life Sciences or “Biopolitics” is a specialized field in political science that examines the intersections of the biological and social sciences.  This can include environmental policy, biological warfare, biomedical technology, and the biological bases of behavior.  In this course we will focus specifically on the biological bases of behavior.  We will draw on evolutionary theory and specifically evolutionary psychology to frame our approach to studying political behavior. 


This is a research-based class.  The readings for this course consist of a survey of recent research from the fields of biology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and political science.  You are required to read the studies paying special attention to the methodological approaches used and their implications for our understanding of political behavior.   The readings for this course are not typical of a course in political science.  Some of the articles are quite dense and may contain complex methodologies.  Do not let this scare you away.  I do not expect you to understand everything you will be reading immediately.  I do, however, expect you to spend some time with the readings and do your best to get at what each reading is about, generally, and why it matters to the study of political behavior.  Sometimes this will not be obvious.  You will have to do a considerable amount of analytical thinking and writing in this course.  As we progress through the material it is my hope that you will become more comfortable with the readings and your ability to react to them.  Reading difficult material and then thinking analytically about the possible implications is a skill – and a skill that you can learn. 


Course Materials: 

  • Articles posted on Blackboard
  • Articles contained in the course packet for POLS 322 available at the University Bookstore


You are expected to have your reading done each day before you come to class.  This is a seminar style course, meaning the focus is more on discussion than lecture.  It is important that you come to class prepared to discuss the material. 


Calculation of Grades: 

Your grade in this course will consist of your performance on two exams (a midterm and a final exam), one longer paper, three reaction papers, and class attendance.  The following is a breakdown of how the grades will be weighted:


Midterm Exam            15%                 Reaction Papers          25%                 Attendance     15%

Final Exam                  15%                 Paper                           30%                


I will adhere to the following grading scale:

100-97% = A+

89-87% = B+

79-77% = C+

69-67% = D+

59% < = F

96-93% = A

86-83% = B

76-73% = C

66-63% = D


92-90% = A-

82-80% = B-

72-70% = C-

62-60% = D-



General Information: 

I do not accept late work, nor do I offer make-up exams (NO EXCUSES!).  If your homework or paper is late, you will receive a 0 on that assignment.  If you do not show up for an exam, you will receive a 0 on that exam.  If you have a situation that requires exception, you must notify me well in advance and be prepared to produce documentation. 


Blackboard is your friend.  Check it often for announcements and for important course documents such as your readings.  I reserve the right to modify the schedule in the interest of time or due to the difficulty of the material.  If I decide to modify the schedule I will notify the class immediately upon my decision and post an announcement on Blackboard.  If changes are made and you are not aware of them because you do not regularly attend class or choose to sleep during class there will be no exceptions made to accommodate you.  It is in your best interest to attend every class and pay attention to the material being covered.


No cell phone use during class (including text messaging).  Please turn your cell phones off (and not just on vibrate).  No laptop or pda use during class.  Do not text message, read the newspaper or sleep during class.  Do not come late or leave early.  These are inappropriate behaviors for a university class and are disruptive to your peers.  Be respectful of those who are interested in being active participants in their education. 


This syllabus is a contract between me (the professor) and you (the student).  The syllabus will be available on Blackboard throughout the semester for your reference.  If you have any questions about the policies set forth in the syllabus, I highly recommend that you talk to me during the first week of classes.  It is at that time that any significant changes can be made.  After that, if you choose to remain in the class I assume that you agree to the policies and procedures I have set forth in the syllabus. 


Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities.  Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building.  CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors.  It is important that CAAR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


For important information on the Department of Political Science, please visit: http://polisci.niu.edu/


Academic Dishonesty:  

The maintenance of academic honesty and integrity is of vital concern to the Department of Political Science and the University community. Any student found guilty of academic dishonesty shall be subject to both academic and disciplinary sanctions.  If I find that you have plagiarized your academic work, you will receive an F on the assignment – no exceptions.  If you are caught cheating, falsifying, or otherwise misrepresenting your work twice you will fail the class.  In addition, if I suspect academic dishonesty your name will be turned over to the Chair of the Political Science Department who will make a determination as to further disciplinary action which may include academic probation or expulsion.


Academic dishonesty includes, but is not limited to, the following: cheating, fabrication and falsification, plagiarism, and misrepresentation to avoid academic work. 


Tentative Schedule:


August 28:  Introduction and course overview


August 30:  Epistemology and the Standard Social Science Model


I.          Evolution in Small Groups: Machiavellian Intelligence and Social Cooperation


September 4:  Primer on Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology


September 6:  Primer on Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology

  • Cosmides and Tooby continued.


September 11:  Social Cooperation – Machiavellian Intelligence

  • Read Orbell et al., “’Machiavellian’ Intelligence as a Basis for the Evolution of Cooperative Dispositions.”    American Political Science Review. 98: 1-15.


September 13:  Social Cooperation – Altruism

  • Read Gintis, “Explaining Altruistic Behavior in Humans.”  Evolution and Human Behavior. 24: 153-172.


September 18:  Social Cooperation – Egalitarianism

  • Read Cashdan, “Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers.”  American Anthropologist.  82: 116-120.


September 20:  Social Cooperation – Strong Reciprocity

  • Read Fehr and Fishbacher, “Third-party Punishment and Social Norms.”  Evolution and Human Behavior.  25: 63-87.


September 25:  Social Cooperation – Wary Cooperators

  • Read Hibbing and Alford, “Accepting Authoritative Decisions:  Humans as Wary Cooperators.”  American Journal of Political Science. 48: 62-76.
  • First Reaction Paper Due


September 27:  Social Cooperation – Equality and Monkeys (?!?)

  • Read Brosnan and DeWaal, “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay.”  Nature. 425: 297-299.
  • Read Bowles and Gintis, “Is Equality Passe?  Homo Reciprocans and the Future of Egalitarian Politics.”  Boston Review, 1998.


October 2:  Human Nature – Egalitarian or Hierarchical?

  • Read Boehm, Chapters 1-2 of Hierarchy in the Forest.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


October 4:  Human Nature – Egalitarian or Hierarchical?

  • Read Boehm, Chapter 3 of Hierarchy in the Forest.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


October 9:  Human Nature – Egalitarian or Hierarchical?

  • Boehm, continued.


October 11:  No Class (I will be attending the “Association for Politics and the Life Sciences” Conference)


October 16:  Human Nature – Conflict and War

  • Read Wrangham, “Evolution of Coalitionary Killing.”  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.  42: 1-30.
  • Second Reaction Paper Due.


October 18:  Human Nature – Conflict and War

  • Read Wrangham, “Evolution of Coalitionary Killing.”  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.  42: 1-30.


October 23:  Midterm Exam


II.        The Brain and Political Psychology


October 25:  Psychology and Political Behavior

  • Read Ostrom, “Toward a Behavioral Theory Linking Trust, Reciprocity, and Reputation.”  In Trust and Reciprocity.  New York: Russell Sage, pp. 19-79.
  • Discussion of Research Papers


October 30:  Psychology and Political Behavior

  • Smith et al., “Evolutionary Theory and Political Leadership: Why Certain People Do Not Trust Decision-Makers” The Journal of Politics


November 1:  No Class (I will be attending a Liberty Fund Conference on “The Evolution of Moral Sentiments”)


November 6:  Psychology and Political Behavior

  • Larimer et al., “Balancing Ambition and Gender Among Decision Makers.”  Unpublished manuscript under review.


November 8:  Neuroscience and Political Behavior

  • Read McDermott, “The Feeling of Rationality: the Meaning of Neuroscientific Advances for Political Science.”  Perspectives on Politics.  2: 691-706.


November 13:  Neuroscience and Political Behavior

  • Read Dolan, “Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior.”  Science.  298: 1191-1194.


November 15:  Neuroscience and Political Behavior

  • Read Hibbing et al., “The Neural Basis of Representative Democracy.”  Unpublished manuscript under review.


November 20:  Neuroscience and Political Behavior

  • Read Eisenberger et al., “Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion.”  Science.  302: 290-292.
  • Third Reaction Paper Due.


November 22:  No Class (Thanksgiving Holiday)


November 27:  Neuroscience and Political Behavior

  • Read Richeson and Shelton, “When Prejudice Does Not Pay: Effects of Interracial Contact on Executive Function.”  Psychological Science.  14: 287-290.


November 29:  Groups and Political Decision Making

  • Kurzban et al., “Can Race Be Erased? Coalitional Computation and Social Categorization.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  98: 15387-15392.
  • Paper Due


December 4:  Groups and Political Decision Making

  • Hannagan et al., “Decision Making in Gendered Groups: Context, Preferences and Outcomes.”  Unpublished manuscript under review.


December 6:  Last Day of Class – Wrap-Up Lecture, Discussion and Review for Final


Final Exam:  TBA












Reaction Paper Assignment


A reaction paper is a two-page (typed, double-spaced, 12 pt. font) “reaction” to a group of readings.  I want you to react to the readings and not summarize the readings.  I read them.  I know what they are about.  I do not want a book report.  I want your reaction paper to illustrate that you had some sort of an “intellectual struggle” with the material.  I want you to take up one or more of the issues raised and talk about the problems, implications, your proposed solution, a different (a.k.a. “better”) way of looking at the issue, etc.  Think big.  This is hard, but another challenge is that it must ONLY BE TWO PAGES LONG. You will be down-graded if you go beyond two pages.  I recommend you get your thoughts down on paper then walk away from it for a day or so.  When you come back to it with fresh eyes you will be able to decipher what is important to say and what is not.  [Note: reaction papers done 20 minutes before class are generally really bad.]


Here are some Dos and Don’ts that may help you:




  • Be analytical – think BIG!  What are the implications of the key points of a reading or readings in the short-term, long-term, etc.?
  • Challenge the argument being made by an author or authors and suggest an alternative
  • Consider problems with the approach or methodology being used and suggest an alternative
  • Integrate common themes among the readings wherever you can





  • Summarize
  • Tell me you think the reading was long, boring, interesting, funny, etc.  You are not a literary critic.
  • State the obvious
  • Ignore the important themes among the readings







Long Paper Assignment:  The Literature Review

The literature review should include 4 academic sources and should be 8-10 pages long (typed, double-spaced, 12 pt. font, regular margins) with proper citations.

Not to be confused with a book review or a book report, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research

In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:

  • Provenance—What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity—Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness—Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value—Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

After selecting a problem to investigate, you need to read all about your topic. A literature review should place your question or problem in the context of other work that has been done in the field. It would not be uncommon for you to read parts of 20 or more studies.

First, a word of what NOT to do: Do not write an annotated bibliography, which presents the sources one at a time and summarizes the articles. Instead, you want to integrate and synthesize the works you have read. Discuss the literature based on the dimensions of the problem that you are investigating. 

If you are investigating an ongoing controversy, you might organize the information into opposing camps, and highlight not only the disagreements in conclusions, but also in assumptions, data, and methods.

Here is an important point to note: you may not find material exactly on your topic. Fine. Find related studies and findings. Again, your job is both to tell what is known and what is not known, but simply speculated, or theorized, about.


·          Present the basic theory / theories in this field.

·          Attempt to be exhaustive; this means thinking of all related angles.

·          Make sure you get the very latest research included -- for instance, in many areas it would be common  to cite literature from the last six months.

·          Organize the literature to provide the contours of the field.

·          Use names and dates of authors you are using.

·          Paraphrase or use quotes.

·          Look at examples. Journals can be a good source for identifying what a lit review is to look like.

·          Make sure the articles you are examining are research articles, and not editorials or book reviews.


·          Think that you have to find something exactly on your topic -- if there was something already done on it, we could both read that study instead of your paper. Instead, think of the different components of your topic, and find relevant material.

·          Plagiarize. This can be done in numerous ways, purposefully or accidentally. It is a serious infraction on academic integrity and will be treated as such. Three examples are drawn from Babbie (A-11):

"You cannot use another writer's exact words without using quotation marks and giving a complete citation, which indicates the source of the quotation such that your reader could locate the quotation in the original context."

"It is also not acceptable to edit or paraphrase another's words and present the revised version as your own work."

"Finally, it is not even acceptable to present another's ideas as your own -- even if you use totally different words to express those ideas."

Finally, you will want to consult with me if it has crossed your mind to use a paper that you have written for another class.  This is referred to as “double-dipping.”  It is the attitude of at least some of us in political science that this is not acceptable.  I consider it a form of academic dishonesty.  While it is good for students to have a substantive interest that they pursue in more than one paper, this is to be distinguished from the scenario of submitting in two classes the same paper. When in doubt, (a) err on the cautious side, and (b) talk with me.