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What is Life?

ENGL 051.001
TR 12-1:30pm


In this course we will read across disciplines and genres in order to pose one of the most fundamental questions of all time: what is life? From Aristotle’s natural philosophy to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, to contemporary science fiction, philosophers, scientists and novelists have puzzled over what makes life, life. Is all life characterized by reproduction (that is, by its ability to perpetuate itself)? Or, as psychoanalytic thinkers since Freud have argued, is life also marked by a “death drive” that attempts to return the body to the inorganic? What can literature tell us about what is means to be alive that science and philosophy cannot?


This course will attempt to answer such questions, paying special attention where gender, race, and queerness fit into the picture.


Readings will include, among others: Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Emily Martin’s classic essay “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,” Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality, and Octavia Butler’s masterful science fiction novel, Dawn.


The main assignments for this course will be short blog posts and essays, in addition to a final exam (no large final paper).

fulfills requirements
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major