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USES AND ABUSES OF BIOLOGY
Grants programme and essay competition

2014 MEETING

19th - 21st September 2014

Christ's College, Cambridge

In September 2014, a Concluding Workshop was held to celebrate the work of the Uses and Abuses of Biology Programme. The purpose of the workshop was to disseminate to a broader audience some of the key findings that emerged from the Programme's research projects during the course of the Programme, and to stimulate discussion and debate around the broader theme of the uses and abuses of biology. Journalists from a wide range of international broadcasters and news organisations were invited to attend. A number of PhD students and early-career post-docs also attended, as part of the UAB Programme's drive to engage with young scientists.

The workshop consisted of talks by academics around in the broader field of uses and abuses of biology, and presentations by researchers working within the UAB Programme on the results of their projects.

To download the media release for the UAB workshop, click here.

 

Some key findings

  • Dr Amy Unsworth presented the results of a newly-conducted YouGov national survey in the UK (n = 2116) which revealed that the number of British citizens who reject evolutionary theory may be much lower than previously thought. Only 3% of the sample rejected the idea that animals and plants have evolved from earlier life forms, while 6.8% thought that humans could not have evolved from non-human life forms. Among active religious worshippers, the figures were higher but still lower than expected, with 28.6% of regular worshippers (once a month or more) rejecting human evolution from non-human life forms, and 14.3% thinking that plants and animals did not evolve.

  • Prof Bill Struthers reported the results of a psychological study among students of a religious college in the US. His team presented students with news stories about the role of the brain in human behaviour. He found that when the stories were presented with brightly-coloured images of MRI brain scans to support the neuroscience, students did not find them more credible or persuasive than when just the text was used. In fact, when the story purported to show that religious belief and behaviour is just an affect of brain function, students found the story less credible and persuasive when accompanied by brain imagery, suggesting that investment in the issue caused students to be more sceptical of 'brain claims'.

  • Prof John Evans talked about the results of a national US survey which asked participants about how they define what a human is - are their definitions based mainly in theology, philosophy or biology? He found that many individuals report having a 'biological' conception of humanity, defining humans by their physical appearance and genetic endowment, rather than by attributes such as consciousness or the presence of a soul. Individuals who use primarily biological definitions are more likely to view people as 'object-like'. In other words, they are more likely to think that humans are not special, not unique, not equal, and like machines in their behaviour. In addition, this conception of humanity meant that people were more likely to support unethical actions like non-voluntary blood donation or selling organs on the open market.

  • Dr Cliodhna O'Connor reported on the results of her study into neuroscience in the media. She tracked the dissemination of a controversial neuroscience paper on the differences between male and female brains, through its university press release, the wider media and reader reactions in blog posts and comments. The investigation found that the original study was generally used by all readers, both academic and popular, to affirm existing gender stereotypes (for instance, about male map-reading, female multi-tasking, parenting proficiency, etc). Happily, the research was only rarely used to make derogatory remarks about the other sex, although more subtle forms of sexism were visible in much of the discussion about the research.

  • Dr Annie Jamieson presented results from her empirical investigation teaching a new, alternative curriculum of Genetics to a class of students at the University of Leeds. Her course emphasised the environmental factors that are important in human development and focussed on complexity and interaction in human genetics. This is in stark contrast to traditional Genetics courses which focus on simple genetic examples like Gregor Mendel's pea plants. She found that students taught the alternative course had a less deterministic approach to genetic causation and the influence of genes on behaviour.

  • Prof Dan McKaughan talked about his work on the way ethics is framed in light of two decades of research on 'promiscuous' and 'monogamous' voles. The finding that a single gene in voles, the gene coding for vasopressin, appears to be causally responsible for a shift in sexual behaviour has been frequently applied to humans. Prof McKaughan's research detailed some of the social implications that human studies of vasopressin and oxytocin have had in our conceptions of ethical behaviour, and discussed the difficulties of good science communication in public understanding of stories like that of the voles.

  • Dr Tom Aechtner presented results from his study of the number and type of propaganda elements present in New Atheist and Creationist mass media. The project has identified numerous types of propaganda element (such as repetition, using contrasts, using statistics and technical words, etc) in both New Atheist and Creationist popular media sources. Propaganda elements are much more common in these media sources than in a 'neutral' science magazine, demonstrating that both New Atheist and Creationist writers engage in an active attempt to persuade.

    For more information about the workshop please contact us on faraday.grants@st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk.