Beyond Nature or Nurture: Why Do We Behave the Way We Do?

Spring Open
Class Standing
Nancy Murray
Steven Niva

Human behavior is often marked by complexity, contradictions, and a profound sense of mystery. It raises fundamental questions about the human capacity for both extreme violence and extraordinary acts of altruism. It also prompts inquiry into the tendency of humans to form exclusive groups despite scientific evidence indicating that all humans share a common African ancestry. Scholars and philosophers have often debated the extent to which human behavior is determined by nature—hardwired traits molded by thousands of years of evolution—or by nurture—the software of cultural socialization that varies in different places and times. But perhaps there is more to the story.

This sophomore and above program will draw upon the latest scholarship in biology and neuroscience, as well as new work in social sciences and cultural studies. It will transcend the simplistic dichotomy of the nature versus nurture debate to explore the intricate interplay that shapes and drives human behavior. Students will gain insight into how biology, the human brain, and the forces of evolution contribute to human behavior but also how material conditions and diverse cultures significantly affect who and what we can be.

The program will explore a variety of human behaviors and dispositions, such as the role of unconscious bias that leads to in-groups and out-groups, the tendency to migrate, and the long-standing propensity to violence but also kindness and solidarity, among other issues. It will investigate the extent to which humans operate as reactive organisms or agents endowed with free will, capable of actively shaping their own destinies.

Program materials will include both scientific and social science books, articles, and cultural materials such as films and videos. Credit-bearing assignments will explore multiple modes of learning, including creative assignments as well as research papers. Program activities will include lectures, workshops, seminars, and active learning exercises. Students will be expected to demonstrate growth in reading scientific and more general texts, group project work, writing analytically, and thinking critically.

Expected Credit Equivalencies

Introduction to Neurobiology and Behavior - 6

Sociological and Political Causes of Human Behavior - 6

Theories of Human Nature - 4


Academic Details

Health sciences, human biology and neuroscience, sociology and social science, psychology and counseling, cultural studies



In Person (S)

See definition of Hybrid, Remote, and In-Person instruction

Schedule Details
Purce Hall 2 - Lecture