Writing assignment for the 2011 Alumni & Friends Symposium


Beginning with the very first Symposium in 2007, we have expected participants to give prior consideration to the issues that will be collectively addressed in discussions and panels.  We have made readings and other media available, and we have asked all participants to submit written statements ahead of time that will be shared among everyone.   The result has been informed, stimulating discussion of various viewpoints among bright minds.  Several participants have reported feeling a bit intimidated as they begin to write but later elated at the exchange of ideas that has resulted.

Below are four questions to which we ask that you respond with your own ideas and reactions.  These are questions of perspective and viewpoint, not analytic topics that rest on rigorous logic or evidence.  There are no right or wrong answers, and various participants will probably have differing ideas.  Although these are not essays that must be grounded in the readings, you may find the readings help to shape your own thinking about the four questions posed, and we encourage you to reference them in your responses.

Here are the ground rules for your written submission:

a. Please respond to all four questions.  They correspond to topics that will be featured in the small group discussions.

b. Please limit each response to two paragraphs (or 250 words).

c.  Feel free to include your own life experiences as part of your response to any or all of the four questions.


e. The deadline for submission is Monday, October 24.

If you have any questions or concerns about the writing assignment, please contact Prof. Byron Nichols at for more information or guidance.

Please respond in writing to the following four questions:

1. Research shows that the preference humans have for physical beauty is biologically rooted (body symmetry signals genetic fitness; an hourglass figure in young women is a reliable sign of fertility). So humans have evolved to be intuitive “physiognomists,” unconsciously/instinctively associating good looks with desirable inner qualities like kindness and intelligence. These preferences lead humans to discount and often discriminate against people who are (for whatever reason) not symmetrical, aesthetically appealing, or sexually attractive.  To what extent is this an issue that matters?  What can society do to minimize this discrimination?

2. Recorded history shows that human females have always tried to enhance their looks (e.g. by using cosmetics, jewelry, body-altering techniques).  Today the American female’s “beauty burden” is immense, and American mass media send our natural predilection for attractiveness into overdrive. Technology makes "flawlessness" and "perfection" seem within reach.  Have we gone too far?  Not far enough?  What, if anything, can society do to ameliorate this trend?

3. Studies show that sex and gender are fluid and negotiable, both culturally and biologically. Yet because gender is a fundamental component of identity, everyone is interested in having a clear and unambiguous definition of "male" and "female," from Olympic athletes to gay marriage advocates and opponents. Scientifically, that may not be possible, and with scientific developments in hormone therapy, surgery, etc., the lines are becoming more blurred every day.  How can society address these concerns?  Should we try to make gender less important in identity just as we have tried to make race less important?  Should we embrace the idea of “many genders” (not just two)?  Should we try to prohibit any medical procedures that seek to change or modify sex and gender?

4. Increasingly, humans and technology are becoming one. From replaced knees and hips to artificial hearts and prosthetics, from insulin pumps to portable oxygen machines, from breast implants to augmented contact lenses, humans are becoming cyborgs. Do you see this trend as fulfilling our desire to compensate for our natural limitations, or do you see it as a way to transcend human nature and create super-humans/post-humans? Are we violating some sense of “natural order” in doing so?  What are the most important benefits and potential pitfalls of this trend?