History S-35: Nature

I twice served as teaching fellow to Professor Joyce Chaplin for her Harvard Summer School course Nature.  The course is a history of ethics focusing on the concept of nature and the human / nature binary, beginning with animism and the agricultural revolution all the way to the present.  Texts included selections from Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Aristotle, Locke, Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Kant, Bentham, Emerson, Darwin, Rawls, Leopold, Singer, and Stewart Brand.  For this course, I designed a debate module structured around Brand’s Revive & Restore project, in which students were asked to debate the ethical dimensions of de-extinction.  One of the particular challenges of this course is it is taught at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, which means half of my students are Italian. There is something particularly salient, however, about discussing the concept of nature and natural on a sinking island.

Course Description:

The planet is in crisis—we need to think clearly and calmly about this, and craft solutions to the crisis that will be as just as possible to as many people as possible. How can we do this? This class is designed to give students an intellectual, verbal, and ethical toolkit for dealing with the important debates over imperiled natural resources and competing human needs that will only become more important as the years go by.

It may seem that questions about human responsibility toward the natural world are new, but there are long-standing traditions within western philosophy of arguing for ethical behavior in relation to nature, whether to benefit humans or to help non-humans. This course offers a critical and historical analysis of selected texts that identify human beings as a distinctively ethical species within the natural world, with particular attention to the emergence of normative theories that rank humans with and against other natural beings. Topics include:  definitions of wilderness and property; agriculture, industrialization, and consumerism as historic transformations of humanity; social hierarchies based on perceived natural human abilities; ideas of natural rights; conservation and environmentalism; and animal rights. Readings include Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Malthus, Emerson, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Singer. We will also examine how contemporary debates over the human place within nature have continued to cite and critique normative traditions defined in the past, whether these traditions continue to be appropriate—and powerful—in relation to problems in the present day.

Full course syllabus.


Visiting the MOSE project. Behind us is one colossal tooth of the lock system constructed to protect Venice from the rising sea levels resulting from global warming.DSC_0773.JPG

Engaged by tadpoles at Orto Botanico, the oldest botanical garden in the world. 2017-06-30 15.38.37.jpg