Cognitive Science Perspectives on
Humanity and Well-Being

3 units, Spring Quarter 2018-2019, Stanford University

Meeting Time: Tuesdays, 7:30-9:50pm beginning April 3
Location: 460-126 (Greenberg Seminar Room, Margaret Jacks Hall)

Instructor: Todd Davies
Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Email: davies at stanford dot edu
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Office Hours: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays 10:30 - 11:55 AM

Syllabus (this page):

Interactive website: SYMSYS 203 Course Blog

Canvas site: Sp19-SYMSYS-203-01 
Adaptation of Human Nature/Life
                Death, 1983 by Bruce Nauman - The Art Institute of
                Chicago. Animated GIF created by Todd Davies, 2/6/2015,
                from frames taken on 5/22/2009 by neogejo
                ( and used by
                permission. The museum's description of this refers to
                it as a 'literal peace sign'
                but that is not quite correct. What is the symbol formed
                by Nauman's words in this sculpture? This GIF is
                licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0


This version: May 31, 2019 [check this site for updates]


Completion of a course in psychology beyond the level of Psych 1, or consent of the instructor. Note: The course materials and blog will be publicly available, but class sessions are open only to students enrolled in the course.

Course Overview:

This advanced small seminar explores research by cognitive scientists on basic questions about human nature, including questions that have traditionally been investigated by historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists, e.g. What causes people to behave morally or immorally? What are the sources of human conflict and disagreement?, What drives or reduces violence and injustice?, and What brings about or is conducive to human well-being, peace and justice? The course will be taught as a reading seminar: We will read books, and discuss them both online and in class.

The course will be organized around three books (which should be available prior to the first day of classes in the textbooks department at the Stanford Bookstore):

After an overview and introductions in Week 1, the whole class will read Sapolsky's book over Weeks 2 through 5, Barrett's book over Weeks 6 and 7, and Tomasello's book over Weeks 8 and 9.  At the end of the quarter (Week 10 and Finals Week), students will do presentations about other works they have read related to the themes of the course, and we will have a brief summation at the end.

The written component of the course will take place online, with weekly 250-300 word comments on the assigned readings, which must be posted on the course blog by 6pm on the day of each class after Week 1, so that everyone has time to read each comment before class starts. I will lead the discussions of the three focal books over Weeks 2 through 9, turning it over to student presenters/discussion leaders in Week 10 and Finals Week. A schedule is given below.

Class sessions are based on the written blog comments, which are due each week 90 minutes before class starts. Until the Student Presentations begin at the end of the quarter, each week a randomly selected set of students are asked to read their comments to the class. The instructor engages each reader in discussion, and then other students can join in and ask questions as well. This is loosely inspired by the Oxford tutorial system: students write short pieces ahead of time, and then are asked to defend and elaborate upon their ideas in class. The whole class gets involved, so that students get a chance to engage with their own and others' ideas in different ways.


Each student is required to (a) attend and participate regularly, (b) do the assigned reading and post at least one reaction comment (300 words maximum) on the course blog per week, by 6 pm on the day of class, and (c) select and present a book (or possibly a set of articles) in class, provide sample reading for the class at least one week ahead of their presentation, and leave time for questions and brief discussion (or article set) during the final sessions of the course. In lieu of a final exam, we will be using a designated exam period during Finals Week for student presentations.

I expect doing each week's reading and writing a comment on it to take about 5 hours on average, and reading fellow students' comments to take an additional hour. Readings will vary a bit in difficulty, so I expect weekly reading times to differ across the books somewhat. Students' reading speeds vary, and you should gauge how much time it is taking you early on in order to set aside enough time in your schedule to do the reading and post your comment by 6pm on class days.

Accommodations for special circumstances, such as extensions on deadlines, make-up work, and absences, must be requested by an appropriate office at Stanford.

Disability. Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE).  Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations.  The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:

Life events. Life events that interfere with your ability to participate in the class or to complete work, such as an illness episode, a death in the family, or other special circumstance, should be brought to the attention of the Undergraduate Advising and Research office through an Academic Advising Director or other advisor, or to the Residence Deans. Personnel in these offices can notify faculty if you are absent from Stanford due to a life event, or have another special circumstance of which your instructors should be aware.


Week 1 (April 2) -- Overview and Introductions

Week 2 (April 9) - Behave Appendices 1 through 3 (if needed), Introduction, and chapters 1 through 5

Week 3 (April 16) -- Behave chapters 6 through 9

Week 4 (April 23) -- Behave chapters 10 through 13

Week 5 (April 30) - Behave chapters 14 through 17, and Epilogue

Week 6 (May 7) -- How Emotions Are Made Introduction, chapters 1 through 6, and Appendices B through D

Week 7
(May 14) -- How Emotions Are Made chapters 7 through 13

Week 8 (May 21) -- A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 1 through 3

Week 9 (May 28) -- A Natural History of Human Morality chapters 4, 5, and Conclusion

Week 10 (June 4) -- Student Presentations I

Finals Week (Friday, June 7, 7-10PM) -- Student Presentations II


The course grade will be based on the following breakdown:

I will post feedback and comment scores to you each week on the course's Canvas site (login required for access to individual data), on a scale from 0 to 5. In computing your final score for online comments, I will drop your lowest score. I will send feedback and scores for your presentation when grades are submitted at the end of the quarter.

For more information on grading criteria, see the
comment guidelines.

Suggested Books for Student-Led Presentations at the end of the Quarter (organized by topic):

NOTE: The following list is not exhaustive. They represent an extensive sample of work in relevant areas, with emphasis on books published since the most recent incarnation of this course in the Spring of 2015. Books listed include those by cognitive scientists but also from adjacent disciplines that address humanity and well-being from a broad perspective.

If you want to present a book that is not listed here, contact the instructor. Publishing dates in the list below may be based on either the first edition or a later edition. Books in boldface represent works or authors with which/whom the instructor has some familiarity and can recommend on that basis. Many books without boldface may also be outstanding choices.

See also the list from the previous version of this course:
for earlier suggestions.

Articles of Interest:

Links to Programs of Interest: