Question  Challenge  Change

Question what you hear

The 1960s was a time of turbulent social and political change.  Wars, protests, and social movements demanding greater individual freedoms raged around the globe against repressive governments and rigid cultures. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and United States fueled new technologies that, while producing many benefits, created environmental and health problems requiring expertise in a range of disciplines and prompting a moral and ethical debate about the role of scientists in contemporary society.

At universities, there was a growing concern among students and faculty that the traditional, segregated academic curricula were no longer adequately preparing graduates for this brave, new, interconnected world.  This concern took root at Stanford within a group of faculty members from the medical school and departments of biology and sociology.  Working with students in a series of teach-ins and forums aimed at integrating the biological and social sciences, it set out to create a new curriculum that would prepare students to tackle issues in a range of fields, including: urban planning, resource management, conservation, law and politics, as well as medicine and the biological sciences.

In the fall of 1969, Stanford founded the Undergraduate Program in Human Biology, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human beings from biological, behavioral, social and cultural perspectives.  It was one of the first programs of its kind anywhere and quickly became one of the university’s most popular majors.

Challenge what you know

Some fifteen years later I had the opportunity to major in Human Biology as an undergrad at Stanford.  Initially drawn to its innovative edge, I was hooked by its process of examining issues from all sides with a critical and open mind.  Two things from the major have stayed with me ever since, signposts that guide me whenever I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed. 

The first is a basic underpinning of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution:

The survival of a species in an ever-changing world requires genetic variety that is generated by random, unplanned mutations in the genetic code as it is copied and passed from parent to offspring.

To the young man I was at the time struggling with his sexuality, the notion that our very survival required a random and unplanned diversity was affirming.  The mission of the major is to encourage students to make connections between the hard and soft sciences.  This is one such connection I made personally that has provided me with strength and conviction in my own quest for equality, as well as counsel when confronting my own bias when it comes to that same equality for others.

The second is the sense of narrative the Human Biology approach yields to its subjects.  When a problem or conflict is presented within the contexts of multiple disciplines, predictions become observations, inquiries become explorations, and unexpected relationships emerge, giving way to a deeper understanding that oftentimes challenges the conventional or prevailing wisdom.  Whatever the topic — lactose intolerance, malaria, genetic patent law, even the institution of marriage — an unlikely story would unfold and captivate me.  

Change who you are

At the time I had no idea how relevant Human Biology would be to the filmmaker I intended to become.  But the practices embodied within the Program would prove to have a remarkable applicability to the craft of storytelling, especially non-fiction.  The dual themes of diversity and critical thought that it instilled within me continue to hold my imagination captive. is a place to honor these themes and celebrate the stories that challenge convention and defy stereotype made possible by them.

– John Fitzgerald Keitel  founder,

The Voice

The voice leaves its uterus,

departs from the placenta

that fed it with an agenda.

The voice drops into a marsh,

struggles to find its breath

among the murk and reeds.

The voice then learns to feed

upon the wriggling amoebas

of motive, will, ambition, spin.

It grows, gangly and awkward,

into a creature full of want,

hell-bent on being heard.

The Belief

The belief strolls along its path,

casual as a CEO golfing solo

at his country club on a Tuesday

afternoon, thanks to his staff.

Breezily, not a care in the world,

the belief kicks a can of science

to the curb in order to disturb

evidence that might refute it.

The belief has formed an alliance

with those who can’t be bothered

with fact, pleasantly immune

to the stories told by tangibles.


Despite everything he’s been told

and sold, that staying on message

is worth its weight in gold, he begins

to rearrange, and becomes Change.

The brackish coastline of his views

breaks into a swirling tide, the lens

from which he sees comes unglued.

All is anew. Change departs his cave

to greet the astonishing glare of day.

He will adjust, he must. He wonders

what brought him here, and whether

he can find a way to inspire others.

Multi-tasking at SCOTUS, April 28, 2015

Matthew Byrne, poet

Matthew’s poem, “Let me Count the Ways,” was selected for inclusion in the 2007 edition of the prestigious The Best of American Poetry, and his chapbook, Silent Partner, won the 2013 Sow’s Ear Chapbook Competition.  When he’s not writing poetry, he sells insurance in Chicago, where he also lives with his wife and three children.  Matthew is a graduate of the University of Iowa (BA, English) and the University of Montana (MFA, Poetry).

photo 1:  original photography by Kimberly Reed, photographic art by Giana Mucci

photo 2: photographic art by Giana Mucci

“Question what you hear” is a summary of Human Biology – The First 30 Years

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