04 November 2009

Choices and Challenges 2009: The Inner Life of Animals

Darwin event poses 'challenges' for Tech
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 9:52 PM 

Human attitudes toward animals have changed greatly throughout history, and members of the Virginia Tech faculty are exploring the shift in thinking.

Choices and Challenges 2009: The Inner Life of Animals is an in-depth look at the workings of the animal mind.

The study of animal behavior is a recent development in the scientific community with many of its beginnings linked to the work of Charles Darwin, whose work is celebrating its 150-year anniversary this month.

“Darwin began the modern scientific study of behavior,” said event organizer Eileen Crist, an associate professor of science and technology in society.

“The evolutionary context, the relatedness of all animals including people, is a big context to understand the whole study of (the) animal mind,” Crist said.

The Inner Life of Animals will use the evolutionary context to stage a panel that will explore how animals think and feel. Experts from around the country were invited to appear as panelists.

“It’s a sterling cast,” Crist said. “They are very well-known people in the fields of biology, science studies and animal welfare. Everything is in line for it to be a really good panel.”
Moderating the event is author Eugene Linden, who has written several books about animal intelligence and behavior. Linden has been a journalist writing about science and technology for decades, Crist said.

The panel is the centerpiece of the event, but Tech faculty, including Crist, will be contributing lectures and various background presentations.

Mark Barrow, an associate professor of history at Tech, will present “Animal Images,” an exploration of society’s treatment of animals and the natural world throughout history.
Early humans lived as part of nature and did not necessarily separate themselves from animals, Barrow said. He argues that the development of ideas such as the creation of humans by God distanced society from a connection with animals and nature.
The re-establishment of a connection between animals and humans began with the acceptance of Darwin’s research, Barrow said.

“Darwinian evolutionary theory permeates our culture in all kinds of ways,” Barrow said. “Our notions of competition between different nations are in terms of social Darwinism. It’s basically all over the place.”

The modern study of animal thought and behavior has its roots in evolutionary science, but the appeal reaches across academic disciplines.

The Choices and Challenges project was originally established in 1985 to explore topics in science and technology that have a broad influence on society. The project is sponsored by Tech’s science and technology in society program and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Guests are invited to attend presentations at the Graduate Life Center for background on animal behavior issues. The main panel will take place at the Lyric at 1 p.m.
“Virginia Tech has stood behind Choices and Challenges all these years,” Crist said. “It’s about education and outreach. That’s Virginia Tech’s primary stake in this."

9:30 - 10:45 a.m. background sessions at the Graduate Life Center
11 a.m. - 1 p.m. main panel at the Lyric
1 - 2 p.m. lunch break
2:30 - 3:45 p.m. follow-up sessions at the GLC
4 - 5 p.m. reception at Gillies

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