September 26, 2012

Animal Behavior Film Series Q&A

Dr. Gregory E. Demas, Professor and Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Biology, helped select the films to be screened for the animal behavior film series sponsored by Themester. Here he discusses his selections and the connection between animal behavior and morality.

1. Do people hold animals to a kind of moral standard? In what ways? 

It is interesting that one of the dichotomies in studying human vs. non-human animal behavior is that moral standards are not often considered when studying non-human behavior. Behaviors we would consider unethical or reprehensible when applied to humans (e.g., infanticide, cannibalism) are more likely to be considered in the context of their adaptive value in non-humans. That is, instead of asking if the behavior is right or wrong, the animal behaviorist more often asks whether the behavior is adaptive or non-adaptive and how it has evolved when attempting to explain a behavior. That is to say it is typically studied in a relatively “amoral” context. 

Although many of the principles of animal behavior transcend human and non-human animals, to a large extent there is a double-standard when it comes to applying moral standards across species and even within species.

2. In Grizzly Man, the bear who was suspected of eating Timothy Treadwell, a self-defined bear expert, was shot. How is this different than how a human would have been treated had he been suspected of Treadwell's murder? What does this say about perceived differences between human and animal behavior?

It is an interesting contrast how we as a society act towards humans versus non-humans when they violate our laws and rules or moral principles. 

There is a famous quote from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson that read, in part, “nature red in tooth and claw.” The quote has been interpreted to mean that often violent behavior of non-human animals are based on “instincts” relating to survival and self-defense rather than moral codes per se.  This is in contrast to the assumption that human behavior is guided by moral principles. It’s my opinion that this disconnect is largely artificial and incorrect. We too often fail to consider some form of “moral conscience” in non-human animal behavior (because it is nearly impossible to measure), while also failing consider the adaptive value of human behavior that may have evolved over many millennia. To understand the adaptive value of a behavior does not mean to necessarily condone it, but I think both aspects of behavior must be understood in order to fully understand behavior as a whole.

3. How did you choose the films for this series?

We tried to choose a range of films that possessed both scientific and artistic merit and that covered topics of relevance to students and faculty as we sit here in 2012. Because of the continuing (and much needed) focus on “green” issues across most college campuses, several of the films focus on animal conservation/ethics. 

Basic research in animal behavior continues to contribute in important ways to our knowledge of animals and how they interact with humans in our world. However, films about basic animal behavior tend to have more limited audiences than those focusing on more broad, applied themes. Thus we choose films that were well-made and would have broad appeal while focusing on important issues in animal behavior.

4. "The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco" was produced by IU professors. Could you tell us more about it and why it was included?

The “Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” is a feature-length film that highlights ongoing biological research on one of the most common and abundant groups of songbirds in North America: the Junco. The film explores key themes in animal behavior, ecology, and evolution, and conveys the process of scientific research with high school science standards in mind. 

We wanted to include it for several reasons: 1) To show IU students and faculty that some of the very best research in animal behavior is being conducted right here on our own campus; this film will help draw attention to the over 50 labs conducting animal behavior research of one kind or another right here in our own backyard. 2) The film is written and produced by Steve Burns, who is here at IU, and so we hoped that this would allow students to experience the process of making a nature documentary first-hand. A panel discussion with the filmmakers and scientists involved is planned in conjunction with the film so students will hopefully get to experience a “behind-the` scenes” view of the making of a scientific documentary.

5. Cane Toads is a relatively old film (1988). How is it still relevant when talking about behavior?

In addition to being somewhat of a cult classic film in the area of conservation biology, the lesson of Cane Toads is unfortunately one that we still haven’t learned. There are still examples of humans attempting to apply poorly thought-out “solutions” to control against introduced species or other pests. This movie shows that ecosystems are very finely balanced things and there is no easy solution; the “quick fix” is almost always the wrong fix.

6. Are you looking forward to any film in particular?

While I’m looking forward to all the films, I must admit I am especially looking forward to “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” because of its local connections, and it is a superbly produced film in its own right. The airing of the Junco movie at Themester will be the film’s world-wide premier. Most animal behaviorists do not have the benefit of a film made on their life’s work, so this is a rare and unique opportunity for IU students.

For more information about the animal behavior film series, refer to

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

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