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April 3-4 Symposium at Southwestern Will Explore the Self-Worlds of Animals

“What’s in your umwelt?” Those who attend the April 3-4 Brown Symposium at Southwestern University will be able to answer this question.

“What’s in your umwelt?”

Those who attend the April 3-4 Brown Symposium at Southwestern University will be able to answer this question.

Symposium organizer Jesse Purdy, a professor of psychology at Southwestern, explains that “umwelt” comes from an influential 1934 paper by German researcher Jakob von Uexkull (Yewks-kill), who argued that to truly understand animal behavior, one must appreciate the animal’s “umwelt,” (oom-velt) or self-world. This self-world is determined in part by the animal’s sensory and motor systems.

Purdy will introduce the community to the self-worlds of animals in a symposium he has titled “Umwelt: Exploring the Self-Worlds of Human and Non-human Animals.” Topics to be addressed at the symposium, Purdy says, include “How can we understand the self-worlds of non-human animals?” and, “If we can, what will we learn and how will that learning influence our treatment of non-human animals?”

The symposium will begin with a short documentary film that provides a Weddell seal’s eye view of Antarctica as it forages beneath the fast ice of McMurdo Sound. Purdy produced the film along with Randall Davis, a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University in Galveston.

Speakers participating in the symposium include writer and poet Diane Ackerman;

Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; David Fogel, CEO of Natural Selection Inc. and a leading expert in the field of artificial intelligence; and Michael Gazzaniga, a behavioral neuroscientist who heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ackerman will open the symposium April 3 with a talk titled “Playful Octopuses, Emotional Chickens and Other Relatives.” Ackerman has published more than 20 books, including The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Moon by Whale Light and the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-hour PBS television series.

That afternoon, Clark will provide insight into the self-worlds of the great whales in a talk titled “Voices from the Blue Deep: Acoustic Ecology of the Great Whales.” Following this talk, Gazzaniga will focus on the human brain in a talk titled “Does the Right Hemisphere Have an Umwelt?”

On April 4, Fogel will offer a glimpse of the self-worlds of intelligent machines and make comparisons to human and non-human animals. The symposium will conclude with a panel discussion featuring all four speakers. It will be moderated by Bill Timberlake, professor of psychology at the University of Indiana.

Refreshment breaks during the symposium will feature animal-themed treats provided by animal behavior majors at Southwestern and students in Purdy’s animal behavior classes.

The symposium also will include an art exhibition organized by Southwestern University Professor of Art Star Varner. The exhibition is titled “Bestiaries” and includes 28 lithographs and wood cut prints by artist Rudy Pozzatti. Pozzatti will speak about his work at 6 p.m. April 3 in the Fine Arts Gallery.

Purdy says that full understanding of the self-worlds of animals will lead to better policies to ensure their survival and well-being. For example, he says, that if humans can truly appreciate that dolphins use about 60 percent of their brains to process auditory information, they will more fully comprehend the profoundly negative impact that noise pollution has on their ability to survive.

As another example, Purdy points out that polar bears do not innately recognize fish as a source of food. Polar bear researchers have observed these bears walking through streams teaming with fish on their way to ice floes in search of seals. “An understanding of how polar bears view their world might assist researchers in developing ways to teach bears about alternative food sources,” he says.

The symposium is free and open to the public. All the lectures will be held in the Alma Thomas Theater, which is located in the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center on the Southwestern campus. For more information, or to register for the symposium, visit www.southwestern.edu/brownxxx or call 512-863-1902.

The Brown Symposium is funded through an endowment established by The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston. This year marks the 30th year of the symposium, which was first held in 1978. Purdy, who joined the Southwestern faculty in 1978, has attended all 30 of the symposiums. This is the first symposium he has organized since being named one of the university’s six Brown chairholders in 2004.