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Indiana University Bloomington

Fall 2012  Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality

Themester 2012 Overview

Curriculum Bundle - Final Deadline: February 1
Call for Co-curricular Proposals - Final Deadline: March 20
Frequently Asked Questions

When is behavior good, or bad? We may believe we know it when we see it, but how do we  judge? For example, when is it okay to lie? Can we specify what is good behavior for an  unsupervised robot in every situation it might encounter? For that matter, what is behavior?  Not even experts agree on a definition. Do plants behave? Bacteria? Physical chemists  talk about “the behavior of water molecules” and we recognize good (in the sense of life- supporting) and bad (in the sense of life-threatening) behaviors of chemicals and other  materials.  Even mathematical functions can be described as “well- or badly-behaved.”

In 2012, we are treated to the quadrennial double-header of Summer Olympics and U.S.  presidential election.  It is said that competition brings out the best in people, but the  competitive arenas of sports and politics provide plenty of counterexamples as well.   Athletes excel, but also cheat; politicians inspire, but also lie.  We endorse good behavior  and reject bad behavior and develop elaborate systems to assess each, although we  don’t always agree on which is which.  As humans, we tend to think that we of all animal  species have a monopoly on moral reasoning, but we still recognize good (adaptive) and  bad (maladaptive) behavior in other animals. Biologists studying the evolution of such  behaviors in animals even wonder whether human morality is also an evolved adaptive trait.  

Themester 2012 explores the meanings of "good behavior" and its counterpart “bad behavior”  in all senses: aesthetic, ethical, adaptive, useful, essential, etc., applied to the realms of the  living and non-living. Our discussions encompass moral philosophy, behavioral biology, the  social sciences, mathematics, law, material science, cosmology, the literary, visual, and  dramatic arts, and more.  All contribute to our understanding of the possibilities and limits of telling good from bad and behaving accordingly.

If you have questions, please contact Tracy Bee, Director of Academic Initiatives at themes@indiana.edu.

Themester 2012 Good Behavior, Bad Behavior advisory committee:

Colin Allen, Cognitive Science and History & Philosophy of Science
Fritz Breithaupt, Germanic Studies
Anna Connors, undergraduate
Gregory Demas, Biology and the Center for Integrative Study of Animal Behavior
Constance Furey, Religious Studies
Jill Robinson, Chemistry
Peter Todd, Cognitive Science, Informatics and Psychological & Brain Sciences
Stacey Vosters, undergraduate

Co-curricular proposals


The College is looking for scholarly and creative activities and events that engage the undergraduate population in the discussion and complement the preliminary Themester curriculum bundle.

Events and activities in the Themester might include:

  • Lectures and public discussions
  • Colloquia and Workshops
  • Panels
  • Open Houses
  • Student contests and competitions
  • Art exhibits
  • Museum programming and exhibits
  • Creative performances
  • Films


Themester is meant to inspire discussion and reflection on important topics within and across disciplines. To this end, and to better leverage limited resources, multidisciplinary events and partnerships between departments and units are encouraged. 

Do please include the following in proposals:

  • a description of the proposed programming,
  • proposed date(s) and times,
  • a detailed budget,
  • the departmental or co-sponsoring unit’s financial contribution,
  • amount of Themester funding required,
  • any initiatives already taken with regard to the event,
  • expected audience (specific disciplines/majors? campus-wide? general public?),
  • publicity efforts that will be undertaken by you or your department,
  • the contact person for the proposed program,
  • and your fiscal officer’s name and contact information.

The priority deadline for funding has passed, but proposals will be accepted for a final round of consideration through Thursday, March 20, 2012 and should be submitted to themes@indiana.edu.  

Frequently Asked Questions