Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tape Recorders and Decoder Rings: Thoughts on Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation

Animals in Translation got me thinking before I even opened the book, largely because of its subtitle, "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior," and the analogy it suggests can be drawn between domestic animals and autistic people. I was skeptical that either of those (very heterogeneous) groups had enough universal cognitive traits to draw any meaningful comparisons, not to mention any worries I might have had about those comparisons being overly anthropomorphic (for the animals) or dehumanizing (for the people).

While this analogy does indeed comprise the main premise of the book,
Grandin does a variety of things to make it work, and to avoid either anthropomorphizing her animal subjects or objectifying her human ones. Of these, the most striking is the way she draws narrow, specifically-defined boundaries around her analogy, marking out a small number of areas of similarity between autistic and animal perception and processing. Those areas are:
  1. Hyperspecificity --- this term, she says, comes from autism research but it equally applicable to animals. It means the person, or animal, is so detail-oriented that even when they're dealing with categories of things, those categories are usually very specific and narrow, making generalization difficult.
  2. Sensory immediacy --- also related to the importance of detail in animals' and autistic people's lives; while most people filter what they perceive to get a general idea, autistics (and animals) have to experience what's around them in great detail. As Grandin puts it, animals and autistic people are dealing with the world in terms of "raw data," while normal people are actually seeing their own mental model of the world, which may be simpler and cleaner, but doesn't include everything there is. That's where the phenomenon of "inattentional blindness," or not seeing what's in right in front of you, comes in.
  3. Simple, intense emotion, coupled with a lack of "mixed emotions" or ambivalence.
  4. Visual thinking

The book keeps coming back to these traits to explain a wide variety of the animal behaviors that puzzle farmers, owners and trainers, and to Grandin's sharing those traits to explain her success in solving the problems that baffle so many others. While describing her work as a consultant in the meatpacking industry, she stresses the importance of putting herself in the animals' place, walking where they would walk, even ducking her head so she sees what they would see. While she does this, visual details that would spook the cattle jump out at her, so she can easily tell the plant's operators what the problem is. This brings us to another important constraint Grandin places on her analogy: she limits its scope to what she's been able to verify empirically. Her predictions of what an animal will need in its environment to be happy, and of what kinds of things scare them, or what types of training will succeed or fail, are almost always borne out, and she can draw on a lot of peer-reviewed animal research to support her ideas. She also tells us that her expertise in animal behavior is not purely instinctive; she's had to develop it over the years, fusing her awareness of how her own brain works with the theoretical and practical knowledge she's acquired over the course of her career. "I wasn't any horse-whispering autistic savant (as a girl)," she tells us in Chapter 1, "I just loved the horses."

Another thing she does that strengthens the central analogy between animals and autistic people is show how a normal human's thought patterns and cognitive biases can work against understanding animals. Normal humans are very abstract thinkers, quick to generalize, and very verbal, while animals and autistics are concrete, visual, hyperspecific thinkers. In a section on animal welfare, Grandin contrasts the clear, simple ten-point checklist she uses to audit meatpacking plants with the much longer checklists verbal thinkers tend to devise. Her checklist looks for outward signs of distress in the cattle or gross mishandling by the workers, while the verbal thinkers usually want to peek into every aspect of the plant's operation.

She also directly addresses the problem of anthropomorphism, which she says was a cardinal sin when she went to college, in behaviorism's heyday. She draws a distinction between blindly supposing an animal's mental states to be like a human's, as when people believe a dog feels "guilty" about messing on the floor, and being mindful of the animal's point of view, as she tries to be.

Overall, the book is a primer on animal handling, with a lot of side trips into the areas of animal intelligence, psychology and brain research. It's organized into seven chapters, each one dealing with a broad topic like "Animal Aggression" or "How Animals Think," and each chapter is divided into small sections devoted to a small aspect of that broad topic. Colorful anecdotes are her preferred method of demonstrating the general principles she lays out, featuring both human and animal characters. Her writing style is very direct and literal, with very few metaphors. If anything, her writing is more notable for its "unpacking" of popularly used metaphors --- particularly in the chapter on "Animal Feelings," she'll describe research on the biology of emotion in animals to show the literal truth of the sayings. In a section titled "Love Hurts," she details research on opioid receptors in the brain and their relation to social behavior, and in the last paragraphs of the preceding section she tries to tie research on the body's temperature-regulation system and its possible role in social behavior to metaphors of affective warmth or coldness. I am not well-informed enough to assess the soundness of those links, but I think her choice to include them shows a concrete, literal approach to metaphor that fits right in with what she describes as the core traits of the autistic mind.

Though the whole book is filled with variations on the central analogy, I think the last two chapters, "How Animals Think" and "Animal Genius: Extreme Talents" make explicit what I think of as the essential message of the book. These chapters summarize research findings that animals can solve problems, use language, and even develop incredible talents that very few people could. Though "skeptics" who doubt those findings are periodically invoked, Grandin admits that not enough is known to determine how much animals' brains can do, or how sophisticated their communication systems are. She seems to invoke the Other Side not to much to debate them as to use them as foils, pitting her own optimism and empathy against their anthrocentrism.

If the history of animal research is anything to go on, we probably don't even know what we think we know, since every time researchers think they've proved animals can't do something along comes an animal who can.

I think autistic people are included in this assessment, too, since she refers to research on their abilities along with the animal research, and expresses regret that their talents are not put to more use by industry. This, to me, is the most powerful result of the analogy she's built her book around: this recognition of both animals and autistic people as having been overlooked. The analogy hasn't blurred any lines between the two groups, or simplified her portrayal of them; it's only an admission of how little is really known about either, and how much both have to offer a world that's historically only acknowledged one kind of intelligence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is sick why you are so speciest reducing, I understand that based on the Hamilton rule it is natural to value your own species more than others species just like it is natural to value a relative more than a stranger. But reducing the fellow inhabitants we evolved along with to mere objects is sick disgusting and wrong. Through 3.5 billon years of evolution by natural selection we each evolved traits that helped us fit a particular niche evolution favored our species to have large brains as a survival mechanism just like it favored a viper to have venom or a milk snake’s batesian mimicry. I do acknowledge that there is a continuum of characteristics among species but at least you must acknowledge the complex nervous systems and emotionally lives of vertebrates particularly birds and mammals which science is just beginning to understand now the ability to feel both physical and emotional pain is an evolutionary survival mechanism, without physical pain an animal would not know to avoid danger, and without emotions the bird and mammalian (and some reptiles) would not invest so much interest in their offspring taking away from their own wellbeing. I feel that form this post you are are almost putting more intrinsic worth to your own species than as opposed to doing what is evolutionally natural to our species which valuing is individuals who share more of are genetic material. You do have to acknowledge that because our own species has to make a evolutionary trade of between large brains and bipedalism we are bore about three months prematurely and will not reach the self awareness of the average livestock animal till we are two to four years old. And some humans who are severally retarded will never be as self aware as members of many other species (would you refer to them as “Objects). Among early hominid species which ones would you refer to “objects” . What speciation event do you think humans stopped being an “object” and started becoming “people?” would it be the speciation that led to the split between homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis or would it be when those species split from Homo erectus, or would you go all the way bake to when the homo Genussplit from the Australopithecus Genuswhat about species of humans from theGenus Paranthropus, such as Paranthropus robustus or Paranthropus boisei, or species of humans from the Genus Ardipithecus such as Ardipithecus kadabba or Ardipithecus ramidus. Let me guess you would refer to them as “objects” too. And how knowledgeable are you about the subject of Ethology,