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Animals in TranslationReview - Animals in Translation
Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
Harvest, 2004
Review by Christina Behme, MSc
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)

Animals in Translation offers unique insights into a diverse array of problems from animal handling to selective breeding and animal cognition. Author Temple Grandin uses her experience as autistic person, to access the animal mind in ways that seem to be closed for most 'normal' people. However, it would be a mistake to attribute her work to autism alone. Grandin explains that while she always was drawn to animals it was not until she was in her forties that she realized that "autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy" (p.1). The book contains seven chapters jam-packed with anecdotes and information and a "Behavior and Training Trouble Shouting Guide". It will be of practical interest to anyone who works with animals, of general interest to the reader who needs or wants to learn about the fascinating world of animal perception, and of special interest to the philosopher of mind who still ponders the questions whether animals have minds, can think, or feel pain (at least as far as Grandin is concerned the answer is clearly Yes!). A word of caution: sometimes Grandin's use of the term 'animal' will appear unorthodox to the taxonomist. When she talks about animals she usually (but not exclusively) refers to domestic animals, primates, and other mammals. By contrast "dung beetles are insects, not animals" (p.59) and at times birds and fish seem to be excluded from the animal kingdom as well (p.183).

Chapter one, "My Story", reveals how Grandin came to understand that she is in a perfect position to translate 'animal talk' into English (p.7). According to her autistic people are visual thinkers and that is (presumably) also the way animals think. Visual perception plays a huge role in the life of animals ("Animals are controlled by what they see " p. 17) and many problems in animal handling can be solved when we understand the perspective of animals. Animals see far more details than people and are very sensitive to differences in contrast. Grandin illustrates the difference with examples. On the one hand cattle can balk at the sight of a bright yellow fence, a raincoat flapping on a fence, or they may refuse to walk from bright daylight into a dark alley. On the other hand (most) people 'suffer' from inattentional blindness. They see 'the big picture' of what they expect to see and overlook many of the details. Experiments have shown that those details can be substantial (some viewers failed to see a gorilla walking through a basketball game or an airplane 'parked' on a landing strip of a flight simulator). Grandin's work has helped tremendously to make 'verbal thinkers' aware of these differences.

Chapter two, "How Animals Perceive the World", explains some of the most striking differences of animal and human perception. Some animals (dogs) have fewer cones than in their retinas, which results in lower visual acuity. Most prey animals (cows, horses, sheep, etc.) have panoramic vision, which allows them to see literally behind their heads (p.40) but also causes a small blind spot directly in front of their heads and affects their depth perception (p.41). Many animals have good night vision, excellent vision for contrasts (including shadows on the ground) and relatively poor color vision (p.43). The color spectrum seen by animals ranges from dichromatic (many farm animals) over trichromatic (some primates and humans) to tetrachromatic (birds). In addition most animals have a keen eye for novel stimuli (p.45). Further, Grandin discusses striking differences in sound- and smell-perception and some examples of 'extreme perception' (p. 49-62). Elephants use infrasonic sound waves and possibly seismic perception to communicate over great distances and dolphins rely on sonar (p.60f). Grandin reminds her reader that inattentional blindness may allow normal humans to filter out many distracting details from the stream of incoming sensory information (p.67) but that most animals do not have the same kind of filter. She provides a useful 18-points list of 'tiny details that scare farm animals' that can include anything from sparkling reflections on puddles to slow fan blade movement (p.33ff). The message to plant owners is simple: For animals every detail is equally bad and equally important; so if your plant has four 'bad' details fix all four; fixing three will not solve the problem.

Chapter three, "Animal feelings" deals with two separate themes: the (at times disastrous) effect of single trait breading on the emotional make up of animals (p.69-93) and the core emotions of domestic and wild animals (p.93-130). Hopefully, professional breeders and pet owners alike will be inspired to rethink breeding priorities after reading about rapist roosters, psycho hens, lame pigs, aggressive albino Dobermans, and 'needle-nose collies'. It is important to remember that "we are the main engine of evolution" (p.74) for domestic animals and that we do not know in enough detail how desirable and undesirable animal traits are genetically connected. Emotional changes in animals are often the unintended (and sometimes unnoticed) consequence of intentional breeding for (desirable) physical traits. Therefore, it is important to learn more about the 'normal' animal emotions. According to Grandin animals have four core emotions (rage, prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation) and four primary social emotions (sexual attraction, separation distress, social attachment, and play). She explains similarities and differences to the human counterparts and how these emotions affect normal interactions between animals. Her examples make it quite clear why it is so important that animal owners are familiar with animal emotions. Maybe the most important lesson is that virtually all animals need interaction with other animals. Solitary confinement needs to be avoided whenever possible.

Chapter four, "Animal Aggression", deals with the two core kinds of aggression: predatory aggression and emotional/affective aggression. Predatory aggression has a species specific, innate, 'hardwired' component (chase and killing bite usually triggered by rapid movement) and an acquired, learned component (which animals to chase and to kill). There is no connection between predatory killing and angry aggression. (p.139). In the wild young animals learn from other animals when and how to inhibit the chase impulse and domestic animals, like dogs, depend on humans to teach them. Dog owners need to know that puppies do not generalize in the same way as humans do but need to be taught individually that neither husband nor mailman are prey. Emotional aggression is fundamentally different from predatory aggression; it is driven by rage and triggered by a range of different stimuli. Grandin suggests seven sub-species of emotional aggression (1) assertive (dominance and territorial aggression, (2) Fear driven aggression, (3) Pain based aggression, (4) Intermale aggression, (5) Stress induced aggression, (6) mixed aggression and (7) pathological aggression. She elaborates with examples how these kinds of aggression differ and how they can be handled in domestic animals. Again, Grandin suggests that it is most effective to learn from the animals ('boar police', p. 154f, dominance hierarchies in social animals, p.156ff) and reminds of the dangers of 'solitary' confinement of domestic animals that can result in troublesome forms of behavior (similar to the bizarre behavior of orphaned wild animals, p. 161). Since it is much easier to prevent (emotional) aggression than to stop it once it has developed (p.165) it certainly pays to know the animal's nature and work with, not against it.

Chapter five, "Pain and Suffering", offers convincing evidence against the Cartesian myth that animals do not feel pain. Grandin stresses the important difference between perception of and suffering from pain. Some behavioral evidence indicates that animals may be not as pain-sensitive as humans (dogs don't act as if they are in much pain after abdominal surgery and it is not known whether they are masking their pain or feel less pain, p.181). But it also has been shown that virtually all vertebrates are sensitive to pain. Grandin speculates that (some) animals could be in a similar situation as leucotomy patients who, after their operation (surgical disconnection of frontal lobes and the rest of the brain) report, that they still experience pain but do not suffer from it (p.186) or that animals, like many autistic people may be less sensitive to pain (p. 187f). Anyone tempted to conclude that causing (physical) pain to animals is permissible needs to pay close attention to the second part of the chapter. Grandin explains (again with numerous examples) that animals suffer greatly from fears and, seemingly, are unable to forget frightening experiences (another similarity to autistic people's experience). "[The] fear system is 'turned' on in a way a normal person's is not. It's fear gone wild" (p.193). Fear is an important protection mechanism that helps wild animals to avoid dangerous situations. Thus, it is vital that frightening stimuli/situations are remembered reliably and in great detail. In addition, animals do not have language to 'talk themselves' out of fear but are stuck with (potentially extremely frightening) visual images.

            Chapters six, "How Animals Think" tackles the difficult question of (true) animal intelligence. Unfortunately, a good part of the chapter deals with the details of an efficient audit of meat packing plants, which seems to be somewhat out of place. Further, even though Grandin suggests that 'true cognition... happens when an animal solves a novel problem under novel conditions" p. 243 much of the chapter is a comparison between animal and human cognition and lacks focus on the animal. Grandin seems to be drawn into the contentious debate about the animal's ability to acquire the abstract categories of human language. Dr. Peppenburg's talking parrot Alex makes several appearances throughout the chapter and another section deals with research on language less humans. The sections on language like behaviour in prairie dogs (p.273-276) and music language (p.276-280) are informative but highly speculative. Overall, too much of the chapter focuses on how successful (some) animals solve human problems. Nevertheless, Grandin appears to be correct when she concludes the chapter stressing that the real questions are not if animals are feeling or thinking but what are they feeling, what are they thinking (p.283).

            Chapter seven, "Animal Genius: Extreme Talents", reconciles the reader who expected more information about how animals solve animal problems in the previous chapter. Grandin shows how animals put their extreme talents to work: migratory birds learn and remember migration routes that are thousand of miles long after traveling it just once (p.285f) and grey squirrels burry and retrieve hundreds of nuts every winter (p.287). Grandin speculates that these achievements are caused by hyperspecific perception. Possibly the animal brain, like the autistic brain, allows animals "privileged access to lover levels of raw information" (p. 299) while the normal human brain unifies details rapidly into coherent wholes. Much research remains to be done before we can hope to understand animal cognition. Grandin has provided a book full of motivation to continue this important research. In addition she has shown how perspective can change a seemingly unfortunate disability (autism) into a valuable asset.

 

 

© 2006 Christina Behme

 

 

Christina Behme, MSc (1986, Biology, University Rostock, Germany), MA (2005, Philosophy, Dalhousie University) is currently a PhD student in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests are philosophy of mind and psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy of language.


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