Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Review, Part I

Sometime before the end of last year a well-meaning acquaintance of mine told me that he realized what is wrong with me, and that he originally thought I had ADD. I thought “like an animal”, and later in the conversation (right before I spouted angrily off how Grandin was really full of it, I believe) about how Temple’s work influenced the study of whales by some researchers. Now, one can simpy brush off this type of nonsense and go on with life, but due to the fact that books with these types of arguments are taken seriously in the public sphere, and the standards of the US educational system as a whole are in fact rather low in comparison to other industrialized countries, I felt compelled to write an objection to Grandin’s truth claims. Of course, not all of the content in this book would of been possible without the aid of Catherine Johnson-however, due to the content of interview in the past year or two I think that there is little reason for me to believe that Grandin’s view differ from the writer she has worked with, thus I’ll leave the responsibility of the assertions up to Grandin. In order to avoid the possibility of using straw-men arguments, I have chosen to buy the paperback-used-for the sake of any possible updates she may of made that may contradict previous arguments (there were, alas not that much, if any). Apologies for article lengths, but I believe there is a need to address a number of problems with this book. Which are many.
In this post I shall begin with the first chapter. And so it begins-

Grandin opens the chapter with her personal life story, most noticeably with how thanks to her autism, she is supposedly better than “normal” people when it comes to understanding how animals think, and how it makes understanding them easier. (One cannot help but wonder if this makes people such as the like of Jane Goodall simply nothing more than chopped liver). In the midst of telling us about her past experience with animals as a teenager, she complains how animals and humans are “supposed to be together” and that most of our contact with them these days is merely due to cat and dog ownership (there is no mention of possible historical and economic reasons why we can’t all live a more country-like life). She argues that horses are good for teenagers, adds that a psychiatrist friend of her’s agrees, but adds no references or citations to support this assertion. This isn’t to say she might not be correct about giving responsibility to teenagers in this way is a good idea, but this is, however, a sign of a much larger problem with this overall piece of work.

I will skip the details of her experience with horses and horse riding (and as much as I loved horses and ponies in my teens, I could never really get myself to enjoy riding them, much less enjoy the responsibility of having to take care them. I was always more of a city person than a suburban or country-but I digress). I will instead rush to her following claim that autistic people think the way that non-human animals do. An unprovable one at that, but I’ll be wasting much of my time here explaining why it most likely can not be so. Despite her apparent belief that autism somehow presents a “way-station” between normal humans and non-human animals, there is little if anything from this chapter, much less the entire book to honestly consider if she is really correct. She also brings up the matter of autistic savants, and how non-human animals may be like them, and in fact may be “genuises” in contrast to “normal” people. She seems to fail to make the connection that these “talents”, if you will, have more to do with evolutionary and ecological factors than simply matters genuis. Conversly, one could also argue that humans could also be the true genuises here, after all, how many other species on this planet can handle basic algebra, much less read? Aside from that, the fact that she then compares herself to an astronomer predicting the existence of an outerspace object that is invisible to the nakes eye is rather laughable, to put it politely.

We are then introduced to the famous (or infamous, depending on which circles you hang out with) behaviorist who was BF Skinner. We discover that he had misogynist tendencies (even though Grandin doesn’t directly accuse him of sexual harassment when she met him in her late teens). Before she tells us how he tries to touch her legs, she gives us a fallacy by assertion which will be later used to help “prove” her point about animal thinking and behavior-that all autistics think in pictures. Despite admitting in fact that she was indeed incorrect in the past, that not all of us do think the way that she does, she chooses to contradict herself anyway in order to make her case. I will skip her defences of behaviorism, and of Lovaas’s methods (and in a way, I understand why, you spend that many decades dependant on a profession for your livelyhood, no point in risking biting the hand that feeds), and get to the part where she ironically condemns-and discusses-the problems with anthropormophism. The fact that she continues to apply her experience with no evidence-based verification methods with how autistics, normal people, and non-human animals allegedly think yet again seem to go over her head.

Decades ago, if you wanted to study psychology, it was all mostly all behaviorist based. You didn’t need to know much about basic biology, neurobiology (not that it was even considered important anyway, considering behaviorist philosophy), chemistry, or even basic algebra. The lack of understanding algebraic and chemical equations by the author does seem to make a lot of sense in how she has come to some of her conclusions, on the other hand I do not want to imply that you need a Ph.D. in biology to understand aything about it. The academic and working environments from fifty years ago, however, can be understood as a profound influence on the understanding of science, though. She no doubt would of had a lot of trouble getting into engineering today because of the fact that she flunked algebra (this isn’t to say math for her work isn’t used, there are probably engineering and architects who interpret her work mathematicly for real-world applications). But I am digressing here..

On page sixteen we are given a better detailed understanding of how she thinks (visually, of course), and how it affects and helps her work. Unfortunately, she starts to make generalizations about other people, such as behaviorists. She calls them all verbal thinkers (despite her own academic background), nor provides any references proving that even most of them are. Perhaps most “normal” people are verbal thinkers, but she fails to make a case why only verbal thinking causes problems for experiments, not other possiblities such as institutional problems. Despite citing differences between her and other “normal” people, it becomes clear that she taught herself to look out for things that non-human animals may be aware of, involving her own concern for animal welfare and good pattern-matching skills. Her own imagination, and at the very least attempts at empathy seem to be much better explanation for her ability to work and design and repair problems of slaughter houses and farms than simply autism itself. Trying to put herself in the animals’ shoes is a more likely explanation that just autism alone.

Instead of putting the obvious two and two together, though, she uses her experiences with cattle and what she notices from what they notice as a way of trying to weasle out of anthropormorphic accusations, and use it to prove that she now “knows” that animals are visual thinkers. On page twenty-four she brings up an experiment called Gorillas in Our Midst as a way of proving somehow that only “normal” people can be oblivious to things in their environment, but there is little proof that everyone in the study had neuro-typical brains, nor was there any reason why it should be implied that autistics can’t be obvlivious to things in their environment either. Our filtering mechanisms may be different, but despite any of our differences no brain can possibly take everything in, and inattentive blindness is prevelant in anything that has more than simply a functioning brain stem.

To be continued…


~ by whensquirrelsattack on February 18, 2007.

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