Animals In Translation

by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Review, part II

…and it gets worse. Grandin chooses to blame “abstract thinkers” for USDA problems (and fails to provide-much less bothers to attempt to-evidence that nearly everyone who works for the USDA are, I might add), yet the way she describes these difficulties makes it more plausible that it’d probably just be a good idea to put people who have worked in farm environments in charge of decision making (and we really have no reason to believe that people who work in those environments can’t be “abstract thinkers” either). But let’s not let little things such as logic and evidence-based verification get in the way of the contents in a best-selling non-fiction title.

So on page thirty we have Grandin blaming abstractification (which all “normal” people are apparently tainted with-philosophers tend to call things like this a hasty generalization fallacy) for the reason that workers at facilities in which they work don’t go inside dark buildings to figure out what the problems are. I suspect it might have to do with possible rules and regulations governing the rights of the work-force (or at least what is left of them, de-regulations considering), and the fact that most of the workers there are not there to act as engineers or architects. She then follows with yet more generalizations, this about all autistics and non-human animals-that they “don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves. We see details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.”

Well firstly, the autistic world is a bit more diverse that (however in a way, since we must all be able to experience what is going on in the world in an at least semi-coherent fashion, I suspect most of us have at least some “normal” charachteristics in order for things to make some amount of sense for us), secondly, when it comes to animals, that is, at least for now, unprovable. Grandin claims she is being paid to see details others don’t see, but after reading how stressed and bruised can lead to toughened meat, the conclusion may be more to do with long-term profits for the meat industry instead of whatever unique quality she may have.

This is then followed by a series of paragraphs with the misleading heading What Do Animals See?, which would perhaps be better called What I Think Animals See. Grandin tries to make the case that non-human animals are detailed-oriented, but provides no genuine or convincing reasons for why this may be so, because she only provides us with what she says they observe, and from a deductive argument at that. An animal may be able to observe and comprehend what the average human may not notice, but it really says nothing about their style of thought-process. In fact considering what most animals must do in order to survive in the wild (hunting, trying not to someone’s dinner, finding a safe place to sleep, etc) it might make more sense for them to get “the big picture” instead of an obsession for certain particular detail. But this possibility is not explored at all in this book. And while she does mention the work of Nancy Minshew, a researcher who has scanned the brains of autistics, there is nothing to indicate that she has done the same on non-human animals, much less anything that would show any possible connections of thought processes between autistics and animals.

I will skip the next few pages that get in to animal vision, with the exception of page 43. Grandin does, yet again, make a generalization about how all animals see (something which irritates me because not all members of the animal kingdom have vision anyway). The diversity of kingdom animalia is immense, and to simply say that “Animals see more intense contrasts of light and dark because their night vision is so much better than ours” is rather misleading. She does not seem to care, or even know, where to apply these descriptive statements. She claims that all animals are curious (like worms and sea anemones Ms. Grandin?), but as usual fails nor seems to care about what type of animal which she speaks of.

Being Oblivious

This part of the chapter goes back to the Gorillas in Our Midst video-which, by the way, doesn’t seem to have indicated or even bothered to get in to detail about exactly what type of people participated in it (how can we really be sure that they are all “normal”?), at least in the way she described it. I’ll say, however, in my experience, I can be incredibly mis-minded, and even spend hours looking for an impotant object of mine without even noticing it’s right near me, compltely oblivious. The world isn’t exactly what you’d call entirely short in autistics who sometimes fit in the absent-minded professor stereotype (though I’ll hasten to add that they don’t nessacarrily completely confrom 🙂 ). Ah, but no, only normal humans miss weird things, but somehow with autistics and animals it’s a rarity.


Page 53-57 has possibly one of the most asinine descriptions of the human brain that I have ever seen. We do not have a “dog” brain, Ms. Grandin. We have an ape one. We do not have a human brain on top of a dog brain in our skulls (anyone reading this really has no idea of how hard it is for me to keep myself from using explitives as I write this). That is because human beings are apes, and did not evolve from canines.

Oh and it gets better people, when on page 55 she asserts-with no data or studies to back it up-that animals are not capable of mixed emotions (she later says the same about autistics in general-speak for yourself, my dear). What does she think she is, a telepath? A special human with magical abilities that only she can posses? Because that is the only way aside from actual evidence can she truly obtain these kinds of conclusions. Because animals can not communicate to use, at least in a much more complicated matter, about the depth of how and why they feel. At most right now we are left with observations and probability, to act truly certain is nothing less than foolish.

Emphasis on frontal lobe damage in autistics is emphasized in the section Trapped Inside The Big Picture, but there are problems with this. As far as now know about autism, it is not believed to be a result purely from a single cause. That aside, brain differences between human and non-human have mostly to do with evolutionary adaptations, and autism isn’t one, so the comparison she tries to make here is very poor. And while it may in fact be possible that humans may be more vulnerable to more brain damage and disabilities than other species due to a big neo-cortex, the fact that disabled animals in the wild simply do not survive that long, wether it is by neglect by their mother, or being an easier meal for predators, is probably a more likelier explanation than simply not being born with big frontal lobes.

I thus suffer through 57 pages by this point, and it is in the 57th page where Temple Grandin finally gets to her point-that because of the frontal lobe damage that autistic brains are,, she alleges, more like animals. Even if I were willing to put aside how hideiously poor this analogy is, how then is this different from other people who are not autistic she doesn’t really bother to say-but hey, she brought up the frontal lobe issue, so why shouldn’t she also conclude that anyone with frontal lobe damage has mental and cognitive processes closer to an animal?

Now, I know a defender of her might say that she does not say autistic frontal lobes are bad, it’s more of an imput problem with the frontal lobes. I would respond with-exactly. Members of animal species that do happen to have frontal lobes do not really appear to have any autistic symptoms (thus helping to create a horrible analogy), and whatever their visual, audio, taste, or scent sensitivities clearly have more (as I’ve already stated before) have more to do with the consequences of their evolutionary history than anything else.

Quoth Grandin: Autistic people’s frontal lobes almost never work as well as normal people’s do

Having frontal lobes that aren’t carbon-copies of an average human when you are not a member of the human species doesn’t make it close to autism, Grandin. There is no logical reason to conclude that they are in any way similar, much less should be considered to be so.

Quoth Grandin: Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are.

No detailed lists of comparative brain scans or dissections, no years of post-doctorate work researching this, no peer-review, how in hell did this get published?

Quoth Grandin: …That’s what frontal lobes do for you: they give you the big picture. Animals see all the tiney details that go into the big picture.

Right. From the same person who says we all have a dog brain underneath our human one in our skulls. From the same person who seems more than willing to contradict herself in order to make her pseudo-scientific point. Whatever you say, Grandin.

*Skips through the animal ESP part*

*Tired, still recovering from the flu, but will finish with this chapter before going to bed, dammit*

Pages 62 through 67. A poorly made case that non-human animals process sense-data in similar ways to autistic ones. Which is laughable. Because as I already said before, animal senses are for the most part adaptive, due to this little thing we call evolution. Depending on the species, genus, family, etc, their senses are fine-tuned to find prey, to keep from becoming prey, look for mates, etc. Each species uses its senses in somewhat different ways. Autistic senses are just not as useful in similar contexts.

And yet again, she implies that autistics and animals don’t filter most things out. Well if any brain is going to function it’d have to resort to inattentive blindness, and this is something we all have to some degree, no matter what filtering problems you may have. And just because one may notice that, say, certain species of animals may appear as though little slides past their sight, hearing, and so forth, it doesn’t mean that they truly absorbe everything out there.

Quoth Gradin: There are probably some big differences, if only for the reason that animal perceptions are normal for animals, while autistic people’s perceptions not normal for people.

Alas, the logic and concept of this has not kept her from writing this book. ‘Off to bed now.

To be continued…


~ by whensquirrelsattack on February 20, 2007.

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