First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Taking Animals Seriously
After all the absurd, anti-human antics of groups like PETA, it's possible to forget that there are rational voices out there urging us to come to a better understanding of the animals that have been closest to us throughout human history: the animals we keep as pets and the animals we slaughter for food and clothing.
Temple Grandin has been at the forefront of the movement for humane, rational treatment of animals. Her designs for slaughterhouse equipment have revolutionized the meat industry, allowing cattle and pigs to reach the end of their lives without stress, without cruelty, without fear, and without pain.
What enabled her to see the needs -- and fears -- of animals better than any of the millions of people who have worked in animal husbandry and meat production over the centuries?
Temple Grandin is autistic.
In her new book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Dr. Grandin (with the help of co-writer Catherine Johnson, also a Ph.D. scientist -- and mother of two autistic sons) shows, through a review of the best research in animal brain function and through her own struggles to adapt to the brain abnormalities that cause autism, that we are closer to the animals than most humans realize.
Where our brains differ from all the other animals is in the size of our forebrain, the part that deals with language and generalized thought. The deeper parts of our brain are nearly identical to the brains of animals; it's as if we carry within us a dog brain, and even more deeply hidden, the brain of a lizard.
It's the Details
Make no mistake -- that forebrain is a crucial difference, and because of it we are able to transmit and store our knowledge to others to a degree no other species can, through spoken and written language. And we can grasp broad situations and similarities far more easily than other creatures.
But language and intuitive generalization impose costs, as well. When we translate our experience into a story, it suppresses our visual memories. When we see the forest, it often makes it impossible to see individual trees, or at least to remember them clearly.
Our higher functions force the lower ones into the background. Usually this works to our advantage -- and no one knows this better than the high-functioning autistic.
Grandin's idea is that because autism damages forebrain function, autistic people are forced to function as best they can with greater reliance on the animal brain. Often crippled in their ability to use language and to grasp situations that other humans easily understand, autistic people are able to instantly see details that completely elude people with normal brains.
That's the crucial difference, Grandin believes -- and she has a lot of evidence to suggest that she's right. Animals and autistic people see almost nothing but details, and generalize only with difficulty. That's why in training guide dogs to help blind people cross streets, they have to be taken to many different kinds of intersections -- stoplight in the middle, stoplight at the corners; with and without painted crosswalks; with and without walk and don't walk signals.
The dog can be trained to navigate every one of those situations, but if you train him at only one kind of intersection, he's not going to recognize a different kind as being similar at all. Animals -- and most autistic people -- can't make those intuitive leaps and recognize similar things as being "the same."
On the other hand, we are effectively blinded by our ability to grasp such broad similarities, which makes it far harder for us to see details. Think of the movie Rain Man, when a container of toothpicks spills on the floor and Dustin Hoffman's autistic character, Raymond, instantly says how many toothpicks there are. Such an autistic savant, undistracted by seeing "a mess of toothpicks," instead sees only one toothpick after another, but sees them instantly, and comes up with a perfectly accurate count.
Don't expect dogs or cows to count toothpicks, of course. But do expect them to find "hidden" things and notice "unnoticeable" details that human brains simply gloss over.
The Brain As Editor
A book editor's job is to read lots and lots of manuscripts, and then select only the ones that she thinks are worthy of the attention of the public. To you in the bookstore it may seem that the number of published books is vast; but compared to the number of manuscripts that could have been published, the selection in the bookstore is a drop in the bucket.
Our brains contain such a built-in editor, as well. We still see all the details that animals see, but our brain watches only for the "important" details and suppresses the rest. So most details never reach our consciousness.
In effect, one of our brain's main functions is to keep us from seeing that which is "unimportant."
You know how this works when you drive a car. You can carry on a conversation or listen to a book on tape while steering your vehicle and obeying the traffic laws. Your brain automatically calls your attention to the few details that matter -- the sudden movement of a pedestrian stepping into the street, the red lights of a braking car ahead.
You don't have to pay attention to every tree or bush or fence or house that you pass. Your conscious mind is thus freed to think other thoughts. What we lose in perception, we make up for in cognition. I don't know of any humans, least of all me, who would willingly give up that ability to multitask.
But it does mean we miss an awful lot of what's going on around us. This is why eyewitnesses are so unreliable. Especially after giving a verbal description of the perpetrator of a crime -- for a while, at least, our ability to visually recognize him is suppressed when we put our memory of his appearance into language!
Understanding the Animals
Because Grandin can -- no, must -- sense details much as animals do, her life as a human has been made far more difficult. But it has enabled her to understand the world that animals live in.
For instance, a slaughterhouse has installed all the right equipment (of her design) to keep pigs moving steadily and calmly toward the point where they will be grasped by equipment, stunned, and moved into the meat assembly line. But for some reason the pigs are balking at a particular point -- they won't move forward.
So the handlers are forced to use prods, which add to the pain and terror of the experience. Not to mention all the bruising that comes when the line of pigs stops and they bump into each other and the walls.
Grandin heard the workers explain that absolutely nothing is wrong with their installation, the pigs just won't go in; and certainly everything seemed to be in the right place.
But she got down on her hands and knees to see the world at pig eye-level and crawled through the chute. Ordinary humans might have done the same thing and seen nothing unusual. But what she saw was that at exactly the point where the pigs stopped, the overhead lights were causing dazzling reflections from the water on the floor.
Any sudden, unexpected event like those dazzling reflections causes prey animals like pigs and cows to become frightened. There was no way to eliminate the lights or the water on the floor (slaughterhouses have to wash things constantly); but she stayed on her hands and knees until she had directed the workmen to move every light fixture until the reflections no longer shone into the pigs' eyes.
And now the pigs went contentedly along the chute.
Fear vs. Pain
One might wonder how Grandin can feel such empathy for animals, and yet devote so much of her life to creating more efficient and "humane" systems for slaughtering them.
First, she recognizes that humans are not going to give up meat. In fact, many autistic people are meat-dependent. For whatever reason, if they try to live on a vegetarian diet they get weak and sick. It would be surprising if there weren't some people who need meat more than others.
More to the point, Grandin realized that if it weren't for the fact that we eat meat, then the millions of meat animals in the world would not exist at all. It is only because we sustain their lives that these species exist in such numbers; if we stopped eating them, and therefore feeding and nurturing them, their numbers would drop catastrophically.
Therefore her work is to try to make their lives content and their deaths calm.
And to this end, she makes sure that their lives are free of fear. Because to most animals, fear causes more suffering than pain.
This makes sense. Animals in the wild who became severely distressed by pain, limping or staggering or holding still and weeping because of it, would be marking themselves to any predator as the easiest victim. So while they feel pain and wish to be rid of it, they do not suffer from the pain as much as humans would. (There is sound research supporting this.)
However, when it comes to fear, the opposite is true. Most humans are able to suppress fear and act in spite of it. While anxiety may keep us up at night, we are also able to feel strong fear signals from our brains and yet decide to ignore them.
Animals can't do this -- especially not prey animals. Fear forces them either to freeze or flee. And when they are afraid and can't do anything about it, it's a paralyzing agony to them.
So Grandin works to make sure animals' lives and deaths are as free of pain and fear as possible.
Meanwhile, the better she understands animals, the clearer it is that they are not so very different from us. After all, a deficiency in a part of her own forebrain has made her far more similar to animals in her thinking process -- yet she remains indisputably human. The differences between us are far smaller than most people think.
This assertion makes some people -- even people who call themselves scientists -- very uncomfortable, and some lash out at those who make the claim. It's very important to them to believe that there is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between humans and animals.
But to keep the gulf in place, they have to ignore vast amounts of important and useful evidence -- evidence that will help us understand ourselves and animals.
In fact, for me the most profound part of reading this book was the insights I gained into human nature -- my own and everyone else's. Underneath all the talking, reasoning, arguing, laughing people there are dogs and lizards trying to protect themselves and reproduce their genes.
Anyone who forgets this and expects people to act only for rational reasons is going to be disappointed all the time. And if we forget our strong kinship with animals, we're also going to lose some of the alliances that have made us who and what we are.
Growing Up with Dogs
Near the end of the book, Grandin discusses the recent discovery that dogs and modern humans diverged from wolves and other primates at roughly the same time, about a hundred thousand years ago; and that dog brains and human brains underwent a shrinkage about ten thousand years ago, again at the same time.
Brain shrinkage like that is a marker of domestication. When an animal is domesticated -- when humans take over the job of protecting and feeding them -- then animals no longer need the same degree of alertness they used to have.
So the brain shrinkage of dogs makes perfect sense -- they no longer needed to be such superb hunters in order to survive, because they shared human food.
But our brains shrank, too! Why? Because even as we domesticated dogs, they domesticated us.
When we hunted with dogs, we no longer needed to have a good sense of smell -- we had their sense of smell to rely on. They kept watch for us. We relied on their ability to sense details we missed, and so we could abandon those parts of our brain that used to be devoted to watchfulness. We were able to concentrate on what dogs couldn't do.
So we and dogs domesticated each other. We remain deficient in the things dogs did for us; they continue to depend on us to provide them with food and protection.
But in our modern world, we have made the mistake of overbreeding many species of dogs, damaging them and causing whole breeds to spend lives of fear and, in some cases, pain as well. We owe much to these animals; they still have the ability to make our lives happier (research shows that associating frequently with dogs reduces stress and other markers of human unhappiness).
Once we understand how dogs think and what they need, we can live more harmoniously with them and keep this close interspecies friendship going for many generations to come.
Read This Book
I can't possibly, in these few columns, tell you all the important and fascinating stories and facts that Animals in Translation offers. Grandin's experiences as an autistic person are fascinating and shed light on human needs that most of us are unaware of.
Her work with horses, cows, and pigs, and the research she summarizes into the brains and lives of dogs, cats, and many other animals, are all fascinating. (She made me all the more determined to own a couple of dogs, especially now that I have a clearer idea of how to do it right.)
Most exciting to me was the research she reports on concerning the ability of some birds and other creatures to understand and produce language -- of a sort. It is now beyond question that many animals communicate, but what is surprising is the degree of sophistication of the information they exchange.
Animals can also have phenomenal memories, rising to the level of genius. And make no mistake: It is proven beyond question that abilities like that of migratory birds to memorize a route of thousands of miles involve learning and intelligence. Like humans, they are born with the ability to learn, but they are not born with the knowledge. They have to be taught.
And animals learn some kinds of things far more quickly and effectively than humans. Just as elephants gain much from being so large, but lost the ability to hide, so also we humans gain enormously from having the kind of intelligence we specialize in, but also lose some abilities that animals retain.
I was also pleased to read about the role of older males in curbing aggression in adolescent animals. We aren't the only species that gives rise to vicious gangs of adolescent males, when older males aren't present to socialize them and keep them in line.
Grandin and Johnson write with careful attention to science. There is no overclaiming here. They make a clear distinction between what is supported by much research and what is supported by only a single study; and when they are merely speculating, they say so. This book is a model for science writers; this level of intelligence and integrity is sadly rare in the field.
There are very few books that I tell my writing students they have to read in order to gain a decent understanding of human life and nature: The Lost Country Life; Almost Human; Guns, Germs, and Steel. This book joins that list, and not at the bottom, either.
Grandin has taken a life that could have been marked by her handicap and turned it into a gift to animals and humans alike. She has both changed and illuminated our world, and after reading Animals in Translation, you will see everything and everyone through different -- and wiser -- eyes.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.
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