Animals in Translation

Animals in TranslationEarlier, we blogged about Dr. Temple Grandin, an astonishing woman with autism.

For many years, toddlers who, like Grandin, couldn’t speak and raged for no clear reason were usually institutionalized. Grandin, who is now in her late 50’s, was almost certainly the first such child to grow up to become a specialist in animal behavior.

When Thinking in Pictures, Grandin’s second book, appeared in 1995, experts had learned that autism was a spectrum disorder; in other words, its triad of difficulties — social problems, behavioral problems, obsessiveness — hobbled some people more than others. Grandin calls it neurodiversity.

Temple Grandin put the lie to many assumptions about autism. Of course, she wrote, autistic people have to learn social rules — in a methodical, structured way — but their obsessions may not be handicaps; they may even provide certain advantages. After all, Grandin herself had channeled her fixations and sensory differences into a successful career designing livestock equipment.

Her amazing new work, Animals in Translation, is crammed with facts and anecdotes about her favourite subject: the senses, brains, emotions and amazing talents of animals. Written with Catherine Johnson, who may have provided its colloquial, informal tone, Animals in Translation expands on an idea Grandin first sketched in Thinking in Pictures: that her autistic sensory perceptions (in particular, her intense focus on visual details) enable her to take in the world as animals do. In fact, she argues that autistic people and animals see, feel and think in remarkably similar ways.

Birdy CollageAlthough startling, this observation serves mainly as a segue into Grandin’s larger point. Animals — not just chimps and dolphins, but dogs, crows, pigs and chickens — are, she contends, much smarter and more sensitive than we assume.

There seem to be no features of human thought that animals don’t share to some degree, except perhaps the ability to craft complex conceptual metaphors. Most of the hallmarks of so-called human uniqueness turn out not to be unique: mathematical skills, introspection, forming and executing plans, language and tool-making.

She writes of prairie dog communities that have developed highly complex communications with the characteristics of human language, including sophisticated use of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prairie dogs are at the very bottom of the predator/prey pyramid; Grandin speculates that development of a complex language was essential to their survival.

She also cites the intelligence of birds, which remember complex migratory paths after the first one-way flight, and documents tool-creation by a crow who bent wire into various shapes to extract food.

When she describes the emerging relationship between early humans and wolves, she notices how much we learned from canid social relationships, to our benefit.

Grandin’s most startling assertion is that many animals are smarter than us in the ways that count for them. We’re simply not equipped to perceive their intelligence, any more than they are equipped to understand what we’re doing when we speak to one another. But Grandin sees it all the time. She literally sees things other humans don’t, and claims that animals do too.

Human beings have lived for aeons immersed in a vast congress of reasoning, perceptive, communicating beings. But overlaid, in parallel, on this planet are numerous strands of sentience that have to be judged not in comparison to us but according to their ultimate impact on the animals that use them.

Intelligence, language, consciousness and tool-making therefore have to be considered not as values in their own right, but as strategies; their value lies in how well they fit a particular species’ needs. They fit ours very well, as it turns out.

But Grandin’s new book implies that the landscape of neurodiversity and intelligence is considerably more complicated than we’ve thought. She demands greater respect for the beings we live with – especially those to whom we have adapted.

Image: Christine Marie Art

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