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Animals in Translation: Using the Secrets of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, a commentary

hamsterjacky's picture
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It irritates me when we, humans, always make a specific distinction between ourselves and other animals. Correct me if I'm wrong, but are we not both in the kingdom animalia, so at heart, aren't we all animals? Yes we have a very advanced, very pronounced neocortex, which helps us put the bigger picture together, but is that to our benefit really? In Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Temple Grandin shows us many of the follies that we make due to our evolved brain.

As a high functioning autistic with Asperser's Syndrome, she herself used to have some problems putting things together. As such, she has learned that attention is key, and that every detail is very important, especially when it comes to animals and their behavior. Due to her talent at noticing every detail, she has become a very important tool in the meatpacking industry to help make animal slaughtering as humane as possible. The book starts off with a description of how she functions on a daily basis. She describes how she views the world using images trained into her head, and then she explains how she deals with stress. Finally, she points out what it is about her functioning that helps her relate to the way animals think. She describes herself and animals as detail oriented thinkers, as both have trouble putting the grand image together.

She goes on next to describe how we view animals, and what we have been doing to animals to meet our needs. As creatures that are more advanced, we have a tendency to take advantage of those that are below us. As such, we tend to use non-human creatures towards our personal benefits, often with little thought to the long term effects it may have on animals. In her book, Ms. Grandin gives us a few examples through the theme of single trait breeding animals for specific genes. One animal that has been sadly affected by our selective breeding are chickens. "Breeders mate females who have fast growth, big muscles and sound fertility to males who have fast growth and big muscles" without thinking about the breeding selection of the males. This result to the eventual deletion of other genes, and the farmers ended up with "rapist roosters," a term that sounds as accurate and disturbing as it sounds. These roosters mounted the chickens without consent, which they usually acquired through the courtship dance - unfortunately, these roosters had lost the courtship gene due to the selective breeding, and they ended up raping and killing the hens when the hens tried to run away. This example was not only horrific to the writer, but to myself, the reader. Afterwards, she goes on to explain how animals deal with emotions and how they think.

With her simplistic, amusing writing style, Ms. Grandin opened my eyes to how animals think, and how we should treat them. As a pet owner, she had me reconsidering some of my current behaviors and inspiring me to change them to better accommodate my own little pets. While autism is an unfortunate disorder, Temple Grandin has used it to advance herself and the life of animals that we are in contact with. One thing she has taught me is to pay attention to detail, as that is what animals pay attention to. The anecdotes in the book of all the cows in the farms and their balking fears of going through chutes or barn doors were both delightful and insightful. Through her book, I've learned to try to think via details, and not the full picture, to comprehend how the animals I myself own may feel and how to better comfort them. Few contrasts in lighting, no sudden movement are only a few of her tips, but as simple as they may be, they account for many animal fears.

Animal behavior seems to be a very complex thing to many people, but to Ms. Grandin, it's as simple as can be. Unlike humans, who may complicate things through abstractifying it and adding mixed emotions, animals generally see things in black and white and feel one emotion at a time. Also, they may have trouble generalizing one behavior to several different environments, such as not barking at just the toddler the animal has been introduced to, but all toddlers.

By having animal behavior described and explained to me, I've been able to realize that we still act out the most primal emotions seen in animals. One of these emotions is aggression - which is usually used to state dominance, territory and fear. Animals are aggressive when it comes to what's theirs, such as their territory, and their mates and children. A mother bear will chase away and if possible kill any living threat that comes near her cubs, and a male bird will often sing to ward off other male birds approaching his territory. Humans play out this emotion of aggressiveness in many ways. For example, two men will fight if one man broke the other man's fence - thus the fight is over territory. However, humans have made aggression a bit more eloquent, such as through gossip and my favorite, competition.

We have learned that there are many kinds of competition. From Darwin we know of inter and intra-specie competition for resources - the species most adapted to use the resources well often survived, just as the animals that were most efficient in attaining resources within that species thrives. It can be said that humans have stopped competing with majority of other species and that they are now on top of the resource chain. However, humans are not done competing with each other in many ways. As a species with a complicated and highly evolved brain, we've learned to outdo each other in many ways. A few of these ways include occupational, social, economical, personal, and even sexual.

As humans, we have created many intricate hierarchies involving our gender, our ethnicity, the kind of jobs we have, etc. In the corporate business world, for example, there is a lot of competition between the companies. The one that makes the most profit is the most competitive, and thus on the top. As such, the person who owns the company of course ends up being the alpha human in the business world. Race also ends up playing a hierarchical role in our society, although specific genotypes do have an aggressive advantage. Alpha males and females also exist in society. Take for example, politics - with the president and the first lady, as they are to help run the nation that they are part of. By choosing them, we submit ourselves to competiveness, and admit to our own inferiority, be it through a democracy or no. We also submit ourselves through a hierarchy in a sexual way - specifically when it comes to attractiveness. People are prone to select partners that are considered to be attractive, and thus, their offspring tend to also be attractive, and thus successful in society. This same kind of selection can be seen in animals, such as birds. The males with the most attractive plumage usually attract the most mates, for example.

So are we really that different from animals? We both have a method of communication, we all have feelings such as rage, fear, lust, hunger, etc. So why is it that we always consider ourselves superior to animals? I believe animals have their own language, their own sense of communication - with their own kind and with other species. In that sense, they have an advantage, as we tend to have more difficulty understanding other species and even those of our own kind. Temple Grandin hypothesizes that animals actually do have intelligence - a few animals have been shown to use and even make tools, such as chimpanzees. As such, they know how to take advantage of their resources too. And personally, I feel that because they still have use of the part of their brain which functions with pheromones, a chemical indicator of emotions, they are at an advantage because they sense the actual emotions. Sometimes, using our eyesight can be tricky, as some people are very good at hiding their emotions.

One major theory of why we no longer have pheromones but visual eyesight is that we coevolved with dogs.  As our eyesight became poorer, dogs olfactory senses heightened. Dogs became hunting companions to early humans, becoming domesticated, and today, they're constant companions. Some dogs are still used for hunting, such as water dogs catching fish for their owners. One trend I have noticed is that we have been domesticating animals for a very long time. Starting with dogs we've moved on to cows, horses, cats and other animals a lot of which we used for our own purposes of survival. The cows were used for farming, the horses and dogs for traveling and hunting, and goats and sheep for food. So why is it that we consider ourselves better today, when we began our life working alongside with wolves?

In my opinion, we owe our existence to the earliest animals we domesticated, and today, their descendants are still with us. Why then, do we call ourselves superior to them when they helped us get started? In my opinion, we do not give animals the full respect that they deserve, yet we continue to use them for our own benefits. Animals in translation has shown me just how similar we are to animals, and it has taught me that I shouldn't simply just be using animals for my own benefit, I should be trying to make their lives better as they have made mine.

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior is an eye opener in many ways, and Temple Grandin is an absolute genius in teaching us how animals behave. This book definitely helps to put us in the actual place in the universe we should be. It is an entertaining, educational and overall humbling experience.


Paul Grobstein's picture

human and other brains/behavior

And maybe relevant to my question after your "Is there a dominant race"?