23
Feb
11

It’s My Life

The title of this song doesn’t really relate to this post, but the music video does — no I’m not talking about about the Gwen Stefani (?) version of this song. This is the real 80s version by a band called, repetitively enough, Talk Talk.

Also, I  haven’t written a post for like a week now, and the problem isn’t really lack of ideas: I have been accumulating them. The issue is that I have some philosophy stuff that I’m trying to make precise, and when I read and write about that stuff, I get kind of perfectionist and its hard for me to just put some provoking thoughts on paper in a haphazard way.

So I’ll try to do that now.

I’ve been reading a book by a woman named Temple Grandin, and her book, Animals in Translation, is for the most part worth reading, both because it corrects a bunch of prejudices I had about animals, and it makes some philosophical points about consciousness as well, as well as another extension I’ll mention.

Grandin is autistic, and this makes her perspective very interesting, and she positions herself (convincingly) as a kind of animal mystic. Indeed, she makes her living traveling to breeding farms, cattle ranches, slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and other places, all to improve the environment for the animals. Her goal is to make animals less stressed out in human made environments, and she works as what one could call an animal detective. She will show up at a ranch and the owner will say something like “the pigs are really stressed out and they’re biting each other” or “these cattle won’t walk into the feeding area so we have to tazer ’em to get ’em in there.” She then tries to find out what the problem is and usually solves it by notice a flapping piece of yellow cloth or a shadow created by the bars of the pen. In other words, she claims to be able to see the world in terms that animals see the world.

Tidbit — cattle guards work by playing off cow’s unique perception. To them, even painting lines on a road (not actually putting metal rods along the road as a grating) is enough to make them believe that there is a CLIFF there. They will not pass over them.

She ties this to a fascinating point about consciousness and perception, which is that in her mind, autistic people, because they have trouble with language and conversations, are a halfway point — at least in terms of consciousness — between animals and people. In her words, autistic people see the world in terms of pictures and not words. At some points Grandin speaks about her experience as one of being hyper aware of certain perceptual clues.

Animals she thinks must see the world as an extreme autistic person might, totally in terms of pictures and not in terms of words at all. As a philosopher would say, animals see the world NON-CONCEPTUALLY. She presses the analogy in an interesting direction when she brings up the idea of savants — autistic people who have many mental problems, but can perform some extremely complicated tasks with ease (such as solving large multiplication problems).

She thinks that animals may be savants of various types. Sharks would be hunting/eating savants, cats would be balancing/acrobatic savants and so  on. In other words, animals don’t have concepts to represent temporally or spatially distant or general ideas, but they do excel at solving certain experiential problems that present themselves in the environment, just as Dustin Hoffman can count the matches on the ground in Rain Man.

The analogy goes still deeper. Many autistic people  (according to Grandin anyway, and one problem with the book is that one isn’t sure which tidbits are scientifically based and which is anecdote or provocative suggestion. A lot of the stuff is scientifically backed) are hyper-aware, just as animals are. Grandin gives the mind-blowing story of a dyslexic friend who could hear the idling vibrations of nearby radios and so knew what programs were on WHEN THE RADIO WAS TURNED OFF. This friend would say “NPR is doing a show on lions” and then the radio would be turned on and that would be right.

So anyway, autistic people might be an incredibly useful halfway point for studying consciousness because it might allow us to unify data gleaned from animal behavior, and related it to a model of consciousness, as well as giving us insight into what aspects of HUMAN consciousness draws from animal perception of the world.

And as I promised, there are also just some bizarre and cool results about animal life that someone like me — animal hater that I am — had no idea about.

Apparently, elements communicate through ULTRA low moans that only other elephants can hear. They also probably communicate through stomping the ground and some hypothesize that elephants may have sonic receptors in their feet. WOW!

Other random stuff, like Monkeys have wars with each other, and dolphins are actually very vicious in the wild, killing young dolphins for sport and practicing gang rape.

Lastly, and this is pretty cool too, but mostly dog-people probably know this, is that dogs are neotanized wolves. In other words, dogs are just wolves who remain locked at a certain level of a maturity so that the most mature dog is still a juvenile wolf. One way of confirming this fact is that mature wolves have an aggression pattern called “the long stare” in which, as the name suggests, the wolf will stare down a rival. Dogs cannot perform this technique, EXCEPT for huskies which are genetically VERY similar to wolves. How sweet is that? I have to work on my long stare.

Last, predators don’t kill in rage. When they execute the “killing bite” (an extremely genetically scripted behavior), they are coldly carrying out a reflex. Animals do feel anger though, but only when in pain or when sparring with other members of their species. A lion snapping a gazelle’s neck feels nothing.

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