Temple Grandin

Is the author of Animals in Translation and is an autistic woman who has effectively moved my life in a substantially different direction due to her writing.

I wrote about her book here and I think her thoughts needed a second look, and this will kind of be in book review format.

The problem for me was that the middle of her book is kind of boring. Its about, for want of a better characterization, animal breeding techniques and rules of thumb for making animals happy. The basic summary is that we are breeding animals to be much less than what they were originally, and this is always the case, as far as I can tell, with anything. If you make something easier, you make it worse. Before, TRAINERS had to do a lot to make an animal ready for human service or cohabitation, but now we’re breeding animals that are such zombies that there may not be as much work for owners and trainers.

The end of the book however really blew my mind. There are a bunch of insights.

The first is a full fledged substantiation of the claim that animals and autistic people probably see the world in similar way, that is, without the SCHEMATIZATION provided for by the normal human brain, which fills things in with a mental paint brush so that nothing is too jarring or weird. This is helpful for a bunch of things, but autistic people get access to a much lower level of information processing (before its gussyied up with the “mind’s eye”) and so can do amazing things. There are SAVANTS, and for Grandin, all animals are savants.

For example, some dogs can sense 30 minutes IN ADVANCE when someone is going to have a seizure. No one has any idea what details they are picking up, but nonetheless these animals KNOW when their owners are going to have a stroke and can be trained to respond by standing on their master to prevent them from hurting themselves. This is simply amazing to me, but shows that animals have access to perceptual cues that no human could dream of seeing.

Another case, geese and other birds learn migratory routes 1000’s of miles long IN ONE TRIP. How this is accomplished neurologically is anyone’s guess.

There’s more. Grandin hypothesizes that music is a type of communication that was first found in animals (birds) and was copied by humans. You see, very few primates sing and so she hypothesizes that humans learned how to create music from imitating birds, whose songs turn out to be very complex.

There’s also a section on Prairie Dogs that will make you reconsider your views on animals altogether. Apparently, prairie dogs have a VERY advanced language that lets them talk about specific predators, their rate of approach, and hypothesized actions they will take. The language is generative, meaning that it can adapted to new situations, and it may exhibit DISPLACEMENT, which means the ability to talk about things that are not present in the immediate environment.

There are also some points, especially interesting to a philosopher about how verbal cognition of an event OVERSHADOWS visual representation. There are studies where people look at a bank robber or something and then are asked to do verbal tasks and some are not. The people who do verbal tasks have trouble recognizing the robber when shown another picture of him, but people who were given visual/imagistic tasks were able to easily due so after the same amount of time.

Last, Grandin hypothesizes that human co-evolved with wolves. This is unbelievably thought-provoking to me because they idea here is that humans domesticated wolves, but that wolves ALSO domesticated humans by shrinking our brain size. But thank god they did. Neanderthals died out, the hypothesis goes, because they did not have dogs (neotenied wolves, see previous post) cooperating with them. But homo sapiens did. So quite literally, we took over certain tasks such as strategy and planning while our dogs took over sensory tasks. We gained the allegiance of certain savants and used them as extensions of ourselves to move forward evolutionarily. There is even the idea that humans learned sociality and PACK-HUNTING by following the behaviors of domesticated and evolutionarily friendly dogs.

So, I will never look at animals the same, because as this book shows, the question of whether they are “smarter” than us, may have very little meaning. Animals are like autistic people: incapable of some tasks but incredibly capable at others (autistic people are used in quality control for sensitive parts because they can, quite literally SEE the problems with various products as they come off the assembly line, even when these flaws are impossible to detect for the normal human), and humans evolved to be co-capable with them. We used to use animals as EXTENSIONS of our own consciousnesses as ways to see further, hear quieter sounds, and smell predator or delinquent homo sapiens. We TEAMED UP with animals in a very special way that is not fully appreciated. We were, in a very serious way, taught to understand beauty from birds, taught to hunt like wolves, and taught to socialize like them as well. We owe many parts of our very psychology, and our unique relationship with the other inhabitants of this earth is not something that we have to worry about for the sake of the “ecosystem” but for our very progress as conscious agents.




2 Responses to “Temple Grandin”

  1. March 30, 2011 at 9:13 am


    Sorry if my English not correct sometimes, I am Hungarian, not a native speaker. And sorry, I will be long.

    My English teacher (You know him and he will write you an email about the class, I think.) did show this post to me yesterday and asked us about how we think about it. My first reaction – as usual – was objection and distrust. I do not know anything about TG, my one and only source of information was this post. And I could find factual errors and I felt that the the writer of the book started to write with a strong preconception and she collected evidences according to this preconception. For example:
    – about the migrating birds fantastic memory. Geese are traveling in groups, the leader is an old bird. This is correct. But for example juvenile European eels does their migration without any help of elder eels. In fact their parents they after breeding in the Saragaso sea and after hatching the young eels travel to Europe without any advice. They are not traveling by using their memory. The travel and the route is in their genes. Of course it is a wonder too, but not the matter of memory.
    – the “we are hunting in pack because we grouped with wolves” theory… The “we are grouped with wolves because they are living in packs and therefor they were able to adapt to our packs more easily than a lynx could for example” theory sounds more logical to me. Chimpanzees are hunting in packs and they do not have dogs so the dog-keeping is not a requirement for pack creation.

    So my overall feelings were bad about the topic, I felt somehow… the king to be naked.

    Fortunately I did not write this response instantly so I had time to think about the topic and i realized that I forgot two important things:
    – I am neither an animal nor an autistic. TG is autistic at least so she has more experience about this topic than me for sure.
    – I started to develop an opinion about a person I do not know anything but a post about one of her books. It’s like getting an impression about a poet by reading an assay about one of his or her poems. Impossible.

    So I decided to make some research. First I found the TED speech about autism and I decided to watch the movie she has talked about. I did it. Now I am impressed and filled with questions.
    – why I do not care about cattle’s feeling in the door of the slaughterhouse?
    – have you ever read the Robert Merle’s Death is my trade? Because when I was watching the “relaxed cow dies happily and with relaxed cows you are able to kill ore in a period of time” scenes I was thinking about the analogy. And the analogy was frightening.
    – I wonder whether every autistic person has this possibility to be very good in a small area (but they did not get the needed education in their early years) or Temple is a special one?
    – again: are cattles so important?
    – and the last question: why the blog-engine underlines the word “cattles”?

    To be honest the naked king feeling did not disappear fully. But as I wrote: I am impressed.

    Anyway: I’d like to thank you this post, without it I would not know about Temple and my English teacher would not know about Szűcs Fanni.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      March 30, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      O very cool that you found my blog and that you all took the time to read it (John is a good friend of mine and a very smart person). What an incredible language — it is a lingistic “island” in Europe as I understand it…

      I think your points are very good. When you talk about the “king being naked” I laughed very hard. This is correct as an expression, but just so you know, the expression is usually said as “the Emperor has no clothes.” I got your point though, and thanks for the amusement you gave me.

      Well different species might use different mechanisms. Some might use genetics, its hard how to see how genes could make you go to a specific spot since landscapes change so much and are so unpredictable (what if you have to dodge a predator on the way). What’s more likely is that genes encode a specific NAVIGATION mechanism which lets these animals use certain clues to almost always get to the right spot.

      As for the chimpanzee stuff, you may be right. I don’t know that chimps really HUNT in packs, though they cooperate for sure. Also, my point was more that humans co-evolved with dogs in a very special way that might have allowed us to become so smart.

      Cool that you went and learned some more stuff about this. I would say that Temple Grandin is VERY SPECIAL. I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but at a young age, she had so much anxiety that she built a machine that compressed her like a vice. Of course the pressure was gentle, but it would help her be more calm so she could write and think. An amazing person to be sure.

      And not all autistic people have special skills, but some are “savant” -like, meaning they can do something very easily. I attribute this to “rich perception” which is a philosophical / psychology term which is heavily debated.

      Thanks for reading!

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