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? Grandinose ideas
on 2 September 2010
I was motivated by the BBC "Horizon" programme devoted to her and more recently "The Interview" with her on the World Service, to buy a book by Temple Grandin. "Animals in Translation" had eighteen reviews, seventeen of which were very positive, on Amazon.co.uk, so I ordered it and started to read full of admiration for all she had achieved.
The first chapter offers moving glimpses into her very difficult childhood and adolescence and the start of her involvement with horses. It also divides humans into two clear-cut groups, autistic and normal, and has Temple Grandin making the astounding claim that "she is starting to be able to accurately predict animal talents nobody can see" based on what she knows about autistic talent. "This is a little like astronomers predicting the existence of a planet nobody can see based on their understanding of gravity." Words like these raise very high expectations.
So what is so very different in the ways animals and autistic people think? They see details to which the rest of us are oblivious, claims Grandin, and they think in pictures. Her work with cattle does indeed demonstrate that these animals react to reflections on smooth metal and puddles, slow fan blade movement, differences in light intensity and other stimuli which people working in abattoirs do not perceive until it is drawn to their attention. When Temple Grandin's book draws on her own experiences it is at its most convincing. I also found the common sense audits she devised very impressive. She has worked with horses, pigs and chickens as well as cattle. The problem is that she assumes what she has discovered about a few animals can be applied to all, and it is not even clear what she means by "animal." Perhaps she means "vertebrates" because mammals, birds and occasionally reptiles and fish are included.
Several of the 324 pages are devoted to dogs and are peppered with anecdotes, as is the rest of the book. She gives what sounds like very authoritative advice on the training of dogs, but more than one person reviewing this book elsewhere has pointed out that her theories depend on old, outdated and discredited research.
In a book where the style is slang-spiced, occasionally toddler-speak, conversational, it is often hard to disentangle what is evidence-based from the matrix of opinion, over generalisation and highly imaginative speculation in which it is embedded. Here is a sample of the writing:
"...most of what animals do in life they learn from other animals. Adults teach their young where to eat, what to eat, whom to socialise with, and whom to have sex with. The adults teach the young ones social rules and respect for their own kind."
Cats are the animals I know best. Our two cats were litter mates and arrived as kittens too small to have reached the stage where they would receive hunting lessons from their mother; yet these autodidacts progressed from learning to catch insects to catching mice once their deciduous canine teeth were replaced by permanent ones. Cats are also well known for regulating their social interactions and sex lives independently of their elders.
To write this review I read the entire book although I was tempted more than once to give up. I remain far from convinced that animals are autistic savants, that music is the language of many animals, or that Temple Grandin has no Unconscious. The book itself seems to contradict the idea that normal people are lumpers who generalise while animals and autistic people are splitters who see the differences between things more than the similarities. It also seems strange that, nowhere in this long book, is there any mention of the specialisation of right and left hemispheres of the brain. If we, normal people, seriously underestimate the intelligence of animals and of people diagnosed autistic, then this book underestimates our ability to train ourselves to see detail.