Animals in Translation

I’ve just started reading Animals in Translation (by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson) for my book club. The book club purports to be a skeptic’s book club, though we hardly focus on skepticism it often seems, and in most cases, the bulk of the meeting attendees haven’t read the book. I haven’t read one of the books in probably close to two years, though I go to most of the meetings to listen to the discussion (to my credit, I typically don’t speak up, figuring I haven’t really earned the right to do so (I also happen to be painfully shy about speaking up, even among these people many of whom I’ve known for years)). So, Animals in Translation. The subtitle is “Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.” Basically, the primary author has autism and so thinks in ways that allow her to make life better for animals in slaughterhouses.

It’s a fascinating read so far (after just a little more than a chapter) in part because it provides a view of what autism is like. I’m always fascinated by things like this. When I took an abnormal psych class in college, I was very disappointed to discover that we covered indicators of conditions (“in order to be diagnosed with X, the patient must exhibit nine of the following fifteen boooorrring behaviors”) rather than what went on in the heads of the sufferers of conditions. So to read an autistic person’s accounts of how she thinks really floats my boat. The way she thinks is relevant within the scope of the book because she claims to think in much the same way that animals think, and this similarity of thought process gives her an outlook that helps her make life more comfortable for the animals she works with. For example, she can walk into a chute that directs cattle to the slaughtering floor and figure out very easily what’s making animals balk inexplicably.

She describes in the first chapter how she thinks not in words and sentences the way many of us do but in pictures. When someone talks of macroeconomics, for example, she says the picture in her head is of a macramé potholder. So she can’t talk intelligently about macroeconomics. The prospect of thinking solely in pictures is astonishing to me. I can’t imagine life without the voice in my head that represents my thoughts. Grandin suggests that images are a key part of animals’ approach to the world as well. And since she shares this with them and can often see details that might bother animals (e.g. a sudden change in the lighting of a pathway), she can suggest changes to slaughterhouses that not only make life better for the animals but that enhance production for the slaughterhouses.

Initial (skeptical) thoughts on the book are that much of what she says is very speculative. There’s a lot of “I’ll bet that X if Y” with not much in the way of evidence to back up her assertions. Of course, she’s writing something vaguely related to popular science in a narrative style, so there should be no expectation that she’d be especially rigorous with her facts. But it does stand out to me and bother me a little bit from time to time. Another example that comes to mind that seems a little weird to me is her statement that when she thought of the dot-com boom, her mental image was of rented office space and unused computers, and that when she saw this, she knew not to invest in any of those stocks. This seems too prophetic to be credible. (And the dot-coms seem to be booming, or at least ramping up for a boom, again, by the way.)

These little issues aside, the book is so far absolutely fascinating, and it’s an easy read, almost folksy at times in the ease of its narrative. This tone wouldn’t suit some books, but it seems to work for this one. Grandin has written a number of other books, some of which focus more on her autism, and given my interest in that sort of personal narrative, I imagine I’ll look into getting one or two of those if I have time after finishing this one. So far, the book gets two thumbs up. I hope over the next two weeks as I read it to record here a few more impressions.

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