Reading Journal Entry: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin

This is Temple Grandin's latest best-seller - it's been on the New York Times list for several weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, my company works with Dr. Grandin, and I think she's just, well, the neatest thing ever.

Temple Grandin is probably the world's most famous, and arguably the world's most successful, autistic person. She's been profiled by pop head-doctor Oliver Sacks in his An Anthropologist on Mars, and designed most of the cattle-handling facilities in the United States. Her previous works, Thinking in Pictures and Emergence, dealt with her disability (if so it can be called). In Animals in Translation she shares the insight she has gained into the minds of animals through her unique modes of thought.

Grandin argues that animals - like autistic humans - have specialized brains, compared to the generalist brains of regular people, and that their lack of language lends animals an extreme ability to perceive details that are simply invisible to the human eye. Grandin, when called in to consult on why a facility was encountering problems, could in some cases immediately pick out what was distressing the animals and was surprised to learn that the cattle handlers couldn't see them - small things like an empty bottle lying on the ground, a piece of flapping plastic on a fence, a sudden change in light. Grandin spends a lot of time in the book analyzing the way animals perceive the world differently that humans, and how these differences have impacted her work. She spends more time discussing animals we live more intimately with: dogs, cats, and birds, and arguing that these animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I was particularly impressed with Alex, a gray parrot who's learned how to identify colors and shapes, and has learned to ask questions. One day while learning colors, he looked in a mirror and asked his owner what color he is. I don't know why this blows my mind so much, but it's probably because unlike chimpanzees, bonobos, and other apes which have learned sign language, Alex is actually speaking English.

The book is very well written and the subject is fascinating. Highly recommended.

Dr. Grandin's web page, with information on her work.
Alex's web page.

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