The Animal in Us All
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2005 ($25)
Temple Grandin has been known to crawl through slaughterhouses to get a sense of what the animals there are experiencing. An autistic woman who as a child was recommended for institutionalization, Grandin has managed not only to enter society's mainstream but ultimately to become prominent in animal research. An associate professor at Colorado State University, she designs facilities used worldwide for humane handling of livestock. She also invented a "hug machine" (based on a cattle-holding chute) that calms autistic children.
In Animals in Translation, co-authored with science writer Catherine Johnson, Grandin makes an intriguing argument that, psychologically, animals and autistic people have a great deal in common--and that both have mental abilities typically underestimated by normal people. The book is a valuable, if speculative, contribution to the discussion of both autism and animal intelligence, two subjects on which there is little scientific consensus.
Autistics, in Grandin's view, represent a "way station" between average people, with all their verbal and conceptual abilities, and animals. In touring animal facilities, Grandin often spots details--a rattling chain, say, or a fluttering piece of cloth--that disturb the animals but have been overlooked by the people in charge. She also draws on psychological studies to show how oblivious humans can be to their surroundings. Ordinary humans seem to be less detail-oriented than animals and autistics.
Grandin argues that animals have formidable cognitive capabilities, albeit specialized ones, whereas humans are cognitive generalists. Dogs are smell experts, birds are migration specialists, and so on. In her view, some animals have a form of genius--much as autistic savants can perform feats of memory and calculation far beyond the abilities of average people. Some dogs, for example, can predict when their owner is about to have a seizure.
Delving into animal emotion, aggression and suffering, Grandin gives tips that may be useful for caretakers of pets and farm animals. She also notes that humans seem to need, and thrive on, the proximity of animals. Indeed, she states provocatively, in the process of becoming human we gave up something primal, and being around animals helps us get a measure of that back. --Kenneth Silber
Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2005 ($23.95)
I am not a big fan of video games. Having watched friends devote weeks to slaughtering aliens in Halo, I have decided that time spent in virtual worlds is time wasted. It is just this kind of thinking that Steven Johnson tries to counter in Everything Bad Is Good for You.