Book: Animals in Translation (Grandin)

That’s right, I’ve finally finished the book that everyone else has already read. When I first saw Temple Grandin speak at Oregon State and glanced through some of her research, I wanted to read one of her books that not everyone had read. So I picked up Animals Make Us Human. I immensely enjoyed that book, but had no idea that Animals in Translation was so popular for a reason. AMUH takes the principals discussed in the first book and uses them to analyze the quality of care you provide your household pets. Whereas Animals in Translation goes deep into the science and assumptions Grandin makes using her experiences in animal handling and Autism. She then quickly backs all of it up with an extensive review of relevant literature.

There’s a critic on the back of the book that says “there’s a wow on almost every page” and I believe them. There’s a lot of crossover between the two books, but Translation is much more science oriented and acts as a manifesto of Grandin’s observations and conclusions of the perceptive worlds (and umwelts) of animals. It reads like a great pop science book, and keeps the information from getting dull by relating it all to the author’s anecdotal evidence and personal experiences.

As well constructed as the arguments in the book are however, Grandin makes a lot of assumptions. I’m inclined to agree with pretty much all of them, but many times she attacks the certainty of scientists who believe animals can’t do things. I agree more progress has been made assuming possibilities instead of negatives, but I’m sometimes uncomfortable with how certain she believes her own conclusions are. You can’t call out other people for not having satisfactorily proven their conclusions, and then state yours with the same conviction. That being said, she does make all of her statements with a careful amount of humility, and always follows them with something along the lines of “this hasn’t been examined/proven yet, but I believe we will soon see studies that support it”. She’s especially careful when the supporting research is conflicting, and makes suggestions on how future studies could get more consistent data.

I love her examination of brain structure to explain the differences, and similarities, of animals to humans. Using Autism in terms of frontal lobe function seems like an appropriate model for the animal brain, and her hyper specificity theories seem to align perfectly with animal behaviors concerning fear. The black box manages to provide evidence to support most of her theories, and gives them weight across multiple disciplines. The chapters concerning fear were especially interesting, and I’m curious if I can run experiments on my roommates using hard-wired phobias, though they’ve probably already been exposed to them all.

What I really want to do now, is find a book that disputes some of Grandin’s theories. I’m afraid that the arguments she makes are so charismatic and I’m so prepared to agree that I don’t analyze them rigorously enough. I’d like to see writing from someone with a similar amount of education and experience, but with different views, so I can make my own judgments. As of now I’m pretty sure I agree with Grandin on all fronts, but until I receive a conflicting argument I can’t rely on that impression.

Temple Grandin and Dr. James Males at Oregon State University

Like I said, the book was fantastic, and if you’re at all interested in animals, behavior, or just pop science, you need to pick it up. I highly recommend reading animals in translation first. I’ve got one more Grandin book on my shelf I want to read, Humane Livestock Handling, which includes some of her systems that are used in slaughtering facilities across the nation and how to operate them. I’m excited to dig into it, but for now it’s going to sit on the shelf while I read something different. I’ve been reading behavior and cattle literature a lot lately, so I’m looking for something a little different before I start another book in that vein.

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