Sunday, August 16, 2009

Animals Make Us Human

by Temple Grandin

I chose this book after hearing an interview of the author
 by Terry Gross on Fresh Air (if you aren't aware of this NPR program, it's absolutely fantastic.) Grandin is an animal behavior expert who teaches at a Colorado University and is autistic. I guess in part, I was curious about the work an autistic animal expert might do, but perhaps more so, the possibility that she might have some unique insights into autism in humans and possibly animal behaviors. Because autism is defined in part by communication deficits, we know very little about what it's like for a person to be autistic. (For this subject, I should have chosen either Grandin's 1996 "Emergence: Labeled Autistic" or "Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life With Autism," also from 1996 but expanded and updated in 2006.) Grandin, however, has overcome these deficits enough to obtain her doctorate and write, lecture, and give interviews. Because of what I thought would be a unique perspective, I had wondered ever since hearing her interview why she felt that animals make us human.

Unfortunately, I still don't know. Animals Make Us Human is a very detailed analysis of what Grandin believes are the core emotions of animals: fear, seeking, panic, and rage and the application of those emotions to behaviors in animals. She discusses dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, and chickens in depth, and talks about wild animals, zoos, and fieldwork toward the end of her work. For the most part, an animal's status as a prey animal or predator and its size contribute greatly to how the "core emotions" play out in animal behavior.

Because I read this book looking for a possibly profound insight into animal relationships with humans--perhaps how their presence creates an indispensible "something" which...makes us human--I ended up disappointed. And puzzled. I found it difficult to rationalize how, if animals such as cows and pigs have such complex emotional systems--"feelings" we would call them--how it is still ok for us to kill and eat them. Perhaps I'm just stuck on the need to maintain a distance between humans and the livestock we eat, to not identify their reactions with "emotions" so they remain below us for that reason. I don't know.

Grandin explains how she justifies eating animals she believes have complex emotions in her Afterward. She reminds us that the livestock wouldn't be alive if we had not bred and reared them, that each animal is entitled to as good a life as they can obtain, and that killing livestock in slaughterhouses is far less painful than death by a predator in nature. While I agree with these statements, to me they are not a sufficient argument. Further, my scientific side just didn't relate to many of the purely intuitive statements she asserts as proof of her theories.

For me, the book didn't live up to the promise of its title and, quite frankly, could have been improved upon in language and style. I quickly tired of first person accounts with too much "I said..." and the use of paragraph titles instead of transitions. There were also some anecdotes which were repeated within the book (are we not expected to remember the beginning of the book?) However, Grandin's studies of various animals' interactions with their environments could provide useful insight into creating better environments with less stress for our animals.

My Recommendation: Recommended only for those who want to gain specific insight into one of the listed animals' behavior.

PS: Here is another interesting review of this book:

1 comment:

  1. It's not that I don't think car emissions are harmful. I don't think it's worth the guilt and thus disease you cause yourself worrying over whether to take a relaxing ride in the country...or not.
    I don't like Rush Limbaugh(sp) or any talk radio personality on any side, but thanks for that.
    People worry too much and don't just live life. That's a big issue. Worrying about whether to ride or not, is too much and very indicative of how we, as a society, worry about things that don't matter in the grand scheme of things.
    I will work on how things come out in my responses. I was trying to also emphasis that saving trees is much more worthy in the fight, since they take the bad stuff out and give us the good stuff, then worrying about the bad stuff. Stop killing the trees, plant more trees, and the bad stuff won't be such a big deal...they are a big deal because we've killed the trees. That's all I'm saying. But I don't worry about the trees all is as it should be, right?!


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