April 5, 2005

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior -- This book is a lot of fun.

Everybody talks about the importance of diversity in academia, but Dr. Grandin, an animals sciences professor at Colorado St., truly represents intellectual diversity. She is a high functioning autistic. Possessing a brain that both doesn't work right yet is extremely intelligent gives her a man from Mars perspective that offers novel insights. She is America's leading designers of cow and pig feedlots, and she believes that animals tend to have brains that function rather like an autistic persons -- they can't see the forest for the trees. Animals are constantly spooked by small visual details that don't bother non-autistic humans because we barely notice much of what goes on around us that isn't relevant to our main trains of thought.

Her book includes lots of fascinating stories about all the things that can go wrong when breeding animals for a particular trait. For example, don't expect Lassie to figure out anymore that the way to rescue Timmy from the quicksand is by extending a long branch -- since WWII, collie breeders have been trying to give collies narrower and narrower snouts because they look so elegant that way. Unfortunately, they made their skulls so narrow there is no room left for brains and collies are now dumb as a box of rocks.

That reminds me that one reason the Theory of Natural Selection was discovered in Britain by Darwin and Wallace (and a few other people in Britain figured out a lot of it earlier but didn't make much of it) was because the social elite was so interested in artificial selection (i.e., animal breeding). Nowhere else has the aristocratic class every been as interested in scientific farming as in 19th Century Britain. Animal breeding was hip in Victorian England, but it's not anymore, which is one reason 21st Century Americans have such a hard time accepting evolution.

It's necessary to point out, however, that the recent view that has been getting a lot of press, such as a cover story in Newsweek, claiming that autism isn't a disease, it's just a way of being "different," is a lot of hooey. First, the majority of autistics are severely retarded. Second, even if you are as smart as Dr. Grandin, and she must be awfully smart indeed to have accomplished so much, it's still an awful way to be. For example, she recounts the moment when she was a teenager when she finally realized that her family's cats didn't want to be petted as roughly as she'd been petting them for years -- it hadn't dawned on her that they had their own points of view, something that normal children figure out a decade or more before.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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