Autism & Animal Behavior
January 11, 2005 7:45 PM   Subscribe

In her new book written with Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation (NYTimes), Dr Temple Grandin, an animal behavior expert and inventor of the squeeze machine, uses her experiences with autism to explore the intricacies of animal behavior. She argues that animals do have consciousness, that language is not a prerequisite and other theories that bring insight into both animal and human behavior. (More)
posted by effwerd (34 comments total)
Though apparently controversial, her theory that animals are conscious beings has been put forth by other reputable authorities and would probably seem excruciatingly obvious to pet owners. Nonetheless, there is plenty of debate on the subject, arguments for and arguments against.

Grandin is known for her designs and prescriptions for more humane animal slaughter and general care. She is currently doing consultation work for McDonalds, Wendy's and other fast food chains in designing auditing formulae (pdf) for slaughterhouses. She also teaches animal science at Colorado State University.

She was first brought to the spotlight in Oliver Sacks's book, An Anthropologist on Mars, a phrase Grandin used to describe how she felt about herself. She also has written two other books, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (with Margaret M. Scariano) and Thinking in Pictures, about living with autism.
posted by effwerd at 7:46 PM on January 11, 2005

Temple Grandin came over and talked to us when I worked at the former Meat Research Insititute of New Zealand. I missed her! I read reports of what she had said, which were interesting observations of how to handle stock and simplify slaughterhouse design by using their natural behaviour patterns (eg, if you build a cattle race with a gentle curve, cattle will walk along it to see what's coming up next; they will not turn sharp corners where they cannot see ahead, nor do they feel impelled to talk along a straight corridor). I had no idea of her autism until several years later.

I think it's important to recognise though that she's very atypical of people with the "autism" label. Few of them achieve the high levels of functioning that she has. She must have a formidable amount of mental horsepower to compensate for the lack of linguistic and emotional capability.

Great post, effwerd.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:18 PM on January 11, 2005

Given that physicalist science accepts that this lump of mass at the top of the human body is the sole causative agent necessary for consciousness, it would only be the remnants of an anthropocentric worldview to deny mental states to non-humans, like chimps or rats.
posted by Gyan at 8:25 PM on January 11, 2005

She was just on Fresh Air today. What an awesome human being. I am one of those icky veggie-only people and I find her work in making animal slaughter less cruel to be profoundly brave.

Thanks for the post.
posted by basicchannel at 8:38 PM on January 11, 2005

Wow, excellent, excellent post! Grandin looks interesting; I've always loved the idea behind the squeeze machine, and didn't realize that the person behind it was an autistic researcher herself. But I don't think I buy her argument right away. She claims that language can't be an absolute division between consciousness and nonconsciousness, because she is conscious even though she is autistic: "Some philosophers believe that language is required for the highest form of consciousness. In this view, I would not be fully conscious because I do not think in language."

But her assertion that she doesn't think in language is kind of weird. At the very least, she's able to *use* language... after all, she did write the essay. So the thesis that a capability to use language is necessary for consciousness isn't affected at all. Whatever one thinks of animals having consciousness or not, it's pretty clear that this isn't a very decisive argument. I also find her "four levels of consciousness" and discussion of belief and desire a little suspect.

For what it's worth, I do think that a theory of mind developed in a certain way is necessary for both consciousness and language. Most animals probably aren't conscious because they don't have that theory of mind. Autism is often said to be a lack of a theory of mind, but Paul Bloom has argued that a theory of mind is a necessary prerequisite to human language. Autistics don't lack a theory of mind altogether, they just have a stunted or different theory of mind. So, although autistics have a stunted ability to use language, they're still conscious because they have enough of a faculty of language and theory of mind (or one of the right type).
posted by painquale at 8:47 PM on January 11, 2005

painquale: Most animals probably aren't conscious because they don't have that theory of mind.

My objection to this argument: what limits a 'theory of mind' to be embodied by the modality of language? How would one know what's required to hold a 'theory of mind', leaving aside whether it's a prerequisite?
posted by Gyan at 8:59 PM on January 11, 2005

I find autism completely fascinating, and I've never forgotten reading this woman's story in "An Anthropologist On Mars". Thanks for this post.

A couple of months ago, I was reading about Autism online, and I came across a version of the Wikipedia that was entirely written and edited by people with Autism! Does anyone know where I can find this? I lost it.
posted by interrobang at 9:27 PM on January 11, 2005

I've met Temple Grandin! She rocks. If you ever get a chance to attend a lecture, do so.

I wish I had a squeeze machine.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:32 PM on January 11, 2005

Never mind, I found it.
posted by interrobang at 9:34 PM on January 11, 2005

As to whether animals are "conscious," the question is subject to the age old, by now tiresome caveat that when people say "consciousness" they can either mean actual awareness (i.e. having a "way how it feels" to experience things) or higher-order consciousness, which is understanding that others in your environment share that trait and they are like you. One is fundamental, and the other is merely a type of knowledge. A lot of discussions of consciousness get muddled by that semantic problem.

Everything I've read takes that animals have lower-order consciousness for granted, and I agree. I don't know why it's even controversial. As to whether high-order consciousness exists in animals, there are some who claim higher apes do but otherwise, pretty much no. In fact, if autism is a milder version of animal-style awareness as Grandin claims, that would be a strong case that they have little or no higher-order consciousness, since autism is a condition where you have poor skills at drawing analogies between yourself and others.
posted by abcde at 9:54 PM on January 11, 2005

Incidentally, obviously there's got to be a lower floor for awareness; certainly mosquitos aolmost definitely don't have it (which is why I swat them with only a moment's hesitation for philosophical contemplation despite being avegetarian) but I'd find it hard to believe that, say, cats don't.
posted by abcde at 10:03 PM on January 11, 2005

Yay! Heard the interview this morning, found it fascinating - one of the best Fresh Airs I've heard. Wasn't it odd though, to hear her applying all this knowledge of animal behavior to slaughter houses? I know, I know, it's to make them more humane, but it also makes them more efficient by keeping them from balking and such. I don't mean it as any lessening of her work, quite the opposite, but it seemed in a funny way like classic autistic behavior: to have this facility with animals, and to apply it toward their destruction with no feeling of that being a contradiction or tension.

I know, I have no idea whether she felt remorse, and I know it's good and important work. I just found the entire interview full of these fascinating perspectives, contrasts, and challenges. Very, very interesting stuff and a great post, thanks.
posted by freebird at 10:15 PM on January 11, 2005

Gyan: My objection to this argument: what limits a 'theory of mind' to be embodied by the modality of language? How would one know what's required to hold a 'theory of mind', leaving aside whether it's a prerequisite?

A theory of mind doesn't necessarily have to have an embodied language. Typical tests involve being able to recognize oneself in the mirror, an ability to feel empathy for other members of the same species in pain, competence at false belief tasks... that sort of thing. Whatever signals that the subject has an awareness of other minds.

abcde: when people say "consciousness" they can either mean actual awareness (i.e. having a "way how it feels" to experience things) or higher-order consciousness, which is understanding that others in your environment share that trait and they are like you... everything I've read takes that animals have lower-order consciousness for granted, and I agree. I don't know why it's even controversial.

It's not at all clear that animals have feeling experiences... all sorts of authors and philosophers doubt that they do. Awareness of outside surroundings, in the sense of being able to position one's body in response to stimuli, does not necessarily go hand in hand with having an experience.

I actually think you have your two types of consciousnesses backwards: what you call higher-order consciousness is necessary, I think, for what you call lower-order consciousness ("having an experience"). That's why I still wanna claim that you need a theory of mind to have subjective experience. This is actually a debate once had between Dan Dennett and Nick Humphreys: Humphreys thinks that conscious beings first gain their own inner experience, then induce that other things around them are having similar sensations. Dennett thinks that animals first look about and ascribe thoughts and beliefs to the things around them, then project those same ascriptions upon themselves, thereby gaining consciousness and subjective experience. I'm with Dennett on this one, as unintuitive as it is.
posted by painquale at 10:45 PM on January 11, 2005

Incidentally, my lower/higher terminology comes from Edelman, who I don't agree with that much but he's who I've read the most of.
posted by abcde at 10:52 PM on January 11, 2005

Thanks to Sirius, I was able to catch the Fresh Air interview twice today. Well worth tracking down to hear her as opposed to just reading a transcript. Fascinating story, especially when she goes from Freud to slaughterhouses to o.c.d behaviors in a short while. Excellent complementary links, effwerd.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 11:27 PM on January 11, 2005

certainly mosquitos almost definitely don't have it ... but I'd find it hard to believe that, say, cats don't.

Ah, the good old "anything that looks like me is conscious" theory of consciousness. Anything that has a face. I like it. It makes more sense than any of the other theories of consciousness I've seen.
posted by sfenders at 5:38 AM on January 12, 2005

Well, no; I'd say it's more like level of complexity. It happens that the most complex creatures on Earth brain-wise happen to usually have faces, but that's not itself the reason.
posted by abcde at 7:39 AM on January 12, 2005

Exactly - mosquitos have a few ganglia, not a lot of room to fit in consciousness. Cats have considerably more neurons.

Dolphins and whales don't look much like me, but I'm pretty darn sure they have consciousness (both "lower order" and "higher order", if we want to make that distinction.)
posted by kyrademon at 7:49 AM on January 12, 2005

Here's what may be an appropriate article from Humphrey: Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind (PDF)
posted by hartsell at 8:11 AM on January 12, 2005

For me, just hearing about the squeeze machine so many years ago and its application in the treatment of autism was a great revelation in my life. I had been developing at the time personal theories of physiological extroversion (external awareness) and psychological introversion (internal awareness) as a means of explaining myriad psychological disorders depending on which was malfunctioning. From autism and agoraphobia on one end (with physiological extroversion malfunction) to schizophrenia and claustrophobia on the other end. And with normal in between.

The squeeze machine and its application in autism treatment was like that diamond bullet straight through the center of my forehead. It was mostly a philosophical revelation but it helped me immensely in coping with my problems and understanding people in general. It fit perfectly with my own experiences. I had struggled with what I presumed to be bipolar disorder, a little obsessive compulsive, too. I felt overly sensitive to external stimuli (you can tickle me by wiggling you finger within two inches of my neck). And I felt an ever present anxiety that kept me on edge all the time. The best things I found to alleviate this was deep pressure, especially on my upper legs just above the knees (girlfriends through the years always thought it a strange request to have them sit on my legs). The best way for me to fall asleep was to wrap my legs tightly with the bed sheets and hold the pillow over my forehead, this was the only way to get my hands to unclench and my jaw to relax. I always figured it was a way to shut down that tactile drive for sensation by satisfying it in a comprehensive way.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I want a squeeze couch.
posted by effwerd at 8:27 AM on January 12, 2005

Grandin's career is inspiring in terms of her autism and overcoming human prejudices/assumptions, but her belief that she's helping animals should not be taken as gospel. As freebird pointed out, she gets hired not because slaughterhouses give a damn about animals' feelings, but because they want to run more efficiently and kill more animals in less time.

And how much real-world impact do her consultations have? According to this Slate article, "one of Grandin’s first projects, Swift’s plant in Greeley, Colo., serves as her showpiece and a laboratory of sorts." The article neglects to mention that Grandin's "showpiece / laboratory of sorts" became the site of the second-largest (at the time) meat recall in U.S. history - 2002's ConAgra recall of 19 million pounds of beef (ConAgra then sold the plant to Swift). By any standard, the plant was easily one of the worst in the country - or else conditions nationwide are even more horrific than previously suspected: A plant accused of fraud, a plant with a "pressure-cooker work environment that can pose dangers to both plant employees and the nation's consumers," a plant cited for dozens of USDA violations in the months before the recall, and one which even immediately after the recall was cited 19 more times and had to be shut down by the USDA "after repeatedly finding feces smeared on meat."

Obviously these problems are not all directly attributable to Grandin's recommendations, but one has to ask - if this plant is her "showpiece and a laboratory of sorts," what does that indicate about her ability to improve conditions in these environments?
posted by soyjoy at 9:13 AM on January 12, 2005

effwerd needs hugs!

posted by five fresh fish at 9:22 AM on January 12, 2005

I read this book over christmas (I bought it as a present for someone else, but it's a quick read...), as well as "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime," the recent UK novel told from the POV of an autistic teenager, so had a kind of autism-soaked holiday week. A lot of the stuff in it was pretty recycled if you're familiar with pop-neuroscience (Sacks, Ledoux, Damasio, Pepperberg [the parrot lady], etc) but it definitely had some interesting insights in terms of experiencing the world through a somewhat different lens, and I found the arguments about consciousness fairly convincing.

I will also say that since I have epilepsy, I experience some kind of non-linguistic consciousness after I have seizures (I can't figure out how to speak, but I am aware), so I'm sort of prone to believe it from that. On the other hand, as someone said above, one could argue that had I never come to consciousness through language I would never be able to come to this self-aware but not linguistic state, since there's no way to prove I ever felt this without already being linguistic. Still, the way it feels is the way most laypeople probably imagine their animals feel, which is that I "get" things, I understand what's going on around me, but I can't compare a whole lot in my mind or think abstractly or communicate outside of body and facial language.

Re: vegetarianism, according to the book she did try it for a while but found that her mind wouldn't function without meat protein. But thank you, soyjoy, for a little more of the other side of the story. Although there were some horror stories from meat plants, she did give a quite positive impression of the industry overall, and I had meant to find out more about current conditions and see how widely her supposed advancements had gotten, so I'm glad to have some links to check out.
posted by mdn at 10:03 AM on January 12, 2005

This conversation is entirely too rational and scientific, so I'm posting something about my dog.

If he has done something in the past that I've just discovered, and I get angry and yell his name, he looks at me like I'm an idiot. This also occurs if he is currently doing something else that he's allowed to do when I yell.

However, if he is in the process of doing something that isn't allowed, and I yell his name, he rolls over on his back and waits for me to free him. I didn't teach him this; it's just his response to punishment.

So from this, I treat him as if he remembers what he's done in the past, but has no means of connecting current stimulus to a past behavior, unless he is currently performing the same behavior. I have no idea if this is actually the case, but acting as if it is has made him a very well behaved dog indeed.

Plus he's cute. ;)
posted by davejay at 10:35 AM on January 12, 2005

I don't find non-verbal thinking to be too hard of an idea. I tend toward it I'm very tired, for instance. It's a very fluid way, which mixes in easily with pieces of verbal thought. There are some hard-line people who think language is the basis of thought who probably think that the tons of normal people who say they don't always think in words just aren't paying enough attention.
posted by abcde at 11:42 AM on January 12, 2005

Whether all thought is language depends on how you define "language". If music can be a language, why not non-verbal thought as well? That's the argument I've heard from those who want to believe that all thought is language. Also illustrative is the concept of "body language" which is one kind of communication we do use in ways similar to various kinds of animals. Even ants use some kind of communication. Are they also conscious?

Sex is also a language-based communication form. I think any definition of language that's broad enough to cover anything non-human must include DNA. It's nothing but a carrier of encoded information, just like this sentence is -- although DNA is usually much more practically useful. It's a more sophisticated language than anything else your average primate can come up with. I think it's the most complex and wonderful language of all.

It happens that the most complex creatures on Earth brain-wise happen to usually have faces, but that's not itself the reason.

It also happens that the most complex creatures on earth are more like ourselves for the very reason that they are complex. We recognize their complex behavioural patterns as "like us", just as birds can recognize anything that feeds them and generally acts like a bird as their parent, and ants can recognize anything that wiggles its antennae and smells right as "one of us".
posted by sfenders at 12:22 PM on January 12, 2005

soyjoy, the problems you describe with the plant are real and serious - but they are all post-slaughter. Grandin's work is primarily on humane stock-handling pre-slaughter. You can't infer anything its quality from poor hygiene on the killing chain.

Back in the day when I learned about such things, it was standard practice to provide stock time to "empty out" in holding pens before slaughter. Shit on the carcasses indicates to me that this isn't happening. My reading of the links you provide, and my memory of the descriptions in Fast Food Nation, is that ConAgra encourages, indeed relies on violating standards of every kind in order to increase throughput. Thus this is a problem with management practise, not with the design of a slaughterhouse or animal management protocol.

I can tell you that stressed stock produce low-quality meat, both in terms of toughness and flavour. Meat producers who care about quality always care about good stock-handling. Whether ConAgra and other commodity beef producers care about it is a different question.

freebird, if you're a strict and logical utilitarian then you would see promoting humane slaughter as good and worthwhile. Maybe it takes someone with autistic focus to maintain that kind of ethical consistency.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:16 PM on January 12, 2005

Heh, thanks five fresh fish. I needed that ;).

Though most of that emotional trauma was about ten years ago. Now, it's mainly just the physical anxiety. I need a squeeze couch so I can relax.

As far as consciousness goes, I tend to think it is more emotionally based than language based, i.e. sensory experience is indexed by emotion not by words. I've got a lot of feelings on this subject, I just have trouble putting it into words ;).

I could use my dog as a simple example too, I guess. He is very aware of quite complex concepts. He knows exactly what time it is always. When I'm home on the weekend, he's getting up and stretching at 4:55 almost on the dot, because he knows he gets a walk at 5. I can tell him "quick walk" and he knows which routes around the apartment complex to take. He knows which route to take if he poops it, and which one to take if he doesn't. I don't have to say anything. To me that's pretty sophisticated intelligence. And I've given him zero training. He is certainly aware of what is going on in the environment and he understands his place in it.
posted by effwerd at 2:16 PM on January 12, 2005

Our culture doesn't hug enough, IMO.

And this coming from a guy who more or less can't stand overly friendly strangers...
posted by five fresh fish at 2:25 PM on January 12, 2005

freebird, if you're a strict and logical utilitarian

I deny these slanderous lies! I am never strict, rarely logical, and philosophically omnivorous.

then you would see promoting humane slaughter as good and worthwhile. Maybe it takes someone with autistic focus to maintain that kind of ethical consistency.

I think I made pretty clear I thought the work sounded "good and worthwhile". In fact your point about the autistic consistency is almost identical to my point, though I was remarking less on the consistency and more on the emotional tension between understanding animals and working for a slaughterhouse - but it's essentially the same point. So I'm not sure if you're arguing with me or agreeing...

I just find the whole thing fascinating - the Squeeze Machine horrified me! Oh, the inhumanity - a machine to caress and hug children! Only a machine would think of such a thing! Then I read further and understood that this was the *only* way these children could be hugged. Just writing that flushes my eyes.

What a fascinating and rich story. I take her views on consciousness less as academic theory and more as subjective exploration and explanation, and it's much more a narrative than a scientific story for me. But her descriptions of the attempt to make sense of it all! Her way of viewing what it is to think and be human! Wonderful stuff.
posted by freebird at 2:35 PM on January 12, 2005

Reading your second comment, I think I'm agreeing with you :)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:59 PM on January 12, 2005

Oh. Well, I could change if you like. As I said, I'm never strict :)
posted by freebird at 3:01 PM on January 12, 2005

Grandin's work is primarily on humane stock-handling pre-slaughter. You can't infer anything its quality from poor hygiene on the killing chain.

I respectfully disagree, joe's_spleen. The point I'm making is that without testimony from the animals as to how Grandin's recommendations affect their experience, all we have to go on is the performance of the plant. If the one slaughterhouse singled out by Grandin as her pride and joy happens to also be one of the most dangerously negligent in America, there certainly seems to be a disconnect there somewhere. Even if Grandin has done a magnificent job with design recommendations, if they're implemented in a place that as you say "relies on violating standards of every kind in order to increase throughput," then there is indeed a problem there with "animal management protocol." Without evidence to the contrary, one would have to logically assume that management would also violate any of Grandin's "humane" standards that got in the way of short-term profit.

And the fact that meat contamination can occur from holding-pen management does not mean it doesn't also occur through inhumane killing-floor practices. Gail Eisnitz has done a terrific job of documenting, in the words of slaughterhouse workers, exactly how and why this happens on a daily basis in meat plants across America, and I urge anyone who's interested in the issue of how food animals are treated to check out her book Slaughterhouse and the links on this page.

In short, as I said, of course "these problems are not all directly attributable to Grandin's recommendations," but given how godawful this industry is - and this plant she cites in particular - it's up to her and them to prove to us how her work truly improves anything other than the company's ability to more efficiently move product. I have yet to see that proof.
posted by soyjoy at 7:46 AM on January 13, 2005

« Older Oishii!   |   ResumeWiki: Pad your resume with strangers on the... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments