27 July 2007

Animals in Translation

I have mixed feelings about this book, which is perhaps appropriate as it is itself a mix--of personal memoir, professional mea culpa, behavioral reference, and (perhaps primarily) anecdote collection. It is written by Temple Grandin, a high-functioning person with autism who became much better known when Oliver Sacks wrote about her in An Anthropologist on Mars.

Grandin has a Ph.D. in Animal Science, and has spent her professional career designing humane(r) slaughter facilities for cattle, pigs, and sheep. Animals in Translation presents the lessons she's learned about animal behavior filtered through her unique perspective as an autistic person; she believes that the way autistic people think and the way animals think are very similar.

The book offers many compelling insights. Grandin talks about how animals don't generalize the way typical humans do--an animal once traumatized by a man in a black hat may forever rear at the sight of a black hat; a cow can be stopped in its tracks by a shiny reflection. They're attentive to details because they don't have a sense of the whole--or at least not as easily as typical humans do.

In spite of some interesting points, the book's idiosyncratic, circular, and often redundant style put a damper on my enjoyment of it. There's little distinction between conclusions drawn from anecdote, scientific research, or personal experience--all are given equal weight. The old saw about essay writing ("Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them") is adhered to rather too literally: a paragraph introduces an idea including its conclusion, comes to a conclusion, and then affirms that conclusion (often with a not very persuasive, "That's my guess" or "I've seen this again and again."). Animals in Translation does have a co-author, but either that co-author was asleep at the wheel or she's simply a poor writer/editor.

Worth reading? Sure. But the reading can start to feel like trudging after a while.

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