Monday, March 23, 2009

Dr. Temple Grandin

By Kristopher Hite

Temple Grandin spoke tonight about animals and autism. She spoke about animals we love and animals we eat. She outlined in very literal terms the science behind animal emotion; what gives animals fear, rage, anxiety, and joy. She details the research involved in illuminating the emotions of animals in a highly accessible manner in her book Animals Make us Human. As she spoke I could not help but be completely entranced by her electricity.

Dr. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and she has Asperger's syndrome - a disorder that falls along the autism spectrum. She describes her brain as a corporate office building with Ethernet cords linking all the workers on the lower floors while upper managament is lucky if they get a dial-up connection. She smiles at the audience while her eyes maintain an intense stare. Her energy is contagious. She has been in the national spotlight before and her star will continue to rise this year with the release of a feature biographical film produced by HBO in which she is portrayed by Claire Danes.

Professor Grandin is connected on a personal and professional level to some of the most challenging dilemmas facing society. Advocating early intervention and positive mentoring for children diagnosed with autism she stands as an example of a strong will overcoming hurdles. Her success as a best selling author gives hope to those afflicted with autism while her understanding of animals gives the world a better understanding of how to manage the growing meat industry while maintaining a consciousness of animal treatment.

She is mentioned in two books that have influenced my life; The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Autism's False Prophets by Paul Offit. Tonight she was asked her opinion of Offit's book and her answer was surprising. In Autism's False Prophets she is extolled as a champion for her role within the scientific establishment advocating early education and stimulation of children diagnosed with autism. She seemed shocked to learn that she was mentioned in the book and said she thinks the data indicating no correlation between vaccination and autism need to be scrutinized more thoroughly. She mentioned the error bars on a graph depicting the rise in autism presented at a recent seminar she attended at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to be so large that they rendered the conclusions confusing. She basically said that more studies need to be done and the data needs to be interpreted by objective scientists not doctors or mothers filled with emotion. Throughout her talk she was filled with the qualities of a true scientist; a seeking drive to discover along with the skeptical eye on both sides of the issues before her.
When asked about the legitimacy of industrial sized feed lots her answer was very practical. She said that large feedlots can either be managed well, in which case they are perfectly legitimate, or managed poorly in which case it is the personnel that need tweaking not the system. She did acknowledge that (especially in pig farming) biological systems are being pushed to extremes causing undue animal suffering. She has worked to minimize this suffering throughout her career and is credited with designing machinery that touches half of all beef sold in the United States. During her design process she visualizes step by step the individual cow as it moves through a system. Her photographic memory gives her this unique ability.

I specifically asked her opinion on the role nutrition plays in animal behavior. Her response was equally as practical as her previous. She thinks nutrition plays a secondary role to the primary emotional effectors such as the social and physical environments. She specifically mentioned how well cattle do in the mild dry farms in Arizona because they do not have to cope with mud and over-heating they face in other parts of the country. Later she came back to the point about nutrition and mentioned that feeding a cow a lot of grain is like raising a kid on a diet of soda, cake, and candy. Of course the cow likes to eat the rich grain and is probably pleased, but the problem arises when the human manager tries to feed the animals too much grain. This causes lesions in the liver and obviously brings suffering to the animal. Her very practical remedy is not to shun the entire system, but to reform it; make sure the ratio of sweets to fiber is such that growth is maximized but balanced with health. She advocates providing oversight so that the greed of the meat grower does not ruin the system by poisoning the animals.

The last point I will make was the first point Dr. Grandin made. She began her talk on the topic of animal emotions but quickly pointed out that half the people in the room would think the idea that animals have emotion at all is "B.S." She quickly began fighting these instant conclusions by talking about the specific structures in the brain where each core emotion is regulated and how these apply to animals and humans alike. Then she made a particularly pertinent point to the new emergent media in which you are reading this text. She proposed that the problem with scientific disciplines is a lack of cross-talk. The complete lack of communication between the realms of science is the reason neuroscience took 30 years to be applied to the study of animal emotion. When she made this point I thought of the new age of internet communication, twitter, facebook, etc. etc. and visions of open online laboratories swirled in my head. A world where an experiment in Shanghai could inspire the next day's experiments in Chicago simultaneously to their recording. A world where an autistic professor could transfer her excitement for knowledge through my fingers to your mind.
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