Sunday 28 June 2015

Think like a cow

It is the experience of many who work in science that a disconcerting number of The Effectives appear to be "on the [autistic] spectrum".  I don't propose here to critique the diagnosis of this condition except to note that psychiatrists recognise "pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified" PDD-NOS which shouts my-bailiwick-is-getting-bigger-must-go-viral. In my piece about John Nash, I cited a case of an autistic professor of who used to address her lectures to the blackboard until told that the students preferred to see their teacher's face. Apocryphal but it has the ring of truth. It's weird because although autism is characterised by impaired social interaction and blunted affect, I got a surprising amount of empathic support from my then boss when I returned from my father's funeral.  I think it is really helpful to rescue PDD-NOS people from the clutches of well-meaning but officious folk who long to step in to help. As a community we really need to set the parameters of "the normal range" as wide as possible, so that the different, the eccentric and the out-there are tolerated and let alone.  Actually, with the pervasive planetary worries we face, we should do rather more active listening than mere passive toleration of alternative ways of being.  All this is especially true if drugs follows diagnosis as night follows day.

Temple Grandin was born in Boston in 1949 and with hindsight it was a knife-edge as to whether she would now be rocking-rocking in the corner of an institution.  She was diagnosed brain-damaged at the age of two and didn't talk until she was four. The full time attention of a nurse and speech-therapist and the support of her mother got her into the school system. That nurse needs the same sort of tribute as we give to Anne "Helen Keller"Sullivan.  In school young Temple was lucky to have supportive teachers and administrators because she was unmercifully teased by her peers for being demonstrably different. She finished up in a boarding school for gifted children and went on to get an armful of degrees in various colleges in the USA, culminating in a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She is now Professor of Animal Science at U Colorado.

The engagement with animal science is not somewhere she happened to finish up but rather a key strand in her life because she claims to think like a cow. Human social norms require a lot of face time. We yak on with/to/at each other, finishing and repeating each other's sentences not so much to convey information as to establish a pecking order and demonstrate empathy.  One of of Grandin's 'symptoms' is an extreme sensitivity to noise and the relentless chitter-chatter, not to say roaring and barracking, of school must have been plain hell. Out on a horse was a far better place to be and that's what she spent a lot of time doing.

I'll use that as a segue to mention a very disturbing (because weird and inexplicable) form of sexual harassment reported by Dau.I the Poet. Since she taught herself to read in the month after her sixth birthday, she has been a 'read early and read often' person. She reads on her lunch-break, she reads on the bus, she reads over breakfast and would rather read than watch the telly.  She does not read while cycling to work (!) but she does read while walking.  More than once, some young lout has invaded her personal space to interrupt her ambulatory reveries by shouting into her face. Nothing clever or articulate: just an inchoate roar.  It seems to be saying: look at me, I am ignorant and egotistical and I will be heard.  A future in politics beckons.

You might think that someone like Grandin with such empathy for animals would have turned vegetarian about the same time as she turned adult but it didn't turn out like that. Recognising that meat, particularly beef, forms a central part of the culture in which she has lived all her life, she has made money if not a living designing abattoirs! That should make you think about where to fight your battles. The insatiable demand for beef means that cows are killed 24x7x52 [closed Christmas Day] and anything that holds up the flow costs money.  Somehow Grandin got a contract to consult for the meat-packing industry and walked through the chute from feed-lot to the killing floor at all time of the day and night. That gave her a cow's eye view of the process and she was able to understand why the bottle-necks occurred when and where they did. If one cow startles and backs-up then a time-consuming, frequently brutal and potentially dangerous intervention was required from the cattlemen with boots and cattle-prods. The example she often cites is when cattle turned a particular corner, one of the flood-lights reflected in a puddle of water and frightened the leading animal. Solution? Dry up the puddle.

Another of Grandin's talents is an amazing visual memory and she was able to take her experiences in the killing fields back to the drawing board and redesign the process so that it was more efficient and far less stressful for the product. No more puddles or shit-slick flooring: non-slip mats throughout. No more abrupt turns: these are replaced by ergonomic curves. No more open sides to the chute: these are poorly controlled and distracting. A light at the end of the tunnel. No more roaring and clanking at the last minute. With these and similar whole-process changes, each animal follows the tail in front, docile and unknowing that only seconds of life remain. The meat hangs better if it is not awash with adrenalin. The throughput goes up and the cost per unit comes down and we get cheaper food.  Fewer people are required to work in this shameful industry. More than 50% of slaughtered animals in the USA have ended their days in a plant designed under Grandin's principles. If you eat meat you should see her 10 minute propaganda video for the American Meat Institute. You might also watch it for evidence of what Reggie Edgerton believes about the intra-spinal circuit control of pacing in animals.  I'll leave you to find longer video footage of her talks for TED, Google and the BBC.

Just as I forbade you to get judgmental about Alayna Westcom being Miss Vermont, it is as pointless to criticise Temple Grandin for her vocation as it is to criticise her taste in cowboy shirts - she's come a long way West from Boston. She has done far more than me for the net welfare of mammals.  But for pity's sake, what are we doing eating meat at all at all?

Since there were ever prisoners of war, there have been slaves; in almost all human societies it has been legitimate to oppress women . . . and homosexuals have often had a rough time too.  In my life-time we have, through marches and riots, dialogue and legislation, come close[r] to a true emancipation of these untermensch.  When there are 14 billion people our grand-children will look back at our times to ask with repulsion "They ate meat? Every day?".  Worthy, counter-intuitive and interesting as Temple Grandin's work has been, it is rather like lining up the deckchairs.


  1. Our occupation of every type of terrestrial habitat on the planet is probably a phenomenon that depends in substantial part on our omnivorousness. Inuit vegetarians are inconceivable. The food culture of the Australian aboriginals appears central to the overall cultural project. The particular energy of the cave paintings of Lascaux etc feels very much the creation of meat eaters. All of which begs the question whether human variety is worth the carnivorous carnage

    1. Your mention of carnivorous Inuit allows me to add a note about Simon Fairlie of Monkton Wyld Court. His book Meat: a Benign Extravagance shows that there is place for pigs in a sustainable agricultural system to clean up round the edges and convert it to protein. Piece in the reactograph:

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