Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

The literature on autistic savants sparked my discovery. Autistic savants are people who can do things like tell you what day of the week you were born based on your birth date, or calculate in their heads whether your street address is a prime number or not. They usually have IQs in the mentally retarded range, though not always, yet they can naturally do things no normal human being can even be taught to do, no matter how hard he tries to learn or how much time he spends practicing.

Animals are like autistic savants. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that animals might actually be autistic savants. Animals have special talents normal people don't, the same way autistic people have special talents normal people don't; and at least some animals have special forms of genius normal people don't, the same way some autistic savants have special forms of genius. I think most of the time animal genius probably happens for the same reason autistic genius does: a difference in the brain autistic people share with animals.

The reason we've managed to live with animals all these years without noticing many of their special talents is simple: we can't see those talents. Normal people never have the special talents animals have, so normal people don't know what to look for. Normal people can stare straight at an animal doing something brilliant and have no idea what they're seeing. Animal genius is invisible to the naked eye.

I'm sure I don't know all the talents animals have, either, let alone all the things they could use their talents to do if we gave them the chance. But now that I've seen the connection between autistic savantry and animal genius at least I have an idea what I'm looking for: I'm looking for ways animals can use their amazing ability to perceive things humans can't perceive, and to remember highly detailed information we can't remember, to make life better for everyone, animals and people alike. Just off the top of my head, here's a thought: we have service dogs for the blind -- how about service dogs for the middle-aged whose memories are going? I'm willing to bet that just about any dog can remember where you put your car keys better than you can if you're over forty, and probably if you're under forty, too.

Or how about service dogs who remember where your kids left the remote control? I bet a dog could do this if you gave him the training.

Of course, I don't know this for a fact. I could be wrong. But for me, predicting animal talents is getting to be a little like astronomers predicting the existence of a planet nobody can see based on their understanding of gravity. I'm starting to be able to accurately predict animal talents nobody can see based on what I know about autistic talent.


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Animals from the Outside In

By the time I got to college I knew I wanted to learn about animals.

That was the 1960s, and the whole field of psychology was B. F. Skinner and behaviorism. Dr. Skinner was so famous that just about every college kid in the country had a copy of Beyond Freedom and Dignity on his bookshelf. He taught that all you needed to study was behavior. You weren't supposed to speculate about what was inside a person's or an animal's head because you couldn't measure all the stuff inside the black box -- intelligence, emotions, motives. The black box was off-limits; you couldn't talk about it. You could measure only behavior, therefore you could study only behavior.

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