How many humans approach animal experiences backwards.


(Modified from a post to a mailing list.)

I don’t think humans have the means of detecting that nonhumans (or specific forms of humans) lack these kinds of (“secondary”) feelings. It wasn’t just that I thought Temple Grandin lacked the expertise, it was that I think that people lack the ability to determine that someone can’t feel something — except ourselves.

There’s usually an assumption that most people take for granted about animals (and about specific kinds of humans, including very young humans and many kinds of disabled humans), that… they’re basically as close to a blank state as we can possibly get without denying something that’s too obvious to deny.  And so instead of figuring “these feelings are possible”, we feel that each and every feeling they feel (as well as their intellectual abilities and self-awareness) must be proven by rigorous scientific method.

That’s coming at it backwards.  There should be really really good evidence those things are not there before we start assuming that they aren’t.  (And often that should be on a case-by-case basis.)  And really good evidence means really good evidence — not what passes for “evidence” in a culture that already views certain kinds of beings as as blank as we can feasibly paint them as.

(I’m not saying there aren’t humans without certain experiences.  The amount of enormous holes in my understanding/experience of the world (both growing up and later) compared to usual understandings of the world is truly astounding to me even compared to many other autistic people I’ve known.  I’m just saying, that’s not an assumption we should be making about entire categories of people, even categories we happen to belong to, let alone categories so obviously different that assumptions should come harder, not easier.)

Plus… for instance, I look at cats, and I see that they have realms of experience entirely closed off to humans.  That’s rarely acknowledged either — humans are seen as the “full” form and then cats (and other nonhumans) are seen as having like… certain chunks out of the (“full, human”) experience and then blankness everywhere else.  There are undoubtedly animals with feelings humans don’t have, and life forms with experiences of the world so different from humans that we don’t think they have experiences at all.  (Because we start from human as “the full experience of the world” and work “backwards” through animals and various atypical humans.)  That’s just a really warped understanding of the world, yet a lot of humans seem to take it for granted.

(And in so doing, they miss the vast amount of feline communication that it is possible for them to decipher, because they’re too busy thinking over the top of it to notice the subtlety of it.)

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

14 responses »

  1. This reminds me a bit of one of your other posts … I can’t remember the title of it now, but you had a metaphor where most people are way up high in the mountaintops and your life is down in the valley, and a people assume your life is basically like the mountain but without the mountain — ie, very empty because a feature so dominant in their lives and experiences wasn’t there and they couldn’t imagine what could possibly take its place. But from your perspective, the valley was full of richness and depth and complexity that they couldn’t see because they were looking way down from above. And because they couldn’t see it, they dismissed it and assumed it wasn’t there.

  2. I noticed this too about most people, and it came as a shock because it’s the opposite of my own assumptions. Especially weird when they do it to me. I suspect it’s connected to the mess of an idea called Theory of Mind, wherein a person projects their own motives onto another in order to understand them, and conversely deduces motive from action. Clearly this shortcut gets less useful as the difference between animals increases.

  3. [H]umans are seen as the full form

    Yes, I’ve noticed this, too. It is very wrong, not only factually but also in that it seems to me like it automatically positions humans as being morally worthier than any other form of life.

    I also like what you’ve written about evidence, how people demand proof that animals, and also certain kinds of people, can think and feel. I’ve even found that I internalize that to a degree, thinking “oh, I don’t feel [x]” because I’d absorbed the notion that autistic people don’t have emotions like non-autistic people do. So when I would actually be feeling [x], it would take me a lot longer to see that that’s what was happening to me.

    (Possibly related: it’s always been hard for me to be able to see when people/animals are having experiences that I don’t have. I suspect many people might have this difficulty, and that might lead them to conclude that there *are* no experiences that they don’t have!)

  4. I can remember when I was working with neonates back in the 80’s people were just beginning to recognize that these tiny babies felt pain. Why would they not? For some reason for years they had not been given pain killers for procedures that pain killers would be given to any other older human. Likewise there was an assumption by some that babies didn’t really understand language before they talked. I remember caring for a baby who’s mother was astounded I talked to baby in long sentences. When I said chandalier the baby looked up at the chandalier in anticipation as I always told him before I turned it on and he loved the lights. The mother almost fainted. She wanted to know how the baby knew what it was. The concept of talking to her baby in a meaningful way had not occurred to her as she somehow thought all the learning came when the baby was old enough to verbalize. She had to be taught that baby communicated well and showed understanding in many other ways besides verbalizing words…

    There are all sorts of myths about dogs that sell them short emotionally and intellectually.
    One such myth is that “dogs can’t tell time”. Tell that to our dog Daisy who worridly herds us into the kitchen if dinner gets delayed past a certain time. This isn’t hunger on her part as she has food available 24/7. She also lets us know on Sunday and Wednesday evenings that her ear medicine is due.

    I know our dogs worlds are richer in sound and smells then ours. They surely hate to leave us alone as they know we can’t hear or smell a darn thing. They are always alerting us to approaching animals we are not yet aware are nearby . I sometimes think one of our dogs anticipates our moods and needs before we actually are aware of them so I know they have a key sense of body positions and possibly even to smells that go with emotion. Their world has many more layers of smell…I have seen how Daisy goes out to smell where animals have walked the night before and put it into no doubt a directory of smells that lets her know by scent how long ago something passed by. There is so much we don’t now yet….

    I think one of the things that fascinates me is when animals reach across species to communicate. We had an orphaned squirrel once run up my pant leg and shirt and huddle on my shoulder…I imagine it saw I moved…and it’s mother had moved before she suddenly wasn’t there any more…and it was hungry…and thought like it’s mother I might supply food. I did. I also found it a home in the backyard of a rehabilitator who had other squirrels there and got orphan Annie back into the wild when she was older and ready.

    I like watching the interaction of Daisy our dog with Erysimum, the cat with whom she was raised. They touch noses to say hello….cat language…..and cat marks dog as her own….but cat also uses dog language when she things appropriate like when she stretches out to say she wants to play. Or is that cat language too? They have a special bond.

    I think we have a lot to learn from other animals and much can be learned by observation.
    I feel lucky to have ours in our lives….

  5. I’ve run into this a lot. I used to get into vociferous argument with people over whether animals could experience emotions and have actual inner lives. It amazed me that people – some of whom actually worked with animals – would insist that animals don’t really feel a full range of emotion, are incapable of actual affection, and only hang around people because we feed them. It was completely contrary to my experiences with animals for my entire life.

    It’s like that annoying “self-awareness” test that is geared toward human thought processes, so animals that think in a manner that’s at least somewhat similar to us and do a lot of visual processing pass the test while animals who are less visual, and perhaps further removed from us in terms of how they think, are less likely to pass the test. I find it difficult to accept that this is truly an objective test that demonstrates self-awareness. Rather, it strikes me as a test that demonstrates one particular kind of self-awareness.

    Speaking of that test, I remember your post about your cat using mirrors to make eye contact with people. I loved that just for demonstrating that cats can and do use mirrors.

  6. Oh, you’re back! This makes me happy, I very much enjoy reading your writing. I did take opportunity to read some general disability-rights stuff like you have recommended in some of your posts. I knew there were broad similarities but I guess I still didn’t really believe HOW similar they are. I didn’t think there were situations where you could substitute the word “autism” for “blindness” and still have an account make sense. This was a pretty big realization.

    Anyway, in regards to animals, this does confuse me too, I think I’ve mentioned it in the comments before. I know I specifically spent a lot of time around cats growing up and even though it’s been a while, I still have an awareness that most people don’t. It’s frustrating to me when it’s so obvious what the cat means and people just don’t get it. It’s even more frustrating when I just don’t get what the cat is feeling or trying communicate. It feels like a big failure on my part. But assuming that just because I’m not able to perceive those things that the actions and expressions are senseless… THAT’S the senseless thing. It’s not logical at all.

  7. Having lived forty years amongst neurotypicals, and understood well enough that I didn’t understand them, it has always frustrated me that they assumed they understood me. And labeled me accordingly. Wrong WRONG!

    Education is the key, I guess; but I’m not holding my breath for that one…!
    I can only try to keep my mind open to all the other things I don’t understand.

  8. I think much of this sort of thing has to do with the ability to communicate to most humans. If an animal or person can’t communicate by being verbal in some way, or at least with body language than it is assumed that they aren’t experiencing life as fully. I notice this a lot when I visit my nonverbal son’s classroom. Some very good teachers get it, but most do not. They measure life and experience only as they know it and how most know it. They apply that experience to them while it rarely does fit. They want them to behave like they’re experiencing life and feeling like them (I find much of the therapies they use designed for this purpose) while denying that the children experience their own way and that way is just as valid, and just as full as theirs. It’s as if to many, if not most humans there if there is not any communication as they understand it, then there is a blank slate. The assumption is made based on that lack of understanding.

  9. Pingback: Animals, power, and respect « Urocyon's Meanderings

  10. Pingback: Social Skills | Autism and Empathy

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