Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Adam's Task II: Preface

N.B. All blockquotes are from Vicki Hearne's Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name unless otherwise specified. My computer based kindle reader isn't working today, so I don't have page numbers. This also means all quotations were hand typed, not copied and pasted, so some minor errors may exist.

On the whole, even though I have learned things in the last ten years, I still believe this book.

Adam's Task was first published in 1986.

The second edition was published in 1994 and included the preface discussed in today's post.

The edition I am reading from was published in 2007. Added to this edition was the introduction by Donald McCaig, which was covered previously.

Vicki Hearne died in 2001.

The opening line of the 1994 preface is

In 1993 Time magazine announced that anthropomorphism is no longer a sin, that it's okay now to say that animals think, hope, are puzzled, have expectations, are disappointed, even, for some, make their own little plans in a time scheme of their own.

The history of the scientific study of animals, behavior, and cognition is central to understanding the story Hearne is telling. I was very put off when I was first reading the preface, because the attitude of scientists towards animals is very different than the attitude I am used to. I live in an era where canine cognition is studied not only as a model for human cognition, but for it's own interests and merits. There are books like Alexandra Horowitz' Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Patricia McConnell's The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog. That Patricia McConnell's profession, ethologist, or the biological study of animal behavior, exsits is a testament to the difference between the scientific understanding of animals in Hearne's time and mine.

So, even if Hearne paints herself as a lone voice speaking up for the animals and aggrandizes her suffering in pursuit of her "eccentric, crank project," I can forgive her. It's her preface and no doubt she faced quite a lot of criticism and roadblocks in her project.

There are a couple of paragraphs about the troubling rise of anti-dog legislation. In this, nothing has changed in the last ten years. Notable is the quote

...the twin images of the ferocious beast and the gentle, loving, free, or frolicsome creature...

You see this very often in literature about Pit Bulls. Opponents would have every dog a baby-killer in waiting, supporters wave the banner of the Nanny Dog. It is harder to find a more nuanced account of the breed, but nuance is always hard to come by in emotional issues.

More relevant to this blog and the theme of changing perceptions of animal research is what follows.

Disturbing also is the new divorce between training and the "new" behaviorists.... By the "new" behaviorism, I mean that board-certifiable specialty that has appeared in the veterinary profession.

Hearne is speaking of veterinary behaviorists (NOT radical Skinner behaviorists, which is another post).

Since drugs are of one sort or another are often a blessing, a momentary reversal of the Fall, this is not necessarily to be deplored, but it seems something of a shame anyhow, that the knowledge of dogs and of training doesn't - no, can't - make it over the college walls. There is... no genuine exchange between training and the academy.

I will take Hearne at her word, that there was "no genuine exchange" between trainers and scientists. Today that is not the case. I would like to imagine Hearne would be pleased with this communication, but I doubt it. I suspect she would feel the scientists are talking to the wrong trainers (namely, trainers who use positive reinforcement exclusively or primarily, and even worse, food) and reaching the wrong conclusions.

A major theme of this series of blog posts is that Hearne says she is seeking to reconcile the academic's and the trainer's understanding of animals, but what she does is condemn the academic for not bowing to the trainer's understanding.

A major issue in this book is authority. Where does it come from, besides our chimplike impulses? who has the right to command whom?

This is a good question!

We can command, follow, only whom and what we can obey, meaning only whom and what we can hear, respond to.

Aaand Hearne doesn't answer it. Awesome. She does reference the end of "How to Say "Fetch!" so perhaps we will get some explanation when we get to that chapter.

I am not holding my breath.

Now for some snide shots of Hearne-is-a-crappy-writer.

Also, there have been a few wonderful books published...and something that marks a major moment, or discovery, of a possibly grown-up consciousness of animals, John Hollander's anthology, The Naming and Blaming of Cats.

I have read and re-read this sentance sixteen times, and I still have no idea what she is getting at.

She is way, way too fond of asides. I was too. When I was in fourth grade.

It is something, at nearing fifty, to find myself accompanied in what was, when I was groping toward it in the seventies and eighties, an eccentric, crank project - finding a language with which to reveal some of what seemed to me to be so crucial to the fact that good trainers, the ones whose animals are so confident and convincing at their work, are precisely the ones whose ways of talking violate the received precepts of religion and science.

Should have said:

"It is something, at nearing fifty, to find myself accompanied in my crank project to find a language to reveal what is crucial to the fact that good trainers' way of talking is counter to the science."

I think. I think she might have left out a noun or two in that sentence somewhere. But that's my best guess at what she's trying to say.

It's disturbing in part because it means that there are dogs out there on drugs that needn't be, that could be dancing instead.

Hearne does this all the time. She introduces a thought with symbolic words like this, "could be dancing instead". In itself, that's not bad. In fact, it's a perfectly valid literary technique. But in order for it to work, you have to explain the idea. You have to break it down, get detailed, show how and why that image works to encapsulate a concept. But Hearne never follows the metaphor through. She just toss it out there and moves on. This is something we will see more and more often the deeper we get into the book.