Adam's Task

GUEST: Vicki Hearne
VTR: 9/14/1986

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A friend directed me recently to tow totally intriguing articles in The New Yorker magazine. Now they form the basis for a brilliantly innovative Alfred Knopf book entitled Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name. Now, some people will read Adam’s Task as a guide to training pets, though I think anyone high enough on the evolutionary scale to love horses and dogs will see this wonderful book as much more profoundly a guide to effective communication generally, and will take its subtitle, Calling Animals By Name, not only as an injunction to do the right thing by animals, respecting their dignity and individuality, but also as a metaphor for respecting our own as well. In short, if in Genesis Adam’s task was to name each living creature, then ours is to respect and to call and treat each by name, our human selves included, rather than by species or rank or diagnosis or testing category. Humane and effective communication takes place only with each living creature; not otherwise. Each must have a name, a personhood respected. Anyway, I’m amused to find my own tendency toward anthropomorphism – regarding others as we would ourselves – more than shared by Vicki Hearne, the author of Adam’s Task, and an animal trainer and an Assistant Professor of English at Yale University. And I want to ask Ms. Hearne why her brand of dealing with animals in terms of certain of their qualities, emotions, feelings is as heretical in academic psychology today as anthropomorphism ever was in the church centuries ago. And that’s where I’d really like to begin. What troubles people about what I consider this wonderful approach of yours to animals?

HEARNE: That troubles me too. That is to say I’m not sure. The answer that comes easily to mind is vanity, another is terror, used metaphorically. But it’s simply imaginatively easier to impart, it’s easier to disenfranchise something you don’t call by name.

HEFFNER: Do you think there is a connection between the disenfranchisement of animals and when we do the same thing with people who we refer to as autistic rather than Janey and Johnny?

HEARNE: Oh, certainly, certainly. It’s a failure of respect, which is to say in part a failure to notice when our knowledge of the other comes to an end, which it usually does long before we’re certain enough to just go ahead and call then by name, since calling the animal by name may fail.

HEFFNER: And in training how does that…

HEARNE: Well, in training dogs the most important command is, “Joe, come.” And my favorite dog trainer opens all of his beginning classes, where people aren’t yet allowed come with their dogs, that’s what novices they are, and he asks people, “How many of you people here tonight would like to have your dog come when he’s called, the first time he’s called? And how many of us would like this of our friends, husbands, wives, employers, employees?” We do not know how to do it though.

HEFFNER: Then are you rally wiring about…I mean, I guess the question I would ask, am I off-base totally in seeing in this wonderful book of yours something much more than a manual for trainers of animals?

HEARNE: Oh, it’s not a manual at all. It’s, I suppose it’s a philosophical book. Not philosophy. A philosophical book for trainers. And certainly the trainers were the ones I felt indebted to all of my life. But I didn’t end it with a discussion of autism by accident.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

HEARNE: I became aware of that problem, well, in part the way we’ve I guess a lot of people do at first. I heard the idea of someone who could never speak. What did that, what in the world would that mean? And then I found out that indeed that is so true that the autistic child from the point of view of someone who identifies human beings as ones with language is less, is farther from what we recognize as humanhood, personhood than a dog or a cat is. A dog or a cat will respond to your voice. And many autistic children simply won’t.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting then that the better rather than the poorer techniques that you would use in teaching, training, dealing with animals would be productive in dealing with and responding to autistic children, or our wives and husbands?

HEARNE: Well, on the issue of both autistic children and wives and husbands I’m speaking as a layman, as I’m not when I talk about animals. But yeah, sure. You don’t ask a dog to jump through a flaming hoop before you’ve shown the dog your commitment and responsiveness to the dog. But a lot of people start with other people by inadvertently, no doubt, holding up a flaming hoop. And the, have you ever been around a genuinely great animal trainer with the animal?

HEFFNER: No. Indeed, no.

HEARNE: Oh, well, if you’re alert to it, the continuous responsiveness between the trainer and the animal, the trainers – you probably wouldn’t be aware of it anyway because they’re so used to it they just do it – puts you to shame when you start thinking about how much you’re usually attending to what other people are asking. I’m no better at that than anybody else by the way.

HEFFNER: You mean the trainer is essentially a communicator?

HEARNE: Yes, although I must say that word puts me off.


HEARNE: Oh, simply because of certain tangles about whether or not communication is sufficient for language, as in the question of the signing apes. Well, okay, they’re communicating, but it’s not language, see?

HEFFNER: But now you sound a little bit, are you beginning to sound a little bit like those who say there is no communication, it’s simply that there’s a picking up of the signals?

HEARNE: No, no, no. I must have expressed myself badly. What I meant was that certain people who think in a way that I don’t follow will say such and such a gesture, interchange and so on is certainly gesture, it’s certainly communication, but it’s not language.

HEFFNER: Would you take exception to that?

HEARNE: Yes. Yes, indeed. Simply because if you start looking at human language – as some psychologists used to want to do; I don’t know if they still do – as simply a code, and a very complicated one, you find that you, in order to do that you have to cut out all the stuff that enables us to talk, such as you and I looking at each other, for example. So eye contact can’t be part of language because the apes do it, see? Or your cat does it for that matter. And roughly it’s sort of like cutting away the whole world to save some proposition.

HEFFNER: You know, it occurred to me as I read your book, I had to ask you without being cute, I’m a teacher, so I’ll ask you as a teacher whether there is a difference between teaching the Yaleys and teaching the dogs and the horses you deal with, and what is that difference if there is one?

HEARNE: Well, one of the differences is the Yaleys almost all can do the five-part essay. So a lot of my work is already done for me by the time I get them. And a lot of their work is already done, too. But in terms of, for example, simply correcting a student, making a mark on a paper, correcting a dog for a failure to site, whether because they’re walking into danger or simply because the formality of the exercise is important at the moment, is the same. You cannot simply correct, because it becomes punishment if you do. And punishment doesn’t work.

HEFFNER: What works? With Yaleys and animals?

HEARNE: Acknowledgement.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Acknowledgement?” Isn’t punishment acknowledgement?

HEARNE: Not so you could prove it by me. I mean, some people have wanted to say that, I suppose. But of course it’s not. You don’t have to know anything about someone to punish them. All you have to have is some ropes and whips. I mean, whether verbal or literal.

HEFFNER: So acknowledgement is more than just recognizing what they’ve done that’s wrong? You talk about something else.

HEARNE: Oh, far more, far more. Virtually anyone can know that if they’re in a teaching situation long enough, you know. It’s a matter of acknowledging that the student is beyond your knowledge, even as you know that what they’ve just done is wrong and that you many even be wrong about that. I think all of our, the stories we like to tell about, well, they said Einstein couldn’t add, or so-and-so seemed to be retarded, and Darwin got Cs at Oxford or Cambridge or wherever he was, are little allegories that at least fugitively acknowledge what we already know that, that any teacher can be wrong. And if a student comes in with an essay that has 12 paragraphs in it and all but one of those 12 paragraphs opens with an incomplete sentence and a mess of grammar, but in the seventh paragraph there’s some lucidity coming through, if you can find out where that lucidity comes from in the student, then after that there’s no problem about teaching them complete sentences, because they have a reason.

HEFFNER: Is there a parallel to this with animals?

HEARNE: Of course. And it works the other way too, by the way, with people and animals, at least for me. The pleasure of constructing a good sentence, whether under your direction or someone else’s or no one’s, creates an internal click in anyone who has language ability. And the pleasure of moving well creates an internal click in dogs and horses that is at least as powerful as any praise you can give them. And that’s part of what you have to acknowledge when you’re teaching, that you’re not, there’s a limit to how far inside their brains you’re going to get, and that limit is about where you are, not where they are.

HEFFNER: When we talk about horses and dogs, are we talking about a limit, as you suggest, to the extent to which we can teach animals?

HEARNE: I don’t know what the limits might be.

HEFFNER: What’s your guess? Are there characteristics that are necessary?

HEARNE: Well, there are some obvious differences between us and at least some animals. You can’t leave a note for your dog. And this does not have anything to do with the dog’s visual perceptual capacities, but rather with their perception of time.

HEFFNER: Well, sure, but you can’t blow a certain kind of whistle and expect a human being to respond the way you can get a dog to respond, right?

HEARNE: No, no, but I’m saying that that difficulty is not, I mean a human being can’t hear the whistles you’re talking about.


HEARNE: Are those the ones you mean?


HEARNE: Yeah. Well, I’m not talking about something a dog can’t perceive, has no capacity to perceive. And in fact there’s a sense in which, I suppose, dogs do leave each other notes when they leave scent markers, whether to warn people away or for sexual purposes or so on. You know? Those work for days. But you probably cannot teach them to run WPIX, in part because they wouldn’t be interested.

HEFFNER: That’s the first qualification.

HEARNE: And we can teach dogs to sit just fine, but it’s harder than it looks to give a sit correction to a dolphin, for example. That’s just not a dolphin thing to do.

HEFFNER: You know, you deal with feelings and seemingly emotions in teaching, in your teaching. And I would go back to the first question that I put to you. You used the word “fear” when I asked why is this so difficult for so many people to accept that there is a level of emotionality, there is a level at which you can indicate at this level I can deal with animals, not exactly as I can deal with human beings, but I can deal with them. I see I feel feelings there, I feel emotions. When I asked you why it was so difficult for some people to deal with that, you said “Fear, in part.” What’s the nature of the fear?

HEARNE: Well, that I do not fully understand. I suspect that a western skeptical tradition is part of the training. I mean, in this culture simply if you don’t do it very well indeed people think you’re ridiculous, that is anthropomorphize, attribute feelings, intentions and so on to animals.

HEFFNER: You mean it is because it is? That’s the way, that’s the skepticism?

HEARNE: Well, the skepticism, whether, I suspect that it’s giving in the structure of the human mind and lots of other minds as well. I don’t know why except that it’s probably wise for a creature that started out as a little fructivore, you know, edible by everybody, to not be entirely trusting. And the other is profoundly emotional. That is to say the animals’ capacity to repudiate you, while not as powerful in most cases except in intense training situations as your husband’s or wife’s or children’s or parents’ is nonetheless very powerful. I mean, I have seen, you know, quarterbacks reduced to tears when their Pomeranian wouldn’t fetch, because the animal’s refusal is as absolute, emotional refusal can be as absolute as yours.

HEFFNER: And we don’t want to deal with that potential for disappointment?

HEARNE: I think that’s part of it. People used to wonder why some children grow up loving dogs and horses. I used to wonder how come everybody doesn’t. Why isn’t that automatic? And there is another mystery. A friend of mine once told me that when she was about five she had been savaged by a German shepherd, taken to the hospital and all of that. And she said it gave her a permanent terror of doctors.

HEFFNER: Not of dogs?

HEARNE: Not of dogs. So a lot happens before you’re five.

HEFFNER: You know, when I turn to, toward the end of your books, “Rights, Autism and the Rougher Magics”, I think you pose a question here that had occurred to me, and I think must occur to a great many people. You are raising the consciousness in a sense of the animals you deal with. You then raise the question, and you turn to The Tempest quite appropriately, and in the selection that Calaban directs to Miranda,”You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language”. And I guess the question must come up many times, in your training of “those poor, dumb creatures”, quotation marks, aren’t you putting a burden upon them, and aren’t we putting the burden upon others too, when we try to elevate them to…

HEARNE: Yes, the question, “Why learn language?” has become for me identical to the question, “Why be human?” And being human entails, includes training animals. We just do that.

HEFFNER: But you’re just asking another question. You’re not answering.

HEARNE: Well, the answer to the question is probably something like, “Because we can.” Or because we already are. That is to say we can’t formulate that question until we’re already so stuck in being human that…

HEFFNER: But you’re pushing back frontiers when the question was asked of John Kennedy, “Why climb that mountain?” “Because it’s there.” “Why go into space?” “Because it’s there.” Why are you disturbing the normal routines of the animals you deal with?

HEARNE: Because I believe that the joy they take in it and that humans take in it is worthwhile, is worth all the risks. And there’s nothing behind that.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Nothing behind it?”

HEARNE: that is to say there’s no, behind that, some other reason about value. It just turns out that those are the things we value. And animals certainly learn, for example, grief. They learn to feel badly when they don’t go out and work.

HEFFNER: Is this your contribution to the animal kingdom? You teach them grief?

HEARNE: Well, they know grief anyway.

HEFFNER: But you’re fine tuning it. You’re giving them larger and larger areas in which or about which to grieve, aren’t you?

HEARNE: I don‘t know that. But the way to find out is what? To lock your puppy up in a box and not teach him any contact with you at all? I mean, you can do deprivation studies, right? You find out that animals don’t do so well if they don’t have any contact with other people or animals.

HEFFNER: But in offering the reason as to why to, you frankly also say or indicate that it’s a source of pleasure for us. Obviously.

HEARNE: Yes, and it’s a pleasure that can be very, very easily degraded, turned into something false, just as human love and affection is too.

HEFFNER: Expectations? Demands?

HEARNE: Or substituting “Oh, I love you”, for the capacity to say and mean, “I love you”. I can’t do it right now because I don’t actually love you; I like you. But the ability to fake. I mean, we’re really good at that. You know, we’re good mimics and all of that. But the example I give in that chapter that you’re asking about, two autistic brothers, I think they were twins, who were both taught behavioristically by the way, that is to say, with a methodology that, well, actually with a theoretical vocabulary that I mostly try to stay away from, to say, “Hug me”. It was done very mechanically. The hug is shaped. And you would swear if you were looking at those children that nothing but something mechanical could come from it even if they did, you know, learn to say, “Hug me”, and go through the motion. The next day one brother says tot the other, “Hug me”, but the other one is busy stimming on some water, involved in something else, and doesn’t. And the brother who said, “Hug me”, bursts into tears. Real tears. Not a tantrum or a convulsion, but tears for the first time in his life. The brother who says…So now he has learned grief. He has learned the possibility of response, and the possibility of refusal. Just simply being refused. And I’m not saying that autism is the terror of being refused, by the way. I have no idea about that. I suspect it’s genetic, although there are all sorts of conditions that can be called autism if that’s what’s handy.

HEFFNER: You know, the question I had jotted down to ask you, and I have to, we just have a couple of minutes left. What are the implications, the real implications of believing that animals function more like human beings than we have generally been led to believe or have been generally willing to believe? What’s the implication? Better training? Probably…

HEARNE: Better training. Far fewer domestic animals certainly.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

HEARNE: well, we don’t have, we can’t possibly take care of all the domestic animals we have.

HEFFNER: You mean either train them or don’t? But don’t help them?

HEARNE: Either train them don’t breed them. Just don’t breed them unless you really have a job of work you want to do. That’s how the good and joyous animals got bred in the first place, you know. Wonderful dogs, sheepdogs. And legal implications.

HEFFNER: I don’t understand that.

HEARNE: Well, if a dog is capable of understanding the difference between a deserved bite and one that’s just from upset or whatever the doggie equivalent is of juvenile delinquency, then the law is confused philosophically because it makes that property law, let’s say the owner is responsible for the dog’s behavior in the way he is for, you know, his car not hurting someone. But tort law would say that correct examination of any given case would have to look at provocation and that, whereas most law simply does not. There are new laws now that are starting to. There was one before Rhode Island, but I don’t know if it got passed, would.

HEFFNER: but wouldn’t the implication be that if animals, if dogs are better able, more capable of being trained, of being taught, that our anti-anthropomorphic approach would permit, that the owner has to take much greater responsibility for the behavior of the dog?

HEARNE: Yes, but that is not something you can legislate.

HEFFNER: Why not?

HEARNE: Try it with children.

HEFFNER: Well, in fact we are coming to that stage with parents taking greater responsibility because their assumption is they are responsible for teaching, for training their children.

HEARNE: Yes, of course. But you don’t do that with an illiterate parent. You don’t make them responsible for teaching their child to read.

HEFFNER: Well, there are those in our society who say, “Let us limit the right to be parents”. And so the question, I think, would have to come up, let us limit the right to be animal owners.

HEARNE: Well, on a practical level in the case of animals now, I don’t know about rights to be parents, but in the case of animals it would be effective to grant more rights to owners who do train their animals.

HEFFNER: You don’t seem to want to get into the business though of punishing those who don’t.

HEARNE: I don’t think it would work without some other cultural changes. It would be very large. I mean, there is no animal control office in a position to go around making that distinction.

HEFFNER: Well, as a dog lover and an animal lover, I’ve been intrigued by what you’ve written here. And I want to thank you for joining me today, Vicki Hearne.

HEARNE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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