Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?

THE PATTERN SEEKERS
How Autism Drives Human Invention
By Simon Baron-Cohen

At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

The extraordinary cultural shift must have been caused by an equally dramatic biological change, or so it was thought. The problem was that Homo sapiens had been physically the same for around 250,000 years. How could we have changed so utterly but left no sign of it in our bones? Perhaps the human brain had stayed the same size but undergone a structural re-organization. Maybe we evolved new software to generate syntax. Possibly this was when words were first spoken. Or a single, fortuitous genetic mutation had occurred, out of which all of human civilization eventually flowed.

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

While everyone has a Systemizing Mechanism, it’s tuned especially high in people who are inventors and in those drawn to fields like science, engineering, music, competitive sports, high-level business and often, too, in people with autism. It’s also more likely to be dialed up in men than in women. Baron-Cohen is known for his theory about “extreme male brains” and empathizing female brains, which he has written about in earlier books and at the once popular forum Edge.org. (A nonprofit group cofounded by Baron-Cohen’s literary agents, The Edge Foundation has been much in the news in the last year for its financial and social ties to the deceased alleged rapist Jeffrey Epstein.) With this new theory, Baron-Cohen attempts to explain not just average sex differences, but all of human history as well.

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

Mostly, though, “The Pattern Seekers” is about the idea of using autism as a key to unlock the mystery of human cognition, and on this front, it’s less convincing. Sometimes it’s simply because the book’s framing is misleading. Baron-Cohen takes great care to set up the idea that all humans possess a Systemizing Mechanism, that some people are hyper-systemizers, and that a comparatively high number of those hyper-systemizers are autistic. But the subtitle of the book is not how systemizing drives human invention, it’s how autism drives human invention. At the same time, he cautions against speculation that people, living or dead, might be autistic. The term should be reserved only for diagnosis when people are struggling to function, he explains.

In addition, Baron-Cohen divides humans into five “brain types,” grouping people who are more or less likely to systemize or empathize. He believes that humans also uniquely possess an “Empathy Circuit.” But he establishes his five groups by conducting large surveys about individual tendencies and traits, so they are not brain types at all. They are, at best, mind types.

Many researchers have moved on from the idea that a fateful biological change occurred in our recent history, or even that there was a spectacular step change in human thinking. The idea lost appeal as the dates of the cognitive revolution shifted over time. At first it was thought that everything changed around 35,000 years ago. That stretched out to 40,000 years to accommodate new archaeological finds, and then from 50,000 to 60,000 years. Baron-Cohen reviews the latest findings, and he suggests that 70,000 to 100,000 years is a better range. But the wider the range gets, the less reason there is to talk about a great leap rather than gradual change.

We understand now that species change by the multiple accumulation of the tiniest alterations, that any single genetic variant usually has only the smallest effect, and that just because something isn’t in the archaeological record doesn’t mean it never existed. Baron-Cohen dutifully notes these realities, but they don’t really affect his direction.

Likewise he examines many examples of animal thought: crows who use tools, dolphins who wear sponges on their noses and gorillas who test the depth of water with branches. He allows that an enormous amount of recent scientific work demonstrates how much more complicated animal cognition is than we used to believe. He agrees that it’s likely we will discover so-called proto-forms of human thought in other species, and that this is exactly what we would expect with an evolutionary process. But mostly he reviews the science only to dismiss it.

As Baron-Cohen describes it, the Systemizing Mechanism is so all-powerful, it explains evolutionary change, historic progress and individual excellence — including, for example, the ancient shift from simple to complex tool use, the invention of the light bulb and the late Kobe Bryant’s highly regimented training schedule. It’s true, all these scenarios can be described as looping sequences of if-and-then reasoning. But it’s a much greater leap to show that this is the main engine of evolution, or that it demonstrates how human brains work in real time, or that the two things have much in common.

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