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Don’t Put People in a Box

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)
Oct 5, 2006 3:00 AMNov 5, 2019 8:40 AM


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The latest installment of Horganism looks at an IEEE Spectrum article about Simon Baron-Cohen's theory about how autistic people are "merely the extreme of a continuum on which all of us reside. In this view, autism is a difference not in kind of thinking, but in degree." The trait he's talking about is "systemizing," or how much a person focuses on "those aspects of the world that form regular, repeatable, law-governed patterns"—like watching Wapner at the same time every day and freaking out if that doesn't happen. Autistics are extreme systemizers, he says, and autism is more common among men because they are more systemizing than women, on the whole.

I think Baron-Cohen's emphasis on a gradual spectrum of systemizing is smart, but I also share Horgan's general skepticism about big claims on human genetics. And when you get to the second page of the Spectrum article, you can see where Baron-Cohen has stumbled into the stereotyping-humans pitfall, and is now hurtling toward the sharpened wooden sticks of truth (a punishment that might be levied by Borat, who's played by Sacha Baron-Cohen, Simon's cousin). He says that since men are on average more systemize-aphilic (not -phallic, mind you) that means that autism represents "the extreme male mind." This is not just a throwaway quote; on page one of his book The Essential Difference, Baron-Cohen writes, "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

Let's look at an elucidating comparison. It's well known that men are, on average, taller than women. Does that mean that the five-foot-eleven-inch Famke Janssen (where she's from they call it 180 centimeters) represents "the extreme male body"? And Danny DeVito, barely five feet with his fancy Italian shoes on, represents "the extreme female body"? (For extreme systemizers who don't notice such gossippy, plebeian details, the answer is no.)

The problem with Baron-Cohen's reasoning is that he's taken one trait that differs between two groups and started talking like—and seemingly believing that—the trait is what defines the difference between two groups. But just as there's more to physical sex differences than height, there's also more to mental sex differences than systemizing. I think this kind of slip-up is all too common among people who are convinced that genes and/or sex is destiny and are always looking for the nut (pun intended) of the difference between men and women. In fact, another camp of Men-Are-From-Mars-type scientists insists that the real difference between men and women is that men are more aggressive. So which is it?

Logic demands that these camps can't both be right about la difference—and in fact neither one is. There are natural mental distinctions between men and women, but they are complicated, subtle, and varied. Anyone who sums up the differences in one neat sentence is over-simplifying—but it does make a good story, don't it?

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