The Future of NASA
Michael Griffin is gearin...
More Features
Looking to apply for a Discover Credit Card? Members/Subscribers Log In      
Environment
Fuzzy Math
Medicine
Mind & Brain
Poetry
Space
Technology
Meet My Personal Trainer, Mario
The Human Footprint: Live Webcast Tonight, 7pm
The Human Footprint—Has Civilization Gone Too Far?
Find Out If You're Tone Deaf
Don't Focus on Porn
PBS Goes Plebiscite
Science Poem of the Week (8)
Podcast Predicts Senatorial Sickness
Quantum Teleportation
Lisa Randall on Charlie Rose Show
[ Full Blog Archives ]
Mind & Brain
Medicine
Space
Technology
Ancient Life
Environment
All Newsletters
   
Discover Magazine  Blog
DiscoBlog

« Sight-Seeing Science in Scotland | Main | Sex Hormones in the Brain: Wimps Rejoice »



Don't Put People in a Box
By Amos Kenigsberg

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 likeand seemingly believing thatthe 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 differenceand 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-simplifyingbut it does make a good story, don't it?



   
Wishful Seeing
Shiny Happy People
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Sleep
Can New Neurons Teach an Old Mouse?
The Woman Who Never Forgets
Why We Get Diseases Other Primates Don't
Vital Signs: Trouble in the Nursery
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Death
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
Recently Covered in Discover: The Man Who Finds Planets
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Meteors
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
Islam Hits International Space Station
Neighborhood Watch Goes High Tech
Going Atomic... Again
Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery
How to Make Anything Look Like a Toy, Round II
Raw Data: The Rigorous Study of the Ancient Mariners
Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
This Month's Ask Discover
How Life Got a Leg Up
Mammals Stake Their Place in Jurassic Park
You Say "Ook Ook," I Say "Aak Aak"
Guilt-Free Gossip for Greens
A Greener Faith
Whatever Happened To... the Exxon Valdez?
Life After Oil
The Next Katrina
  Full access to all site content requires registration as a magazine subscriber.
© 2005 Discover Media LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions | Educator's Guide | Subscribe Online Today | Online Media Kit
Customer Care | Contact Us