158— April 6, 2005
"THE NEW HUMANISTS AND THE FUTURE. BETWEEN SCIENCE AND SCIENCE FICTION."
The main thesis of this book is very interesting and challenging: modern science is blowing fresh air into the contemporary cultural agenda, making a very important contribution, sparkling and polychromatic. (...) A book like this one may be read in many different ways, following different propensities and needs. I was enlightened by the windows it opens on our future.
[From a review in Corriere della Sera of I Nuovi Umanisti (the Italian translation of The New Humanists, Garzanti Libri ) — the best of Edge— now available in a book. See below.]
My thesis with regard to sex differences is quite moderate, in that I do not discount environmental factors; I'm just saying, don't forget about biology. To me that sounds very moderate. But for some people in the field of gender studies, even that is too extreme. They want it to be all environment and no biology. You can understand that politically that was an important position in the 1960s, in an effort to try to change society. But is it a true description, scientifically, of what goes on? It's time to distinguish politics and science, and just look at the evidence.
ASSORTATIVE MATING THEORY
THE REALITY CLUB: Marc D. Hauser, Steven Pinker, Armand Leroi, Carole Hooven, Elizabeth Spelke respond to Simon Baron-Cohen
"My new theory is that it's not just a genetic condition," he says, "but it might be the result of two particular types of parents, who are both contributing genes. This might be controversially received. This is because there are a number of different theories out there — one of which is an environmental theory, such as autism being caused by vaccine damage — the MMR vaccine (the measles, mumps, and rubella combination vaccine). Another environmental theory is that autism is due to toxic levels of mercury building up in the child's brain. But the genetic theory has a lot of evidence, and what we are now testing is that if two "systemizers" have a child, this will increase the risk of the child having autism. That's it in a nutshell.
realizes that his theory might raise anxieties. "Just because
it's potentially controversial," he says, "doesn't mean
that we shouldn't investigate it. And there are ways that you can
investigate it empirically."
SIMON BARON-COHEN is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He is also a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. His books include Mindblindness; and The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain.
ASSORTATIVE MATING THEORY
Recent work on imprinted genes a class that fails to follow the classic Mendelian patterns of inheritance shows that maternal contributions are often in complete conflict with paternal contributions. For example, with some imprinted genes, the maternal copy is quiet and the paternal copy is expressed, causing the fetus to extract more from its mother than she would like; these genes often cause pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes. Studies of the brain using neuroimaging reveal sex differences in structure and function, and work with patient populations reveal differences in vulnerability to mental disorder. And closer to home, there are massive sex differences in the incidence of autism, with studies reporting an 8:1 bias in favor of males.
Where the debate gets interesting is when one attempts to explain how tightly the biology constrains our thoughts, preferences and actions. Baron-Cohen's assortative mating hypothesis is an attempt to grapple with this issue. Much of the evidence hinges on the early appearance of sex-specific signatures of mental function. Early signatures are a tell-tale sign of an innate capacity peaking through, but they are not definitive. One needs to rule out that the experience obtained is insufficient for a learning mechanism to create the capacity.
And here is where Baron-Cohen's observation that newborn boys like to look at mobiles and little girls at faces is fantastic, and just the right kind of start into a serious research program on the biology of sex differences; these results fit nicely with other data showing that for spontaneously generated paintings by young children, little girls almost always draw one or more people into the scene, whereas little boys rarely do, using their canvas as a vehicle for vehicles, from rocket ships to more mundane cars and bicycles.
But now comes the hard work.
What is it about the male genome that sets up a preference for the mechanical or physical whereas the girl genome leans toward faces and the social? How quickly, and with what kind of experience, can these initial biases be exaggerated? Why did these differences evolve? In the language of Darwin, what selected for this kind of preference? Was it our division of labor, with males focused on hunting and therefore technology, while females focused on gathering and the schmoozing that goes on during this kind of activity?
One clue that these are evolved sex differences comes from recent work looking at the incidence of innovation among primates. Across all the primates, including our closest relatives the chimpanzees, males are far more likely than females to take the lead in innovation, and much of the creativity lands in the domain of tool technology. In contrast, for most primate societies, females are for more engaged in the intricacies of social life than are males, largely because females tend to stay in their natal groups for life whereas males emigrate out. If there is a bias toward male folk physics and female folk psychology, there may be traces way back to our primate ancestors.
How are data like Baron-Cohen's reconciled with the fact that for imprinted genes, maternally active copies appear to be largely expressed in the rational frontal lobes whereas the paternally active copies appear to be largely expressed in the emotional limbic lobes? Are there in utero battles that arise over the concentration of testosterone circulating during development, with paternally active genes pushing hard for increased testosterone to push growth and toughness? Are maternal copies pushing in a different direction, attempting to regulate the physiology in such a way that their offspring are social specialists?
What makes work like this so very difficult, especially in terms of selling it to the public, is that more often than we would like to admit, reported sex differences either crumble in the face of follow up work, or for those differences that have been reported and replicated, claims regarding biological underpinnings have fallen prey to more experientially-based accounts. One only need think back to gay genes and gay brains, and the sad fate of those results. Thus, although I am sympathetic to Baron-Cohen's research project and find it odd that anyone would consider this work controversial, there is an obligation to get the story right here that far exceeds the demands in other areas.
Baron-Cohen wonders why sex is so often referred to these days as "gender." Part of it is a new prissiness — many people today are as squeamish about sexual dimorphism as the Victorians were about sex. But part of it is a limitation of the English language. The word "sex" refers ambiguously to copulation and to sexual dimorphism, and it's often important not to confuse them! The linguistic term "gender" literally means "kind," as in the cognates "genus," "generic," and "genre." Languages often subdivide their nouns into kinds for purposes of inflection, such as human/nonhuman, animate/inanimate, long/flat/round, vowel-final/consonant-final, and male/female. Many Indo-European languages have a gender distinction in their nouns that aligns with a masculine/feminine distinction in their pronouns, and so "gender" was pressed into service as a way to refer to the difference between men and women. Some academics want "gender" to refer specifically to socially defined rather than biologically determined patterns of sex-typical behavior, but this guideline, like most top-down prescriptions about lexical semantics, is rarely obeyed. The basic problem is that we have three concepts to convey — intercourse, dimorphism, and social roles — and at best two words with which to convey them.
I was amused to read that "It may be simply that the climate has now changed, and that people are much willing to accept that there are sex differences in the mind, and that these might even be partly biological." Was this interview conducted before the event that is coming to be known as "1/14"?
[ED. NOTE: The interview took place at Trinity College on 3/12.]
I am not, however, wholly convinced by his argument that autistic children — nearly always boys — are, in effect, hypermales. Baron-Cohen has shown that, relative to girls, boys are good at systematising and poor at empathising, and that autistic boys are exceptionally so. This fascinating result then raises a question, namely, why should these two, seemingly unrelated, attributes should trade-off with each other?
answer seems to be: foetal testosterone. Perhaps autistic
boys were exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone
in the womb, so developing the systematising part of their
brains, and repressing the empathising part. It's an exaggeration
of a normal process. This strikes me as perfectly plausible,
but it also entails a number of peculiar, if testable, consequences.
new essays by 27 leading Edge contributors..."Good,
narrative history, combined with much fine
writing...quirky, absorbing and persuasive
in just the way that good stories are."—Nature "Some
of the biggest brains in the world turn
their lenses on their own lives...fascinating...an
Post "Compelling."—Discover " An
engrossing treat of a book...crammed with
hugely enjoyable anecdotes ...you'll have
a wonderful time reading these reminiscences."—New
Scientist "An intriguing
collection of essays detailing the childhood
experiences of prominent scientists and
the life events that sparked their hunger
for knowledge. Full of comical and thought-provoking
stories."—Globe & Mail "An
inspiring collection of 27 essays by leading
scientists about the childhood moments
that set them on their shining paths."—Psychology
The New Humanists: Science at the Edge (Barnes & Noble)
The best of Edge, now available in a book..."Provocative and fascinating." — La Stampa "A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists." — The Guardian "A compact, if bumpy, tour through the minds of some of the world's preeminent players in science and technology." — Philadelphia Inquirer "What a show they put on!"— San Jose Mercury News "a very important contribution, sparkling and polychromatic."—Corriere della Sera
Original essays by 25 of the world's leading scientists..."Entertaining" —New Scientist "Provocative" —Daily Telegraph "Inspired"—Wired "Mind-stretching" —Times Higher Education Supplement "Fascinating"—Dallas Morning News "Dazzling" —Washington Post Book World