Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cohen Meets Baron-Cohen

The man we're no longer watching interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen for the New Statesman. As with his previous 'Nick Cohen meets' efforts, we get a lot of Nick, and not so much of the meets.

"Ah, assortative mating," said the Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology, "the research on that is just beginning and it's very early days. This idea that certain types of women should think about who they marry if they want to minimise the risk hasn't been tested. But . . ." And he went off into a long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality.

Hold on, isn't the 'long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality' what Baron-Cohen is famous for? If you interview a Cambridge Professor, you don't expect soundbites. If the man has anything interesting to say, he's going to say it at some length.

As I listened, I thought about the intellectual revolution being brought by the full acceptance that the brain is a product of evolution.

Shorter Nick: as he spoke, the old mind wandered.

The consensus after the Second World War was that the mind was a blank slate. It evolved at some point, obviously, but now environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature.

I did a bit of Googling (I know a little about this area). I found this interview. It's far more conventional in format than the New Statesman one, as it's pure Q & A. First question:

Why do you believe that language behavior critically depends on the existence of a genetically preprogrammed language organ in the brain?

That was in 1983. Mind you, the interviewee has had to endure a fair number of attacks.

But even in advance of detailed linguistic research, we should expect heredity to play a major role in language because there is really no other way to account for the fact that children learn to speak in the first place. ...
Consider something that everybody agrees is due to heredity -- the fact that humans develop arms rather than wings. Why do we believe this? Well, since nothing in the fetal environments of the human or bird embryo can account for the differences between birds and men, we assume that heredity must be responsible. In fact, if someone came along and said that a bird embryo is somehow "trained" to grow wings, people would just laugh, even though embryologists lack anything like a detailed understanding of how genes regulate embryological development.

Hint: he's very famous. And he clearly doesn't believe that "environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature."
Nick, mind still wandering:

In 1975, when Edward O Wilson wrote about the biological bases for human behaviour in his ground-breaking Sociobiology: the new synthesis, the American Anthropological Association debated a motion that condemned him for "attempting to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society", an anathema Time magazine likened to the Catholic Church's assault on Galileo.

I've tried to find this debate, and so far haven't. Note that they debated the motion: Nick does not record which side won. However, the really famous opposition came from Science for the People (see also Wikipedia on Edward O Wilson). I think Gould and Lewontin were in the wrong on this one; Lewontin is an important influence on The Selfish Gene published the year after Wilson (and arguing a very similar thesis); and I think Gould is, if anything, underrated in sociobiological theory. Dawkins is a genetic determinist (to an extent) - but he would never "attempt... to justify genetically the sexist, racist and elitist status quo in human society". You don't have to be scientific philistine to be concerned about the misuse of genetic determinist arguments.

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification.

We're now miles away for Professor Baron-Cohen and more or less free-associating our way through 'political correctness' versus scientific freedom.
Via Ben Hoffman am image of the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage.[1]

Like Darwin with The Origin of Species, Baron-Cohen was careful and delayed the publication of his full findings. His first step was to test the water with a tentative lecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I expected to be attacked either by feminists or by Americans in general, because in the States there's much more of a climate of 'you can become everything that you want'. The idea that biology might be more deterministic than we previously thought, well, I was worried it might be unfashionable there."

Ooh, who's being anti-American now?

In contrast to his less interesting cousin, Sacha, Simon Baron-Cohen is a wonderfully humane man. The most compelling instance is his attitude to the "anti-cure" wing of the fractious "autism community". I expected a hard-headed scientist who has dismissed so many of the comforting assumptions of the late 20th century to have little time for politically correct radicals who insist that they are "autistics" rather than "people with autism" because their autism isn't an add-on, but the defining feature of their personality. Not a bit of it.
Baron-Cohen refuses to call autism a disorder, and is dubious about researchers in America who are trying to produce drugs to improve the social skills of autistics.


Nick clearly hasn't read Oliver Sacks on Tourette's - Sacks' conclusions are much the same. Unless Nick is including Sacks among "politically correct radicals" who fall back on "comforting assumptions".

He was less angry about the nonsensical MMR mania than I imagined he would be ...

Perhaps because he didn't fall for it?

Although The Observer’s crack team of libel lawyers often has to fend off people who want to sue me, I’ve managed to get through life without suing anyone. Last week’s news that the MMR vaccine has nothing to do with autism is testing my self-restraint.
Ever since Andrew Wakefield published his Lancet paper in 1998, parents have been in a dreadful position. Even those of us who guessed that a large section of the supposedly adult population of the country was in the grip of a raving panic, couldn’t help asking: what if Wakefield is right?
On the remote chance that he was, we paid for courses of single jabs - at £140-a-go in my case. Now it turns out the Department of Health was telling the truth all along, I’m wondering who I can sue to get my money back.


Baron-Cohen is a clever and admirable guy. He deserved a better interview.

[1] Michael Berube explains:

This much is adumbrated in the most abrupt flash-forward in the history of film, when Kubrick cuts from the first tool—the bone with which the ape-humans have clubbed to death a member of a neighboring tribe—to an artificial Earth satellite. The satellite is a nuclear warhead, but because the film refuses to make this clear in any narrative voiceover (I’ll say more about that below), and because the flash-forward is also a graphic match of long white tools, it’s possible at first to read the flash-forward as a triumphant affirmation of human evolution.

17 Comments:

Blogger The Couscous Kid said...

Given that Larry Summers made his remarks about women scientists on 14 January 2005 and resigned on 30 June 2006, Nick's claim that he quit "shortly afterwards" seems a bit strong. And people who take the time to pay attention to what's been going on at Harvard don't think the remarks about women had much to do with his resignation, anyway.

2/25/2007 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous McGazz said...

When I saw the headline I hoped it *would* be Sacha Baron-Cohen.

Is it because I is Decent?

2/25/2007 01:19:00 PM  
Anonymous thomas said...

Nick increasingly resembles a team which has lost the World Cup final, but refuses to accept the result. Instead, it demands a replay of the 2nd round, except this time against a team of its own devising. It really would be an ingenious strategy if it weren't so stark raving bonkers. Expect more searing criticisms of post-war left wing ideology (as interpreted by Nick) and more general ruminations on the awfulness of the left since time immemorial. It really is a matter of time before Dacre snaps him up. Or perhaps he's set his sights further afield. Can we expect to see a regular N. Cohen byline in The Weekly Standard?

2/25/2007 02:22:00 PM  
Anonymous thomas said...

Oh, and and his musings in this 'interview' (rudely interrupted by Simon Baron-Cohen) strongly resemble "Melanie Phillips" circa whatever time she wrote "All Must Have Prizes". He seems to be travelling on an inverted version of her path to her present position on the political spectrum. Bloodthirsty warmongering - check; full conversion to right-wing public service agenda - in process.

2/25/2007 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry Lamb said...

The only narrative line Cohen seems able to sustain these days is "heroic individualist versus faceless hordes". Taken with his gullibility, vanity and general not-as-bright-as-he-thinks-he-is-ness this makes him a shoo-in for becoming a Randroid. Is anyone running a book on our little snowflake's next Sauline conversion? I'd go a few bob...

2/25/2007 03:27:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Can we expect to see a regular N. Cohen byline in The Weekly Standard?"

What remarkable prescience. Not the Weekly Standard, but he's got a piece in the Opinion Journal today, which ends with a bizarre appeal to 'American Conservatives' not to be upset at finding out that they are less reactionary that the British liberal left. http://www.opinionjournal.com/
editorial/feature.html?id=110009711

2/25/2007 03:53:00 PM  
Anonymous thomas said...

Fantastic! I've only made it a short way through thus far because there really is too much to ingest in one sitting. I liked this though:

"I could go on with specific examples, but the crucial point is the pervasive European attitude to the Iraq catastrophe."

No one can do sweeping generalisations quite like Nick. With a peremptory and imperious wave of the hand, he banishes incovenient facts and marches merrily along.

2/25/2007 04:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

He deserved a better interview.

I would go further and say that this is a disgraceful article. Cohen has plainly read a little bit about the ev-psych debate, probably on Butterflies and Wheels, has decided that he wants to indulge in a polemic about it, and has effectively used this interview to attempt to claim Baron-Cohen for his 'side'. Oh, and of course, everything that has gone wrong since the war is all the fault of the eeevul postmodernists and liberals.

2/25/2007 04:52:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

it's beyond my meagre powers to explore it really -- let alone critique it -- but the entire foolishness of the impasse the decents have currently somewhat reached links to the hubris of their less-than-just assault on the likes of rorty-kuhn-foucault-whoever, in respect of science and "objective knowledge"

to get a bit hubristic myself (given meagreness noted above) it kindasorta goes like this:
i. objective knowledge exists
ii. science is the way to go, objectivity-wise
iii. we the decents are therefore aggressively pro-science...
iv. ... hence we cannot but be morally correct about the iraq war whatever the outcome QED

2/25/2007 05:19:00 PM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification.


This was indeed the punishment that Chagnon and Neel received, but it was not so much for "questionining the myth of the noble savage", as for (particularly in Chagnon's case) "being an out-and-out racist weirdo" and (particularly in Neel's case) for the very strong suspicion of having intentionally started a smallpox epidemic among the Yamamami Indians to test out some crackpot social Darwinist theory. Simon Baron-Cohen is just about the first person to advance his particular theory who does not fit into the category "Social Darwinist weirdo" and as a result guess what? He has in fact been recieved as the intelligent and sensitive scientist he is, as Nick grudgingly admits.

2/25/2007 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

The link on fall for it is not wholly helpful.

2/25/2007 09:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

I noted this in the Opinion Journal:
"She wanted to know: Does Ken Livingstone's idea of multiculturalism acknowledge and condone segregation? It clearly does, but what made this vignette of ethnic politics in a European city worth noting is that commentators for the BBC and nearly every newspaper here describe Mr. Livingstone as one of the most left-wing politicians in British public life. Hardly any of them notice the weirdness of an apparent socialist pandering to a reactionary strain of Islam, pushing its arguments and accepting its dictates."

Oh man. Segregated prayer is the norm in Islam. Nick's straying into echoing the wingnuts: all of Islam is reactionary; all Muslims are the enemy.

BTW, can I plead with you to keep watching Nick. His piece in the Observer was top notch: his latest claim is that blogs are worthless because they haven't unseated any dictators.

2/25/2007 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

Can I echo Dr Zen's remarks. I think it's a bit of a shame Nick isn't going to be Watched so regularly, because his current writings represent the core of ideological Decency, whereas Aaro is merely a Blairite who has latched onto Decency for political expediency. (It will be interesting to see what happens to Aaro when Brown takes over.)

2/25/2007 11:15:00 PM  
Anonymous tigerbear said...

Oh, Nick, ffs.

Anthropology is my field, so I've got to de-lurk and post on this one.

Shorter: Nick discovers evo-psych, ignores Baron-Cohen.

The consensus after the Second World War was that the mind was a blank slate. It evolved at some point, obviously, but now environment determined consciousness and nurture trumped nature.

Ok, this is just bollocks. Environmental explanations of human behaviour were only more prominent in the period 1950-1975 and certainly not after then. Strangely enuff, 1950 - 1975 was also the period when the Neo-Darwinian synthesis was being incorporated into human science. So a lot of received knowledge of pre-war typological thinking had to be discarded. At the same time, social explanations of human behavioural differences were proving their worth.
Oddly enuff, some people might reckon that this reassessment to be the process of science going on, tho somehow this is all the fault of ideologically driven social scientists being leftwing and therefore ignoring evolution and science altogether.

I've tried to find this debate, and so far haven't. Note that they debated the motion: Nick does not record which side won.

The motion was famously debated and it failed. Margaret "Coming of Age in Samoa" Mead defended Wilson. Not that anyone ever mentions things like that. It might make anthropologists look reasonable.

You don't have to be scientific philistine to be concerned about the misuse of genetic determinist arguments.

Well, quite. For example there was a major piece in The Economist recently, crowing over the return of Social Darwinism to intellectual life.
Clearly this doesn't worry Nick.

He didn't seem to know it, but the punishment Chagnon and Neel received for questioning the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage was a scandalous campaign of vilification.

Eh? I'm presuming this is the reaction by American anthropologists to Darkness in Eldorado. That had nothing to do with some Rousseauian myth, and a lot to do with the popularity of Chagnon's accessible work as an introduction to anthropology to US students.

Like Darwin with The Origin of Species, Baron-Cohen was careful and delayed the publication of his full findings.

Eh? I'm pretty sure Baron-Cohen's stuff is similar to the old Williams-Autism spectrum theory, where Williams syndrome was in essence an extreme version of the female brain, and autism an extreme version of the male. Annette Karmilloff-Smith showed Williams wasn't like that, so its a lopped-off version which Baron-Cohen is testing. There's good reason to think autism is a developmental disorder related to testosterone levels in the womb, I think... though whether there's an underlying genetic reason for that is less clear... that's more information about Baron-Cohen's work than Nick managed, anyway. And that's off the top of my head.

cheers,

tb

2/25/2007 11:19:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

ejh: my bad. I've fixed the link. Sorry about that.

Thanks to all who've commented so far. I was mildly annoyed at first - but then as has happened before with Nick, I sort of dived in and started just slashing left and right (mixed metaphor I know).

I think the shorter me is: 'What Nick calls "politically correct" I call racially sensitive' or something like that. As DD says, Chagnon was accused of "being an out-and-out racist weirdo" - not the same as tapping the eggshell egos of PC Maoists really.

Indeed, now I think about it (and given I wrote enough in the post, I'm glad I didn't realise this earlier), the 'blank slate'/tabula rasa idea is John Locke (and possibly David Hume). It's an Enlightenment concept. And I think, anyway, that Enlightenment ideas and Enlightenment principles aren't so far apart. 'That all men are created equal' is a lot easier to believe if you also believe that all men are created ready to absorb anything. (This could be utter bullshit, but it's being going round my head most of today.)

I'm really grateful to tigerbear for breaking cover and posting such a detailed comment. My feelings on evolutionaty psychology are somewhat mixed. I'm largely with Ophelia Benson (whom I like) on what science ought to be; as tigerbear picked up, I like lots of professional scientists, am worried that some papers can be used to justify racism/sexism/other nastiness. Nick for some reason ignores the huge reaction the social sciences underwent after the Nazis, the eugenics movement (led by the sort of leftists Nick hates), and so on.

I think I'm with Simon: Nick really hasn't listened to Baron-Cohen. Maybe I'm weird: but I wanted the 'long discussion of how genes may influence the autistic personality'. When I saw who Nick was talking to I thought 'Top man!' If Nick wanted something more accessible, maybe he should have asked Britney Spears why she shaved her head.

2/26/2007 12:01:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

From a layman's point of view (I gave up Biology and Chemistry and fourteen and only did Physics for the maths, so what do I know?) I wonder whether some scientists don't treat evidence from genetics as "hard" science, i.e. provable, and evidence from social science as "soft" science, i.e. not provable, and therefore always allow the former to trump the latter: so evidennce claims that personal differences are predetermined tend to override observations that we are not starting, in life, from the same position.

Of course it's obvious that not eveybody is endowed with the same abilities and characteristics, but it's also obvious (to me, anyway) that it's a lot easier to make the most of what you've got if you're born into an affluent family and subsequently benefit from an expensive education and a trust fund. Or, if you prefer - clearly some people are far more prone to depression than others, but that depression is far more likely to be triggered if you suddenly go bankrupt, lose your home and find out your missus has been sleeping with her tennis coach.

Is there anything in my view that social factors are being discarded or discounted in some quarters, or am I talking ill-informed bollocks?

2/26/2007 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

D2: I think it was measles they were accused of spreading, wasn't it?

2/26/2007 08:05:00 AM  

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