Time Out with Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen meets Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge professor of developmental psychopathology.

When an old friend heard I would be seeing Simon Baron-Cohen, she asked if I could describe her family to him and then ask a question. I did my best. My friend is a wife and mother of two, I told him when we met at his Cambridge college. She is a highly numerate and purposeful woman who has had a successful career in the City. Her husband is also good at maths and a successful City analyst. He is a quiet, handsome and loyal man. People who have known him for years consider themselves lucky to count him as a friend. But he's not at his best when making small talk with strangers.

Their son is on the autistic spectrum. He's a clever boy, but his life is cursed because he can't handle the confusion of everyday life: the echoes of the swimming pool and the screams of the playground are torments; the relationships others manage instinctively are like trips into a wilderness without a map. Their daughter is almost a teenager and is the spit of her mother. She, too, prefers numbers to losing herself in fiction, and, although it is hard to predict the woman from the girl, I can see her repeating her parents' success.

"She wants to know what to tell her daughter about men," I relayed. "Should she advise her to look for someone who is the opposite of her - the life and soul of the party, who can read a stranger's emotions in a glance and share their joys and woes? Should she warn her about strong, silent types, in case she ends up with an autistic boy of her own?"

"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.

As I listened, I thought about the intellectual revolution being brought by the full acceptance that the brain is a product of evolution. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, our conversation would have been impossible. Baron-Cohen would have been wary of speaking his mind for fear that demonstrators would churn up the grass of the quad at Trinity College and that his right-thinking colleagues in the social sciences departments would denounce him as some kind of fascist.

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. The ideological reason for believing that human beings were solely the product of their cultures was a generally well-meant reaction against social Darwinism and "scientific" racism. But it had the consequence of turning apparently liberal men and women into deniers of the legacies of evolution who were just as fanatical in their way as the most boneheaded southern Baptist. 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.

"Female" compassion

If anything, Baron-Cohen is a greater heretic because he appears to be saying that men and women have different kinds of intelligence. Men are more likely than women to "systemise" the outside world, his argument runs. They are quicker to see patterns, create organisations and make predictions. Women are better at empathising with others, feeling their emotions and producing a sympathetic response. Autism, in his view, is an extreme "male brain", which allows autistics to pick apart systems while showing little or no understanding of the people around them. He hastily adds that when he talks about "male" and "female" brains, he is talking about averages. Women, like my friend, can have "male" brains and be brilliant financial analysts. Men can have "female" brains and be compassionate social workers. Gender isn't destiny.

But then, who reads the caveats when the urge to join a righteous frenzy breaks? In 2005, all hell broke loose when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested that along with sexist hiring practices and career breaks for childbirth, the relatively small number of exceptional women mathematicians and physicists may also have a biological explanation. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Baron-Cohen's account of how the "male" brain may have evolved is even more of an offence to conventional pieties. In The Essential Difference, he speculates that the men who fathered the most children in early human societies may have collected and kept harems of wives because they were exceptionally aggressive. A violent man is almost by definition good at systemising when he plans his attacks, but hopeless at empathising with his victims' suffering. In support of his hypothesis, he quoted a study by James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon of the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela. Whereas, in industrial societies, murderers lose their social status, Baron-Cohen wrote, "among the Yanomamö, men who kill other men end up with higher social status".

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. Their accusers falsely claimed that they had deliberately unleashed a lethal measles epidemic on the Yanomamö and been the dupes of loggers who wanted to steal Indian land. As Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom say of the affair in their fine polemic Why Truth Matters, their enemies didn't care whether what Chagnon and Neel reported was right or wrong. "From the perspective of postmodernism, social science, as a science, is just another mechanism for objectifying and oppressing people, and it is, therefore, to be resisted."

Baron-Cohen didn't want trouble, but couldn't escape uncomfortable evidence. He began working with autistic children as a young man. He saw the sadness of their parents, who gave much but got little back, but was also fascinated by the problem of why so many of the children were boys. "Amazingly, although lots of research had gone into autism, no one was looking at that stark fact, even though nature was giving us a big clue about causality."

He studied test results from the general population and found that, in tests where women did well, autistic children did badly, and in tests where men did well, autistic children did well, too. Further experiments emphasised the "masculinity" of autism. He found that newborn boys, untouched by culture, were more likely than girls to look at a mobile than a human face, and a connection between the testosterone levels that three-month-old foetuses experienced in pregnancy and their ability to learn language when they were toddlers.

Autism may be a strength

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."

But he experienced none of the almost Maoist levels of denunciation that greeted his predecessors. Baron-Cohen explains the protests that never came by saying: "There is now a more open-minded climate and you can talk about sex differences in the mind without fear of the accusation of either sexism or essentialism." To that, I would add that the extreme male brain is not something many feminists would wish for their daughters, even if it does on occasion produce brilliant thinkers.

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. "What will the costs be?" he asks. "What will we lose? Autism involves disability, but it also involves areas of strength - fantastic attention to detail and a good memory. There are aspects of autism to be proud of that can lead to gifts and talents."

Inclusion not the answer

He was less angry about the nonsensical MMR mania than I imagined he would be, because it at least forced the government to think about autism as it tried to combat the mass hysteria. His ambition now is to use that interest to make ministers realise their superficially benign doctrine of "inclusiveness" is bringing unnecessary suffering. Their "inclusive" national curriculum is hopeless for children on the autistic spectrum because autistics find "the lack of precision in discussing a novel frightening compared to the precision involved in getting an answer to a mathematical problem. That's not necessarily a disability; it just means they should be channelled off in one direction." Meanwhile, the closure of special schools and the dumping of autistic children in the "inclusive" mainstream can sound sweet and may help some, but it has left many others exposed to horrible bullying.

My guess is that the Ruth Kelly affair will help his cause. The true hypocrisy of her behaviour lay not so much in a Labour minister going private, as in a former education secretary whose government had closed state special schools sending her dyslexic son to an excellent private special school, which protects children while it turns them round. Baron-Cohen believes there are many more who need protecting. "We see a lot of people in adulthood who dropped out of education because, by secondary school, if you are not good at socialising then you are not tolerated. If only they could skip teenage and go straight to adulthood, they could find jobs in technology or science."

My friend's eight-year-old son knows he has autism. "My brain is scribbled," he says. "But that's good because it makes me clever. When I grow up I will find a cure, but I will keep my brain scribbled because I want to stay clever."

The last time I phoned his mother, she had the prospectus for the school chosen by Ruth Kelly on her knees, so maybe the boy will find a cure that he can himself refuse to take. In any event, his parents have the money to make sure he will have the chance of staying clever, a chance that should be available to all of his contemporaries.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.