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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Moby: “The average American IQ is around 98”

Moby, the vegan king of chill-out pop, talks wealth, David Bowie’s hat and the average intelligence of his fellow Americans.

In January 2012, two women walking their nine dogs on the hill beneath the Hollywood sign found a man’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag. His decomposing feet and hands were discovered nearby. First theories pointed to the work of a Mexican drug cartel, or the murderous Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta. The story piqued the interest of the electronic dance music mogul Moby, who wrote about it in a New Statesman diary in May this year.

Today, the smell of cedar and pine hits you on the canyon path, which is hot, steep and sandy – an immediate wilderness in one of LA’s most exclusive areas. The Griffith Observatory shines like a strange white temple on the hill. Brad Pitt, a local resident, was doorstepped after the head was discovered: he lives near Moby on the streets of Los Feliz, near Griffith Park, where the only sounds are hedge strimmers and workmen’s radios. Moby’s 1920s mansion is all but obscured by Virginia creeper.

As we sit down at his kitchen table, Moby tells me that the body parts were found to belong to a 66-year-old Canadian flight attendant called Hervey Medellin. Shortly before Medellin’s disappearance, his boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, had used a computer in the flat they shared to find an article titled, “Butchering of the human carcass for human consumption”. The head, feet and hands showed signs of having been frozen: the rest of the body was never found. He says it was one of those rare times in life where reality was more intriguing than the conspiracy theories.

Moby, of course, eats no meat. Fifteen minutes’ drive away in the hipster neighbourhood of Silver Lake, his vegan bistro, Little Pine, serves a variety of plant-based dishes, proceeds from which go to animal rights organisations including the Humane Society and Peta. His own music is never played there. We are meeting to talk about his new album – but, he says: “It’s 2016 and people neither buy nor listen to albums. And they certainly don’t listen to the 16th album made by a 51-year-old musician. I don’t care if anyone gives me money for this music or for live shows ever again. Once a record’s released, I couldn’t care less what happens with it. I liked making it, but I don’t care.”

He is currently working his way though the stages of grief outlined by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. To denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance he has added a new phase: Schadenfreude. On the night of the US election, he left the house at 6pm west coast time to watch the coverage with some friends. He checked his usual round of sites on his phone: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, politico.com. He was concerned to see that no one was calling any of the early states; with Obama’s election, exit polls suggested the victory by noon. Days earlier, Moby had been predicting humanity’s “wake-up call” in the form of the destruction of Greenland or a zoonotic virus – but not this. He is softly spoken, with a quick laugh and the kind of intelligence that seems to warm him up from the inside when he talks, but today he is angry.

“It is disturbing on so many levels,” he says. “One, that we have elected an inept racist as president. Two, just seeing how dumb and delusional so many Americans are. Because really – in terms of the subsets of people who would vote for Trump – you have to be delusional, or racist, or stupid. I am so confused as to the fact that such a high percentage of Americans are either really stupid or incredibly bigoted.”

The stupidity of Americans is, he says, a matter of “anthropological curiosity” – or simply demographics. “The average American IQ is around 98,” he notes. “So that honestly means – in a vaguely non-pejorative way – that there are a lot of really, really dumb people. The nonsense that people were spouting before the election – that Trump was a good businessman, for example? This phenomenon has been particularly egregious of late: people have an almost adversarial relationship with evidence. Climate-change deniers are another example.”

As a self-described old-timey alcoholic, Richard Melville Hall (nicknamed Moby by his father in honour of his great-great-great-uncle Herman) has a pervasive interest in neurochemistry. He uses it to explain much of the past six months in Western politics. Our failing political systems – the subject, in fact, of the album he doesn’t want to talk about – are underpinned by “a kind of delusional motivation, which is basically to ignore the countless things that are actually going wrong in the world and focus all your attention on things that are arbitrary. In the United States, you have people who have perfectly good jobs in safe communities who are obsessed about Mexico, crime and unemployment. We have these quasi-Orwellian responses to stimuli, and they come from a place of fear and scarcity. Humans are still built to amass as much wealth as possible, and fight off the enemies as quickly as possible, but the only threats are the ones we generate ourselves.”

There’s a dishcloth on the table, a few magazines, a bit of a draught and Moby in a black hoodie pouring two glasses of water.

Fear and scarcity pervade American society, he says, because social policy is an extension of corporate process and “nothing is free from the cadres of professional lobbyists”. Meanwhile the ravenous news consumption that helped drive Trump reflects a human addiction to the “neurochemical jolt” of engaging with the media.

“People have a profound and almost feral attachment to that which makes them feel good in the moment,” he says. “Without thinking of long-term consequences, does their belief give them a shot of dopamine right at this second? If so, they hold on to it. Eating junk food, voting Brexit and voting for Trump.”

 

***

 

Moby is the model of an addictive personality well-practised at controlling itself. He was a fully fledged alcoholic by his early twenties: at ten, he’d been given champagne and made himself the promise, “I always want to feel this good.” Now, he cannot touch a drink, but his modern-day addiction, he says without a beat, is his phone. Every thought is pursued to extremes. He recently released an animated video for a new song, “Are You Lost In the World Like Me?”, showing a procession of grotesque, phone-addicted cartoon characters filming a girl as she throws herself off a skyscraper and hits the ground.

The house is vaguely baronial, airy and open-plan: all dark wood and furniture polish. An Annie Hall poster in the pool house; a coyote postcard on the kitchen wall.

This particular property is a result of serious downsizing: Moby has a habit of buying very big places, doing them up and then moving out. When he was still in New York, he bought a remote mountaintop retreat in Kent Cliffs, 50 miles north of Manhattan. He created a magnificent bedroom of 1,500 square feet with ten skylights – but quickly learned he could only get a decent night’s sleep when he pulled his mattress into the cupboard. He told the New York Times that, living all alone in the big house, he “felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane”.

He moved to LA in 2010, swapped vodka for quinoa smoothies and took the keys for another large building – the Wolf’s Lair, the turreted, 1920s Gothic castle in Hollywood once inhabited by Marlon Brando, with the swimming pool historically used for porn movies and the hidden tiki bar. He bought it for $4m and sold it for $12.5m four years later – allegedly to Banksy. He rattled around in that house, too. Right on cue, he tells me: “I felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.”

On the one hand, these were sensible ­investments for the man who’s sold 20 million records; on the other, large impersonal spaces appealed to Moby long before he was in a position to buy them. Raised by his single mother on food stamps and welfare in Darien, Connecticut, he started his adult life squatting an abandoned lock factory, where he could ride his moped around his bedroom, piss into a bottle and read battered Star Trek paperbacks while working on early demo tapes, rather like a ragged, vegan version of the boy in the movie Big.

He was very happy in his penniless state, as he records in his memoir, Porcelain. He’d like to propose something he calls the End of Wealth – but we’ll come back to that.

In the past few years Moby has broken free from the “Beckettian purgatory of touring”. When his biggest-selling album, Play, was released in 1999, his music career was effectively “over”. Before Play, he had changed creative direction, going from progressive house to ambient to thrashy punk – to which he has just returned – and no one knew what to do with him. The only reason he hadn’t been dropped by his UK label, Mute Records, was that its owner, Daniel Miller, was “an old egalitarian socialist”.

Play sampled slave songs of the Deep South – recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s – and wove them into a backdrop of cerebral chill-out. The songs of pain and emotion took on an eerie neutrality, and TV shows and ad companies came calling. He was approached by Will and Grace and Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, selling records and touring were still more lucrative than licensing a song to TV – and licensing a song to TV was still considered selling out. But Moby considers himself an ugly duckling: “If someone who was once unattractive suddenly gets asked out on loads of dates, of course they say yes a lot.” He licensed every song on Play and it became the soundtrack of the millennium.

His memoir was unusual because it concentrated on the ten-year period before he got famous. It captured his enthusiasm – and his strangeness – at its source and showed him to have a sense of humour that may have passed people by the first time round. “I’m in London! London!” he wrote. “Benny Hill, Joy Division, Peter O’Toole!” He visited the vegan café in Covent Garden.

The book is filled with money: or with the constant, practical concern of not having it. Navigating poverty is an everyday routine: he is an “alchemist” turning used beer bottles into nickels at the recycler, and thence into soya milk and oranges. In his early twenties he becomes a Christian, partly so that he can repeat the Sermon on the Mount at Bible classes in the households of Greenwich Village and “judge” the rich children.

Book two, which Faber & Faber is waiting for, is more difficult. The period of his fame and fortune in the 2000s is too much of a cliché. “Ten years ago I was entitled, narcissistic, bottoming out, alcoholic, selfish and feral. Robbie Williams has done that story, so has Ozzy and Mötley Crüe. Who wants to read that? It’s tautological.”

Instead, he has decided to write about the first ten years of his life. It will look into his relationship with his mother, who loved him but raised him in various drug dens. He was at her side when she died in 1997, but he missed her funeral, having woken late in the morning to discover that at some point in the night he must have got up and set his alarm clock three hours late. He took a taxi to the wake, worrying about the fare, and for reasons he can’t really explain, turned up cracking jokes.

He has a strange nostalgia for the kinds of friendships you have in early adulthood, when everyone is equal, “before that point when someone starts making money and they think they’ve won: they’re going to have access to a different kind of happiness”.

In 2003, when he turned 38, he was famous, wealthy and miserable. “I’ve been able to see and inhabit almost every stratum on the socioeconomic scale, from extreme poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, and it gives me an insight into it,” he says. “Because a lot of people who experience wealth are born into it, and a lot of people who experience poverty never leave it. I can safely say that for me there has been no causal effect between increased fame and wealth and increased basic happiness and well-being.”

When Moby talks about himself, he applies many apologetic epithets: clichéd, meditating, yoga-loving, mealy-mouthed. In 2007 he developed mobygratis.com, a large online resource offering independent film-makers and film students a licence to use his music for free. If their films are commercially successful, the revenue from licence fees must go to the Humane Society. He says he wants to propose a more rational, evidence-based approach to wealth.

“We are still attached to the idea of the redistribution of wealth,” he says. “As progressive lefties, we’re all brought up to think that is a good idea. In the old days, it meant the difference between eating and not eating. Nowadays the person on $30,000 consumes twice the calories of the millionaire, and has a bigger TV and works fewer hours.

“There is an underlying assumption that if wealth were distributed more evenly then people would be happier, but there is unfortunately very little anthropological or sociological evidence to support that idea, unless there are institutions to support the basic needs of community, like food and shelter. Confusing materialism with happiness is the essence of our culture.”

While west LA is plastic surgery and gold-plated toilets, he says, his own neighbourhood is “David Lynch wearing an old T-shirt and mowing the lawn”. Among the millionaires of Los Feliz, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. He knows several who live “incredibly austere lives. I was having tea with Jim Carrey the other day. He’s basically just giving everything away. He just realised that owning three planes was stressing him out . . .”

In his New Statesman diary, Moby said that life in LA offered him miles and miles of lavender-scented name-dropping.

“Coldplay played the Rose Bowl recent­ly,” he says. “And the Rose Bowl holds 75,000 people. It’s a struggle for me to sell 2,000. At first, I winced with a little jealousy. But then I thought, ‘If my career was at that Coldplay level, how would that actually affect my daily existence? Would it make my shoes fit better? Would it make the water pressure in my shower better?’ As long as you’ve satisfied the basic hierarchy of needs – enough to eat, clean air to breathe, bears not eating your legs – happiness is all where and how you put your attention.”

***

He goes to his kitchen cupboard and from among the colanders and measuring jugs he extracts a black velvet fedora – size seven, silk-lined, from a London company established in 1879. In green marker around the inside rim are the words “With love from David – Christmas 2005”. Bowie gave it to him over Christmas dinner that year. “It’s the hat that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Moby says. “There’s this amazing picture of him wearing it with John Lennon and it’s clearly when he was doing a lot of cocaine.”

Moby lived on Mott Street in Little Italy and Bowie lived on Mulberry Street. “I had a little roof deck, and he had a beautiful roof terrace, and we could wave at each other.” They were neighbours and friends, worked on music together, went on tour together, had barbecues together. He says the title of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, is a reference to the 1960 Elvis Presley song of the same name “about the end of a life” (“And when a man sees his black star,/He knows his time, his time has come”).

“David had been sick for a long time,” he says. “Or ill, as you say in the UK. So, David had been ill for a long time. I was very pleased that . . . after he died, people were asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, I’m just kind of happy that he lived as long as he did.’ Because I . . . had thought, yeah, I had thought that he was going to die a little before that. So.”

The Radiohead singer Thom Yorke lives just up the street from him in Los Angeles but Moby has never met him “as far as I know”. Apart from Bowie, he claims not to have musician friends.

“Musicians – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times – have a sense of self-importance that is off-putting,” he says. “It is very hard to be friends with someone who thinks that just by showing up, they’re doing something special. At the end of the day, you want to say to them, ‘You know what? You wrote a couple of good songs. Let’s put it in perspective.’”

He was born on 11 September 1965, and on his 36th birthday he watched the twin towers burning from his roof deck. He tells me that when the second plane hit and it became clear the first was no accident, he heard “the cumulative effect of ten thousand rooftops covered with people, and the weirdest scream. A scream of horror but also a scream of understanding.”

Fifteen years on, he talks about this year’s politics as a Manichaean thing. “Half the world are motivated by fear and desire to move backwards, and the other half are motivated by optimism and a desire to move forward rationally. It’s religious tolerance versus fundamentalism; it’s racism versus inclusion. I wonder if there’s a way we can make peace with that whole other half of humanity who are holding on to a non-evidence-based approach to the future. But I don’t know what it is.” He has known Hillary Clinton for two decades, was a vocal supporter of hers during the election run and released a pair of anti-Trump tracks for Dave Eggers’s music project 30 Days, 50 Songs.

He says that many celebrity Clinton backers were cautious to come out for her during the primaries “because Bernie supporters wanted to crucify you. Now Trump has united and inspired Democrats more than anything since the Vietnam War.”

The election result, he says, might just be “the equivalent of a crystal meth addict going on one last bender. Maybe this bender will finally convince Americans to stop voting for Republicans. Because they are terrible. There has always been an understanding that if everyone in America voted, there would be no Republican politicians. The reason Republicans win is that most Americans don’t vote.

“Those of us on the left who were brought up to be tolerant of people who had different opinions from us – well that’s great, ­unless the opinions are bigoted and wrong. If someone is a climate-change denier, they are wrong. If someone voted for Brexit, they are wrong. If someone voted for Trump, they are wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world, but not about these things.”

The clock ticks towards 11.15am and Moby, ever punctual, is done.

“These Systems Are Failing” is out now on Little Idiot/Mute

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump