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.