April 11, 2005

From The Edge

One blogger described Edge.org as a site featuring "really smart people with a lot of time on their hands". So it is with this recent conversation, in which Simon Baron-Cohen talks about his research into the possible effects of fetal testosterone on the incidence of autism, and which also includes a discussion of possible cognitive differences between males and females. And no, he has not been vilified or asked to resign from his position by a group from the faculty of Harvard. In fact, some Harvard faculty members are among the "really smart people" who comment respectfully on his work. I had to wonder where these reasonable folks were when the PC police at Harvard were having Lawrence Summers for lunch.

Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. In this Edge feature, he presents his new Assortative Mating Theory which connects his two fields of research: the characteristics of autism in terms of understanding what's going on in the brain and the causes of the condition; and understanding the differences between males and females.

"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.

As to research into sex differences:

One experiment we conducted here in Cambridge was at the local maternity hospital. Essentially we wanted to find out whether sex differences that you observe later in life could be traced back to birth, to see if such differences are present at birth. In this experiment we looked at just over one hundred newborn babies, 24 hours old, which was the youngest we could see them, and we presented each baby with a human face to look at, and then a mechanical mobile suspended above the crib. Each baby got to see both objects...

... The results of the experiment were that we found more boys than girls looked longer at the mechanical mobile. And more girls than boys looked longer at the human face. Given that it was a sex difference that emerged at birth, it means that you can't attribute the difference to experience or culture. Twenty-four hours old. Now you might say, well, they're not exactly new-born, it would have been better to get them at 24 minutes old — or even younger. But obviously we had to respect the wishes of the parents and the doctors to let the baby relax after the trauma of being born. And let the parents get to know their baby. So strictly speaking, it might have been one day of social experience. But nonetheless, this difference is emerging so early that suggests it's at least partly biological...

...Baron-Cohen 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."

One of those Harvard faculty types, Psychologist Marc D. Hauser responds;

"It is hard to imagine anyone living today disagreeing with Baron-Cohen's starting premise that there are biological differences between the sexes. Even the staunchest cultural relativists have to acknowledge that there are differences in the sex chromosomes and hormonal titers that lead directly to differences in our anatomy.

Uh oh...I'm starting to feel nauseous.

Another Harvard Psychologist, Stephen Pinker quipped:

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"?

Read it all. It's fascinating stuff. (via aldaily.com)

One of the highlights of my web year so far, and also my introduction to edge.org, was their "2005 Question of the Year" feature, in which 120 contributors weigh in on the question: "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" As I advised in my original post on this....pack a lunch.

Posted by dan at April 11, 2005 8:50 PM