An old, cynical adage holds that ‘if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. I remembered that aphorism while reading the new book by Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading authorities on autism, in which he unpicks the instincts and processes that have driven human progress. His conclusion? The great engine of our advancement as a species has been autistic behaviour.
It’s a bold, rather startling claim. In this intriguing volume, the author explains that it is the habitual pattern-seekers who are responsible for human invention. These are people who display what he calls ‘the Systemising Mechanism’, which developed in humans around 70,000-100,000 years ago.
This way of thinking is encapsulated in a three-step logical progression, which Baron-Cohen calls the ‘if-and-then’ pattern — if I find the correct stone and I crack the edge off, then I have an axe. The systemiser will loop this process, refining and improving it — adding a handle, using a more durable kind of stone — until the outcome is a new invention. This evolutionary leap led to ever more complex tools, and ‘allowed humans alone to become the scientific and technological masters of our planet’. According to Baron-Cohen, this Systemising Mechanism is ‘turned up very high in the autistic mind... Humans who had minds with a Systemising Mechanism in overdrive were — and are — central to the story of invention.’
This kind of systemised thinking applies not only to specific tools but also to widely applicable processes: if I plant 50 tomato seeds and I water them during the summer, then I will have a substantial yield. Loop this logical process enough times, and you have invented agriculture. If I look at the stars today and I look at them again in six months’ time, then I can measure their movements across the sky. Continue this process for long enough and you have not only invented astronomy but also a mechanism for predicting the turning of the seasons, which also tells you when those tomatoes should be planted or harvested, when the rains will come, when the rivers will flood and so on.
This capacity for systemising, logical thought can be seen in any activity that requires the development of a repeatable skill. At high school, Kobe Bryant, the great basketball player, would practise his moves from 5a.m. to 7p.m. every day. He applied this same intense, repetitive regime to music, and learned to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata by listening to a recording and copying what he heard. This is the ‘Systemising Mechanism in hyper-mode’.
But systemisers have a big disadvantage. They cannot systemise other people. People’s beliefs and ideas, their thoughts and feelings are in a constant state of flux, which makes them unpredictable. The mind of the extreme systemiser is drawn to patterns and repetition, but this is no good when it comes to the social world.
Extreme systemisers, especially autistic people, tend to lack what Baron-Cohen calls the Empathy Circuit, which is the ability to ‘read’ other people. The Empathy Circuit also provides a capacity for ‘flexible deception’, a significant evolutionary trait that gives the ability to anticipate behaviour and plan accordingly — to dig the pit and cover it with leaves. The ability to empathise also allows humans to exert influence by implanting ideas in the minds of others. This makes literature possible, not to mention book reviews. It also gives rise to a ‘theory of mind’ — that is, the intuitive sense that there is another mind in there. Extreme systemisers and autistic people tend not to have this sense.
Across society, most people have a combination of the Empathy Circuit and the Systemising Mechanism. But in Baron-Cohen’s view:
“If we want to nurture the inventors of the future, the next Thomas Edison or the next Elon Musk, we are more likely to find them among autistic people, and among those who have a high number of autistic traits.
Recognising this, some research companies have a policy of actively recruiting autistic people. Auticon, for example, seconds its autistic employees to coding and technology companies. The firm’s philosophy is that autistic minds use ‘a different operating system’. They can spot patterns in data and systems that other people miss.
Not all autistic people are lucky enough to find an outlet for their abilities. Many are unemployed and isolated, and the toll on their mental and physical wellbeing can be heavy. Baron-Cohen rightly calls for more help to assist those people whom he classifies as ‘neurodiverse’. His central argument, however, is that autistic people have been ‘drivers of the evolution of science, technology, art’ and that if we are to progress as a species, we must do more to encourage and benefit from their unique way of thinking. By the end of this carefully constructed, profound book, it’s hard to disagree.