My Eugenics Project




I have the soul of a stamp collector. Some might object that it’s an unusually loud and psychedelic stamp collector, but I think it’s so. It shows in my research (data-heavy, fussing over terminological definitions, with a lot of statistics), in my attacks on nebulous jargon and muddled thinking in archaeology, in my affiliation with the skeptic movement, in the way I sort things into neat piles and papers into binders after throwing away as much as possible, in the way I do whatever my calendar tells me to do on a certain day, in the way I dislike sudden schedule changes and appointments with a “maybe”. There’s a strong systematising streak in the way my head works.

Reading this piece on the heritability of autism in Seed, I realised that with a different taste in women, I might now have been the father of an autistic child or two. Explains autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s uncle? cousin!): heredity studies suggest that autism-spectrum disorders may largely be due to an accumulating genetic predisposition to systematise. Have a little of this genetic factor, and you become a stamp collector or kick-ass programmer or me. Double that amount and you get Asperger’s syndrome. Double it again and you become an autist. The fact that autism has become so common in recent decades may not be due simply to better diagnostics: it may have to do with the radical post-war increase in female students at engineering schools. Nerd-on-nerd marriages were rare before.

Looking at the complete data set of women I have lived and procreated with (n=2), a 100% non-systematising tendency reveals itself. Both are smart ladies with strong artistic talents and a rich and complicated emotional makeup. Neither is capable of placing her clothes in a single neat pile or her paperwork in a binder with any degree of consistency. I’ve formed good partnerships with them: I’m good at everyday repetitive life, they’re good at taking a break from the daily grind and doing something fun.

And if Baron-Cohen’s idea holds, then my nerd-on-art-chick marriages have been beneficial in yet another way. I seem unwittingly to have been running a little eugenics project. Because my kids are very far from autistic. They have their mothers’ intelligence and artistic flair, they’re outgoing and empathic, and whatever they’ve gotten from me doesn’t seem to have harmed them. Maybe I can take credit for their social fearlessness. A tiny bit of Asperger factor isn’t so bad if it makes you unwilling to seriously consider that other people might not think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.

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Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    May 28, 2007

    Borat’s cousin. No shit.

    Baron-Cohen’s ideas are interesting but not established… yet.

  2. #2 Hans Persson
    May 28, 2007

    I’ve read the same thing some time ago. Apparently one of the most aspberger/autism-dense places in the world is Silicon Valley, which fits nicely into this theory.

    As for your stamp-collecting soul, there seems to be something wrong with it, since you have previously described leanings that do not sound like the hoarding stamp-collector mind set. Believe me, I know how that works.

    I see you added new blog-pimping stuff to some template. ;-)

  3. #3 mcewen
    May 28, 2007

    Ha! Glad you made such a good match and that you were ‘saved from yourself’! Have a great weekend [with the kids]
    Cheers

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 28, 2007

    Hans, you’re right, I have no collector’s instinct. But my strong drive to systematise makes me love an empty fridge where nothing can hide from view.

    Thanks, McEwen! My wife almost cried when she realised that you spell your name differently from Ian McEwan’s.

  5. #5 Rebecca Clayton
    May 28, 2007

    I wonder if you’ve ever spent time with autistic people. Until I spent a few months working with autistic children, I based my opinions on publicity surrounding savants, showing the amazing things they can do but not showing their daily lives. The real autism experience is completely different. The kids I worked with couldn’t recognize simple patterns, or categories, or individual words. They certainly couldn’t collect stamps, or classify artifacts, or be “computer nerds.” With a lot of help, they may learn to dress and feed themselves, and talk a little bit.

    The saddest thing is that they sometimes show little flashes of ability, of comprehension. It seems as if there is intelligence and talent, but it’s somehow locked away where they can’t reach it.

  6. #6 Martin R
    May 28, 2007

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that autists make good programmers or are savants. I’m reporting Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis that there’s a genetic trait that, in small numbers, will make you a good programmer, while the self-same trait will make you autistic if it occurs in large numbers in your genome.

    Over at Kai’s blog I saw this sad short film about a severely autistic woman. Someone had dubbed a faked voice-over onto the film, purporting to be this woman’s highly intelligent and articulate ideas about herself and the world. I don’t buy that at all.

  7. #7 Amber
    May 28, 2007

    Aren�t you the cutest stamp collector there ever was?! And I happen to know that you gave both your children some of your intelligence too! And your wonderful humor…

    The mother of one of your kids

  8. #8 Les
    May 28, 2007

    The cause of severe autism which should be separated from functional autism is an older father or a mother who had an older father when she was born. Also a history of autoimmune disorders or OCD or other mental disorder. These are the true risk factor for autism. Baron-Cohen is talking about a segment of very nerdy people and not the main type of non-functional autism. It is important to stop fathering babies before the mutations in spermatogonia build up.

  9. #9 Martin R
    May 29, 2007

    Ansa, thank you sweetie!

    Les, your insights about the cause and true risk factors don’t seem to be universally accepted.

  10. #10 kai
    May 29, 2007

    Well, it may be that Amanda Blaggs, the autistic woman in the video, is fake, but it is a very elaborate setup in that case–she has a blog of her own, Ballastexistenz.

    Personally, I score rather high on Baron-Cohen’s autism test, but I seem to be rather “high-functioning”, eh? (Or maybe people are just polite towards me. :-p)

  11. #11 Martin R
    May 29, 2007

    I agree, it’s elaborate. And my gut feeling after seeing the film is that “Amanda” is truly autistic, and that a non-autistic person is using her as a sock puppet for their ideas about the condition.

    Kai, you’re my kind of guy and quite charming!

  12. #12 kai
    May 29, 2007

    Hmm, dug around a bit. If fake, it seems Amanda’s managed to fool a CNN reporter during a personal visit: http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/02/21/autism.amanda/index.html

    (Note, her last name is “Baggs”, I mistyped above.)

  13. #13 Marcus
    May 29, 2007

    Well written, as usual.

    Och hej Ansa!

  14. #14 Ballastexistenz
    May 29, 2007

    My invitation of anyone who wants to verify my existence, to come to Burlington, meet me and my case manager and staff, etc, stands. But CNN did that already (as well as, from the other end, verify my medical records and diagnostic history with both my psychiatrist and my case manager from developmental services).

    You can also see me on video at MIT’s Human 2.0 event (during Rosalind Picard’s segment).

    I was also at Estee Klar-Wolfond’s lecture (where you get to see how I naturally interact with people when a lot more relaxed than I was on CNN — my terror during the CNN thing made me far less spontaneous on CNN than I am in real life generally). You can watch me typing up a storm on that one, with clearly nobody else controlling the output of my speech device.

    And you can also see Dave Hingsburger’s account of when we met which compares me (in a complimentary way) to a three-legged dog. :-P

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