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Simon Baron-Cohen, Neurodiversity-lite, and the History of Eugenic Thought

Sir Francis Galton by Charles Wellington Furse, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1954. [A middle-aged white man wearing a suit, sitting at a desk that has an open book on it]

In recent days a lot has been written about the Spectrum 10k project, which seeks to develop an autism DNA database that will then be shared with other researchers. The focus of discussion has been on how many autistic people are worried by the very real threat of eugenics. Among other issues, many autistics have expressed concerns about the Principle Investigator, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at the University of Cambridge, who wrote in a 2009 article that he would be “delighted” at a prenatal autism test.

Others have defended him by noting how, in the same article, he also raised concerns about the mass termination of autistic foetuses, on the grounds that this might erase talents associated with autism. His defenders argue that this shows he is anti-eugenics. If this response is valid, it might support the notion that the Spectrum 10k project is anti-eugenics and pro-neurodiversity, as they have indicated in a personal note (September 4th) signed by Baron-Cohen himself.

Which interpretation is more convincing? Since there are different ways of understanding eugenics, a lot of it will come down to how ‘eugenics’ is defined, or which kind of eugenics we are talking about. Before I get to this, I want to caveat that I do not think Baron-Cohen has ever come close to supporting Nazi-style eugenics (i.e. mass extermination of children and adults based on notions of racial hygiene). It is important to note here that Baron-Cohen is Jewish, which would make it highly inappropriate to refer to him as a ‘Nazi’, as some have. Nonetheless, most 19th and 20th Century eugenicists were not Nazis: eugenic theory and practice emerged in Britain, after all, and it has since had many proponents by people across the political spectrum. What I shall argue that much of Baron-Cohen’s reasoning, methods, and commitments are more consistent with the British eugenic tradition instigated by Francis Galton—and, strangely, inspired by Cambridge University men both then and now.

Baron-Cohen’s views on Curing Autism

A lot of attention has been drawn to Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2009 article on the potential pros and cons of developing a pre-natal test for autism. I will stick with this article here, since it makes a clear and concise argument that is highly relevant to the worries raised by members of the autistic community.

Although he is writing about the possibility of an autism prenatal test, Baron-Cohen begins by noting that “In 2007, three quarters of applicants to read maths at Cambridge were male.” Part of what Baron-Cohen is interested in is the questions why “males [are] so attracted to studying maths? And why, in over 100 years of the existence of the Fields Medal, maths’ Nobel Prize, have none of the winners have ever been a woman?” At the same time, he further notes: “Similarly, people with autism are much more likely to be male […] It seems as you move to the extremes of mathematical excellence, autism becomes more common” (Baron-Cohen 2009, np).

Rather than considering the complex power imbalances that could explain these disparities, Baron-Cohen suggests the explanation is largely genetic. Here he nods towards his own research (see here) on Cambridge students and their their family members noting that “Fathers and grandfathers of children with autism are more likely to work in the field of engineering, a field that needs good attention to detail and a good understanding of systems, just like mathematics. Siblings of mathematicians also have a higher risk of autism, suggesting the link between maths and autism is genetically mediated” (Baron-Cohen 2009, np).

The reason Baron-Cohen is concerned with this is that a prenatal test to terminate autistic foetuses might soon become available. While he is “delighted” at the prospect of such a test helping “social development”, he worries that

“If it was used to ‘prevent’ autism, with doctors advising mothers to consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested ‘positive’, what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism? Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example? […] Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents” (Baron-Cohen 2009, np)

In warning against “inadvertently repeat[ing] the history of eugenics” Baron-Cohen seems to be indicating the horrors of Nazi Germany, and setting up his position as being against such eugenics. Still, while I see no reason to doubt that Baron-Cohen is against Nazi-style eugenics, it is legitimate to ask whether his views are in line with other eugenicists.

Francis Galton and the Cambridge Men

‘Eugenics’ is a term coined in 1883 by the Victorian polymath, and half-cousin to Charles Darwin, Francis Galton. He defined it as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race” (1904). As I wrote about recently, he developed this approach by combining statistical conceptions of normality, psychometric and biometric testing methods, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, Galton himself was the first to propose many of the methods now widely used in research on autistic people, ranging from twin studies to psychometric intelligence tests. It was the widespread adoption of Galton’s paradigm that led to the ranking of neurodivergent people into different functioning levels, depending on how far from the norm they fall on cognitive tests.

Yet, Galton’s thinking about eugenics began long before he developed these methods or read Darwin’s work on evolution. Indeed, in his 1909 autobiography, Memories of my Life, Galton traced his interest back to his time at university, where – in a striking parallel with Baron-Cohen’s article from a century later – he recalls being “immensely impressed by many obvious cases of heredity among the Cambridge men who were at the University about my own time” (Galton 1909, p. 288). Yet this was far from the only similarity with Baron-Cohen’s work.

Initially, to provide evidence for this, Galton developed a new method, whereby he looked at the eminence of the family trees of Cambridge students, and used a statistical analysis to determine the frequency of high achievement. It was based on this new approach, first developed in 1865, as Galton later recalled, that “I soon found the power of heredity to be as fully displayed in every other direction towards which I turned” (Galton 1909, p. 288). This method – which began the tradition carried on in Baron-Cohen’s work on talent in autism families – formed the basis for Galton’s 1869 book Hereditary Genius, where he first ranked different individuals, families, and races via recourse to a statistical norm. And in turn this formed the basis for his later founding of eugenics in the 1880s.

Further like Baron-Cohen, Galton overlooked social explanations, in this case the fact that working class men and women of any class were excluded from studying at Cambridge for social and political reasons. For him the explanation was that men from certain families were there because of hereditary ability, even if nurture and social imbalances played some role too. This was important, as Martin Brookes writes in his 2004 biography of Galton, Extreme Measures, since “The Hereditary conclusion was convenient for Galton” because “Eugenics – the next phase of his argument – was entirely dependent on it.” Without the notion that inborn variation and rank were hereditary, he could not justify controlling the population through eugenic intervention (2004, pp. 147-8).

Finally, as was also echoed in Baron-Cohen’s argument, Galton was also wary of eliminating all forms of madness (the general term for mental disorder at the time), since he thought that the traits underlying some forms of madness might contribute to talent under other conditions. As he wrote in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development:

‘Madness is often associated with epilepsy; in all cases it is a frightful and hereditary disfigurement of humanity, which appears, from the upshot of various conflicting accounts, to be on the increase. The neurotic constitution from which it springs is however not without its merits, as has been well pointed out, since a large proportion of the enthusiastic men and women to whose labour the world is largely indebted, have had that constitution, judging from the fact that insanity existed in their families” (p. 43)

Hence, Galton thought that eugenics should be practiced carefully, so that we did not lose the ‘merits’ associated with underlying ‘neurotic’ constitution.

Neurodiversity-lite and Contemporary Eugenics

It is worth noting that there have been broad changes in how eugenics is theorised, promoted and practiced since the time of Galton. For instance, for Galton, eugenics should be based on government interventions, such as providing wealthy people with funds to help them reproduce, and segregating disabled people. Government interventionist eugenics became less acceptable to promote after Nazi Germany, so today, it is very much based on free market ideology and framed in the rhetoric of individual choice. Another difference regards the notion of racial degeneration: the worry that the human race, or specific human races, were reverting to a lower level of cognition overall. While that theory was popular in Galton’s time, it is now seen as pseudo-scientific, and does not drive most mainstream defenders of contemporary eugenics.

But beyond these differences, eugenicist thought has still pervaded much disability discourse, and Baron-Cohen’s 2009 argument fits seamlessly with contemporary approaches to eugenics. Baron-Cohen’s genetic determinism, his method of justifying this by focusing on achievements that run in families and then seeking to explain these with reference to hereditary cognitive ability, and his concern with preserving what he sees as hereditary talents while erasing problems, are all firmly based in the Galtonian tradition. It is a striking parallel that both Galton and Baron-Cohen each began by looking at an overrepresentation of talented men at Cambridge, and thought that this was best explained as a product of natural selection.

With all this in mind, I will end with a quote from Jacquiline den Houting, who warns against ‘neurodiversity-lite‘:

Misinformation about neurodiversity is perhaps compounded by the proliferation of autism researchers, professionals, parents and even autistic people adopting what has been described as ‘neurodiversity lite’ […]: employing the rhetoric of the neurodiversity movement without fully understanding the assumptions that are the foundation of the neurodiversity paradigm. While it is encouraging to see the wider autism community embracing the concept of neurodiversity, in order to truly facilitate the evolution of the neurodiversity movement, it is vital that all its proponents – and, just as importantly, critics –have a deep and nuanced understanding of its key assumptions.

I agree with this assessment, but would add that neurodiversity-lite is also consistent with the eugenic tradition. While it is often liberating to emphasise neurodivergent strengths, valuing the reproduction of what are framed as heritable talents rather, or more centrally, than the inherent worth of neurodivergent life is precisely what the neurodiversity movement arose to resist.

For me, it is not enough to talk about promoting autism rights and seeing it as part of neurodiversity if the focus remains grounded within the Galtonian paradigm and its associated research programmes. If anything, as I’ve argued for many years now, it is just as important to resist neurodiversity-lite as it is to resist the standard medicalised approach; for the former, far from being the antithesis of the latter, is in fact only its most recent variation.