A groundbreaking argument about the link between autism and ingenuity.
Why can humans alone invent? In The Pattern Seekers, Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen makes a case that autism is as crucial to our creative and cultural history as the mastery of fire. Indeed, Baron-Cohen argues that autistic people have played a key role in human progress for seventy thousand years, from the first tools to the digital revolution.
How? Because the same genes that cause autism enable the pattern seeking that is essential to our species's inventiveness. However, these abilities exact a great cost on autistic people, including social and often medical challenges, so Baron-Cohen calls on us to support and celebrate autistic people in both their disabilities and their triumphs. Ultimately, The Pattern Seekers isn't just a new theory of human civilization, but a call to consider anew how society treats those who think differently.
Drawing on more than three decades of research, Baron-Cohen (The Science of Evil), director of Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre, presents an intriguing "new theory of human invention." He contends that human brains have an "engine" he calls the "Systemizing Mechanism," which "seeks out if-and-then patterns." Strongest in people drawn to certain fields, such as science, music, and law, where precision and detail are crucial, the mechanism is also a hallmark of people with autism. To buttress his theory, he shares research demonstrating that "autistic people, those in STEM, and other hyper-systemizers" share systemizing genes. Developing that capacity, he concludes, was a landmark in human evolution, enabling the invention of complex tools and separating humans from all other species. Baron-Cohen isn't always convincing that human cognition is innately different from that of other highly intelligent animals, such as crows, elephants, and other primates, which, as he acknowledges, also evince theory of mind, as well as problem-solving and tool-using skills. Nonetheless, his work buttresses the case that aspects of autism can be positive, and that thoughtful guidance can channel some with that diagnosis into productive and meaningful work. Readers interested in accessible and innovative looks at the human mind, such as those of Yuval Noah Harari, will be fascinated.