I’m going to do a play-by-play breakdown of Simon Baron-Cohen’s 1995 book Mindblindness, where he trumpets a theory that Autistics are handicapped by a lack of “Theory of Mind” (ToM) which most normal people find to be a straightforward and intuitive way of understanding the world.
This is the same Baron-Cohen who claimed that Autistics lack “central cohesion.”
I’m going to attempt to destroy every one of Baron-Cohen’s hypotheses on Autism, beginning with his Mindblindness hypothesis.
In his Foreward, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby claim that some things like ToM are not so obvious to the average person because they are taken for granted. As psychology studied more “alien minds” like those of Autistics, who appeared to lack ToM, psychology began seeking a Darwinian explanation. Ultimately psychologists decided that the mind imposes pre-existing organizational structures on the world, which evolve through natural selection. The mainstream theory is put forward that we “evolved” language and other communication skills because we’re a communal species, and therefore we’ve evolved to be mindreaders, and Autistics lack this ability.
CHAPTER I) MINDBLINDNESS AND MINDREADING
Autistics can’t understand why people are doing things, but normal people have a biology which allows them to “mind read” others’ intentions, which is Humphrey’s claim that humans are “Homo psychologicus.”
CHAPTER II) EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND SOCIAL CHESS
Puts forward another mainstream theory that early hominids were “pressured” into being smarter due to expanding size of social groups. Lower animal groups win in combat by being bigger and stronger, but chimps win by forming alliances, hence they evolved to be smarter. Ergo, humans evolved to be really smart, especially when we wanted to figure out who wanted to mate with us, feed us, or kill us. He calls this the Machiavellian hypothesis. Claims that our intelligence is just somewhere on a continuum from animal intelligence. Uses skull size to make this case, as 3M years ago Australopithecus afarensis brains were 400 cm^3 but now we average 1350 cm^3.
COMMENTARY PART 1: REGARDING HUMAN EVOLUTION
If the chimp species has been around for ~5 million years, and if they also live in social groups, why hasn’t their intelligence evolved to allow for larger groups? Or why haven’t larger groups *happened* to chimps and forced their brains to get smarter? This problem was believed to be resolved with the finding of “Lucy”, the Australopithecus upright ape who supposedly served as a bridge between chimps and humans.
Frank Wilson’s The Hand (1998) proposed that what made Lucy different was the physiology of her hand, giving her the ability to hunt better than chimps which led to various evolutions. Richard Wrangham has proposed no less than 3: the ability to cook meat made it easier to fuel a growing brain (Cooking with Fire, 2009), the gradual evolution of language (Demonic Males, 1996), and the evolution of gossip which allowed humans to gang up on alphas (The Goodness Paradox, 2019). Imagining the three of these evolutionary pathways intersecting and creating the modern human is like creating the LA freeway system originating at a series of random neighborhoods and patching it all up once they meet.
I’m not picking on Wrangham. Nobody in mainstream science has a decent hypothesis on what a human is. A properly trained Darwinian instead will only submit a hypothesis that is 1) gradual and 2) multi-faceted. I.e., is as complicated and unfalsifiable as possible. If you were to ask Wrangham, Dawkins, Baron-Cohen, Dennett or any other what a “human” is, they would have a laundry list that looks ripped from the DSM.
The only minimal hypotheses I’ve seen have been from 2 people: George Mivart, and Eric Gans. Mivart’s theory was Lamarckian and predicated on the idea of the life force pushing its way through sudden forms. He’s quiet on whether humans came from chimps, but if shown Lucy he might have said that such a transition must have happened very quickly, within a generation or two.
Gans’ Originary Hypothesis is far easier to comprehend. He posits that the idea of “humanity” begins at one moment and spreads instantly to all other receptive members of the species. At the beginning of this “scene” is a crisis around some kind of commons, like a delicious animal carcass. In alpha-beta relations, the alpha takes the spoils, or a beta can overtake the alpha. But this breaks down when all the members of the group are “evolved enough” to anticipate that violence is now so dangerous that it could destroy everyone. This is a novel crisis that has never been seen within any single species of animal. And so a sign is given in place of violence. This sign is the first instance of language, and this signals humanity. The conditions check out: no other species has language. (If you disagree, please go read Chomsky’s books on language, then come back and you can argue with me.)
The only problem with the Originary Hypothesis is that any group of chimps should technically be able to create language this way, and yet they never do. Some other condition had to have been met in order to necessitate the onset of human language. I have submitted to the Generative Anthropology group, with positive feedback, that a combination of Theory of Mind (ToM) and Object Based Aggression (OBA) has to first be present in humans. Chimps actually have both: they can anticipate others’ intentions, and they can use objects for aggression. But they can’t anticipate others’ intention to use objects for aggression. If they could, they’d bring bigger weapons to conflicts. But they’ve had 5 million years to do this and they still don’t do it, even when they watch us do it.
The combination of ToM and OBA creates what I’ve called a state of Recursive Object Based Aggression (ROBA). You anticipate bringing a weapon based on what weapon your opponent is bringing, who based his choice on what you think he thought you were bringing, etc. You can write an entire book on what weapon you decide to bring to a fight. This is the infinitely recursive “grammar” of human language, think of them almost as buckets that can be filled with actions, and in its initial state, the buckets are filled with raw violence.
But the thought of using such raw violence in anticipation of the same raw violence instills an immediate feeling of dread: one will realize that combat at this point is mutually assured destruction (MAD). Or, if someone dies, revenge will be sought, and this will reverberate as a feud, possibly forever. All members of the community, if they have an instance of ROBA, will feel this.
So, perhaps no violence was even done in this initial ROBA state. Had it happened, it’s very likely these early humans would have simply wiped themselves out. Instead, the violence had to be *pantomimed*, gestured with the hands, a novel movement of the tongue, strange gesticulations, or all of the above. This satisfies the requirements needed by Gans’ Originary Hypothesis: ROBA creates the “grammar of violence”, which are filled with words instead of weapons. From here, the brain will naturally grow, the gut will come to accept more meat, and group size can explode to the Dunbar number and beyond.
ROBA is an attempt to patch the Originary Hypothesis and give a proper, minimalist hypothesis on the emergence of humanity. No need for the slow evolution of language, skull size, or gut flora. It rests on a single criteria: Was this specimin able to use ROBA? If so, that’s a human. If not, it’s something else. If Neanderthals had ROBA, they’re human. If Lucy had ROBA, she’s human. If not, she’s Astralopithe-whatever.
COMMENTARY PART 2: REGARDING BARON-COHEN’S “LACK OF CENTRAL COHERENCE” THEORY
I’ve read Simon Baron-Cohen’s (SBC’s) book The Pattern Seekers (2020). It’s not very impressive. Perhaps it’s an olive branch to Autistics who read Mindblindness. Before Pattern Seekers, SBC claimed also that Autistics lacked central coherence, which is the ability to combine social cues into some kind of theory of intention. If you roll your eyes, cross your arms, and sigh loudly while I run on about how much I enjoy James Frazer’s unabridged Golden Bough, my lack of central coherence means I can’t combine your 3 gestures into some whole picture. I might think that you’re trying to get something out of your eyes, that you’re cold, and that you’re out of breath or something. Lack of central coherence implies an inability to empathize.
I’d like to rewrite SBC’s theory on central coherence. But instead, I’d say that Autistics lack “horizontal coherence.” If you roll your eyes, cross your arms and sigh, I won’t get the hint. If someone tells me, “Hey, he was really annoyed at you,” I might even reject this, or I might find it very distressing and not even process it. I might continue rejecting these social cues for years, even though I’ve learned them and memorized them. I might even do them just to show that I’m NOT annoyed. It’s simply that I can’t understand why, when these affects are combined, they amount to “annoyed”. An Autistic’s internal motor representation (IMR) stack rejects direct human mimicry in specific domains so you have to understand that there’s nothing personal here.
However, give me a few years of collecting data on people rolling eyes, crossing arms, and sighing. I will go over thousands of instances of people doing this in movies, video games, etc., and run regressions on what they mean. After 5 years, I will do a back of the napkin calculation and realize that 99% of these instances also equate to “annoyed’. Not only that, but I now have a general theory on eye-rolling, arm-crossing, sighing, and in general being annoyed, perhaps a theory that the DSM IV could use.
This process is called “vertical coherence”. It’s not temporal. Rather, it’s based on a lot of data collection, and you kind of have to patient while I act stupid in social situations for a few years, until I get it. Now I’m an expert on arm-crossing and eye-rolling. I might even correct your technique.
SBC never seems to have had the patience to see how vertical coherence might work in his Autistic subjects. Perhaps he doesn’t know any of us very well. I know a bunch of us and we all do vertical coherence really well, and horizontal coherence really badly. We end up being experts on 2-3 things, but up until that point we look mentally disabled (watch me learn a new martial arts move and be blown away at how slow I am). But with some patience, we can make some good science for you.
COMMENTARY ON AUTISM RESEARCH
I expect Mindblindness to be worse than The Pattern Seekers, but it’s important to understand the train of thought in Autistm research, so I’m still reading it.
It’s seems that most research on Autism is done by horizontally coherent thinkers, aka Extroverts and Manics. Some of these are seriously damaged people: they want Autistics to open up to them, because they need it. They think Autistics need to be healed and let out our emotions and words. There’s some truth to that, but emotional appeals only gets them cold stares. It’d be nice if Autistics studied Autistics, but we’re just as annoyed at Autistics as everyone else is. Autistics aren’t much of a “community” because we all have aversion to mimicry in different domains, and our specialties are so narrow that there’s often no desire to overlap with any other Autistics. There might also be fierce competition, since the most Autistic of Autistics will monopolize his field. There are Autistic artists, scientists, writers, musicians, athlets… There’s very little room in there for caring for other Autistics, especially the non-linguistic, low-functioning types, so they’re left to the mercy of manic researchers, who don’t understand Autism, nor do they usually care to, because they, like SBC, don’t have patience for it.