Sunday, March 10, 2013

In Which a Newspaper Article Makes Me Angry

I know, it happens all the time, to everyone. 

I'm still going to write about it, though.

The article that bothered me was this one in today's Kansas City Star, about the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon joining the University of Missouri's anthropology department as Distinguished Research Professor and Chancellor's Chair for Excellence in Anthropology.

Napoleon Chagnon, if you didn't know, is famous (or infamous) for his research on a group of Amazonian indigenous people called Yanomami. He called them "the fierce people" (which he says is a translation of what they call themselves) and said that their way of life was especially violent, characterized by constant warfare and abduction of women from other villages. 

A Yanomami shaman and spokesman, Davi Kopenawa, says that Chagnon's depictions of his people are false, and that he has harmed the Yanomami by making everyone think of them this way [PDF]:
For us, we Yanomami who live in the forest, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is not our friend. He does not say good things, he doesn't transmit good words. He talks about the Yanomami but his words are only hostile. He is angry and says, 'The Yanomami are bad, the Yanomami fire arrows at one another because of women. The Yanomami beat one another.' He has always thought that. 
Young American men and women think, 'Napoleon knows a lot and transmits true words --- the Yanomami are very bad.' I am not happy about this.
But that wasn't the thing that bothered me about this article; the article actually does address the arguments that Chagnon's research was shoddy, that he mischaracterized the Yanomami, making them out to be far more vicious than they are, and that his activities in the Yanomami villages may have harmed the people he set out to study*.

No, what bothered me was the reductive way they framed the story, as another battle in the ongoing war between partisans of Nature and Nurture.

You often see that in articles about evolutionary psychology, especially when the person or idea being discussed is the subject of controversy.

Here are a couple of examples from the article:
Chagnon ... has been a lightning rod at the center of an academic tempest over evolutionary anthropology. In Darwin's world (and Chagnon's), where the fastest, fiercest, smartest, and perhaps cruelest, survive to pass on their genes, what does that mean to human nature today? 
Those arguing against this sociobiology fiercely contend our behavior and culture are rooted in our environment --- or, at least, one cannot credibly discern the effects of a "mean gene" from a war-ax-wielding ancestor in the family tree. 
[Quoting MU Anthropology Department Chairman R. Lee Lyman] "... The Darwinian perspective might give us unique insight. Chagnon was one of the founders of that approach. Unfortunately, it became a political issue as opposed to a scholastic issue. It was heresy."
(That's a rhetorical trick that particularly annoys me: if someone has a problem with your research or your ideas, don't engage the substance of their critique, just dismiss it as politics. You see this in discussions of gender differences, too. A feminist points out that gender might be more complicated, and more malleable, than the hard-wired "pink brain, blue brain" model popular today, and people roll their eyes at her for letting her politics get in the way of Serious Science**. That maneuver also makes the person whose ideas are being discussed into a heroic figure who is being unfairly silenced, rather than an ordinary researcher whose methods, data, and interpretations of said data are being criticized by other researchers.)

The article [that Chagnon published in Science in 1988 (PDF)], summed up as "killers have more kids" by some, rattled or outraged many in his discipline. Suggesting that brutality might be embroidered into our genes by evolution seemed a slippery slope toward racism or a step backward toward eugenics that saw the forced sterilization of thousands. 

"This is no longer thought to be true. There are, of course, a few holdouts," explained Bill Irons, Northwestern University professor emeritus and a Chagnon ally. "Many anthropologists and many on the political left as well preferred to believe that human behavior was shaped completely by culture."
The article makes it sound like there are only two choices for what to believe about human nature and evolution: that human nature is innate, heritable, unchanging and inherently violent, selfish and sexist, or that there is no such thing as human nature, and that people will be whatever the culture around them shapes them to be.

This leaves out a growing body of research within anthropology, primatology, evolutionary  biology and related fields that deals with other factors besides male-on-male conflict that have shaped human evolution.

Examples of people doing this kind of research include: 

1) Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who has studied mating behavior, female reproductive strategies and social organization in langur monkeys, and has developed a theory that kinship networks and shared child-rearing ("alloparenting" or "allomothering," she calls it) were necessary for early humans' survival.

Here is a snippet from an interview she did with Scientific American blogger Eric Michael Johnson, in which she briefly addresses the notion that killers and rapists have more kids, and why she thinks that's not true:
[A]mong hunter-gatherers, the way to breed successfully is to have alloparental help and provisioning help from others. Anybody who goes around killing off his wife's relatives and stealing women is going to have a lower chance of rearing offspring. These warring bands of brothers didn't emerge until fairly recently, after people started to become more sedentary. 
Part two of that interview is here.

2) Frans de  Waal, who studies cooperation, communication, empathy, conflict resolution, reciprocal altruism (i.e., trading favors) and sharing in chimpanzees, bonobos and capuchin monkeys.

3) Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist whose research has mostly dealt with the physiological effects of stress, but who has also studied social hierarchies and aggression in two troops of savanna baboons in Kenya, where he saw the level of violence in one of those troops drop off dramatically when the biggest, meanest dominant males were all killed in an outbreak of tuberculosis. The troop has kept up this more peaceful way of life even now, over 20 years since the dominant-male die-off, when probably every single (current) member of the troop was born after it happened, and every adult male has come from another troop. 

4) Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who has studied reciprocal altruism, sexual selection, and parental investment in offspring. He wrote an article in 1971 called The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism (PDF), in which he argued that animals who repay other animals' helpful acts were more likely to keep getting help throughout their lives, and thus were more likely to survive longer, have more offspring survive to adulthood, etc.

That's not an exhaustive list, just the names that I, a non-anthropologist who has never taken an anthropology class, know.

*The name they gave him, Shaki, which the article's author translates as "annoying bee," does not suggest that they thought very highly of him, or found him very pleasant company.

**See Simon Baron-Cohen's review of Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender, in which he uses words and phrases like "polemic," "barely veiled agenda," "blurring science and politics," and "extreme social determinism" to describe Fine and her book, when she's really more like a gender agnostic than a proselytizer.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Autistic People Are Human

So I'm a day late but I still want to participate in this campaign to change the Google search results for "autistic people are."

Here is what they are now:
If you can't see the image, it's a screengrab of a Google search box with the phrase "autistic people are" and a list of four choices to complete the phrase. The four words are, in order, "annoying," "smart," "evil," and "retarded." 

Annoying. Evil. Retarded.

Evil? Evil?!

I'll tell you, that one still surprises me. I've seen it before --- seen "autistic" used as shorthand for some moral failing, usually selfishness or a lack of empathy --- but it still astonishes me to see that people apparently see us that way. I'm used to the "empty fortress" stereotypes, where people think we have no inner lives, no thoughts, no feelings, that our words and acts are just random spewage that we cannot possibly have intended, that cannot possibly be directed at any goal, anything we want. We can't want, remember?

That's the stereotype I grew up with. It's a depressing one, and still very much alive. You can see it underlying mainstream America's indifference to the abuse, neglect, and even murder of autistic children by their parents (or other caregivers). "Kids like that are hard to take care of," people will say, "it's no wonder she snapped," or "it's no wonder they weren't up to the job," or "What else were they supposed to do?" And the kids themselves, their deaths don't seem as tragic as the death of a normal child would be. Their lives were cut short, but what kind of a life would it have been, really? These people never grow up, they just get older. Forty years old, sitting in your parents' living room? That's no kind of a life at all. Isn't it almost for the best, to have spared them that?

(No, it's not for the best. In case you were wondering.)

But apparently there's a new stereotype coexisting with this one, that of the stone-cold killer. It cropped up in the coverage of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and also of the one in Aurora, Colorado. People were asking, like they always do, who had done this, and how could they have done it? And one of the answers was, "It was a disturbed young man who may have been on the autism spectrum."

I don't know exactly when that autism stereotype started to take root in the public mind; it seems to have come up as people have started to be more aware that some autistic people can speak, go to school, attend mainstream classes, and do very well academically. When I was a child, this was not generally known, and people often expressed surprise that a child as articulate and precocious as I was could have autism.

Like Landon Bryce, I blame Simon Baron-Cohen's increasingly popular conception of autism for this development. I know that Professor Baron-Cohen does not think autistic people are evil, or even that we don't have feelings for other people, but the terminology he chose to use --- calling us poor "empathizers" --- conjures exactly that image in a reader's mind. 

All head and no heart. 

This, of course, is one of the reasons why I'm not mollified by seeing "smart" on the list as well: because I know that the Autistic Genius trope can blend seamlessly into the stone-cold killer. Both are unhindered by emotion or personal attachment, both can act with equal ruthlessness. The only difference is in what they do, how they direct their dispassionate efforts.

(The other reason is that smartness is often seen as a consolation prize: oh, you're autistic? You must be GREAT at math! What's that? You're not? Well, what good are you then?!)

So, what would I like people to know that autistic people are? 


That's all.