Autism again figures prominently in this month's APS Presidential Column by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, "On Not Being Human" (which I strongly recommend be read in its entirety). She asks,
Do we all agree that all humans are indeed, human?
And points out historical examples where the humanity of humans has been denied, including:
The anonymous tract, Disputatio Nova Contra Mulieres, Qua Probatur Eas Homines Non Esse (A New Argument Against Women, in Which it Is Demonstrated That They Are not Human Beings), first published in 1595, was reprinted prolifically during the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the 1860s, British anthropologists espoused that Blacks were an inferior species, more comparable to apes than to Caucasians, and therefore well suited for slavery.
At the Nuremberg Trial, one SS general explained his allegiance to genocide by the simple contention that “Jews are not even human.”
Dr Gernsbacher then shows that assertions that some humans aren't human are not confined to the past. She supplies an example of a statement made by a language researcher at a conference not so many years ago:
“Oh, I’ve seen children with Williams syndrome. They don’t count. They’re not even human. They must belong to some other species entirely.”
As Dr Gernsbacher points out, these spoken words did not make it into print. This contrasts with the situation in autism. Autistics have been prominently denied human status in accolade-laden books and in prominent peer-reviewed papers:
For example, in a recent New York Times “notable book of the year,” an internationally acclaimed psychological scientist segregated autistic people from other humans and placed them “together with robots and chimpanzees.”
Dr Gernsbacher has not named this acclaimed cognitive scientist, but he is instantly recognizable as Steven Pinker. She also provides this quote:
“it’s as if they [autistic people] do not understand or are missing a core aspect of what it is to be human”
Without peeking at the references, I have no trouble instantly attributing this one to Bryna Siegel, who has been an expert witness for the government side in more than one Canadian ABA legal battle (e.g., Wynberg and Hewko).
Dr Gernsbacher goes on to explore of the work of Micheal Tomasello (again, not named, but unmistakable), who published two major target articles in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in 1993 then in 2005. Dr Tomasello has authored many other articles as well as a highly praised and influential book, which have in common his contention that autistics, like apes, lack the essential features defining humans as human. Here is how Dr Gernsbacher describes the 2005 BBS article:
In a more recent scholarly article, also written with the aim of delineating “the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species,” autistic people were again segregated from other humans and placed with great apes. After acknowledging that the empirical literature demonstrates that “great apes and children with autism are clearly not blind to all aspects of intentional action,” the authors raised the bar (“understanding the intentional actions and perceptions of others is not by itself sufficient to produce humanlike social and cultural activities”), and continued to pound home their belief that autistic children do not “engage socially and culturally with others in the ways that human children do”; they do not “interact with other persons in the species-typical manner.” Their social behavior is just not human.
What Dr Gernsbacher does not point out is that the examples she provides are not exceptional. There is a list of famous scientists, currently prominent in various disciplines, who have in various ways denied that autistics are human (or even alive). In addition to Steven Pinker, Michael Tomasello, and Bryna Siegel, this list would include Peter Hobson, Fred Volkmar, Thomas Insel, V.S. Ramachandran, Ivar Lovaas, and Paul Bloom.
Dr Gernsbacher concludes:
Why are humans dehumanized? According to Morton Deutsch, this year’s APS James McKeen Cattell award recipient, humans are dehumanized when they are perceived as a threat. What threat do humans with Williams syndrome and autistic humans pose to psychological scientists? A threat to the universality of the scientists’ theories, a threat to the scientists’ ability to accept human diversity?
Last fall, a Duquesne University sophomore violated his Catholic university’s code of conduct by posting on Facebook his opinion that homosexual behavior was “subhuman.” Shouldn’t psychological scientists be held to an equally high code of conduct? In addition to being required to remove his offensive comment from the Web, the Duquesne sophomore had to write a 10-page essay on respect for human dignity. I wish some psychological scientists would at least read, if not write, a similar essay.