On the Origin of “Species”

In the last post we saw that in order for a type to be considered real – that is, a natural object – a group of individuals must have more in common with one another than with any individual excluded from that group. It’s already quite clear that by this definition, Simon Baron-Cohen’s “brain types” are not really types at all. Look at the graph again, and you’ll see that many individuals actually have more in common (more similar scores) with another individual on the other side of a boundary line than with most individuals within their own colour zone. .

Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.04.06

Those stripes of colour don’t even represent distinct types of score, let alone distinct types of brain. They are nothing more than stripes of colour painted across an arrangement of individuals’ results on two self-reporting questionnaires.1

And that isn’t all:

Even if Baron-Cohen’s vague and arbitrary groupings did tick all the boxes to be considered “types” in the taxonomic sense, typological thinking actually went out of fashion ages ago as evolutionary biology gained currency. There are those, like Wilkins and Ebach (quoted in my last post) who argue that typology does have a place in biology – in descriptions, at least – but as they themselves point out, typology is now generally “regarded as a regressive and pre-evolutionary approach to the data and biology.”2 The question, then, is whether types exist at all.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The Linnaean taxonomy is so much a part of our tradition that most of us will have grown up feeling that the grouping and naming of living things by genus and species – as in homo sapiens and my personal favourite, rattus rattus – reflect a tangible genetic reality that exists outside of human thought.

But “species” and “genus” were concepts that Carl Linnaeus inherited from Plato and Aristotle. It was in an ancient tradition, and in perfect freedom from the framework of evolutionary theory and genetics, that in 1735 Linnaeus constructed the system of classification we still use today. Yes, it has evolved with evolutionary theory; indeed, Linnaeus modified it a number of times himself. Nevertheless, its whole aim, as well as its structure and concepts, is rooted in a tradition of essentialism.

Very, very briefly: Plato, like many philosophers before him, observed that the world around him was in constant flux: unstable and always changing. He proposed that behind this wobbly material world there was another, more stable reality: the world of ideas. Material world objects like Plato himself, like a particular horse or a particular house, were in fact only imperfect shadows of the perfect and unchanging ideas or forms, man, horse and house. These ideal forms were called species. Plato is of the species man. Species were grouped into genera (plural of genus). Man and horse are both of the genus animal; house may be said to be of the genus building.

Next came Aristotle, who termed the defining idea or form of a thing its τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, conventionally rendered in English as essence; the most common literal translation is “what-it-is-to-be.” There are other translations, but they generally communicate this sense of design: of what something is supposed to be.

And there you have the basis of essentialism. It’s a doctrine that has enjoyed profound – perhaps unparalleled – influence. Medieval Christian churchmen thought in these terms: God had created an natural order of unchanging forms, of which the material forms were imperfect representations. Early naturalists like Linnaeus were working within this tradition of Christian and essentialist thought. The members of a species shared a unique and unchanging essence, and the essence defined the species.

Trouble was, it actually proved rather tricky to locate the darned thing. To find a trait that is shared by every single member of every generation of a species for its entire life on the planet, and not shared by any member of any other species, is nigh on impossible.

R.I.P. Essentialism; enter Darwinism.

In theory, that is. In practice, the death of essentialism is about as much a natural object as were those elusive essences themselves.

1The paper does not specify how boundaries were decided. They may represent standard deviations from the mean, but even if this were the case this signifies no more than your distance from the mean score ratio…

2Wilkins and Ebach, The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences.

Typology, maths and the Brexit Brain

Now, it’s difficult to believe, but those questionable questionnaires, the EQ and the SQ, are in fact the only tools that Simon Baron-Cohen uses in the diagnosis of brain sex. We’ve already identified a number of flaws that undermine their reliability as tools for diagnosing anything other than your own opinion of yourself, or perhaps how middle class you are,1 but let’s overlook this for a moment and consider the statistics they produce.

(NB. You’re supposed to take both and compare your scores. If you score higher on the SQ, you have a “systemising” or “male” brain, represented as S > E (S is greater than E); if you score higher on the EQ, you have an “empathising” or “female” brain, represented as S < E (S is smaller than E). If you score equally on both, you have a “balanced” brain, represented as S ≈ E.)

The following table is taken from a 2005 paper listed on Baron-Cohen’s University of Cambridge page as one of his “key publications,” notable as his only paper ever published in the reputable journal Science.2

Screenshot 2017-08-23 17.14.05

Now, observe that only 48.5% of women actually have any sort of “female” brain (adding the “Extreme female” and “Female” scores). Even using his own gender-stereotype detection tools, Simon Baron-Cohen finds that 51% of women do not have “the female brain.” (Remember, the female advantage in empathising narrows or disappears when the tools are less subjective.3) What, then, makes this kind of brain so very female? I rather wish that Baron-Cohen’s brand of mathematics had been applied to the EU referendum last year: the 48.11% for Remain would have been considered more representative of the people’s will than the other 51.89% and my £££ would still afford me a decent number of croissants at family reunions in France.

The SQ does net a slightly higher proportion of men, at 59.6%, but that isn’t exactly an overwhelming majority either, even though the SQ is more blatantly gendered male. Do these numbers really merit classification into “neurophysiological” types?

Have a look at this figure, from the same page:

Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.04.06

Even overlooking the fact that the numbers on the x and y axes here refer to nothing more than people’s scores on those subjective and stereotyped self-report questionnaires, this graph actually shows a good deal of overlap between the red diamonds representing women and the blue triangles representing men (I won’t be discussing the green squares representing people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorders). But the diagonal stripes of colour are supposed to show that, in fact, those clustered questionnaire-scores are in fact produced by five distinct “brain types”.

Now ask yourself who decided where the “boundaries for the different brain types” should be drawn, and how this was decided. Do those lines really mean anything?

Consider the three red diamonds clustered where the Systemizing 30 line crosses the Empathizing 40 line, at the boundary of the “Balanced” (white) and “Systemizing” (light pink) zones. Those diamonds represent three women not diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. One is in the white zone (we’ll call it Diamond A), and two (Diamonds B and C, from left to right) lie just inside the pink zone (on top of two blue triangles, which represent two men who got the same scores as these women). Diamond A and Diamond B have the same SQ score, but are two points apart on the EQ axis and happen to fall in different zones; Diamonds B and C have different EQ and SQ scores, but both fall within the pink ‘Systemising’ zone. According to Baron-Cohen Diamonds B and C are of one type, while Diamond A is in another category entirely. But is this really convincing? Do we really believe that Diamond A represents a woman with a different type of “neurophysiology?”

What is a type anyway?

Of course we all think we know what a “type” is: it’s a word we all use. But Baron-Cohen claims to be doing “science” here, and so we must hold him to scientific standards.

In the language of the natural sciences, a “type” signifies “a group or division of animals, etc., having a common form or structure” (OED 8.a.). Baron-Cohen is tapping in, here, to the vocabulary of taxonomy (the classification of organisms in the biological sciences of bottany and zoology); or, to be precise, the vocabulary of Linnaean Taxonomy.

Most readers will be familiar with this system of taxonomy (which is the dominant system today, although it has adapted over the years), whether they realise it or not: the organisation of animals and plants by species, genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom.

Now, the Linnaean system was originally a typological taxonomy: Carl Linnaeus grouped organisms by observable type. Modern taxonomists have moved away from typology, but I’ll deal with that in my next post. For now, let’s just look at what does constitute a type if you’re into that sort of thing. According to a recent book supporting typological classification, “types are crucial in most natural classification because they are the phenomena around which classifications are made.”4 That is to say, phenomena (e.g. animals or plants) are observed, patterns (similarities in structure) are noted, individuals sharing characteristics are grouped into “types,” and then classifications are made based on these types.

But to be considered a type in its own right, an individual or group of individuals must be sufficiently different from the others already known to us:

we recognize the specimen as a “different type” only because we already have prior knowledge of things that are in relationship to it and identify that it does not fit neatly into the patterns they generate. Hence, there is a pattern, but it is a pattern of exclusion: the new taxon is formed from the joint assumption that the specimen must reside in a taxon, and that it does not reside in existing related taxa. (ibid.)

And for an observed type to become a classification, the quality and degree of difference has to be well-established. In The Classification of the Sciences, Herbert Spencer, one of the first evolutionary biologists and contemporary of Charles Darwin, offers this simple and elegant definition:

A true classification includes in each class, those objects which have more characteristics in common with one another, than any of them have in common with any objects exluded from the class.

Now, are we entirely persuaded that the women behind Diamonds B and C must have more in common with one another than with the woman behind Diamond A? Even though A and B actually have an SQ score in common?

More on types tomorrow. For now, let me leave you with a link to another blog post, written today by a friend of mine (it’s a great read, and not just because I have a cameo role in it). She studied maths at Cambridge and afterwards went into computer programming (sounds systemisey, doesn’t it?), while I studied English and have more or less been reading fiction full time since I graduated (empathisey?) – and yet her blog is far more aesthetically pleasing and person- or emotions-related than this one, which is turning out to be more systematic than anything I ever thought I’d write. Perhaps we accidentally swapped brains one day when we were out jogging together.

She can still code like nobody’s business, though, while I can barely handle a ready-made WordPress domain…



1We have seen that the questions themselves are not demonstrably linked to “neurophysiology” so much as to contemporary, occidental, middle-class gender stereotypes. It is not at all clear that Baron-Cohen’s chosen examples of “systemising” really do demonstrate that function (is football really more systemising than knitting?). We have also seen that an individual’s score may be affected by the way they see themselves and would like to be seen – as more systemising or as more empathising – and that it is likely to fluctuate throughout one’s lifetime.

2Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer and Belmonte, ‘Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism,’ Science, 310 (2005), pp. 819-23 (p.821).

3 See Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (London, 2011), Amazon Kindle e-book, Chapter 2, location 567.

4Wilkins and Ebach, The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Quotations are taken from the Google Books preview that does not give page numbers.

New Brain Type Discovered



Let’s look at some more examples from the Systemising Quotient that Simon Baron-Cohen uses to ascertain if you have the “male brain:”

4. I prefer to read non-fiction than fiction.”

In order to be able to score points towards systemising you have not only to be literate (and outside the affluent classes of the West, illiteracy is common), but enough of a reader to have a genre preference. And then, what about computer programmers who like to read fiction in their free time? Don’t they have systemising brains?

7. If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, Iʼd be able to fix it myself.”

As well as highly gendered, this question can only test for systemising in people with homes with wiring. A large proportion of the global population live without electricity in their homes. And what about the homeless? Apparently they can’t systemise. Or, for that matter, what about people who have only ever rented? You probably get more involved with the wiring if you’re a homeowner, or grew up with parents who were homeowners…

11. I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.”

You have to disagree with this one to get points, which means that in order to qualify for the systemising brain you have to have internet access – which, again, a large proportion of the global population do not.

18. I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.”

You have to have buying power as well be literate in order to have a systemising brain.

19. When I look at an animal, I like to know the precise species it belongs to.”

You have to have learned about Linnaean Taxonomy in order to score points.

24. I find it difficult to read and understand maps.”

You are more likely to have been born with the male brain if you later became a scout or if your school offered the Duke of Edinburgh Awards as an extracuricular activity.

29. When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.”

Again, you must be literate, but you must also be interested in football – which, as I suggested in my last post, may have very little to do with systemising – because I rather doubt that many people are interested in these tables unless they are interested in the information communicated by them. So it would seem that you are more likely to have been born with the male brain if you will one day have enough money to buy stocks.

30. When I learn a language, I become intrigued by its grammatical rules.”

You have to have learned at least one foreign language in order to have the systemising brain. Not only that, but you must have studied it formally so as to gain exposure to its grammatical rules. In short, you need to have gone to a good school to have the male brain.

32. I do not tend to watch science documentaries on television or read articles about science and nature.”

I haven’t been able to find a study on this, but I suspect that country, age, socio-economic and educational background all have something to do with how likely you are to watch science documentaries – let alone own a television or computer to watch with. By way of anecodotal evidence I would point out that lately I have been watching and reading more documentaries and articles and books about science than I used to. Health scare: has my brain changed type this year?

And again, you should also be literate to have the male brain. But until someone produces the data to prove otherwise, I remain unconvinced that all mathematicians, knitters, tailors and computer programmers are thrilled by science documentaries.

34. I find it easy to grasp exactly how odds work in betting.”

I have never tried to grasp how odds work in betting, so I’ll lose systemising points. But if now I did try to learn how odds work, and found it easy, would I suddenly change brain type?

41. When traveling by train, I often wonder exactly how the rail networks are coordinated.”

You have to live in a country with a rail network in order to have a systemising brain.

51. When Iʼm in a plane, I do not think about the aerodynamics.”

You have to have travelled by aeroplane to have a systemising brain. That rules out all the people without money for air travel, most of those without passports, and anyone who died before air travel became common.

56. I do not read legal documents very carefully.”

Literacy and living a lifestyle that involves legal documents is a prerequisite for having been born with the male brain – which rules out a huge proportion of the world’s population, including most of my friends in Uganda.


A bit of brevity and levity for today’s post. Nevertheless, it should demonstrate that the Systemising Quotient is not a tool with which to accurately diagnose “brain type” across ages, cultures and socio-economic groups – not to mention across a single individual’s life span. Interests, habits and even aptitudes change over the course of a life. If empathising and systemising really do “depend on independent sets of regions in the human brain,”1 this sort of questionnaire isn’t going to locate those regions.


1  Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (New York, 2003), p.16.

A Glitch in Baron-Cohen’s System

Let’s go back to Baron-Cohen’s definition of systemising. In an essay entitled ‘Why So Few Women in Math and Science?’ he introduced it like this:

As systemizing is a new concept, it needs a little more definition. By a “system” I mean something that takes inputs and delivers outputs. To systemize, one uses “if–then” (correlation) rules. The brain focuses on a detail or parameter of the system and observes how this varies—that is, it treats a feature of a particular object or event as a variable. Alternatively, a person actively or systematically manipulates a given variable. One notes the effect(s) of performing an operation on one single input in terms of its effects elsewhere in the system (the output). The key data structure used in systemizing is [input–operation–output]. If I do x, a changes to b. If z occurs, p changes to q. Systemizing therefore requires an exact eye for detail.1

Forgive me for dumping this rather dense paragraph, but it’s important. Read it carefully. And ask yourself where such systemising is to be found. Where have you performed or observed someone performing this kind of systemising?

Now this is what Baron-Cohen has to say:

The relevant domains to explore for evidence of systemizing include any fields that are, in principle, rule-governed. Thus, chess and football are good examples of systems.” (12)

Chess and football happen to be predominantly masculine pursuits in this world of ours. Remember the SQ statements that were similarly gendered male. But what about knitting? I’d call that a system that takes and delivers outputs.2 Why has that never been included on the SQ?

Just a few lines before giving football as an example, Baron-Cohen told us that “Systemizing is of almost no use for predicting moment-to-moment changes in a person’s behavior, but it is our most powerful way of understanding and predicting the law-governed, inanimate universe” (12). But football isn’t law-governed and inanimate; “moment-to-moment changes in a person’s behaviour,” which he tells us cannot be predicted by systemising, are enormously significant in football. The moment-to-moment decisions of the players are unpredictable; using the same strategy (input) in football will not always generate the same result (output) because it depends a) on how effectively you execute it in a given situation, and b) on how the opposition respond. Weather, and players’ healths and moods consititute variables and create further uncertainty. If football were really all that predictable we’d always know who was going to win! Actually, the same goes for chess. Your input does not always deliver the same output because it depends on the moves made by the other player.

Knitting, on the other hand, is far more “law-governed” and “inanimate”. Back to The Essential Difference, where “Systemizing is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system.” Actually, the more I think about it, the more knitting looks like a perfect example. “The systemizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. This is done in order to understand and predict the system, or to invent a new one.” (13) Yes. To knit, one must understand the system. And one must extract the underlying rules of knitting and of patterns in order to invent a pattern of one’s own. Spatial skills (like rotation), stereotyped as masculine, are also necessary

Making clothes (out of cloth, rather than knitting), whether by hand or with a sewing machine, requires a similar set of skills; rotation must be even more important here. So why aren’t these items on the systemising quotient? If they were, more women would score more points, while men might lose a few; suddenly, systemising wouldn’t look quite so male-dominated. 


1 In The Science on Women and Science, ed. Sommers (Washington, D.C., 2009), p.11. Hereafter page numbers will be given in the text. It’s rather important to be aware that this was a collection of essays put together to combat the idea that something ought to be done to get more women into science. (Sounds a bit like Damore’s memo, doesn’t it?) If that isn’t science with a political agenda, I don’t know what is. I’ll return to a discussion of this in another post.

2 Interestingly, in a 2009 paper submitted to Tizard Learning Disability Review, Vol 14.3, he included “learning knitting patterns” as an example of “motoric systemising” in individuals on the autistic spectrum. Perhaps he included it in response to the criticisms of his gender-biased quotient, or because in this case the paper was about “implications for education” and educators/parents might not have been happy with examples that were all gendered male. But it’s significant that he includes it as “motoric systemising” and equivalent to “learning…a tennis technique” rather than classing it, for instance, under “numerical systemising.” And, even more significantly, knitting was never included on the SQ – not even the revised version reissued in the wake of criticisms.