Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read ... Mostly, though, The Pattern Seekers is about the idea of using autism as a key to unlock the mystery of human cognition, and on this front, it’s less convincing. Sometimes it’s simply because the book’s framing is misleading. Baron-Cohen takes great care to set up the idea that all humans possess a Systemizing Mechanism, that some people are hyper-systemizers, and that a comparatively high number of those hyper-systemizers are autistic. But the subtitle of the book is not how systemizing drives human invention, it’s how autism drives human invention. At the same time, he cautions against speculation that people, living or dead, might be autistic. The term should be reserved only for diagnosis when people are struggling to function, he explains ... As Baron-Cohen describes it, the Systemizing Mechanism is so all-powerful, it explains evolutionary change, historic progress and individual excellence — including, for example, the ancient shift from simple to complex tool use, the invention of the light bulb and the late Kobe Bryant’s highly regimented training schedule. It’s true, all these scenarios can be described as looping sequences of if-and-then reasoning. But it’s a much greater leap to show that this is the main engine of evolution, or that it demonstrates how human brains work in real time, or that the two things have much in common.
Despite the best of intentions, it too often feels half-baked, like a pastiche of ideas from other books ... chapters present a number of big, unwieldy and often quite intriguing ideas in an attempt to connect the dots ... Always bold, Baron-Cohen is not afraid to be provocative ... The problem is, he’s bitten off so much, there simply isn’t enough space to fully flesh out all of his arguments, and this is where things start to fray. Baron-Cohen frequently seems to lose patience with all the explaining that is required and resorts to sweeping statements about what he believes, bolstered more by repetition than explanation ... He lectures and occasionally hectors, and expects you to agree with him because he is the authority ... Baron-Cohen’s insistence on being the arbiter of such a wide array of knowledge becomes trying. There’s too much tell, not enough show ... The Pattern Seekers is its most engaging, and moving, when it allows the few autistic individuals it profiles to speak for themselves ... The last chapter of the book is filled with excellent practical suggestions for how to nurture the inventors of the future and integrate autistic people into society. Clearly Baron-Cohen is back in his wheelhouse, and it shows. The examples are intriguing ... Too many ideas are underdeveloped or left hanging, and the whole if-and-then explanation seems shoehorned into examples that don’t really work ... even with these flaws, it is an ambitious work, and a thesis worth refining and continuing to explore.
...his certainty seems misplaced. It may indeed be that 70,000 years ago in Africa a naked ape evolved the ability to systemise and so conquered the world. Might it also be, though, that 70,000 years ago our ancestors also evolved grammatical language, meaning that at last the best inventors were able to pass their inventions on? It’s at least possible. Baron-Cohen has a habit of making assertions of fact that I’m not sure have reached that standard of evidence yet.