The Pattern Seekers

How Autism Drives Human Invention

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By Simon Baron-Cohen

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A groundbreaking argument about the link between autism and ingenuity.

Why can humans alone invent? In The Pattern Seekers, Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen makes a case that autism is as crucial to our creative and cultural history as the mastery of fire. Indeed, Baron-Cohen argues that autistic people have played a key role in human progress for seventy thousand years, from the first tools to the digital revolution.

How? Because the same genes that cause autism enable the pattern seeking that is essential to our species’s inventiveness. However, these abilities exact a great cost on autistic people, including social and often medical challenges, so Baron-Cohen calls on us to support and celebrate autistic people in both their disabilities and their triumphs. Ultimately, The Pattern Seekers isn’t just a new theory of human civilization, but a call to consider anew how society treats those who think differently.

Excerpt

In dedication to autistic people




Sometimes it is the people no one
can imagine anything of who do
the things no one can imagine.

ALAN TURING
The Imitation Game




Chapter 1

Born Pattern Seekers

Al didn’t talk until he was four years old. Even when he started talking, it was clear he was using language differently to most kids. His mind was different right from the start—he was less interested in people and more focused on spotting patterns, and he wanted explanations for everything he saw. He asked people incessant “why?” questions, to understand how things worked. It was exhausting for his listeners. His unstoppable curiosity was at one level refreshing, yet his need for complete explanations was also often just too much for others. He was clearly a different kind of child.

He showed some other unusual characteristics too. For example, he would chant Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” over and over (a habit that lasted his whole life). At school, his teachers became exasperated with his persistent questioning. One teacher, in frustration, described Al’s brain as “addled,” meaning confused. But Al’s mind was anything but confused. Rather, his relentless questions were requests for greater clarity because he found other people’s explanations of how things work vague. He wanted to build up an orderly, evidence-based picture of the world. From his perspective, everyone else’s way of thinking was sloppy and imprecise.

But his mother was worried. She could see that her son was frequently being reprimanded in class and put down by his teachers, and she worried this would damage his self-confidence. She needed to act decisively. So, when he was eleven, she decided to pull him out of school completely and to home-school him. This was not a decision she took lightly. But given his insatiable appetite for knowledge and the school viewing him so negatively, this seemed the right thing to do. Her child had a right to learn in the way that suited his different kind of mind.

Free of the constraints of a conventional school, Al’s mother watched with amazement as her son devoured books at home and at the local library. When Al read an account of how something worked, whether it was in chemistry or physics, he would rush down to the basement of the house to conduct his “experiments,” to prove that the explanation was true. Free of school, he could finally pursue his passion for seeking patterns in the world, without a teacher telling him to sit still, stop asking questions, and do what he was told. Home-schooling was a liberating gift from mother to son. No longer imprisoned by group learning, Al could finally choose what, when, and how to learn, through individual learning. This suited his mind perfectly, because he was never content to be told by a teacher how something worked, but instead always wanted evidence to verify it for himself. He needed to question all evidence and test things out for himself. His was a mind that didn’t follow the crowd. Instead, he wanted to understand things from first principles, to check that his knowledge was true.

Al’s mother could clearly see that her son’s learning style was different. Some described it as pedantic, obsessive, rigid, precise, and exhaustive. For example, when it came to reading in the library, Al would start by reading the last book on the bottom shelf, then systematically read every book in the order they were on the shelves above, not randomly jumping around the bookshelves. He would follow an unbending rule: one book at a time, in a strict, linear sequence, so he could be sure he hadn’t missed any information. Even though he was most interested in scientific and technical books, he would never deviate from his rule. And he loved rules, because rules were themselves patterns.

By the age of twelve, Al had read Newton’s Principia, taught himself physics, questioned theories of electricity, and conducted his own experiments at home to see if they were right. By age fifteen, Al had become fascinated by Morse code, the ultimate language of patterns. And once he became interested in anything, he had to master it. He couldn’t understand how most people would just dip into lots of topics superficially, since for him a topic had to be understood completely. It was all-or-nothing. He loved how in Morse code the same underlying message could be mapped onto patterns in a variety of ways, using auditory clicks, light flashes, or written symbols. He loved how each letter was a unique sequence of dots or dashes, how a dot was a unit of time, and how a dash was equal to three dots in duration. He loved how a letter was like a musical note, some worth one beat, others two or four beats. He grasped the patterns intuitively—he was a born pattern seeker.

When Al was sixteen, he left home. He wandered the country and discovered that his Morse code skills could earn him money, working as a telegraph operator. But at night he would follow his deeper interests, staying up till the small hours, still performing his “moonlight experiments” on whatever machinery he could lay his hands on. Just as when he was a child, he still loved taking things apart to see how they had been assembled, to see what controlled what. And then when he had done that, he was just as excited to reassemble them.

At age just sixteen, Al produced his first public invention. His “automatic repeater” was a device that could transmit Morse code signals between unmanned telegraph stations, so that anyone could translate the code when it suited them. And as we shall see, he would go on inventing right through his adult life.

Two-year-old Jonah was another child who, like Al, was not yet talking. But unlike Al’s mother, who stayed calm, Jonah’s mother panicked. She was distraught that everyone else’s kid was chattering away, so she took her little boy to a pediatric clinic to be assessed.1

She watched anxiously as the pediatrician did various tests. The doctor could see that Jonah’s mother was worried and thought it might help to show her a chart outlining how every child’s language development is different:2

“Can you see how toddlers vary in their rate of language development? They’re just different. And which track you end up on depends to some extent on your genes.”3

Still very upset, Jonah’s mother tried to focus on the chart but just couldn’t understand it. She explained to the doctor that all the different lines just seemed confusing. She tried to hold back her tears. The doctor put her hand on the arm of Jonah’s mother to comfort her as she continued her explanation:

“You see the solid black line? These are the average kids. And the top line are the early talkers, who are super-sociable, the chatty ones. The bottom line are the late-talkers, who are more spatial, more musical, more mathematical—they love patterns.”

Figure 1.1. Different types of children’s language development

The doctor turned to her, waited as if to gauge how much to say, and said:

“Jonah is one of these kids. They’re just not that interested in chatting but are fascinated by how things work. These kids are not better or worse than those on the other tracks. They’re just different.”

The doctor again paused, and seeing that Jonah’s mother was now calming down, she said:

“I love these kids because they show originality. They may be late to talk, but when they start talking what they say is so much more interesting! Some of them end up as talented musicians or chess players, some are gifted in math, gardening, cooking, building bicycles, carpentry, or photography. They are perfectionists, who love detail. They spot things that other kids miss.”

Jonah’s mother was now leaning forward, paying attention to the chart, her tears gone. Then the doctor got out her pen and drew a big X.

“A lot of the kids I see in this clinic are just like Jonah, where the X is, and I’ve seen them grow up. Some end up as engineers or artists who show originality, successful businessmen or women with a new angle, or scientists who can see patterns in data and make discoveries.”4

She turned to Jonah’s mother:

“And you know what? I was one of these kids. Apparently, I didn’t talk till I was three, and I grew into one of those kids who just loved science.”

The doctor smiled for a moment, and then looked Jonah’s mother straight in the eye:

“Be proud of Jonah. He’s just on a different track. Believe me, he’ll start talking when he’s ready. And if other parents ask why Jonah’s not talking yet, just say, ‘He’s different, but not worse.’”

Just before his third birthday, Jonah did finally start talking. But how he used language was unusual. When he spoke, he didn’t look up at people to address them. Nor did he use his index finger to point at things, to share interest. Instead, he pointed at things to name them, for himself, even when he was alone. His mother realized that, unlike other kids, he wasn’t pointing at things to communicate something about them to another person. Rather, he was pointing to classify objects, for himself. And as he pointed to each object, he named it—endlessly classifying. But she was reassured that at last he was finally talking!

But she noticed another difference in how Jonah used words: He wasn’t naming things with general words, like “car” or “mushroom.” Rather, he named them with highly specific words, referring, for example, to the precise make, model, and year of a car (“This is a black 2006 Renault Laguna 2.0S”), or the particular species of mushroom (“This is a porcini mushroom”).

Jonah’s mother was nevertheless very proud of how he spoke, because Jonah’s use of language revealed his very exact mind, his laser-sharp attention to detail, not unlike her own—she too would notice if the tiniest thing had been moved in the house and felt compelled to always put it back in its original position.5 It dawned on her that Jonah’s language reflected his strong drive to categorize, which was not unlike her husband’s fascinations: he would sit for hours poring over books of photographs of different species of birds, or different types of cars. She knew that genes inherited from one or the other parent could cause a child to have blue or brown eyes, but could genes also cause a child to have a mind compelled to be precise and to classify?

She kept in mind the doctor’s words: Jonah wasn’t worse than other kids, he was just different. She could see that other three-year-olds didn’t do what he did. For example, Jonah would sit, rapt, in front of the television watching the weather forecast, to see what had changed in the graphs and the numbers since the last weather report. And still at just three years old, when he was in the hospital for a few days, she noticed he was reading the names of the different drugs on the trolley as the nurse wheeled it past his bed. When she mentioned it to the pediatrician, the doctor called this “hyperlexia,” the opposite of dyslexia. Jonah had taught himself to read, even before he had started school. How had this happened? All of her friends needed to sit for hours with their child, painstakingly trying to teach them to read, yet Jonah just took to reading like a duck to water.

One of her friends noticed that whenever she came over to the house, Jonah was always obsessively “experimenting.” For example, he would spend hours turning just one light switch in the house—the one at the top of the stairs—to the down position, leaving all the other light switches in the up position, as though to confirm that the light switch at the top of the stairs controlled the light in the downstairs hallway. He would do this over and over and over again, as if to rerun the experiment, delighted as the light came on, flapping his hands and making a series of high-pitched squeals. When her friend narrowed her eyebrows presumably to say, What’s wrong with him?, Jonah’s mother leapt to her son’s defense and said assertively, “Jonah’s just different.”

By age four, Jonah’s interest had moved on to his large collection of toy cars. He would spin one wheel on one car, round and round and round, seemingly getting great pleasure in confirming it spun in exactly the same sequence every time. He would arrange his toy cars in patterns, lining them up in a strict order according to their color and size, and would have a tantrum if anyone rearranged them even slightly.

Jonah’s other favorite activity was sitting in front of the washing machine, listening for when it made the precise click or whirr he expected to hear as it went through each stage of the cycle. And when it reached a particular predictable point in the sequence, he would flap his hands excitedly. His mother ignored these odd behaviors, feeling they were harmless, and they seemed to make him happy.

But at school the teachers were becoming concerned because Jonah just wouldn’t join in. During group reading, when all the kids sat together on the carpet, Jonah would sit with his eyes tight shut, his fingers in both ears. He hated sitting with other children, and he wouldn’t look at their faces. The other kids started calling him “finger ears” and would chant it when he came into the classroom, upsetting him. He would run outside when he heard it, leaving his teacher Julia trying to persuade him to come back in. Julia worried about Jonah, and spoke to him gently, asking him how he was feeling. He said he felt anxious when other children moved because they were “unpredictable.” She was surprised at a five-year-old using such a grown-up word.

In the playground, Julia noticed that Jonah always tried to keep to himself. Despite the school’s best efforts, and even with her help, sometimes he was bullied. She was mortified to discover that on one occasion some kids had picked him up, put him into a dustbin, dumped rubbish on top of him, laughing as he screamed, and then closed the lid. He stayed in there, terrified to move or make a sound in case the bullies were still there, waiting for him to come out. He was in the bin for hours until, fortunately, he was discovered by the school caretaker at the end of the day.

Generally, Jonah preferred to be alone at the edge of the playground, collecting leaves, classifying them into precise categories. Julia, who had by this point decided she should take him under her wing, asked him one day what he was doing. Initially, he didn’t answer. When she asked him again, he said, without looking up, in a monotonous voice:

“Yesterday I sorted all the leaves into five different piles: these ones all have a stalk; these ones all have a single blade; these ones all have a smooth edge; these ones all have an elliptical shape; and these ones have a main vein with all the other veins coming off it. But today I realize there’s a sixth way leaves can differ: these ones all have leaves that are opposite each other along the stem.”6

Julia was amazed. She’d never come across a child who was so logical, so different, so self-contained. She asked him why he wanted to find all the different ways to sort the leaves, and he answered simply:

“So I know all the patterns.”

Julia felt she was in the presence of a child-scientist who needed no encouragement to conduct his observations but was motivated by pure curiosity to understand the world. When Jonah’s mother came to the school gates to collect him that day, Julia told her she should be proud of her son’s remarkable mind.

But Jonah’s mother was increasingly anxious about his behavior. Other parents were starting to say Jonah was “obsessive” or “weird.” He was the only child in the class who wasn’t invited to other children’s birthday parties. She would dread picking him up at the end of each school day, in case a teacher or a parent came over to her to report yet another incident. On one occasion, Jonah had reacted to another child chanting the “finger-ears” nickname by pushing him so forcefully that the child fell backwards and hit his head. On another occasion, she arrived to pick up Jonah and was called into the head teacher’s office. He had apparently picked up some scissors, walked over to a girl sitting at the same table, and cut her bangs because it bothered him that they weren’t straight. The little girl was speechless with shock, and her parents were furious.

Jonah’s mother longed to have a child who played easily with other children and didn’t come home with odd collections in his pockets, of snails, small rocks, or crumpled pieces of paper with his handwritten lists of cars—their make, model, number plate, color, year, and owner—all systematically organized in a grid. And she worried about Jonah because he totally trusted other people.

One time, a child in the playground had asked if he could see Jonah’s wallet, and when Jonah agreed and handed it over, the other boy ran off with it. His mother despaired at how she would ever teach him all the different ways someone might trick him. He just didn’t seem to understand other children. He said that social interactions were incomprehensible to him, unlike the world of objects or patterns, for which he had an intuitive understanding. So Jonah preferred to be solitary, learning not from others but by and for himself.

It seemed as if everyone completely missed why Jonah was doing what he was doing, endlessly sorting and classifying. One child psychiatrist to whom Jonah’s mother took him called his behavior RRBI, which he explained stood for “repetitive and restrictive behavior and interests,” as if reifying it in this way somehow explained it. To Jonah’s mother, calling it RRBI was insulting: the label medicalized his behavior as a symptom of some disease. And she thought it was meaningless because it was totally circular: “Jonah collects things because he’s got RRBI.”7

She decided not to go back to the child psychiatrist and instead to talk to the kind pediatrician, who she felt understood Jonah better. The pediatrician was delighted to see her again and told her that, if you watched Jonah’s repetitive behavior carefully, you could see that he was trying to discover the laws for how things work. Jonah’s mother felt this doctor was helping her to open her eyes, to see what motivated her son.

And then the pediatrician shocked her:

“I get so annoyed when I hear a psychiatrist calling a child’s repetitive behavior RRBI. He may as well say that all science, including medicine, is RRBI. Doesn’t he realize that every scientific discovery and every invention that has ever been made over the centuries was discovered through repetition?”

The doctor shook her head.

“When Jonah’s doing his experiments, with the light switches, he’s like a little scientist, changing just one feature, while trying to hold all the other variables constant, to make discoveries. He’s trying to understand the system.”8

Jonah’s mother sat in admiration of this doctor who was helping her to finally see her son as gifted.

As young children, Al and Jonah were remarkably similar. They both struggled to understand people, yet their minds were tuned to a hyper level to analyze and understand patterns and systems, questioning, experimenting with, and classifying everything they encountered. Both of these two children, despite being born in different centuries (Al was born in 1847, Jonah in 1988), questioned everything: “Why did X happen? What happens when I do this? Is this an X or a Y? What’s the proof that A really causes B and that it’s not some other factor C?” With their critical minds, they were constantly analyzing and experimenting.

Both Al and Jonah looked at the world in a fresh way, uninfluenced by social convention, not feeling compelled to follow the consensus. And they both wanted explanations that were complete, without gaps. As his pediatrician had astutely observed, Jonah was like a little scientist, examining every assumption and testing the evidence for it—except that Jonah, like Al, was doing this without any formal training. All these two children seemed to care about was the search for “truth,” which for them was simply a word for consistent patterns. Anything that did not fall into a pattern or follow a predictable rule or law was of no interest to them. They were born pattern seekers.

Despite their similar characteristics as children, their lives took very different trajectories. As an adult, Al became famous. He was Thomas Alva Edison, became a celebrated scientist and inventor with 1,093 US patents, and invented remarkable, transformative technologies, such as the lightbulb. He was affectionately nicknamed “the Wizard of Menlo Park” by those who respected his different way of thinking.9

In contrast, Jonah today is a young man who still seeks patterns in the world around him. He didn’t become a world-famous inventor, but in his own quiet way, he shows the same drive to understand, experiment, and invent. For example, as an adult, he is fascinated by patterns on the surface of the ocean. He drives to the coast every weekend to go fishing, and the local fishermen all know him. Since his teens, they have grown to love having him join them on their boat because, as he gazes at the surface of the sea, he reads the patterns of ripples on the water. The patterns tell him where there’s a shoal of fish, how big it is, how deep beneath the surface it is, and even what kind of fish may be in the shoal. Often he says nothing and simply points. The fishermen have learned to trust him, and they throw their nets where he points. They still marvel at how easily Jonah spots patterns they miss. And they say his predictions are always right. The joy that Jonah experiences on these fishing expeditions is palpable, because he can become engrossed in the detail—there’s no pressure to see the bigger picture—and these trips also allow him to socialize without having to make conversation.

But even though Jonah has a talent for spotting patterns, remarkable attention to detail, and an extraordinary memory, he has struggled to make a single friend. When I pointed out that the fishermen were his friends, he bluntly corrected me.

“They like me because I show them where the fish are, but after the fishing trips they go to the pub, and I go home alone, and still live with my parents.”

Jonah is autistic. But perhaps you already guessed that.

As these two children’s stories make plain, the very same behaviors and fascinations can be viewed very differently. Seen through one lens, a child’s “obsessions” are a symptom of a “disorder” or a “disease” and associated with disability. Seen through another lens, a child’s relentless experimenting and detailed observations are the product of a mind whose pattern-seeking engine operates in overdrive and can lead them to invent, and sometimes to become great inventors.

The capacity to invent is hugely important because once humans became capable of invention, we transformed our world, and we are still doing so today. And yet the capacity to invent is poorly understood. There doesn’t seem to be a theory of how we invent, or an understanding of where this transformational ability comes from. 10 The conventional wisdom is that invention involves playing with or exploring an object, seeing it in a new light, or having an insight into it, but these are vague descriptors and don’t amount to a theory. Yet when we look at the minds of inventors like Edison, or of autistic people like Jonah, we can glimpse a connection between them that needs exploring.

Glimpsing this connection has driven me to ask some fundamental questions: How do we invent? What goes on in the human mind when we invent? Are humans the only species that can invent? At what point in evolution did we or our ancestors start to invent? What is the intriguing link with autism? And does this link hold true across the autism spectrum, including even those who have learning disabilities or very little language?

As a psychologist and an autism researcher, I have studied the human mind for thirty-five years. In this book, I present a new theory of human invention. Here it is in a nutshell.

First, humans alone have a specific kind of engine in the brain. It’s one that seeks out if-and-then patterns, the minimum definition of a system. I call this engine in the brain the Systemizing Mechanism. Second, the Systemizing Mechanism developed at a landmark moment in human evolution, between 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, when the first humans began to make complex tools in a way that no previous animal had ever been able to, or any non-human animal can do today.11 Third, the Systemizing Mechanism allowed humans alone to become the scientific and technological masters of our planet, eclipsing all other species.

Genre:

  • Editors' Choice—The New York Times Book Review
  • One of the Best Science Books of 2020Amazon.com
  • A Barnes & Noble Best Psychology Book for 2020Barnes & Noble
  • "A thoughtful argument that creativity shares many of the same traits as autism.... Insightful."—Kirkus
  • "Baron-Cohen's work buttresses the case that aspects of autism can be positive, and that thoughtful guidance can channel some with that diagnosis into productive and meaningful work. Readers interested in accessible and innovative looks at the human mind, such as those of Yuval Noah Harari, will be fascinated."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Based on massive research, Simon Baron-Cohen argues that most of us are specialized in how we perceive the world around us. There are those who focus on people and those who focus on things. The author makes a compelling case that the second kind of mind -- the pattern seeker -- is at the root of modern human civilization."—Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and author of Mama'sLast Hug
  • "In this ambitious and provocative book, Simon Baron-Cohen goes beyond the usual discussion of 'special gifts' in autism to propose that the diversity of human operating systems has accelerated the advancement of human civilization and culture in ways we can barely imagine."—Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes
  • "Simon Baron-Cohen has long been a champion of autistic people, and The Pattern Seekers -- a thought-provoking book -- makes a significant contribution to the emerging literature on neurodiversity."
    John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye
  • "It's rare to come across a surprising new idea that explains important phenomena, but Simon Baron-Cohen's exploration of abstract pattern-seeking in human affairs is one of them. This book sheds light on one of humanity's most distinctive traits, celebrates human cognitive diversity, and in contrast with its subject matter, is rich with empathy and psychological insight."— Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct
  • "Always years ahead of others, always bolder in mind and in action than others, Simon Baron-Cohen now synthesizes a secret of human creativity born out of difference. Where others saw disability, he saw specialness. Like nature itself, the beauty of the human mind comes from its diversity."—Ami Klin, Bernie Marcus Distinguished Chair in Autism at EmoryUniversity
  • "The Pattern Seekers is a game-changing book, a passport into exploring the world of innovation and creativity. Most importantly, it celebrates autistic people and is a call for action, to welcome neurodiversity."—David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music UK
  • "The Pattern Seekers is a book of big ideas and is sure to excite intense discussion and debate, fueled by Baron-Cohen's lively prose and provoking stories."—Daniel J. Povinelli, author of World Without Weight
  • "Simon Baron-Cohen, an internationally acclaimed authority on human brains, has written a fascinating book that illuminates the 'spectrum' of thinking styles. After reading it, you'll better understand the personalities of your friends and colleagues!"—Martin Rees, author of On the Future
  • "In an age of increasing specialization, The Pattern Seekers comes as a breath of fresh air. Simon Baron-Cohen is truly a rara avis, able to see hidden links between seemingly unrelated disorders that span the whole spectrum of human nature. He steers clear of simple-minded reductionism as well as touchy-feely  psychology. The result is a book that is destined to become a classic. Baron-Cohen does not shy away from speculating on controversial topics like autism that everyone is interested in but no one understands. And although he is usually right on target, he will inevitably annoy a few pundits. But as Lord Reith of BBC put it, there are some people whom it is one's duty to annoy."  — V.S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain 

  • "Simon Baron-Cohen has written a wildly creative and fascinating book. He takes on one of the deepest puzzles in cognitive science by asking a simple question: What makes Homo sapiens so inventive? By combining brain science, evolutionary biology, and the study of autism, Baron-Cohen provides a unique theory of human cognition. It is surely one of the most powerful and eye-opening books about the human mind written this decade."—Andrew N. Meltzoff, co-author of The Scientist in the Crib
  • "A fascinating account of the mechanisms underlying the related capacities of both autistic individuals and innovators."—Brian Josephson, Emeritus Professor of Physics at University of Cambridge and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics
  • "Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the greatest thinkers and writers today on the subject of autism. In this erudite new book he explains that autistic people's strongly systematic way of thinking differently is one of the essential elements in the capacity for invention. Baron-Cohen explores how obsessively experimenting with patterns and sequences, whether in music, the visual arts, math, engineering, cooking, or observing the patterns of the ocean waves, led to new inventions and discoveries. He has recalibrated the lens through which autism is understood and redefined it as a rare potentiality, to be valued and celebrated. His bold new idea, that the genes for autism drove the evolution of human invention, places this disability center stage in the story of humans. If you have ever wondered why geniuses spend so much time alone in their sheds, this illuminating book starts to give us an answer to that question."—Jools Holland, musician
  • "[A] bold argument . . . an impassioned call to action for modern society to do a better job of tapping the inventive power of people with autism."—Claudia Wallis, Spectrum News

On Sale
Nov 10, 2020
Page Count
272 pages
Publisher
Basic Books
ISBN-13
9781541647145

Simon Baron-Cohen

About the Author

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He is the author of over six hundred scientific articles and four books, including The Science of Evil and The Essential Difference.  

Learn more about this author