Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More than a fine line

“Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity”

- Sir Francis Galton FRS, English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, statistician and racist

According to the Wikipedia Galton’s idea of a link between insanity and genius was based upon his own experience. There has been some speculation regarding Galton and Asperger syndrome, and Galton has also been discussed in the book Obsession: a history by Lennard Davis. Sir Francis Galton was a half-cousin of the world-changing biologist Charles Darwin FRS, and I believe one can observe a family physical resemblance between the two men, who had thin lips and heavy brow ridges. Such masculine facial features are thought to be the result of the action of testosterone on physical development. The leading scientific theory about the cause of autism proposes that the neurological condition is caused by unusually high levels of testosterone influencing prenatal development. Like his eminent half-cousin, Charles Darwin has been discussed in relation to the autistic spectrum. Discussion of Darwin as a possible autist can be found in a number of books and articles, including the books Genius genes: how Asperger talents changed the world by Fitzgerald and O’Brien and Asperger Syndrome - A Gift or a Curse? by Lyons and Fitzgerald. I've got to wonder - if the price of genius is looking like Charles Darwin, are all those smarts really worth it?

These days we understand that being “haunted and driven by a dominant idea” is not insanity, it is autistic obsession, or to use a less loaded term “a special interest”. Autistic obsession is a powerful force; it can be the fuel behind great achievements of intellect and persistence. Autistic people are not insane, but it might appear that way at times, with certain individuals. The difference between madness and eccentricity is an important distinction to make.

More information about Sir Francis Galton FRS:

Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2010) Francis Galton. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I prefer the word "passion" to "obsession" (way too clinical) or "special interest" (way too much damning with faint praise). Everyone should have at least one passion in life, and hopefully, many of them. The fact that our passions are rendered pathological is really a measure of how frightening passions are in the western world.

The older I get, the more I realize that there ain't nothing wrong with me and much that is right with me.

Lili Marlene said...

I like the word obsession because it is blunt and to the point, but it is true that it has negative connotations from it's use by the Freudian fools, and it's use in reference to OCD. Baron-Cohen should be congratulated for explaining the differrence between an autistic obsession and an OCD obsession/compulsion - the autistic type brings happiness, but the pathological type is all compulsion and no pleasure.

The word passion is a good one, but sadly it has been turned into a cliche here in Australia by it's over-use by writers of bad management type books and general over-use. You are not allowed to do anything these days without a passion - cooking, gardening, putting out the rubbish, clipping one's toenails etc. I think this cultural obsession with doing quite mundane work with passion is possibly normal people feeling a little envious of the enthusiasms of bipolar people in a manic phase and wide-eyed autists in the grip of a full-flight special interest. That's my theory, anyway.