Popova Air Man Space

Earlier this week I posted an essay by Greg Hollin on changing scientific conceptions of human nature and of the ‘social’, and of the way that autism has become ‘window to the soul’. As a coda here is a review I wrote in 2006 of Michael Blastland’s book Joe, about his autistic son. I am struck by how, having read Greg’s work, I might well ask different questions now of the book, and perhaps even look upon it differently. The review was first published in the London Evening Standard.

Joe is obsessive. He has little understanding of the consequences of his own actions. He has little time for social norms. Aren’t all children like this? Not like Joe they’re not. Take, for instance, his obsession with videos. So fixated is he, that they are banned from his home. So, one day, seeing a TV through the open front door of the house opposite, Joe, dressed only in his underpants, runs out of his house and makes a beeline across the busy road outside. Even being hit by an oncoming car and somersaulting over its bonnet does not divert him from his mission. He just picks himself up, dusts himself down, carries on across the road and into the house opposite, to sit gaping at the TV.

Joe is autistic. And Michael Blastland is Joe’s father. In Joe, he uses his relationship with his son to try to answer a question that has obviously been tugging at him ever since Joe’s condition became apparent: What does Joe’s strangeness tell us about what it is to be human? And to answer that question Blastland draws upon the latest research in developmental psychology, neurology and evolutionary biology.

There is also a deeper and darker question that Blastland wants to pose: given the strangeness of Joe’s behaviour, just how human is he? It might seem heartless for a father even to ask that question of his child, but it is Blastland’s courage in pursuing it that makes for such an engaging book.

Blastland uses a series of vignettes of Joe’s behaviour to highlight both his condition and the human condition. Once, taking Joe to a DIY shop, Blastland discovers in horror that Joe had peed into a display toilet. There was, however, no way of explaining to Joe why this behaviour was unacceptable. Paradoxically this is not because Joe cannot understand reality but because he cannot understand fantasy.   For Joe, it ‘looks like a toilet, feels like a toilet, therefore is a toilet’. Most of us distort reality in our minds to understand it better. Most of us can imagine how things might be if we pursued a different course of action, or how others might feel if we behaved in a particular way. This, Blastland points out, is key to being able to follow social rules. We don’t walk naked in the street or pee in a display toilet because we can imagine what others might think. Joe can’t. He can’t even imagine that others think. ‘How peculiar’, Blastland observes, ‘that in forsaking fantasy for reality, he becomes stranger’.

In another incident, Joe peers into a pram in which a child is crying. Suddenly he thumps the baby as hard as he can. Luckily, his aim is not very good and little damage is done. But how can Blastland explain to Joe why it was wrong to hit a child? He can’t, because Joe has no awareness of the consequences of his actions. This leads Blastland to a discussion of the importance self-consciousness to human morality. Only when we have learnt ‘to regard our thoughts and emotions from a distance’, he writes, can ‘we learn to observe ourselves instead of only to inhabit the thought of the moment’.

There is a wide spectrum of behaviours and abilities encompassed by the category ‘autistic’. Joe is at the very edge of the spectrum. If we accept that humanity is defined not simply by our physical form but also by what goes on inside our heads, then, Blastland writes, ‘I’m forced to the grim conclusion: Joe does not qualify’.

blastland joe

But Blastland, of course, will not accept that conclusion. And not just because he is Joe’s father. His head as well as his heart tells him that however strange Joe may appear, he is still human.

For some contemporary thinkers, especially utilitarians such as Peter Singer, ‘humanity’ is not a particularly useful label. What matters in thinking about moral boundaries is not so much whether you are a human or a chimpanzee or a pig, but the cognitive abilities that you possess. The rights of a being, and our moral duties towards that being, is defined primarily by its cognitive abilities. A chimpanzee has the intellectual ability of three year-old-child, and so the moral status of a three-year-old child.  From such a perspective Joe’s moral status might appear to be precarious.

Blastland rejects such a perspective. The concept of humanity is important for him. He recognizes, however, that humanity is not invested in a single person. It is a collective label, describing the existence of humans as social beings. We exist only in relation to others, and it is in relation to others that we make sense of every individual’s humanity. Joe might think that he is ‘the only boy in the world’. But we know he isn’t. Joe is human because the notion of humanity would become meaningless if did not extend it to Joe, too. It is not that Joe’s condition provides a window into what it is to be human. It is rather that what it is to be human becomes hollowed out if our humanity – in every sense of the word – does not stretch to Joe.


The painting is ‘Air+Man+Space’ by Lyubov Popova.


  1. Without having read that particular book on autism I can only comment on the examples given. Surely every one of them show normal human reactions – just retarded in the strict sense of an interruption in the development path. That all of us had the same reactions, but continued to develop past them. A pre-mobile infant may recognise a toilet and what it is for, but lack the social development and sense of context to guide appropriateness. If you put a toilet in a nursery I would be surprised if it wasn’t used. Again, an infant in the same stage may have obsessive attachment to an object at the expense of everything else including danger in the environment, because it doesn’t understand danger. Thumping a crying baby is the most human reaction of all, as it is an obnoxious experience for everyone. But again, young infants will also do this not having the empathy to understand another persons separate existence and right to consideration, and again infants inability to perceive danger. And I expect if you put a baby into a normal toddler group and it started crying I am pretty sure somebody would thump it. Perhaps another way of looking at it is all normal children are autistic in their behaviour, but they grow out of it?

  2. I’ve read your Strange Fruit and Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man and both highlight the way evolutionary concepts have historically been abused to dehumanise non-Europeans and to portray them as some intermediate stage between apes and ‘modern’ European man; I’ve also read a lot of books and even academic papers on autistics that make unfavourable comparisons between our social skills and those of chimps. There’s a worrying parallel there. There’s also a similar tendency to talk about autism in terms of atavism and neotyny or of something quintessentially ‘human’ which is missing.

    I’m uneasy at the idea we should even begin to question the humanity of autistics – particularly given the high incidence of autistic children who killed by their own parents or who are otherwise abused by ‘normal’ people. We are living through a period where, within minutes of every spree killing, pundits will start speculating on whether the killer had Asperger’s or not; something which takes an interdisciplinary team months to assess (my assessment took 18 weeks) but which bloggers think they can determine simply by looking at their eyes on YouTube.

    The much celebrated human quality of ’empathy’ seems to be conditional on it being visibly reciprocated; a failure to manifest ‘appropriate’ affect in response to other’s emotional advances seems to trigger an ‘uncanny valley’ effect in neurotypicals; and that may be why people on the autistic spectrum are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than perpetrators.

    • I understand your concerns. But Blastland is not suggesting that autistics could be seen as non-humans. In fact, the very opposite. There are certain kinds of moral theories – many forms of utilitarianism, for instance – for which there is no intrinsic worth to being human. That, in part, is what he was challenging.

  3. Hi Kenan,

    I just want to say this is a serious misreading of Singer’s (or other utilitarian) positions: “A chimpanzee has the intellectual ability of three year-old-child, and so the moral status of a three-year-old child”.
    It is most certainly *not* the case that “moral status” is somehow proportional to “intellectual ability”.

    your reader,

    • Strictly, it is true, the link for Singer is between sentience and interests. But he also argues that, for instance, ‘the life of a newborn [human] is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee’ [In Defence of Animals]. Why? Because, as he argues in Practical Ethics, they are ‘not… self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time’. And ‘Insofar as some human beings are incapable of reasoning, remembering, and self-awareness, they cannot be considered persons. Put simply, dogs, cats, and dolphins are persons, while fetuses, newborns, and some victims of Alzheimer’s disease are not.’ There is, In other words, a link between cognitive capacity and moral status.

      • I hear you. I think that, by using “intellectual ability” one runs the risk of confusing the main point. As we agree, it’s not about problem solving and IQ etc.. it’s about sentience and suffering. So I’d just be more precise with that.

        Regardless, good to read you.

        • Filipe, it is true that the issue is ‘not about problem solving and IQ etc’ (and ‘intellectual ability’ is poorly phrased). But nor is it merely about ‘sentience and suffering’. My point is that cognitive capacities do play a major role in Singer’s framework, which is why ‘the life of a newborn [human] is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee’. This is important because it is precisely this kind of claim that Blastland is exploring and challenging.

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