J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Was Bentham on the Autism Spectrum?

Last year I relayed the news that British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s body was coming to America for a museum exhibit.

To be exact, Bentham’s clothed skeleton will be in display in New York at the Breuer branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His head was mummified poorly and is therefore not usually shown to the public. But it was on display this winter in London.

A Telegraph story told me some other news about the head:
…scientists have taken samples of Bentham’s DNA to test theories that he may have had Asperger’s or autism, both of which have a strong genetic component. . . .

he was notably eccentric, reclusive and difficult to get hold of. He called his walking stick Dapple, his teapot Dickey, and kept an elderly cat named The Reverend Sir John Langbourne.

In 2006, researchers Philip Lucas and Anne Sheeran suggested his unique character was driven by Asperger’s syndrome, after studying biographies which described a young Bentham as ‘having few companions his own age’; and being ‘morbidly sensitive.’
Lucas and Sheeran’s study was “Asperger’s Syndrome and the Eccentricity and Genius of Jeremy Bentham” in the Journal of Bentham Studies; a P.D.F. file can be downloaded here.

There are some obstacles to a genetics test of that hypothesis. First, while autism has a heritable aspect, nobody has identified specific genes as switches or markers. Instead, at least sixty-five genes have been linked to the condition, so it would be at least complex and perhaps impossible to say Bentham had the combination of genes that gives rise to autism.

Second, so far it’s been hard to isolate Bentham D.N.A. from, well, other D.N.A. The Telegraph quotes the curator who looks after Bentham’s head that “99 per cent of the DNA taken has come from bacteria in his mouth.” But at least the geneticists haven’t announced that Bentham was in fact a bacterium.

(Click on the Telegraph link for photos of Bentham’s head today. It’s not pretty.)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Those eyes are a) not original, b) creepy.

Mike said...

I've always wondered the same about Jefferson being on the high end of the autism spectrum.

Mike said...

...and Charles Lee as well.

J. L. Bell said...

There has been some serious speculation about Jefferson. Here’s Monticello’s page on the question. I’m not convinced because Jefferson did build a successful political party, and that seems like it would require a lot of natural social skills and affinities.

The latest biography of Charles Lee suggests he had bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder. That strikes me as a good fit.

Mike said...

I looked at that article, and I have to agree with Ms. Berkes. Second- and third-hand information is hardly reliable, isn't good for much more than speculation. Furthermore, any professional in the psychology or psychiatry fields worth their salt wouldn't dare try to diagnose someone they've never met, let alone someone who's been dead for 200 years.