Differently Abled

Peter Rogerson
'Northern Echoes'. Magonia 59, April 1997

A few months ago I challenged Jerry Clerk in the pages of Fortean Times to disprove the ETH, At the time I thought it was one of those things that you just couldn't do. It's not really the sort of thing you can prove either way, is it? However I now think that there is a chance we can do something very close to that.

Let me be clear that I don't mean to argue that there is no life of any kind out there, nor that there may are beings whose consciousness is sufficiently like our own as to be engaged on the same sorts of projects as we late twentieth century human beings: projects such as building spaceships and radio telescopes. One way we could test this is to see how robust our own consciousness is, and find out what happens to it if there are relatively trivial genetic changes. Will our human consciousness stay the same, or will it be transformed into something profoundly different.

These thoughts were summoned up by a remarkable TV documentary in which Oliver Sachs, the well-known neurologist, interviewed a number of young people who had a rare genetic mutation known as Williams Syndrome. What this mutation had done, apart from introducing a number of physical changes, some requiring specialist treatment, was to produce a shift in the nature and consciousness of the world itself. Williams Syndrome people are oriented towards a world of language, sound and interpersonal relationships. Their vocabulary is far in advance of their chronological age, their sense of hearing sometimes painfully hyper-acute, and Sachs felt they had an extreme sensitivity to the feelings of other people. But coupled with these gifts are equally profound disabilities: a very poor visual spatial sense, and great difficulties with mathematics and abstractions.

It became clear from the programme that Williams Syndrome people, when using English (or any other language) were subtly altering the meaning of words. They used the concepts of height and weight interchangeably and in what seemed like a surreal and exaggerated fashion. A boy described his beloved bees as being as wide as his outstretched arms. Sachs suggested this was the use of language to convey a great narrative full of wonder, but it equally struck me that it might mean that Williams Syndrome people used weight and size related words not to convey notions of abstract physical quantity, a notion which Sachs suggested meant little to them, but to convey something which might be rendered as "presence in the world" not in the world of physical space but in an interior, psychological space. Weight and height would thus indicate power over the imagination and capacity to fill up that interior world.

Clearly, we are not dealing with a group of people whose abilities can be matched with those of the majority on some linear scale of 'gifted' or 'retarded'. Rather they are profoundly different, and their undoubted problems are largely caused by being obliged to live in a society to which they are not adapted. This sense of 'otherness' seems to have existed for a long period. Williams Syndrome was sometimes known as 'Pixie Syndrome', because the characteristic pinched look and upturned noses which it produced resembled drawings of pixies and fairies. Of course, what they really meant was that artists had used Williams Syndrome faces as icons of otherness and that the mature vocabulary of Williams children had evoked notions of changelings. This sense of otherness still persisted into our own times, as witness the suggestions some years ago in the magazine Magic Saucer (a UFO magazine aimed specifically at children) that Williams children were the product of an alien breeding experiment.

Of course, such children are perfectly human, and they are a sign of one of the possible alternative roads human consciousness might have taken. This would have been a road which would never have led to spaceships, though it may have led to a language system so rich that our present languages would be little more than a set of articulate grunts in comparison.

And here we get to my point. If I such a small genetic change within one species can produce a shift in consciousness in which, say, mathematics (the 'universal language' of CETI) does not develop, can we believe that creatures with a totally separate biological and evolutionary history far more remote genetically from us than slime mould are going to possess our form of consciousness and have our aims and priorities? Surely this is speciesist nonsense of the first order.

There's one other point. We should not rule out the possibility that equally profound genetic shifts in consciousness might exist without other obvious symptoms. Such a thought may illuminate many of the intractable arguments encountered in our pages and elsewhere. Perhaps 'believers' and 'sceptics' see the world so differently because their brains are wired up in slightly different ways, and they literally perceive and interact with the world in a different fashion. If you doubt that possibility, imagine staging a dialogue between Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins: Englishmen of roughly the same age, class, background and education who see the world in as profoundly different ways as possible. And you still think you could talk to Zetc Reticulans?