Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Autism and Evolution: I Stand Corrected

In my previous writings, I've dismissed the idea that autism might be an evolutionary response to rapid technological change. That idea initially struck me as being somewhat divisive and elitist, as well as scientifically implausible because evolution ordinarily takes thousands of years.

A recent article discussing autism research, however, suggests that such rapid evolutionary adaptation may indeed be possible because some genes connected with autism are located in a part of the genome where mutations can occur much more quickly than average. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Consider a mutation on chromosome 16 recently tied to autism. The glitch is in a DNA region containing so-called "morpheus" genes, which changed very rapidly as evolution produced ever brainier apes. The genes may well help shape cognitive capacities specific to apes and humans, including ones affected by autism.

Since fast mutation goes hand in hand with fast evolution, it's likely that the new autism-linked gene lies in a DNA "hotspot" prone to spontaneous mutation. In short, the same phenomenon that helped to rapidly evolve our braininess may contribute to autism.

Unfortunately, the article then goes on to quote a spokesjackass for Autism Brays on how to cure and prevent evolution. Some people seriously need to get their cognitive dissonance sorted.

But anyway, even if it turns out that we really are fast-evolving mutants, which I have to admit is a pretty cool sci-fi-ish idea, it doesn't mean that we are cognitively superior to everyone else or that the entire human species will eventually become autistic. It may mean, at most, that we are better adapted to certain niches in the modern environment; and, like the X-Men, we don't need a cure.



  • Thanks for the link. Fascinating article--and topic. I've thought about a possible evolutionary link, but have serious reservations about "the next step in human evolution" enthusiasts. If the genetic foundation is proved, it will raise an incredible stink. Some will leap on the chance to eliminate it completely, and others will hail it as the next step. Personally, I think the spectrum has always been around--there's plenty of evidence for spectrum-type thinking and personalities, long before vaccines or modern technology. It's certainly conceivable that some aspect or aspects of modern life are speeding up the mutations, but we still don't know if the so-called epidemic is nothing more than an increase in diagnostic testing, much of it fueled by hysteria.

    There's definitely a niche to be filled, considering the general f---kedupness of the human race. Are we it? TBD.

    By Blogger Catana, at 12:52 PM  

  • The political appropriateness of the idea needs to be separated from the scientific plausibility of the idea. But frankly, the science is not there, either in genetic research or in epidemiology.

    Obviously, humans are not a static species. We'll change over time as the environment changes. And the environment is changing. I'm not sure if we'll change to be "more autistic" or how fast, but we'll change.

    The article discusses de-novo mutations. To have an impact on natural selection, some of de-novo mutations need to take. The reason they are de-novo is because traditionally they would've quickly disappeared (that is, few people with the mutations were able to procreate). Presumably, in the current environment, some of those de-novo mutations might take. But that's speculative.

    There's one way de-novo mutations can result in a real increase in the prevalence of a syndrome fairly quickly, though: Advancing parental age.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 1:39 PM  

  • I think this is all part of the wishful thinking fallacy.

    I do not think it is plausible or even possible for a single gene to be responsible for the diversity of autism which we see.

    Turn the argument around and you will see that it is as likely that technological evolution has caused the dissonance between various forms of neurodiversity and the modern social and technical world.

    How do we know the luddites weren't autistic, they may have been, for innate conservatism and resistance to change is up there alongside geek chic as supposed traits of autism

    For my part I think autism has existed for as long as art has existed.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 1:40 PM  

  • ASDs can’t be a “next step” in evolution because Evolution doesn't work in "steps". However I do think the capacity to invoke the ASD phenotype is an evolved human feature; an evolved feature that each human possesses by virtue of being human. I discuss the details of that in my blog of about a year ago.


    The only reason that humans have large brains that are good for making and using tools is because the genes that cause the development of those large brains that are good at making and using tools were selected for in human pre-history.

    I see the position where an individual is on in the autism spectrum as the natural tradeoff of the epigenetic programming of the brain in utero, as an infant, as a child, as an adolescent and as adult. I see the trade-off as being between a “theory of mind” (actually theory of NT mind), and a “theory of reality”. Brain size at birth is limited by maternal pelvis size. A large brain is such a survival and reproductive feature that some amount of death from cephalopelvic disproportion is “worth it” to get infants with the gigantic brains that humans have at birth. The increase in brain size has occurred faster than the increase in pelvis size, so there is the trade-off of “theory of mind” (to be able to manipulate humans to get what you need (food and mates) when times are easy) vs. a “theory of reality” (to be able to manipulate physical reality with tools to get what you need (food and mates) when times are hard).

    The plasticity that children exhibit is that normal epigenetic programming working as it evolved to work. Movement on the spectrum simply reflects normal responses to the environment.

    In other words, people being born on the autism spectrum is not a response to technological change; rather technological change is a response to there being people on the spectrum who have made it happen.

    By Blogger daedalus2u, at 3:00 PM  

  • What about all of us techie types having kids with other techie types? In addition to advanced paternal age, I think selective mating is becoming more common. We wait a while to have kids to find the right person to mate with, who more often than not is a lot like ourselves

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:34 AM  

  • The assortive mating bunk assumes too much, one that techie types are all AS (Bunk) and that techie types never used to marry each other (Bunk)

    And thirdly that non Techie types are not outbreeding Techie types with exactly the same sort of assortive mating.

    The assortive mating argument is bunk from the very beginning because it is based on an altogether false premise that there is an increase in autism. It is a creation myth as much as the vaccination causation is, as much as the changeling hypothesis was.

    What has evolved is the role of folk psychology in the formation of fairy tales. It's no longer Red Riding Hood, the wolf has been replaced by technology and the basket of goodies by medicine.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 4:34 AM  

  • I've always thought X-men was a good metaphor for autism. And I've gotta say, I don't really believe in an "explosion" of autism anymore than I believe in an "explosion" of ADD, dyslexia, etc. IMHO, it's part of the human condition for better and for worse.

    But - I do think the "techie" / artsie conversation is interesting. My son, PDD-NOS, is not the least bit techie. He is, however, extremely imaginative and musical. I just learned yesterday that he has a form of synaesthesia: he "sees" musical notes as colors of the rainbow (literally the 8 notes of the scale are the 8 colors of the rainbow).

    There's clearly a link between music, color, math, and technology... and it's all connected to the way brains are wired...

    Such interesting stuff!

    Lisa (autism.about.com)

    By Blogger Lisa Jo Rudy, at 8:41 AM  

  • Well chucking those old favourites Newton, Einstein, and Hawking into the equation, I would say that what they have in common is a kind of gestalt mathematics, that leaves it up to plodders like Penrose and Leibniz to figure out the details.

    Music is a branch of mathematics, as Pythagoras would be keen to tell you, one can hear mathematics and one can see music which to me occupies a spatial realm.

    The way I construct my videos in non linear editing is very much akin to the way a musical score is written.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 1:59 PM  

  • Pure chord construction is nothing but logic and algebra. And musical form is an awful lot like geometry in many different ways.

    The difference is just in its delivery and explanation.

    Much like autism.

    By OpenID lastcrazyhorn, at 11:04 PM  

  • ...The assortive mating argument is bunk from the very beginning because it is based on an altogether false premise that there is an increase in autism. ...

    While I agree that there is ample evidence that there is no "epidemic" of autism (meaning it's not increasing exponentially), I think we need to be honest.

    Autism has probably always been with us, and diagnostic substitution and broadening the definition of what constitutes being autistic may account for all of the perceived increase in autism. Or it may not. We don't know.

    There are no good solid numbers to say definitively that there is no absolute increase (or decrease, for that matter) in the number of autistics.


    By Blogger Club 166, at 8:13 PM  

  • I imagine autism has been around long before we had a handy word to describe it. Perhaps there's a simple reason these genes have lasted to the present: in a toxic environment, they're a genetic advantage.

    During a child's development, Something could occur to turn on existing autism genes. Any number of factors - stress, for example - could do this. A child with some autistic wiring would be highly sensitive to danger, not prone to settle in with the existing tribe, and eager to pursue new challenges. These are ideal traits for creating a new settlement elsewhere.

    That's not to say autism is a disorder because it's triggered by undesirable events. It could simply be a failsafe for when an environment becomes sufficiently toxic.

    It doesn't surprise me that as we are making our shared environment more toxic, autistics would be sounding the alarm that something is wrong. Things are too bright, too crowded, too overwhelming, poisonous, and violent.

    Wiping out these genes isn't just an ethical problem - it endangers the survival of humanity! Has anyone considered sitting down with an autistic and considering that his/her view of the world might be accurate?!

    Just an idea.

    By Anonymous tharn, at 2:33 PM  

  • My understanding of the nature of evolution is that it does not build in "failsafes" for potential future events - only adaptions that were useful over a long period of time. To be honest, I'm not enamored with the idea of autism as evolution. I think it feeds into the idea of epidemic, that autism is relatively "new" and that there are no autistic adults or that at least there are fewer than there are autistic children. If the last is the case, it is only because the lifespan of many of us cannot be very high, given the constant abuse in institutions and against those who are different in our society.

    I do believe there may be something to the associative mating theory, I'll confess, but I've always felt that the "X-Men" analogy was, to some extent, too easy to utilize to justify neurodiversity only the basis of the "superpowers" some of us supposedly have. Respect, legitimacy and basic human dignity shouldn't be based upon the presumption of extraordinary ability; it should be a right afforded to every human being. My conception of neurodiversity does not depend upon the Einsteins and Newtons, but can stand without the "Shiny Aspie" stereotype.

    By Blogger Ari, at 3:39 AM  

  • I wouldn't suggest autism originally evolved as a failsafe. But perhaps a line of autistics did develop, and it became advantageous for the gene to switch itself off when not needed. It'd certainly explain current trends: there isn't more autism, simply more chance of it being turned back on.

    I wish there were more convenient explanations that didn't leave autistics open to either (1) eugenics, or (2) a life of being considered a freak. But we can't use convenience as a litmus for truth.

    I think you're absolutely right, ari, about the superpowers. I also find myself pressured to justify my very existance in that way. I feel rather ashamed when I play into it. I can only imagine what it does to those autistics who lack showy abilities to "make up for" their autistic quirks.

    By Anonymous tharn, at 1:59 PM  

  • I'm kind of jumping into the middle of this - but I have had a theory (since autism touched my world via my son) that technology has basically thrown a wrench into normal evolutionary paths. Evolution is defined, in very basic terms, as survival of the fittest - but technology has superceded our need to evolve physically. Where we do need to leap forward is mentally. The fact that autism presents in so many forms speaks to evidence of a tentative step in a new direction.

    Bluntly, human weakness centers around our inherent lack of logic. I believe that ultimately, a logical society would allow us to eliminate war and hunger. It's a future society "utopia" that would relegate hate AND love to the past.

    Utopia is not truly an ideal society - it is a perfect society. It is equally beneficial to all.

    People equate humanity with compassion, but it is also responsible for torture and war.
    Ok, so it's a little sci-fi...

    By Blogger beetlejes, at 4:05 PM  

  • AUTISM IS EVOLUTION. Its mankinds response to an increase in electro magnetic energy and frequency (has anyone noticed how rapidly our technology is being developed recently?) Things are speeding up. At the core of our earth there is a moulton iron crystal that resonates at approximately 7 hertz or cycles per sec. (Schumann Resonance - earth pulse). I believe we are approaching a catalyst in our evolution. In 1986 this increased to 9 cycles per second, in one decade it increased by 2 cycles per second. Which ties in with the explosion of autistic numbers. Accordinging to Fibonnaci Sequence by 2012 this will increase to 13 cycles per second. The increse in this electro magnetic freuquency and sensitivity are having a direct impact on our DNA there are 64 possible codes of aminio acids in our DNA structure logic woudl dictate that we should have all 64 codes activated, but we only have 20 active codes as such! Sound (Electromagnetic frequency) directly affect our DNA the increase around us in mobile phones wifi etc. etc. cannot fail to have an effect on the human body. For proof of how sound frequency affects water look up Dr Emoto and his experiments with water crystals. Thoughts and emotions themselves have a frequency. All emotions stem from two "fear" and "love" every other emotion we experience branches directly or indirectly from these two base. I have two autistic children I was told by "experts" autistics were devoid of emotion and cold - but what I have witnessed is the opposite - they are MORE EMOTIONAL AND MORE INTENSE than anyone else I have ever met. Who decided autistic people were emotionally cold, anyway? They are sensitive to sound, smell, even my emotional state has a direct impact on them without me saying a word. They feel so much more (this cannot be accounted for by their 5 senses alone) my son used to destroy mobile phones and microwaves. Things like the large Hadron Collider affected me too. Our world is changing rapidly Autism and the Autistic Gene is the response to this change. The increase is real and its necessary. Beware of drugs that are used to treat some of the behaviours of autism. Flouride in water is another neuro supressant. Flouride is the main ingredient in prozac its used to keep people passive and their emotions switched off. Ask yourslef why are autistics far more sensitive to sounds, smells, touch, these are all frequency stimulation its because you have more amino acids switched on. There are certain laws we all must follow - the law of gravity another is the Law of Attraction which harnesses the power of our emotions and karama.- Catana you are the answer to the human condition of "f__kedupness" lol - take care :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:57 AM  

  • There are too many emotional responses to this topic that really take the argument off course. Evolution is really about changes in the genetic code that somehow are beneficial to the organism and allow it to pass on its genes to another generation. The benefits of the genes that express autism lie in their increased focus on singular characteristics, high sensitivity in various sensory categories, a decreased reaction to the emotional states of others and an enjoyment of repetitive activities. How, why and where would these characteristics be adaptive? In a technological world, of course. A technological world such as we have experienced during the past 100 years. The gene complex that expresses itself as autism has been available in the genome forever but has never had the environmental support until now. People who had "autism" in the past would never have "made it," that is, married and had children to pass their genes on. Now, there are "Nerd Clubs" and a high social appreciation for people with autistic characteristics because they are now "valuable" in our techie society. Every company now has their computer experts who, though quirky, are absolutely necessary for the operations of our complex communication and IT environments. Let's keep this conversation going but keep the emotional component at bay. Jim McFalls

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 PM  

  • I would like to say this is a very interesting topic, I have been told I have asperger's syndrome, all though it may be different from other types of autism I still have many of the "off" traits consistent with other forms of autism. What roll autism has with the evolution of humanity I know no facts but can only guess (like the rest of you) as to how or why it would happen. My only interests in life is space (geometry, astro-physics, and music). I don't have enough knoledge of social dynamics or linked sciences to contribute good facts to this topic, but again these are just my opinions. I have learned that evolution takes a long time for signifigent change to take place, but what is the catalyst organic change other than enviroment? I have always thought that before large scale change can occur, many mutations would have to take place first. I think of mutations as trials for evolution, the body trying to find the best way to advance so then the race as a whole through procreation can eventually receive all the "good" genes. I guess I could kind of use the x-men analogy used above. What starts off as a few mutations over a certain period of time could eventually find an equilibrium and become the norm for the species. I am not saying all humans will be like me and have all my bad traits/quirks, but that the human race will eventually have many autistic peoples good traits/ quirks. The world would end if all humans had my bad traits, ver sad and embarasing to say I live my whole life in my room just about.
    If I am not reading books of playing video games I listen to music and create ficticous worlds for many hours every single day. But I belive if my good traits and other autistic peoples could work their way into the general population it could help the human race a lot. Sorry I babble a lot.
    I guess what I'am saying is that autistic people may be here to pass on genes to the other non-autistic people to further the human race, I do not know if all people will become like us, I don't know if that would be good, bad, or strange lol.

    Sorry for my spelling and grammar, like math I suck at it. It's a wonder I read so much yet my spelling never seems to get better rofl.

    By Blogger Robert, at 6:36 AM  

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