if neurodivergence is essentially disablement, why do we keep replicating the gene pool?
Human cognitive diversity exists for a reason; our differences are the genius – and the conscience – of our species.
Source: A Thousand Rivers — Carol Black
“Great minds don’t always think alike.” We already understand the value of biodiversity in a rainforest. The presence of a wide variety of life forms — each with its own distinctive strengths and attributes — increases the robustness and resilience of any living community as a whole, and its ability to adapt to novel conditions. The same is true of any community of human minds, including workplaces, corporations, classrooms, and society as a whole. To face the challenges of the future, we’ll need the problem-solving abilities of different types of minds working together.
Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.
neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.
Rather, the neurodiversity perspective posits that autistics are part of humanity because our differences have been critical to the advance of our species.
Neurodiversity is an argument that autistics evolved naturally, for the benefit of the species, just like other forms of diversity.
Those findings buttress the neurodiversity argument that autism is a stable part of our genome.
In natural selection, the environment represents a static entity to which a species must either adapt or fail to adapt. In niche construction, however, the species acts directly upon the environment to change it, thereby creating more favorable conditions for its survival and the passing on of its genes. Scientists now say that niche construction may be every bit as important for survival as natural selection (Lewontin, 2010; Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003).
So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success.
The idea of neurodiversity suggests a much more complex system, a more deeply heterogeneous social system, than most people realize. This neurodiversity is what makes human society so dynamic and creative. The lack of it in other social species it what keeps them relatively stagnant in comparison.
My diagnosis, then, has had a significant impact on the way I think of myself and on the way I think about social issues. When you begin to realize that so many important people in the past and present were on the autism spectrum, and that autism is over-represented among creative people, you start thinking about creativity and social evolution quite differently. You also think about the importance of autism in society differently.
As part of the broader picture of neurodiversity, any cognitive difference that interferes with or weakens social learning (subconscious imitation) enhances creativity. Since autism is characterised by differences in social motivation and by weakened subconscious social learning, autistic people tend to be at the core of many deep innovations.
A subtle change occurred in our evolutionary history 100,000 years ago which allowed people who thought and behaved differently – such as individuals with autism – to be integrated into society, academics from the University of York have concluded.
The change happened with the emergence of collaborative morality – an investment in the well-being of everyone in the group – and meant people who displayed autistic traits would not only have been accepted but possibly respected for their unique skills.
It is likely our ancestors would have had autism, with genetics suggesting the condition has a long evolutionary history.
But rather than being left behind, or at best tolerated, the research team conclude that many would have played an important role in their social group because of their unique skills and talents.
“We are arguing that diversity, variation between people, was probably more significant in human evolutionary success than the characteristics of one person, “said Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the archaeology of human origins, at the University of York.
“It was diversity between people which led to human success and it is particularly important as it gives you different specialised roles.
“We are arguing that it is the rise of collaborative morality that led to the possibility for widening the diversity of the human personality.”
“There has been a long-standing debate about identifying traits of autism in Upper Palaeolithic cave art.
“We can’t say some of it was drawn by someone with autism, but there are traits that are identifiable to someone who has autism. It was also roughly at that time that we see collaborative morality emerging.”
The ability to focus on detail, a common trait among people with autism, allowed realism to flourish in Ice Age art, according to researchers at the University of York.
Many have argued that psychotropic drugs were behind the detailed illustrations. The popular idea that drugs might make people better at art led to a number of ethically-dubious studies in the 60s where participants were given art materials and LSD.
The authors of the new study discount that theory, arguing instead that individuals with “detail focus”, a trait linked to autism, kicked off an artistic movement that led to the proliferation of realistic cave drawings across Europe.
Lead author of the paper, Professor Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaelogy at the University of York, said: “Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist. This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.
“We looked at the evidence from studies attempting to identify a link between artistic talent and drug use, and found that drugs can only serve to disinhibit individuals with a pre-existing ability. The idea that people with a high degree of detail focus, many of which may have had autism, set a trend for extreme realism in ice age art is a more convincing explanation.”
The research adds to a growing body of evidence that people with autistic traits played an important role in human evolution.
There was an articlethat came out last year that argued that the presence of autism could be important for the health of groups and thus would arise through group selection. This argument is not dissimilar to observations I have made hereand here. The bottom line is that neurodiversity is vital for the health of any society. There have to be a large majority (around 80%) who act to stabilize the system, and there have to be a small group (around 20%) who destabilize the system through creativity and innovation.
The article makes this point as well. Those groups that tolerated autistics seem to be those better able to survive. Of course, creative innovators, those who challenged the status quo in technology or culture, have always been at best “tolerated.” But the more tolerant a culture has been to such people, the more innovative and wealthier that culture has been.
Theoretically this theory proposes that throughout history we evolved working together in villages and communities. The core majority were a group of similar-minded individuals that could get along easily and keep the peace. They evolved to process and prioritize information for sociability. They were adept at imitation, following the crowd and working with others. Because we know from the work of Dr. Fisher and Dr. Michael Lesser that these personalities were dispersed in such a way as the periphery were the more rare personality types. More interested in things and tinkering, exploring, telling stories and taking up causes. These different groups, or personalities, processed information uniquely and had different priorities and motivations. They were innovators, explorers, protectors, leaders, scientists, geeks, artists and creatives (Lesser and Kapklein, 2003). These neurodiverse outliers processed and experienced the world very differently than the more sociable core. However, because of both the core and the diverse Peripheral Minds we thrived with each unique personality bringing value to cooperative goals (Bergmüller et al., 2010; Smaldino et al., 2013).
This diversity is stable across the world, as shown in personality and evolutionary studies (van Oers and Miller, 2010; Crespi, 2017; Quinn et al. 2016). Personality studies additionally inform us that these diverse groups are uniquely vulnerable to stress (Matthews, 2016). Personalities, or character traits, are shown to have unique genetic, neurobiological and neuroendocrine underpinnings. As described in studies linking serotonin, dopamine, testosterone and estrogen to both personality (Fisher 2015) and stress resiliency (Van Bodegom et al., 2017; Arnold et al., 2014; Boersman and Tamashiro, 2015; Boyce, 2016).
When considering the “what ifs” of autism and the BAP, “what if” these phenotypes are more sensitive because they are more evolutionarily adaptive and plastic?
Studies on the genetics of autism have suggested just this. That the genes involved in autism include signatures for both positive and negative selection (Shpigler et al., 2017). They are part of the essential genes we need to survive and thrive (Xiao et. al., 2016).
Autism as a platform has the potential to teach us quite a lot about stress and evolution. What happens, both positive and negative, to our minds and interrelated systems when we stress our diversity of talents and thinking types. And the answer could be a gateway to new understandings of human behavior, potential and limitations. In a recent 2016 paper in Scientific America by science writer and computational biologist Jim Kozubek, new research from CRISPR (gene editing technology) has currently led us to the conclusion that “there are no superior genes, only genes that provide advantages with a tradeoff for other disadvantages” (Kozubek in Scientific American, 2016)
One way to understand neurodiversity is to remember that just because a PC is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs. We owe many of the wonders of modern life to innovators who were brilliant in non-neurotypical ways. Herman Hollerith, who helped launch the age of computing by inventing a machine to tabulate and sort punch cards, once leaped out of a school window to escape his spelling lessons because he was dyslexic. So were Carver Mead, the father of very large scale integrated circuits, and William Dreyer, who designed one of the first protein sequencers.
A new idea was brewing at events like Autreat and in the myriad of autistic spaces taking root online. It turned out to be an idea as old as Hans Asperger’s notion that people with the traits of his syndrome have always been part of the human community, standing apart, quietly making the world that mocks and shuns them a better place.
Autistic people have always been part of the human community, though they have often been relegated to the margins of society. For most of the 20th century, they were hidden behind a welter of competing labels— “schizoid personality disorder,” “childhood schizophrenia,” “children with circumscribed interests,” the initial diagnosis of “minimal brain damage,” and many other labels, such as “multiplex personality disorder,” which have fallen out of use.
In recent years, researchers have determined that most cases of autism are not rooted in rare de novo mutations but in very old genes that are shared widely in the general population while being concentrated more in certain families than others. Whatever autism is, it is not a unique product of modern civilization. It is a strange gift from our deep past, passed down through millions of years of evolution.
“Neurodiversity” advocates propose that instead of viewing this gift as an error of nature—a puzzle to be solved and eliminated with techniques like prenatal testing and selective abortion—society should regard it as a valuable part of humanity’s genetic legacy while ameliorating the aspects of autism that can be profoundly disabling without adequate forms of support.
The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution…
Cultural evolution allows the behaviour of human societies to evolve much faster than the behaviour of other complex life forms, to the point that our collective knowledge and medical technologies allow us to engage in an evolutionary arms race with various strains of microbes that used to represent a serious threat to human health.
Whilst in some domains humans have been able to harness our capacity for culture for the benefit of all humans, in other domains our capacity for culture has been used to establish and operate highly oppressive and stratified societies.
Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games. Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.
I seek a reconceptualization of cognitive difference, to the end that those who bear now-stigmatizing labels of “deviance,” “disorder” and “syndrome,” may live and manifest their individuality, distinctive interests, gifts and capacities with integrity, in a manner that comes naturally to them, free of pressure to become people they are not, free of the automatic assignation of inferior status; and that they may enjoy the respect of their fellow citizens, rather than disdain and exclusion.
Retrospective consideration of the lives of exceptional human beings offers credible evidence that the autistic distinction has persisted throughout history, and has been a valuable element of human culture. Genetic research indicates that at least twenty different genes can signal a predisposition to autistic development; autism is pervasively embedded in the deep structure of humanity. Psychological research indicates that autistic characteristics constitute an identifiable pattern of traits that are present in varying degrees throughout our entire species.
Autism is as much a part of humanity as is the capacity to dream.
Professor Robert Sapolsky has hypothesized that conditions such as OCD, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have been selected for due to potentially massive contributions to religious, spiritual, and philosophical thought. Go check out his lecture, link in the description. In fact, I recommend his whole Stanford lecture series if you have any interest in Human Behavioral Biology. Basically: maybe a little bit of schizophrenia can actually be advantageous if you’re in the right society for it. And no, neither Professor Sapolsky nor I are saying you have to be “crazy” to believe in religion. Ugh, the C word. There are many well-studied advantages to religious thought and experience. Carl Jung, in fact, said that he would have diagnosed himself with schizophrenia though he channeled his experiences into his work on the collective unconscious, and received great spiritual comfort from his hallucinations. You can read about these experiences and experiments in The Red Book, though I personally haven’t read it so I don’t know if it’s any good. Due to migraine, I often have visual hallucinations which are entirely harmless and, sometimes, maybe even a little fun.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also experienced these sorts of migraines, wrote in his book Hallucinations:
“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or at least the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology or in states of mind which allow us to travel to other worlds, to transcend our immediate surroundings. We need detachment of this sort as much as we need engagement in our lives.”
― Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations
And no, autism is not the next step in human evolution. Stop that. That’s not how evolution works, autism has always been around we’re just now recognizing and diagnosing it.