Saturday, 26 February 2011

Is autism the next step in human evolution?

In my opinion, no. It isn't. It really isn't.

But rather than leave it at that, let's take a closer look at this idea.

The argument is that autistic people's high intelligence and refined skills in scientific fields marks them out as a step ahead of the common herd. Our honesty, openness, tenacity, and willingness to take people at face value is also a step above the shallow backbiting and snarkiness of the general Homo sapiens sapiens.

There are two major problems with this.

The first is that this isn't how the theory of evolution works. Evolution works on the basis of survival of the fittest: those most capable of surviving long enough to reproduce get to pass on their genes, while the less capable perish.  As Wikipedia puts it, "genetic mutations that enhance reproduction become, and remain, more common in successive generations of a population."

Evolution is an ongoing process, from generation to generation.  It's not a race, and there isn't an end goal other than getting your gametes fused.  An ape or a chimp is not a "less evolved" version of a human, they're their own species with their own evolutionary pressures at play.  Similarly an elite athlete, a renowned spiritual leader, or a genius of startling intellect are not "more evolved" than some random dudebro whose life revolves around booze and boobies.  That's just not what evolution is.

If our theoretical dudebro's lifestyle of tits and tequila means he's getting more tail than the rest of the lineup from the previous paragraph, we may in fact find more of his genes in successive generations.  Evolution doesn't care if he's a douchebag - just that he's a douchebag that successfully reproduced.

For instance, I think a handy quirk in human evolution would be someone with a metabolic setup that enabled them to eat junk food and not exercise and still be trim and attractive. They'd be fitter (in both biological and colloquial senses) than the other potential mates, so more likely to pull and ultimately more likely to reproduce. I

Autism, on the other hand, can be a definite disadvantage in passing on one's genes.  Our social skills issues can hinder our ability to impress a mate and find a romantic partner.  If sensory sensitivity make going out to meet people difficult, we may not even be able to find one to impress in the first place. I know autistic people can and do form long term relationships - with each other or with non-autistic partners - and have kids.  But the odds against it are higher than for our non-autistic counterparts.

The second problem is that the whole theory is based on assumptions about autism that are simply not true. Autistic people have the same spread of skills and intelligence as the general population. Some of us are terribly clever, some are thick as bricks.  Some have plenty of brains but either can't or choose not to apply them, others didn't do so well in the genetic lottery but have have made up through hard work and ingenuity.  Some are science geeks, some are hyperliterate word nerds, some have sorting buttons by colour as our only marketable skill.  To argue that it's our cleverness or skill in areas like science that makes autistic people "the next step in evolution" completely erases those of us who aren't particularly clever, or are clever but can't apply it, or have skills outside the stereotypical maths/science area.

It also buys into the myth that autistic people are somehow different, other, exotic and abnormal. So by extension it's OK to ostracise us, treat us differently, have different expectations of us, because we're not like other people.  It's OK to not include autistic people in the regular flow of the community, because we're probably too busy solving the energy crisis with a paperclip or correcting Stephen Hawking's homework anyway. And that's not true. I'm normal. I'm human.  I just want to be treated that way.

I get the creeps when I hear the 'next step in evolution' argument coming from autistic people. Not only is it a kick in the guts to those of us who don't have the stereotypical form of autism on which the theory hinges, it also puts me in mind of the horrible phrase Master Race. So before I Godwin my own post, let's just let this idea go.

Original image from the Smithsonian Institution collection on Flickr Commons

Note: this post was rewritten in April 2013 because it's become the most viewed post on this blog by a vast margin, but I wasn't particularly happy with the original and thought it needed improvement.  While much of the wording has changed, the message and intent is still that of the original post.