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16 November 2008

Autism Spectrum and Human Evolution


This blog entry is all about personal experience and speculation. Just some idle cogitating and wondering about the prevalence of what most see as an ailment. So, are the varieties of autism "disorders" a sort of next step in human brain development?

First of all, you have to understand a couple things. In particular, how evolution works; as well as the varieties of the autism spectrum. I will not try to explain the entirety of evolution, it's been done before, ad nauseum. I just want to highlight that evolution isn't always a full step forward. Sometimes there are drawbacks in the next step that needs to be refined. The evolutionary process can even have lots of dead ends and false starts. That's how we get some strange things that apparently don't make sense. However, over the course of millions of generations, you can get a vastly improved model to deal with what the current environment needs to solve further challenges. Also, this is not meant to say that there is a goal of evolution, but a selective breeding pressure of humanity.

Also, describing the full spectrum of autism is beyond the scope of this post as well. My intent is to just focus on a couple things that got me to thinking along this line of thought. Basically though, autism can allow the brain to focus very deeply on a particular problem, or develop a skill to phenomenal levels (the so called "Rain Man" phenomenon).

Okay, if you know anything about the autism spectrum, there are numerous "disorders" that really don't carry a huge impact, while imparting the incredible mental focus of some autism characteristics. However, there are those who suffer a great deal under other autism spectrum disorders. Now, you take those individuals throughout the spectrum, and you contemplate the possibility of them passing on their genes. Those with the greatest disabilities obviously are at a disadvantage, while those who do not display these disabilities are at least not hindered by their condition. Cases like "Brainman" could even, through their notoriety and special skills, have their chances improved (although in his particular case we have another obstacle, but that's neither here nor there).

Take the left end of the spectrum as the "undesirable" end, and the right end of the spectrum as the "Brainman" end, and keep favouring the right with chances to contribute to the gene pool, and where does that take you in numerous generations? Possibly people that have a vast mental array at their disposal to be able to handle the incredibly complex world we have built for ourselves. Of course, that begs the question of exactly what environmental pressure is this particular mutation trying to fill? Considering that for millions of years, we've been a species that generally only handl;es things at walking speed, at a hieght of at most trees we climb, and in an area that we can cover during a long walk in a day... Let's just say that we're quite far removed from that. Even many thousands of generations back we started expanding out of that comfortable environment we had evolved into with our technology and already prodigeous brainpower.

In today's world, there are so many fields that require an all consuming dedication to study them just to understand the basics, let alone make contributions to the field. Evolution itself (as a field) requires not only understanding genetics, biology, chemistry, geology, astro-physics, etc. but surely many more fields. Then get into essoteric fields like quantum physics, and even the most brainy amongst us is seriously challenged to explain it. The type of dedication to delve into these matters though is displayed by certian autism spectrum behaviours. So perhaps at this point it's not the environment so much driving the next step of evolution, but our own understanding of the universe, and the need to delve deeper.

Anyway, just a random musing for today. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? And no, vaccines don't "cause" autism...

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