Sunday, October 25, 2009

Autism, Aspergers, Neurodiversity & Evolution

I've corresponded sporadically with a guy named Andrew Lehman, whose websites contain his thoughts on evolution and autism. He makes the case that autism is an evolutionary adaptation. Not only is it here to stay, but autism will become increasingly prevalent in each new generation. Mr. Lehman regards autism as an expression of the evolutionary mechanism called neoteny, which occurs when aspects of normal development are delayed, producing adults with juvenile features. Neoteny also figures in the Star Larvae Hypothesis (here and here).

Mr. Lehman constructs elaborate arguments about the origins of autism that have to do with intrauterine exposure to hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. He advocates acceptance of neurodiversity, or normalizing the Autism-Aspergers spectrum of behavior. We'll see if neurodiversity ever gains a visibility in psychology or civil-rights politics comparable to that of biodiversity in ecology and environmental politics. Though, already businesses are learning to exploit the unique qualities of people with autism/Aspergers, such as their sustained ability to focus and attend to details. If you find this sort of thing intriguing, check out Mr. Lehman's main websites http://www.shiftjournal.com/ and http://www.neoteny.org/. (I cannot imagine how he finds the time to update these sites as often as he does.)

Here is an edited comment I left on the Shift Journal site:

Maybe autism is a label for a particular clumping of tendencies within the broader sweep of the pandemic of psychological syndromes and disorders. No doubt the pharmaceutical industry plays a role in the coining of new mental and behavioral maladies, but on the face of it there seems to be an explosion of neurodiversity in the current generation of children. OCD, ADHD, bipolar, autism/Aspergers (how about peanut allergies?) and other clumps skew the psychographic profile of this generation. Maybe these tendencies were always present in the population at their current levels, but, for sociocultural or medical-diagnostic reasons, did not attain much visibility. Now, there are no secrets.

Have you considered the postmodern neurodiversity explosion as a psychological version of the Cambrian explosion of biodiversity? All kinds of critters arrived suddenly on the scene about 530 million years ago, giving natural selection a trove of resource material to work with. Needless to say, countless of the new species remained extant only briefly. The fittest begat phyla still with us. It might be that evolution will cull most of the new neurological phenotypes, and, though all might have neotenous roots, natural selection will favor relatively few, and those few will set the stage for a shift in humankind's evolutionary trajectory. See, Founder Effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founder_effect

Here are a couple videos hosted by people with Autism/Aspergers. I'm impressed by their earnest, well-spoken appeals.

And see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4PCKa3TNO8 (embed code not available)