Autism has been around pretty much as long as humans have. It’s an old concept with a new name; you’ll find people discussing children “afflicted” with what we now know as autism in the middle of the 20th century. This means that it has co-evolved with us, and so our understanding of it is deeply rooted in evolutionary considerations – but is there more to it than that?
The condition affects 1:68 children and only 1:300 adults. This disparity seems odd considering how seemingly similar all human brains are on a functional level, enough so that multiple people can learn to do the same thing even if they don’t know why they’re doing it. The more important factor, though, is how little we understand its neurological underpinnings; autism researchers are still struggling to get even close to a comprehensive understanding of the condition. However, there’s far less research into adult-onset autism simply because it isn’t as pressing an issue; autistic children must be treated in order for them to survive and thrive, but autistic adults can mostly take care of themselves (though they may need some help with that).
Still, there’s definitely something here that tells us that autism is related on some level to evolution – if nothing else than by proxy through our shared humanity. We know enough about its early development – how it begins while the child is still gestating inside their mother and its hereditary factors – to know that it has something to do with our genes.
So What’s The Connection Here?
Well, autism is a mental disorder in which the patient shows stunted social development. It was originally thought of almost exclusively as a lack of empathy for others, but this has since been disproven; autistic people are capable of feeling empathy; they’re simply less adept at demonstrating it by predicting their actions or reading others’ bodies language. However, if you recall from your high school biology classes that humans are 98% genetically identical to chimps, you might begin to ask yourself why no chimp mothers have ever given birth to an autistic child…
This question is very difficult for scientists because it requires them to provide an evolutionary explanation of autism itself – not just its presence or absence, but why it exists at all. This is very difficult to do. Nobody has yet proven how this works, though there are some theories about autism being a mild form of mental retardation that does not reduce reproductive fitness so much as greatly increase the risk of death by predation (since autistic children and adults can be extremely vulnerable and sometimes even predatory). However, there’s one theory that holds a lot more weight than most:
Autism has been linked to high intelligence in humans; people with Asperger Syndrome often have very high IQs. Due to the genetic nature of autism as well as the lack of selective pressure working against those who suffer from it, there’s a theory that autism has been selected for due to its benefits in early human life – particularly the middle Paleolithic.
The explanation is simple: physical strength and endurance became less important as humans relied less on their ability to hunt prey and more on craftsmanship and the domestication of animals. The people who survived into modernity were not necessarily those with stronger arms or sharper senses, but rather those who could outthink the rest of the tribe at critical moments during hunts (such as planning ahead for winter) or while wandering (avoiding predators). These individuals would survive long enough to reproduce; they may even have had children who turned out autistic themselves, which would allow some level of natural selection to take place against autism since they would be more vulnerable to predation.
But The Question Still Remains, Why Autism?
Why are autistic individuals born at all when they are very much a liability in terms of survival? One possible explanation is that intelligence itself has been positively selected for during human evolution, not just because it allowed us to outsmart our prey or survive in harsh climates, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because it helped us develop language.
It’s no secret that humans are unique among primates in their use of speech; even chimps can’t communicate with anything close to the speed or complexity of spoken language. What’s interesting here, though, is how this relates back to autism. According to two Baylor University researchers, Simon Baron-Cohen and John Allen, autistic individuals are capable of learning language – but they learn it differently.
Autistic children appear to develop verbal communication skills in a way especially conducive to learning about the internal logic of language rather than its practical application. This is seen when autistic children begin speaking at a much later age than their neurotypical counterparts, but most notably when they can speak fluently without ever having been directly taught how. Evidently, they have developed an understanding of the mechanics of speech all on their own, which was probably extremely important for an early man who would have relied entirely upon his own cognitive interpretation of linguistic symbols rather than someone else’s physical demonstration.
So What Does This Relationship Between Autism And Language Mean?
Well, it might help us solve the mystery of autism in primitive humans.
If autism is related to high intelligence, it follows that this characteristic was selected for in the Paleolithic because it offered even more benefits than strength or speed. Yet there are no obvious physical adaptations for brains – so what exactly would have made them so beneficial Then again, why wouldn’t they be Autistic individuals are certainly not predisposed to brute force and physical feats like running long distances; instead, they rely on their ability to think quickly and react accordingly (sometimes too quickly). The theory goes that during the Paleolithic era, knowledge about the surrounding world was transmitted orally from generation to generation through storytelling and metaphor – symbols understood by everyone within a tribe but only interpretable by the handful of eccentric minds who could decipher them. The presence of autism in early man would have allowed this process to happen much more efficiently than it does today, where the number of people capable of conceptualizing complex ideas can sometimes be counted on one hand.
Although the search for an evolutionary link between autistic behavior and high intelligence is still ongoing, there are widespread implications if one is ever found to exist. For example, if it is true that autism was selected among ancient humans because it enhanced verbal communication skills, this would make modern man’s reliance upon technology all the more peculiar; after all, evolution was supposed to weed out unnecessary adaptations – not proliferate them.
On That Note: How Do You Think Our Future Will Look Like?
This all ties into the larger debate about whether or not modern man has become too intellectually advanced for his own good. The creation of tools and technology allowed us to spread our wings (so to speak) and explore the world in ways previously unimaginable, but it also gave birth to an entirely new form of communication; one that is rapidly becoming the primary mode of discourse among everyone from doctors to politicians.
As indicated by autism’s decline since World War II, there might be something inherently flawed with the way we’re teaching future generations how to think – particularly when, for example, schools throughout America are beginning to implement curricula explicitly designed to accelerate technological innovation. If high intelligence is indeed a characteristic selected for during the Paleolithic era, it follows that the knowledge accumulated over the past 10,000 years has made us weaker rather than stronger, creating an entire generation of kids who know how to make iPhones but can’t think for themselves.
The next time you get frustrated with the latest fad sweeping through your children, consider how much more difficult life was for our ancestors, who would have had to rely on their wits alone to survive. Evolutionary theorists are quick to dismiss the human race as nothing but advanced apes, but if high intelligence is what separates us from other primates, then it’s hard not to wonder what exactly we’re doing wrong.
After all, it’s one thing to teach kids about technology and another entirely to allow them too much access to devices that will only serve to limit their ability to think for themselves. It may be beneficial in the short term – after all, social media allows us all instant access to each other, so why wouldn’t everyone want to hop on the bandwagon?
But perhaps, in the long run, we might consider going back to our roots and learning how to communicate like a society of Autistic Savants.