Autism as Evolution?

So, the other day, I was excited.  My wonderful bloggy buddy at Craving a Little Perspective tagged me a link to a TED talk on Facebook.  When I first received the link, I thought, “Oh, that will be nice.  When I sit down, I’ll watch that.” And then, I promptly forgot.

The next day or so, I clicked to her blog and found this post, which is interesting, debatable, and thought provoking.  And it reminded me to go watch.  And so I did.  And that’s when I got excited.  Here is the talk:

Now, if you don’t know much about the TED talks, let me tell you.  They are entertaining, interesting, enriching and make you think and laugh- always.  TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design”.  It started out as a conference from these three areas.  It now provides free access to some fascinating lectures from the world’s most inspired thinkers and brilliant people.

This talk was given by Juan Enriquez, about the future evolution of humans.  Since I know it is not always easy to watch something as opposed to read about it, here is what it talked about.

Stay with me – it links to autism in a fascinating way.  Humans, really have not been around all that long in the history of the universe.  In fact, life itself, on Earth, was wiped out five times.  When you consider the duration from the beginning of time to the present, as he tells it, humans popped up only 99.96 into the story.  There have been 29 “upgrades” to humanoids from their first appearance to the present.  From Neanderthal to human, we had a change of 0.004 percent of genetic code.

And in the genetic information that has been discovered, is the ACE gene.  Scientists have discovered that no one has ever climbed an 8000 meter mountain peak, without oxygen, without the ACE gene.  Every male Olympic power athlete ever tested carries a 577R genotype.  These are two examples of what we have learned about specific genes so far.

Next, Enriquez talks about how science seems to work in spurts.  First, we heard about the mapping of the human genome in the year 2000 and then Enriquez says:

[T]hen you don’t hear a lot, until you hear about an experiment last year in China where they take skin cells from this mouse, put four chemicals on it, turn those skin cells into stem cells, let the stem cells grow and create a full copy of that mouse.”

Enriquez mentions the future possible replication of human organs, skins and someday full bodies.  He talks about how people may someday be able to upload their memories and download them to a new body based on current research.  And how this presents many moral, political and ethical questions.

Then, he talks about one of the first places to show rapid evolutionary change- the brain.  He says:

The first place where you would expect to see enormous evolutionary pressure today, both because of the inputs, which are becoming massive and because of the plasticity of the organ is the brain.” 

It is here that he brings in the discussion of the rise in autism rates.  (78% in less than a decade).  These are his words:

And we still don’t know why this is happening.  What we do know is, potentially, the brain is reacting in a hyperactive, hyper-plastic way, and creating individuals that are like this:”

[hyper-perceptive, hyper-mnemonic, hyper-attentive] 

“You’ve also got people who are extraordinarily smart, people who can remember everything they’ve seen in their lives, people who’ve got synesthesia, people who’ve got schizophrenia.  You’ve got all kinds of stuff going on out there, and we still don’t understand how and why this is happening.  

But one question you might want to ask is, are we seeing a rapid evolution of the brain and of how we process data?  Because when you think of how much data’s coming into our brains, we’re trying to take in as much data in a day as people used to take in in a lifetime.”   …

Enriquez raises some thoughtful questions about rise of autism rates.  In our autism community, we see so many different genetic changes, so many different forms of autism that we all relate to “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.

Enriquez concludes like this:

“But when you see an increase of that order of magnitude in a condition, either you’re not measuring it right or there’s something going on very quickly, and it may be evolution in real time.

Here’s the bottom line.  What I think we are doing is we’re transitioning as a species.  And I didn’t think this when Steve Gullans and I started writing together.  I think we’re transitioning into Homo evolutis that, for better or worse, is not just a hominid that’s conscious of his or her environment, it’s a hominid that’s beginning to directly and deliberately control the evolution of its own species, of bacteria, of plants, of animals.  And I think that’s such an order of magnitude change that your grandkids or your great-grandkids may be a species very different from you.”  

Yes, I see the moral, ethical and political issues.  In a different way, I can see that my son may be the beginning of a new era.  He processes information in a different way.  In some ways, he is far beyond his peers.  In others, far behind.  He remembers things I had forgotten all the time.  I’m not saying I agree or disagree.  I’m saying this is food for thought.     



About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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30 Responses to Autism as Evolution?

  1. Definitely things to think about. CC and I describe Jay all the time as being “us, but in the extreme”. Kind of like an evolved version of our personalities/traits.

  2. Lisa says:

    That is a mind-bender…definitely gives me something to think about. In a lot of ways, I can see the point that maybe, just maybe, it is an evolution in the way the brain works. But in some others, not so much. Especially the social component…but, like you said…food for thought. Hmm.

    • solodialogue says:

      There is the possibility. And the rest is just purely fascinating that technology and science is moving toward these huge moral, ethical and political issues. As we look forward, it seems so far off. Look back and it seems so long ago. Stand in the present with the view of both? It seems not so crazy that this could be so…

  3. Such good timing on this for me. I wrote about this a bit last week. We were on vacation and doing some fossil hunting and it had me pondering. Looking at the 400 million year old remnants of the dawn of multi-cellular life it seemed almost silly not to think that a few neurological variations would pop up, that is the way of evolution and nature in it’s essensce. i can’t see the talk through my work VPN now but can’t wait to watch it later!

    • solodialogue says:

      Hope you did have a chance to watch the talk! I just don’t have the ego to believe our evolution is complete. The correlations are fascinating as is the speed with which technology propels us into a previously only sci-fi world. I remember the days when the “internet” was a strange futuristic topic. Now, I think I could not live without it!

  4. Last year, I read Carl Sagan’s book, The Dragons of Eden, about the evolution of the human brain. It was a bit dated (1977), but still brilliant. It made me wonder a little myself about the possible link between evolution and Autism. I’m so glad to see people way smarter than I are researching this possibility. Makes me excited about the future. Great post!

  5. My DH (the Atomic Punk,) and I have discussed this, independently of this talk/information. It is food for thought; we do have to process information/inputs differently than we used to 100 years ago, even 50 years ago. Having a visual memory is definitely an asset. Were before we had to remember what it said in the newspaper, now we have to remember where we found the info to share with others. We need to process how systems work now that everything is so connected. What we need now is to get educators up to speed on how to teach our kids properly.
    As it stands I still don’t think there is anything to “cure” in my children, I am just trying to give them the tools to get by in the world successfully. That means some speech, OT and social skills training. I can’t watch the video right now, but I will after kinders are in bed. Great post!

    • solodialogue says:

      Isn’t it amazing to think how we now process in a day what people used to process in a lifetime? It would be quite a grandiose belief to think our evolution is complete. I sigh thinking of the logistics of bringing educators up to speed on how to teach our children “properly”. I know some amazing teachers though, including my own cousin-in-law, an awesome reading specialist. Hope you are able to watch the video!

  6. Mary says:

    I definitely think there’s something to this. I’ve often thought that my SPD kiddo was more evolved in some ways (and less so in others) and wondered if her sensory “issues” made her more able to survive. I’m probably not saying that right, but I’m glad to see others thinking the same way. Maybe I’m not as crazy as I thought. 😀

    If you look at food as an example, Freckles tends to reject the brightly colored, strongly flavored foods. So she doesn’t want to eat artificially flavored, artificially colored foods? Isn’t that a good thing? I couldn’t believe some of the absolute junk food the OTs tried to get the kids to eat in food group. It was like some of the dangerous stuff they tried to teach them in the gym. Why would you WANT your kid to eat orange Pringles and jump off a 6 foot high climbing thing? Don’t we spend enough time in the doctor’s office and ER? Sheesh.

    Our kids are right. The world is too loud, too bright, too much. But like Lori says, our kids still need the tools to live in the world that is. That’s why we keep searching for answers.

    • solodialogue says:

      Not crazy at all! You are in the company of profound thinkers. I wish I could say Toots was like Freckles in rejecting the artificially flavored junk but there is where it goes awry for us… that is pretty much all that sustain him currently…

      Each of our children has such unique needs and abilities that it makes me believe we are in a time of rapid change. For us, my son was able to navigate the internet and use the iPad beyond my understanding as second nature. He needed no lessons or assistance other than charging the device and spelling some words. The instinctual ability he has to use technology still blows me away every day.

  7. Denise Junk says:

    I think this is an issue that is already being considered by such shows as Alphas, Heroes and Xmen movies . Granted, the examples they present are a lot more extream then basic autistic traits, but I think the gestalt is already a part of human conciousness . The question is already being asked…”should humans cure ‘difference’ or embrace it ? The reason I don’t see it as an evolutionary issue is that I believe that there is no change in the number of autistics…..(just as there were just as many microbes and stars around before we invented the tools to see them or the scientists to name them .)

    What I do hope is that NT’s will evevntually evolve the ability to over come their fear of difference enough to realize that nurturing and excepting difference could benefit the world . A paradigm shift that allowed humans to see that “something that is not me is not always evil, dangerious or fair game to exploit ” ,would be a very positive direction . We have a long way to go, as eivdence by humans ability to exploit, abuse and destroy other sentient beings whose only difference is a religious, gender, skin color , fur or bark but I hope that we do eventually get there before we end ourselves as a species .

    • solodialogue says:

      Interesting analogy with astronomy concerning your belief about the number of autistics based on the tools to diagnose, as it is plausible. While I believe there were and are many non-officially diagnosed autistics which could account for some increase in numbers, my personal opinion is that the numbers are greater than the undiagnosed and are increasing. This could be a matter of the “sexy geek” theory as it is called, or environmental or evolutional restructuring, but those are mere guesses.

      I do not think in our lifetimes that NTs will evolve as spectacularly as to overcome that fear you speak of. And yes, we do have a long way to go. But I want to believe that intelligence will eventually increase rather than the opposite and that humans will evolve, looking back on the present with some regret.

      • Mary says:

        Was this just me or did anyone else start to “see” autism, ADHD, and SPD everywhere after your child was diagnosed? People I worked with who were complete jerks began to look different and certain relatives began to finally make sense.

      • solodialogue says:

        Me too! I remember in particular one boy who was a year ahead of me in school. He never spoke to anyone and always wore a coat (we were in Washington State so it wasn’t THAT odd!), talked to himself on the bus and rarely washed his hair. Total Aspie! I’ve often wondered what became of him – he was brilliant. I definitely see it in my dad and very much in myself! And yes, there are the people I first think of as rude but since the diagnosis, I think twice…

  8. I’ve thought much of these thoughts myself, and theorized similar ideas….so relief to see other brainy people agree. 🙂 Thanks…very, very good post!!!!

  9. I’ve thought about this a lot too. I agree with a lot of what has been said in the post and the comments. I don’t have time to watch the video right now, but it’s definitely something I want to do. I’d also like to read more about it, so Carl Sagan’s book sounds great! I know my son is hyper-intelligent in some ways, but is completely lacking the verbal aspect of things (I mean, he *is* verbal, but he rarely communicates if that makes sense), but it also makes me wonder just how much the social aspect of things will be needed in the future? People are a lot more prone to having “hermit” tendencies today than in previous centuries. Being an introvert and a hermit is not so much of an anomaly these days. And people (NT people) can be really isolated by choice. Where as before people used to live in communities with extended families, today people are more likely to live alone and have jobs where there is not that much communication face to face. It seems like a lot is done by email and phones. Of course that’s not everyone and I’m overgeneralizing, but like you said Karen, it’s definitely food for thought.

    • solodialogue says:

      I think it’s really interesting how you point out the way in which technology has the propensity to place us in isolation and how that ties into socialization, that ties into differences in language and processing. Things are changing in complexity and in sheer volume of information. As ‘things’ we create change, we adapt to fully absorb the volume. Coincidence? It makes you think, at the very least…

  10. Deb Smith says:

    Was talking about my Asperger son being….”one of our future generations……….NOW” recently with my partner. I believe that our ASD children are glimpses of future humankind. So glad to hear this TED talk ….maybe I’m not as daft as I am percieved?!!!!

    • solodialogue says:

      It’s funny that there is this common thread of questioning our reasoning! Why not just call it future thinking, as that is what it is. All of this is quite plausible and fascinating. Yesterday’s possibilities are today’s realities – the same is true every day that passes. Our kids are the future regardless of this but the children of our kids’ kids? Those children may look back on NTs and see them in their present as the minority… how’s that for thought? (Thanks for stopping in!)

  11. Allie says:

    Now this is an interesting angle that I have never thought of and yes, most certainly is food for thought. I have so many questions and crazy thoughts going on in my head now after reading all that. If this is evolution at work, what are we (as in the autism population) trying to adapt too in our environment?

    I love me some TED talks. Hopefully I can watch it today during Cam’s nap!

    • solodialogue says:

      There is such an overwhelming lot of information available through the use of technology. There is more available when technology is used to create and unearth more information. To have the merest possibility of absorbing more and more information, the way we process it, the way we gather it must change. Our brains may be changing as we evolve through our children and their children’s children. I still cannot get over the idea that what we absorb in a day – used to take a lifetime. Amazing, isn’t it? Hope you had a chance to watch!

  12. I am so happy I found my bookmark for your blog again, I started following your insightful blog last year but had so much turmoil going on in the last year, I hadnt got around to reading well anything on the internet. It took me a couple months but now I found you again I am so elated. And this post, something I was discussing with my husband and family months ago, this is exactly what I have been thinking. Thank you for sharing, I am linking your post in my blog immediately, and cant wait to read your next post, keep it up ……..YOUR AMAZING!!!!

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  14. Ava says:

    Last year when my daughter and I were going back and forth to evaluations (SPD,anxiety,and they want her to be tested again for aspergers next year) I met so many kids who had varying forms of levels of autism. All so smart and unique. I had a long conversation with another mom about how in a few hundred years everyone will have autism because they are far smarter than us. I didn’t know other people actually looked into it!!! It makes perfect sense in my opinion

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