Thursday, January 14, 2016

Autism and Neoteny

Let's look at a baby skull.

According to some theories, evolution has a trick called neoteny, wherein juvenile or infantile characteristics are continued into adulthood.

The classic example is the comparison of baby chimps to adult chimps to adult humans. You can see that baby chimps look more human than adult chimpanzees do. So the idea is, there was a mutation, or a suite of mutations, that resulted in retaining baby chimp characteristics. (Or rather the baby characteristics of the shared ape ancestor of chimps and hominids).This resulted in the split between genus pan and genus homo.

David McCallum as the next step in human evolution, according to The Outer Limits

Which I guess means that the 'alien greys', the adult-sized fetal humans first seen in the sci-fi TV show The Outer Limits, is where our post-human future lies.

Yeah, no. Not unless a) birth canal and pelvis sizes change so that the already dangerous childbirth of humans is made less dangerous for giant big head babies (meaning big giant fat asses on women, the so-called steatopygian trend) occurs, or b) preemie babies allow for head growth outside of the womb, or c) the advent of artificial wombs.

But, no, when you consider that the brain already accounts for 20% of the metabolism of a human body, it's difficult to see how a bigger brain is possible. In fact, a lot of the neuro-psychological problems we see in anatomically modern humans suggest we've hit a design limit.

Of course, my theory is these neuro-psychological problems (schizophrenia, autism, bipolar, depression, etc), probably all sharing a root cause or cause are actually not bugs but features.

My theory is that autism is merely neoteny gone wrong. I'm hazarding, for lack of a better description, that we modern humans are autistic homo heidelbergensis. Autism, promoted through the wrong environmental cues, is embedded in the suite of mutations that resulted in modern homo sapiens, and thus, autism is probably as old as modern humans, some 200,000 years old.

In other words, autism is not a modern affliction, and not a modern plague. It's as old as we are, it is a neotonous result that, rather than manifesting as a physical neoteny, is instead a psychological one.

I, of course, am not the first to suggest this. Having a brain that remains plastic and adaptable well into adulthood would, for a generalist species, be of an advantage - in any environment.

This does not mean that people in the autism spectrum are superior mutants, not the X-men or mutated superheroes of our juvenile comic books. It just means that we humans, all of us, have innate savant skills as a result of this suite of mutations, and sometime this can go wrong, and one example is autism.

In case you didn't know, I am in the autism spectrum. And if you've reading my essays with any regularity, you probably are too. (I no longer use the term high-functioning Asperger's syndrome, as that is now defunct according to psychologists. But, I took the test, and I came up 'borderline', which I interpreted as 'normal', which of course is not true at all, I'm weird and quirky as hell, but allow me my conceits).

Well, I am now convinced that we becoming an autistic society. Our culture is more childlike, our institutions geared more towards accommodating people within the spectrum, even if they are not. We don't wear adult clothes anymore. We tolerate childish behavior. We adapt our materiality towards

I believe George Carlin called this the "pussification of America". I don't necessarily think that all of this is part and parcel to Carlin's complaint, but what I see could be interpreted as such.

So, is this a bad thing? The one thing I have noticed about people on the spectrum is, they can be adults, they can be productive adults, and in fact (if you look at Los Alamos, or NASA, or Silicon Valley) incredibly productive adults.

Where do we go from here?

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