In my book The Shyness Guide, and in my two novels, I’ve promoted the idea that shyness and autism are both natural.
Basically, it goes like this – if you go back through human evolution, even if you confine yourself to the 200,000 years of homo sapiens, you get to a point where humanity was not social. There is no evidence of tribalism before 50,000 years ago. All the fossils found before that are found singly or in family-size groups.
This is common throughout nature. For example, among cats the only species that is social is the African lion. All other wild cat species are solitary – leopards, cougars, tigers, jaguars, lynxes, bobcats, etc. According to geneticists, the African lion is the newest cat species – so social behavior appears to be a late development in cats. A similar thing can be said of canines – foxes, jackals, etc are all solitary – only the wolf has some limited social behavior.
Now look at the key characteristics of autism:
- the sense of aloneness
- impairment of social inter-action
- impairment in verbal and non-verbal communication
The standard view is that the second two usually exist because of faulty mutations in DNA, which have sometimes been passed on through generations. Psychologists have been plugging away at this idea of autism as a degenerative disease for a long time, but they’re confronted with the fact that differences in the DNA of autistic people, are ‘pervasive’ – they are widespread in the genome, not the result of isolated DNA failures. No single section of DNA has been shown to be responsible for autism.
And the differences in behavior are widespread in each individual too – pervasive.
As for the ‘sense of aloneness’, I think most non-autistic people think this means that we are lonely because our impairments prevent us from joining them. The idea that we might enjoy being alone seems to be beyond them. That it might allow us to think more deeply or creatively and perceive the world around us more accurately escapes them too.
What I do is look at the problem from a common-sense point of view.
Was there ever a time in the past when humans didn’t have verbal communication?
Well, of course. Going back millions of years, it’s assumed that our hominid ancestors – autralopithecines, homo habilis, homo erectus, etc – had no ability to speak. Almost all the theorists accept that there was no complex language until home sapiens arrived. But even then there’s a problem.
Despite arriving on the scene with its big brain about 200,000 years ago, most linguists assume that complex language only arose in homo sapiens about 50,000 years ago. So our big brains preceded language.
So, if homo sapiens had a long period when its members didn’t talk, and we have individuals today who have trouble talking, why don’t we see these as likely to be connected? Why is no one proposing that DNA from those ancient people who weren’t talking may have survived? Why do we always assume that the people of the past have been obliterated?
Well, in 2010 we finally learned that neanderthal DNA was not obliterated – it’s present in all modern humans who don’t derive from sub-Saharan Africa. We also have Denisovan DNA, another ancient race. I expect that it’s just a matter of time before much older DNA is identified in us.
The problem is that DNA deteriorates with time. So far, we have no DNA from million year old homo erectus, or even 200,000 year old homo sapiens people. Sadly, the fossil bones of homo floresiensis [the ‘Hobbit’] discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores, who were around as late as 60,000 years ago, who are suspected to be a branch of homo erectus, have not yielded enough intact DNA for study. If they did, we might know whether they were able to talk, for geneticists are beginning to identify the sections of DNA connected with speech.
The skill in putting ancient DNA back together, and the technology involved in that are advancing, so it’s probably just a matter of time before some answers arrive.
As for shyness, there are estimates from genetic researchers that in the early stages of homo sapiens the human world population was probably only 10,000 to 20,000 spread over the whole of Africa and Asia. Back then we would not have met other humans, except family, very often, so it seems perfectly natural that we would have avoided them, or at least have been wary of them.
I believe we were all once shy and avoidant, that outgoing social behavior only developed with tribalism.
This idea is in all three of my books, but I’m repeating it here because it needs to be said again and again, at least as long as I’m the only one saying it.
Now, some will respond – “Okay Conrad, how do you explain those autistic people who can’t talk at all? And sometimes have much lower intelligence?”
The answer is simple.
First, autistic people are just as capable of having developmental problems as social or ‘neurotypical’ people. We can suffer from mental retardation, or be born with brain damage as easily as anyone else, but when we do, it is likely that we will manifest those problems in a different way. But doesn’t mean that those particular developmental problems have been caused by autism.
There is another possibility though. Maybe much older DNA, perfectly healthy DNA, has survived from homo erectus, or homo habilis, etc – that people who were unable to talk a million years ago are still with us.
The exploration of DNA is probably going to continue for at least another century (given its enormous complexity). Suppose one day research determines that some of the people who we have deemed ‘retarded’ etc., possess DNA from a million years ago? In that case, instead of treating these people as suffering from a brain disease that we would like to get rid of, won’t we see them as treasures from the past, who should be sheltered and protected and studied? Wouldn’t we see them as extremely valuable members of humanity?
Well, that’s exactly what I think is going to happen. I’m not likely to be around by that time, but when and if it comes I hope some of you will say, “Hey, Alan Conrad said that a long time ago!”
2 thoughts on “Rescuing science | Autism and shyness | on the yet-to-come discovery of their origin”
It is mind-boggling to think of a world population of humans of only 10 k to 20 k!
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Of course no one was doing a census then, There is a debate over that. The low number is based on this lack of difference in human DNA world-wide, compared with other animals. But anthropologist Milford Wolpoff has been arguing for decades that that is more likely the result of constant inter-breeding over millennia. And this new research supports widespread interbreeding among races. So the real number is unknown, but I think it’s sage to say we were once pretty scarce.
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