On the Presence of Autism Within the Human Population

The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Autism, taken broadly as encompassing the many diagnoses along the autistic spectrum (such as Asperger syndrome, classic autism, high-functioning autism, etc.), has lately been receiving increased attention in the medical, psychiatric and general communities in large part because the prevalence of the condition has been discovered to be greater than once thought. Much research is currently being done to discover and explain the details underlying autism, with many questions still remaining as to cause, prognosis and impact.

Many families now face the consequences of living with autism, and it is clear that medical and psychiatric research provides a source of information, hope and guidance for those trying to come to grips with a perplexing phenomenon, and I can only encourage the continuation of such research when it brings understanding. Nonetheless, seeing that nearly all current studies dealing with autism are focusing increasingly on a finer and finer grain of detail—the hunt for chromosomal markers, brain matter imaging, empathy quotient questionnaires and the like—all producing a dizzying array of charts, graphs, statistics and abstruse theories, I believe the time has come for a paradigm shift. Accordingly, this essay takes a step back from the intricacies of neuroscience and clinical statistics, and attempts to place the study of autism into a much broader context, one that gives more prominence instead to mankind as a whole—its relationships, history and population success, along with an exploration of the role autism has played in these domains.

Autism has been within the human population for a very long time, a statement that might surprise us at first, given that autism’s recognition has come so recently. But with much evidence pointing to a genetic underpinning and with autism significantly present in nearly every nation, race and culture around the planet, it is clear the condition did not spring forth in the last century like Athena from Zeus’ head, but instead can trace a history far back into our ancient past. It is therefore appropriate, indeed important, to consider autism from an anthropological perspective, and our discussion here will be far ranging, beginning with modern society and its day-to-day relationships, then sending us back to the roots of our anthropological past, and finally forward again into the prospects of the near future. I will explore the possibility that autism has much to tell us about our species and about the development of its modern civilizations, and I will summarize the ideas discussed along the way into the shape of three hypotheses:

  1. Autism is not a psychiatric disorder, but instead is more effectively described as an alternative and minority set of genetic cognitive traits found within the human population.
  2. The presence of autism explains in large measure the sudden acceleration in mankind’s cultural development—a leap so dramatic by biological standards, the transformation is best described as anti-evolutionary.
  3. The increase in the prevalence of autism will continue into the foreseeable future, a natural result of autism’s impact upon the human population and upon the human environment.

In the early twenty-first century, autism remains a charged word. In the mind of much of the public, autism continues to be associated with the image of children locked within their own world—unfeeling, unresponsive, self-injuring, mute, mentally retarded, destined to a life of institutionalization. This image reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when researchers and medical practitioners were focusing almost exclusively on the more severe and disabling forms of the condition (what is now commonly referred to as classic autism). The afterimage lingers with us today. Nonetheless, the medical literature contains many case histories painting a more affirming picture, including the two original descriptions of autism, the World War II era papers by psychiatrist Leo Kanner and pediatrician Hans Asperger. A careful reading of each account reveals few instances matching the common perception of a dire disability. In addition to noting the social deficits, language peculiarities and perseverative activities that have come to be recognized as the hallmark features of the autistic individual, both Kanner and Asperger noted compensatory strengths and unique advantages as well—such as excellent rote memory skills and in several instances the ability to focus so intensely on a favorite activity as to be able to gain useful and creative expertise. Follow-up studies of mildly autistic children have generally shown a significant number grow up to be functioning adults, in many cases barely distinguishable within human society other than perhaps by a certain tendency to quirkiness or a reduced sociability.

Beginning in the 1980s, with the groundbreaking work of researchers such as Lorna Wing and Christopher Gillberg, and with the translation of Asperger’s original work into English, focus has intensified in Europe and North America on the higher functioning forms of autism. Uncertainties in diagnostic criteria have made it difficult to gather definitive statistics, yet much evidence indicates individuals with functioning forms of autism greatly outnumber those with the more classic version of the condition, with current estimates running as high as five to one, or even greater. We now know that many autistic individuals go undiagnosed for most or all of their lives, a fact made more dramatic in recent years by the large number of parents being diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition only after their children have been. It is dawning on the medical community, and on society in general, that there are a significant number of autistic individuals functioning within the human population, and it is the collective impact of such individuals that is being considered here.

Two Subpopulations

For the purposes of this essay, I will describe the human population as being composed of two distinct subpopulations: first, the population whose members possess in significant degree the traits of autism, and second, the population whose members do not possess such traits, a population which can be referred to as non-autistic or neurotypical. It is not yet scientifically clear that the distinction between the two subpopulations is perfectly sharp. Further genetic and diagnostic research might one day reveal a significant number of individuals who could best be described as possessing traits drawn from both of the subpopulations. Nonetheless, current diagnostic practice works towards the placement of individuals into one category or the other, based upon observable criteria, and that practice will continue to be followed here.

Both populations stand in need of a description of their respective characteristics, a description that would help distinguish each from the other. The customary place to begin this process is with a listing of the diagnostic criteria that determine autistics, with the assumption being that anyone not meeting these criteria is a member of the neurotypical population. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) lists diagnostic criteria for three conditions considered to be the prominent disorders along the autistic spectrum: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (including Atypical Autism). However, for anyone reading the DSM-IV pages, two shortcomings will quickly emerge. First, the criteria are fairly clinical and dry, more suitable to the needs of the medical community than to members of the general public or even the scientific community at large. Also, due to a perceived need for official diagnoses to be conservative and non-controversial, the DSM-IV can at times be less than comprehensive and also lag with respect to recent discoveries and practices. Accordingly, the psychiatric literature can serve as an unofficial supplement to the DSM-IV criteria, providing descriptions more in tune with the needs of everyday use and at times more comprehensive and up-to-date. Although there are variations and occasional disagreements in the diagnostic descriptions given of the autistic spectrum conditions, a common set of features does consistently appear, sometimes referred to as the triad of impairments. These are three broad areas of observable behavior in which autistic individuals almost invariably evince a marked difference from their neurotypical peers:

  1. Impaired social skills. For young autistic children, this can take many forms, such as lack of eye contact, failure to imitate, few attempts to point or to gain attention of others, and failure to engage in greetings, reciprocal activities and interactive play. Such children often seem blissfully unaware of their age-appropriate peers, and some remain non-responsive even to their parents’ attempts to engage them. The level of social impairment can vary widely from individual to individual but is usually apparent to some degree in nearly every instance and often remains persistent throughout the autistic’s lifetime. Functioning autistics manage to cope by learning basic social skills as they grow older, sifting from experience what is expected from them in a variety of situations, and eventually engaging—if at times awkwardly and strainedly—in a broader array of human interaction, including the possibilities of career, marriage and family.
  2. Language delays and peculiarities. In the most severe cases of autism, muteness is a possibility. Many autistic children experience significant delays in acquiring language, it not being unusual for first words to be spoken sometime in the range of three to six years of age. Upon language acquisition, whether timely or delayed, speech peculiarities are common: echolalia, pronoun reversal, poor prosody, literalness, and a tendency towards a pedantic and repetitive approach to conversation (speaking at the listener, instead of engaging in give and take). As with social skills, the level of language impairment can vary widely in individual cases, with the ability to acquire reasonable use of language seen as a positive indicator for the autistic to reach functioning status. Indeed, of the three parts to the triad, this is the one with the greatest likelihood of fading entirely as the autistic reaches adulthood.
  3. Repetitive activities. Young children with autism are frequently observed to spin objects or to spin themselves, run back and forth in repeated patterns, flap hands and arms, hum incessantly, rock, return again and again to familiar textures, and engage in various other forms of stereotyped and persistent activity. Ritual and routine seem essential to these children—a rearrangement of the furniture, an alternative route to the grocery store, or an attempt to change the rules of a favorite game can be the stimulus for tremendous outbursts and emotional meltdowns. During school age, the need for familiarity and repetition more often takes the form of an obsessive subject of study—anything from sports statistics to dinosaurs to astrology will do, but often at the expense of time and attention devoted to expected and required activities. This tendency to perseverate in both simple and complex form usually remains with the autistic into adulthood; fortunately, it can also be the source of compensation. Many functioning autistics successfully pursue favored activities into the form of careers (computers, engineering and the sciences being common draws), although the near-obsessive pull of favorite interests does remain an ever-present danger to the autistic individual in need of life balance.

These diagnostic descriptions of autistic impairments have proven useful in clinical settings, and no doubt will continue to be refined as research accumulates. There is a sense, however, in which this intense focus on impairments—especially when defined as deviations from a norm—can create a potentially misleading side effect, namely that any description of autism as being exclusively a disorder or a disability becomes tantamount to a tautology under these criteria. Since the intention in this essay is to examine the autistic population in the broadest possible context, it would appear useful to pause for a moment and ask if we are seeing only the disadvantages and not giving due consideration to the potential compensations or other features of the condition. Indeed, the adult autistic community has been increasingly vocal on this very topic in recent years, noting that many, if not most functioning autistics are content with their particular mode of life, believe there are advantages to it, and are perplexed by the general population’s drive to find a cure.

In any case, a description of autism focused exclusively on a diagnostic list of clinical impairments is not going to be adequate for addressing autism’s anthropological impact, if for no other reason than the diagnoses themselves are such a modern-day phenomenon. Plus we should not forget about the neurotypical population. So far, this population has been defined only as a diagnostic negation—that is, its members are defined by saying they are not autistic. But if we were to attempt to describe the neurotypical population in a more affirmed way, as a set of observable characteristics that stand in contrast to those of the autistic population, what would we say? It appears worthwhile, therefore, to take time to characterize each population from a fresh perspective, one that remains consistent with the discoveries clinical psychiatry has made so far regarding autism, but one that expands the range of the discussion and attempts to incorporate as well the historical and biological points of view.

Let me begin with the non-autistic population. It might seem an unusual and nearly impossible task to differentiate meaningfully a segment of the human population comprising, by current estimates, nearly 99 percent of the whole—other than perhaps by resorting to the conclusion neurotypicals constitute the norm. But placing this population side-by-side with the autistic population and carefully observing the features that make neurotypicals distinct, one term does begin to emerge as a means for shedding some light on the contrast. That term is Homo sapiens. Or another way of looking at this is to ask, are there any perseverative activities neurotypicals engage in that serve as a counterpart to the stereotyped activities of autistics, and in a manner of speaking we can say there are: non-autistics do indeed focus intensely on a characteristic set of activities, they concentrate on all things human. Physical strength, attractiveness, food acquisition, friendship, sex, parenting, family relationships, chatting, making a living, the organization chart, the pecking order, politics, power. It would appear that the entire panoply of what it means to be in the species Homo sapiens—from the remnants of an existence first lived near the African savannahs to all the modern-day equivalents—is nearly constantly observed, learned and practiced by the members of the non-autistic population. It is their familiar turf, and its constellating impact is striking right from the start. Most children are born with an innate recognition for human faces, the human voice, and perhaps human smell and touch as well, and for a newborn receiving his first experiences of the broad and chaotic field of sensory inputs, this pre-existing familiarity with humankind must give the child an immediate grounding for making sense of his surrounding world. This strength at perceiving human foreground within the sensory background leads quickly to an ability to imitate other people, follow their gestures, try to understand what they are saying, react emotionally to their approvals and disapprovals, and before long to follow their lead out into a much larger world.

Although non-autistics will as they grow older expand their thoughts and behaviors to include ideas and activities not so directly human inspired, one can observe in most instances that this is still done with an eye towards retaining or even building upon the sense of people-connectedness and social order. Watching a member of the non-autistic population proceed through her day—say, a warm breakfast made for her children, an extra trip back to the closet to find just the right jacket, meetings and presentations all morning, lunch with a best friend, peer reviews in the afternoon and putting out that fire started by the boss, plus a little time for gossip on the e-mail, sharing the events of the day around the dinner table, a brief discussion with husband before bed about family visits at Christmas, the late news on television and the good-night kiss—in observing all this one might remain hesitant to use the word perseveration to describe such a broad-ranging and commonplace set of activities, yet it must be admitted the degree of human and social element in all these activities is unmistakable, and if there lingers any doubt as to the immense importance of the social element for most people, one need only consider the likely consequences of a lengthy period of enforced isolation. For members of the neurotypical population, the comforting familiarity of a human-specific focus remains primary, lifelong and deeply ingrained.

Of course, there is nothing surprising in any of this. That non-autistics are cognitively and biologically grounded through virtue of an innate recognition and connection to their own species is simply the evidence of a biological trait that formed early on in Earth’s evolutionary cycle and has been consistently passed on from species to species, especially those for whom, like man, there exists a strong social component to their nature. We observe evidence of the same kind of behavior and cognition in many other animal species. Consider, for example, the internal workings of ant colonies, lion prides, flocks of birds migrating for warmer waters. Although we do not understand in detail the cognitive processes taking place inside such species, it does seem abundantly clear that whatever those processes are, they are concentrated almost exclusively on the inner workings of the species itself. Cognitive wanderings beyond the immediate needs for survival and procreation are unlikely to be tolerated by nature, given evolution’s favoritism towards efficiency, and it would appear to be even so with man’s primate cousins and also with man’s immediate biological ancestors, so there is nothing astonishing about finding the same characteristic within man himself. Of course, what makes man unique among the species is that he has in large measure loosened this bond of a species-specific focus, and has incorporated to himself knowledge of his world that goes far beyond what is required for continuation of the line alone. On this subject I will have more to say later, but for now we can content ourselves with the observation that the characteristic of an innate intra-species recognition remains evident and strong within man, and it stands out most boldly when observing the distinguishing features of the non-autistic population.

What compels this emphasis on the species-focused characteristics of neurotypical individuals is that it is in precisely this area that the autistic population appears to differ. Although biologically there is no question autistics belong to the species Homo sapiens, it would seem that cognitively an ambiguity is at work. Descriptions of infants and toddlers who have come later to be recognized as autistic are noteworthy for the absence of signs of innate human connection. Mothers describe feeling that something was not quite right from the very beginning, perhaps in the way the child did not respond expectantly to smiles and coos, or did not nestle easily into a hold or hug. Later, the stories are more frequently told of children recoiling at being touched, or quickly forgetting—if recognizing at all—the faces of parents, or remaining oblivious to the sound of human voices even when they originate from only a few feet away (many autistic children are feared at first to be deaf, until a hearing test proves otherwise). The mechanisms whereby the neurotypical child picks up almost immediately on the human features within the surrounding environment do not seem to be fully at work within the autistic child, and of course it is the desire to uncover the cause of these missing mechanisms that drives much of the current research.

In this discussion, what will most interest us is the long-term, large-scale impact of not having a good built-in sense of species recognition, an impact that can be paradoxically both heartbreaking and intriguing. The most readily apparent impact is that autistic children find themselves at an immediate developmental disadvantage compared to their neurotypical peers. Anyone observing non-autistic children interacting with their environment will be struck immediately by the degree to which imitation, gesture and the desire to please others will guide these children and give them access to a large array of new experiences and learnable techniques, and when neurotypical children use this framework as a launching pad into the leveraging world of language, development rapidly takes off. By contrast, autistic children are left mostly at the starting line, struggling to gain traction in what must seem to them to be a nearly random sensory world, because biology’s time-honored technique for giving the newborn organism a sensory grounding—species recognition and familiarity—is not strongly in place here. Many autistic individuals report having experienced severe sensory input issues when younger, issues ranging from hypersensitivity (overwhelmed by stimuli) to hyposensitivity (unresponsive to stimuli) to synesthesia (confusion of sensory experience—for instance, hearing a color), this despite no evidence of a structural cause. It would seem likely that a good portion of these sensory issues are related to the difficulty of trying to pick out foreground within the chaotic rush of sensory experience, because without a sense of the relative importance of the human voice, for instance, a child hearing his name being called out is apt to experience the sensation as either a blast of noise painfully crashing through or just another hum lost in the background of all auditory phenomena, a background we ourselves easily filter out.

Even if the sensory issues are not overwhelming, such a child lacks the framework to determine significance in his sensory world, a means for separating the important from the unimportant, the signal from the noise. Consequences for learning and development are profound, because the learning process is most effective when new information can be connected with knowledge and experiences already assimilated—that is, learning presupposes an existing framework upon which to attach the new information. Neurotypical children are born with such a framework by virtue of their natural recognition of their human surroundings, but the struggles of autistic children in their early years can be seen as an attempt to acquire this most fundamental of frameworks, and the cases that remain the most troubling to us are the ones in which we observe the child making limited progress in this effort.

As heartbreaking as the difficult cases can be, the intriguing aspect of the autistic population emerges when considering the progress of those who do make substantial steps forward, including those who will go on to mature as functioning adults. We ask about these autistic individuals, what makes the difference? By what means do these children begin to formulate that first fundamental framework that allows for assimilation and meaningful exploration of their experienced world?

It might be tempting to assume such autistics also come to use the species-recognition framework as the primary means for guiding them, either because the innate recognition processes are not so severely impaired in such children or because such processes can be developed and strengthened as the child grows older (most interventive therapies are motivated at heart by just this possibility). We should have some serious doubts, however, about the accuracy of this assumption. As for the notion that the innate recognition processes might not be all that impaired, I would note we are talking primarily about children for whom the autistic symptoms are quite apparent—a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum condition almost by necessity implies a significant amount of social impairment, enough to make the difference from neurotypical peers stand out. And as for the possibility the species-recognition framework can be learned over time, emphasis would need to be placed on the words learned and time. As adolescents, functioning autistics continue to display many difficulties with fundamental aspects of human interaction: facial recognition, understanding body language and social cues. Even by the time they become adults, although well assimilated by then into the structure and day-to-day happenings of human society, many autistics continue to report an experience from within described as anywhere from a lingering uneasiness with human relationships to a feeling of being like an alien on a foreign planet. At best, it would seem that any species-recognition framework formulated within the autistic individual would have to be described as a secondary and acquired mechanism, not the primary means by which the individual has pulled himself forward. And thus we are brought back to the original question, what is it that fundamentally helps an autistic child pull together the chaotic sensory strands of his early world and begin to make meaningful sense of it all?

A clue can be found in the repetitive activities of autistics, especially when considered in light of the sensory input issues. To summarize what has been said so far, the experience for a new organism that comes into this world without a storehouse of memories built up yet and without an innate recognition for various features to be found in the environment—such as those associated with its own species—for such an organism the sensory stimuli are going to be processed as unstructured and chaotic. Few environmental elements would appear distinct from the rest, except perhaps by variation in intensity; the overall impression would be a sensory jumble. For a cognitive process to make sense of this chaos, it would need to focus primarily on those few features in the environment that inherently stand out from the rest. As is suggested by early results in the fields of information processing and robotics, which have been involved in recent years in trying to improve dynamic systems designed to recognize sights and sounds within a given context, we can quickly get an idea of the most important concepts in this elementary process of separating sensory foreground from the background—symmetry, repetition and memory.

Symmetry can be thought of as inherent structure in the chaos of space, and repetition can be defined as inherent structure in the chaos of time. An autistic child, hungry for signal to relieve the overwhelming rush of sensory noise, will hone in on the elements of symmetry and repetition to be found in the world around him. We can take any spinning object, a ceiling fan for instance, as a good example of just such an item. A ceiling fan embodies both concepts: it sketches a circular shape (symmetry) and it cycles again and again (repetition). In a mostly undifferentiated sensory environment a spinning object such as a ceiling fan would stand out, and indeed in the real world, many autistic children are fascinated with tops, wheels and ceiling fans. In fact, the majority of the autistic child’s early perseverative activities can be taken as variations on these themes of symmetry, repetition and elementary pattern—lining up toys, twirling, turning on and off light switches, flicking fingers and flapping arms, rubbing the same texture over and over, repetitive humming, enjoying a favorite video or song again and again (music is structured sound, and thus has inherent appeal to the autistic child). The frequently reported dexterity that young autistics display with numbers, letters and shapes becomes less surprising when their geometrical and symmetrical features are given consideration, along with the likelihood such items will make frequent appearances in the child’s life. The rote memory skills of autistic children also betray the unique manner in which they assimilate their environment, for rote memory is not so much a term emphasizing a strong memory, as it is a term emphasizing a particular kind of memory, one more likely to be engaged by patterns, facts, figures and sequences. (Neurotypical children also have good memory skills, in fact probably more prodigious in the early years than those of autistic children, but neurotypical memory is apt to be weighted with personal material—names, faces, behavioral expectations, social rules—and thus is less likely to be regarded as unusual in any respect.)

The human element is not missing entirely from the young autistic’s world. Parents and primary caregivers do make repeated appearances in the child’s life, do engage in many predictable behaviors, and thereby present themselves as familiar signposts and objects worthy of study, and autistic children are often observed to be quite affectionate for parents and favorite teachers. But when we recognize how human beings are by their very nature quite complex—that is, not visually simple and not always predictable—we are not surprised to discover that the autistic child usually needs a great deal of developmental time, and the occasional guiding hand, to navigate a world of parents, siblings, friends, rivals and crowds. It is a social navigation that autistics might never find to be all that easy, and certainly not one hinting at the word instinctive. We are brought finally to the conclusion that members of the autistic population do not primarily organize their cognitive world around a species-familiar framework—as members of the neurotypical population generally do—but instead organize it primarily around the various elements to be found in the spatial and temporal world, especially those elements containing some form of pattern or structure. It is upon such a framework that the autistic individual first begins to build his cognitive world.

This fundamental cognitive distinction between the two subpopulations is most apparent at the youngest ages. As the members of each population grow older, the observable differences do begin to blur. A simple experiment might bring the point home. If you were to give three buttons to a neurotypical child at the age of about four or five, he would have a high likelihood of doing something social with them, such as share the buttons with friends or trade them to gain something else of value or play pretend tailor. If you were to give three buttons to an autistic child the same age, he would almost never engage in such behavior, but would more likely line up the buttons or spin them. However, the same experiment repeated with children around twelve years of age would give a more mixed set of results. By this age, neurotypical children are more apt to employ the buttons geometrically or abstractly, say by using them as game pieces or incorporating them into an art project, and older autistic children become a little more likely to employ the buttons in a social manner, perhaps by giving them away as gifts. What has happened in the intervening years is that each population, through education and exposure, has begun to learn something about the worldview that comes more naturally to the other. Neurotypical children, by virtue of their developmental head start, get very early exposures into the world of objects, patterns and ideas, and this process hits overdrive when the children reach school age, the subjects of math, spelling, history and science now a familiar part of their daily routine (but often with an ear still open for the recess bell). Autistic children, who often can do relatively well with structured school subjects, find their continuing introduction into the world of human relationships becomes most acute outside the classroom setting—on the playground, in the lunch room, during gym class, after school. It is in such settings that the autistic child must assimilate piece-by-piece the intricacies of the social world.

This cross-population training, as it were, occurs with varying degrees of success: some neurotypical individuals never gain much interest in or command of the impersonal and objective aspects of their surroundings, and some autistic individuals continue to struggle mightily integrating to human society. But there are a great many members of each population who do gain secondary expertise in the natural domain of the other, and by the time such individuals reach adulthood it would take a sensitive nature or an expert eye to tell them apart, and it is mostly in this manner that the two subpopulations go forward, successfully, as one.

Three Hypotheses

A discussion of autism’s anthropological impact can now be taken under the heading of three hypotheses, the first of which arises from the preceding discussion:

First Hypothesis: A good definition for empathy is the cognitive recognition of a nearly exact cognitive process to be found in one’s environment. By this definition, autism is not an empathy disorder, and by extension is not a psychiatric disorder of any kind. Instead, autism is more accurately described as an alternative set of genetic cognitive traits that has found a home within the human population.

The prevailing theories regarding the underlying nature of autism have focused frequently on the concept of empathy—in particular, it is felt that autistics are impaired in their ability to experience and display empathy, thereby inhibiting their ability to interact with and understand other people. These empathy-deficit theories come in a variety of flavors, but the one that has carried the most influence in the medical community over the past two decades goes by the phrase theory of mind deficit, or sometimes by the term mindblindness. In its simplest form, it states that autistics are impaired in their ability to read the thoughts and feelings of other humans, and in a slightly more complex variation, autistics are described as being unable to attribute independent mental states to other people or even to themselves. This theory was first put forth in a landmark 1985 paper by researchers Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie and Uta Frith, with the paper basing its conclusions largely on what has come to be known as the Sally-Anne experiment. In the Sally-Anne experiment, children are presented with a play scenario in which a doll named Sally places a marble in her basket, leaves the room, and her companion doll Anne is made to switch the marble from Sally’s basket to her own box. Upon Sally’s return to the scenario, the observing children are asked where Sally is going to look for her marble. The children who say Sally will look in her own basket are considered to have developed a theory of mind—the ability to attribute thoughts and beliefs to another person, even when that person’s thoughts and beliefs differ from the actual situation. Almost all neurotypical children by the age of five display this ability, whereas most autistic children, including those who are much older and who possess a reasonable level of verbal intelligence—and in the severest cases of autism, persisting into adulthood—will frequently fail to detect that Sally will look in her own basket and not in Anne’s box.

The results of the Sally-Anne experiment and of similar tests measuring the ability to attribute beliefs, deception and feelings to others, along with the clinically observed social deficits seen in autistic children, led the paper’s authors to conclude that the inability to perceive and understand the thoughts and beliefs of other humans—in short, the inability to empathize—is one of the fundamental deficits, if not the fundamental deficit, underlying autism. Many in the medical community have found these experimental results and conclusions to be compelling, and theory of mind deficit remains one of the most frequently cited descriptions of the autism pathology. It is largely in this manner that autism has come to be widely regarded as an empathy disorder.

Empathy, however, is not an unambiguous term within the psychiatric community, it being a concept for which everyone has a level of intuitive understanding, but for which no one has been able to provide a definition that is universally accepted. One of the approaches to describing empathy has been to focus on cognitive recognition—that is, being able to perceive accurately the thoughts and feelings of another. Common alternative approaches have tended to highlight the ability to place oneself inside the circumstances of another and to experience thoughts and feelings oneself that are an appropriate reaction to the other’s situation.

In the statement of the first hypothesis, I employ a definition that is more like the first manner of describing empathy, emphasizing the aspects of cognitive recognition, in large part because this definition matches more closely to the characteristics typically measured in theory of mind deficit studies. Furthermore, it can be argued the cognitive recognition aspect of empathy holds some priority over the alternative definitions, because without accepting cognitive recognition as a minimum basis for empathy, it remains unclear how the alternative definitions can be applied in the broadest biological context. To see this, we might consider the case of attempting to experience empathy for an animal—for instance, while watching a nature show on television about a band of gorillas in which a child has just died. An observer might claim to see an aspect of grief in the mother’s behavior in the aftermath of the death and might be said to be feeling empathetically sad for her, but this claim would need to be taken guardedly because humans are not really certain as to the thoughts and emotions a gorilla parent might be experiencing in such a situation—humans do not have omniscient insight into the cognitions of the other animal species. An alternative explanation for the observer’s behavior, one that seems more likely under the circumstances, is that she is projecting her own emotions and thought patterns onto the gorilla mother and is empathizing with these projected cognitions, not with the gorilla’s actual state of mind or perceived circumstances.

In addition, the example of attempting to empathize with an animal highlights another difficulty with the concept of empathy, namely that it is easy to fall into the anthropocentric approach of taking only human thoughts and emotions as the absolute standard by which to measure empathy. It is quite reasonable to assume that the other gorillas in the group would understand and recognize features of what the dead child’s mother is experiencing; indeed, for gorillas to stay together as a group, it would seem essential they recognize something about the cognitive aspects of one another. A broad biological application of empathy, therefore, would define the term as a relative concept, applicable to all forms of cognitive recognition to be found in nature and not just to human cognition. It is not within this essay’s scope to attempt to resolve all the uncertainties and ambiguities surrounding the concept of empathy, but I will proceed under this one particular approach to defining the term—one that emphasizes cognitive recognition as the primary measure for empathy, and one that applies that measure broadly and not just to human cognition alone. It is by this strict and particular form of empathy we can examine the claim that autism is not an empathy disorder.

A demonstration of the empathy definition in action can be given by turning once again to observations of the non-autistic population. As noted previously, neurotypical newborns are seemingly predisposed to look for human-familiar features in their surroundings, and thus they get an early and inspired start in attempting to match their own thought patterns to those of other people. Even assuming a neurotypical child’s empathy apparatus is initially undeveloped, we can easily follow the process whereby such a child is given repeated assurances that her own desires, feelings and thoughts are matched by those of the other humans around her. As such a child begins to explore the contents of her world, we might imagine her at first open to the possibility nearly any item in the environment could think and feel as she does—a chair, for instance. If we could put words to the child’s early cognitive churnings, they might go something like, “When I touch the chair, it touches me back—it must be thinking in the same way I do.” However, over time, as the child continues her interaction with the chair, her cognitive processes are going to realize the cognitive recognition test does not hold: “When I’m hungry and cry out for food, the chair does not cry out for food. In fact, the chair never seems to cry out for food—it doesn’t seem to be interested in the same things I am.”

Nonetheless, for a neurotypical child there is one feature in her environment consistently reliable for providing evidence of a similar way of perceiving the world. The recognition begins with mom, expands to include dad and siblings, and eventually—oh, most joyfully—includes other children of similar age and circumstances. The child laughs and a human laugh comes back. The child is hungry, cries out for food, and suddenly finds herself in the presence of other people eating food with her. The child sees a bully push down another child, begins to whimper in fear, and discovers there are others crying around her too. The neurotypical child, already preconditioned to think there is something special about humans, is given consistent evidence that these interesting creatures must think and feel nearly exactly the same way she does, and furthermore, this recognition comes with advantages, since it leads to satisfaction of needs, opportunities for more interaction and consistent approval. Some children as early as two years of age, and nearly all neurotypical children by the age of five, have begun to recognize that what is foremost in their own thoughts is also foremost in the thoughts of other people—that is, quite early on they begin to cognitively recognize a nearly exact cognitive process to be found in their environment. This recognition and the abundant examples of it suggest the possibilities for imitation and projection, which in turn form the basis for imaginative play. A good portion of a neurotypical child’s ability to perform well on the Sally-Anne test must result from the child’s ability to see the scenario through Sally’s eyes, quite confident by now the cognitive perceptions will match.

We see in this description of the neurotypical population that species recognition, cognitive recognition, empathy—these are all highly intertwined concepts that serve a fundamental biological role of helping hold a species together, allowing its members to interact consistently and mutually. A similar process almost certainly takes place within the other animal species, albeit with less sophistication than in humans. Empathy can be described as part of the social glue that evolution has handed down for the purposes of increasing survival and procreative success, and within the neurotypical population empathy is composed fundamentally of the strong cognitive recognition that comes with the population’s shared interest in all things human.

So we ask, do members of the autistic population lack empathy? If our definition of empathy were to require we take the human cognitive norm (overwhelmingly influenced by neurotypical cognition) as the absolute standard by which to measure empathy, then indeed we would have to conclude autistics do not instinctively possess a good sense of empathy. The results of the various theory of mind deficit studies are not to be taken lightly—they consistently reveal that in the developing years and in the more severe forms of autism, autistics have tremendous difficulty recognizing the cognitive processes of point-of-view perception, belief, deceit and so on. Even within older functioning autistics, some elements of this cognitive confusion will remain. But our definition of empathy does not assume an absolute standard by which to measure cognitive recognition: an entirely different type of cognitive process from the human cognitive norm should be expected to have great difficulty recognizing neurotypical cognition, and that is precisely what happens for autistics, especially young autistics. When describing the two subpopulations, we concluded autistics do not fundamentally form their cognitive framework around species recognition and familiarity, but instead develop a cognitive stance organized primarily around the structures and patterns to be found in the broader environment. Thus we have already stated autistics do not cognate in the same way neurotypicals do, and the results of the Sally-Anne experiment and similar theory of mind deficit studies demonstrate just how dramatic this distinction can be.

To explore the autistic cognitive process in further detail and understand why such a process does not easily recognize neurotypical cognition, we can begin by briefly mentioning two other commonly cited explanations for the autism pathology—the weak central coherence theory and the somewhat related executive dysfunction theory. Both these descriptions of autism highlight that autistics frequently perceive and focus on parts and details in their world, while being relatively unable to grasp the whole or organize the big picture. Up to a point, these explanations are consistent with what we have already been describing about autistic cognition, namely that without access to species familiarity and recognition—the framework upon which neurotypicals inherit their big picture view of the world—autistics will put together a cognitive framework piece-by-piece, focusing first on the elements of symmetry, repetition and elementary pattern to be found in their environment, then using the beginnings of this framework as a means for assimilating further information. An analogy to this process would be the putting together of a complex jigsaw puzzle without having guidance as to what the finished picture or overall structure is like. Progress would be difficult and slow at first but would tend to get easier as aspects of the developing puzzle provided clues on how to proceed. (It is probably no coincidence that many autistics display these very types of skills and deficits in the building of actual jigsaw puzzles.)

This manner of cognitive development leads to a variety of results for autistics, in terms of progress, in terms of the aspects of the environment that get mapped, and in terms of the amount of time it takes. In the severest cases of autism, it would appear the individual finds great difficulty pulling together more than just a few fundamental aspects of the world around him, not enough to incorporate the more complex elements, such as those related to socialization and human cognition. Other autistics are observed to gain detailed and deep proficiency mapping out specific regions of the environmental experience—these would include those who acquire savant skills, such as in music or chess or calendar calculation—but such autistics will often display continuing difficulties with other features of the environment not so deeply explored. And still others, and these would typically include those who go on to become functioning adults, can be seen as pulling together a wider variety of detail about their world and at a relatively quicker pace, enough so as to facilitate language acquisition at a reasonably early age and to foster further exploration of the more complex features of their surroundings—including eventually the features to be associated with human behavior and cognition.

The results of the Sally-Anne experiment are consistent with this description. Although few autistics perform accurately on the Sally-Anne test at ages as early as neurotypicals do, autistics do not universally fail the test, but instead display a range of results that vary widely with age and ability. As a group, they perform more accurately on such tests as they become older, and perhaps more significantly, those diagnosed with milder forms of autism—that is, those who relatively speaking are becoming more successful at incorporating a broader portion of their world—generally become able to pass false belief, deception and other theory of mind tests during the developmental years, late childhood or early adolescence being a common time for beginning to understand the basic mechanisms of human cognition. (It would be quite unusual, for instance, to find a functioning autistic adult who could not handle the Sally-Anne test.) In general, the range of autistic performance in theory of mind deficit studies reveals two significant facts about the autistic cognitive process: one, autistics do not possess a natural understanding of the basic forms of what we regard as the human cognitive norm (keeping in mind that this norm is deeply influenced by neurotypical cognition), and two, a significant number of autistics do acquire, secondarily and belatedly, an understanding of basic human cognition as part of their developmental process.

That autistic cognition develops in this manner is evidenced also in the frequently made observation that autistic children can respond to people as though they were objects, and not thinking, feeling beings. For autistic cognition as we have been describing it, such an approach is to be expected. Early on, all elements in the autistic’s environment are experienced on a roughly equal sensory footing, with no one feature, including humans, occupying a position of priority. Although most autistics will at some point find humans intriguing because of the frequency of their appearance and because their behavior might seem like a puzzle to be solved, the same could be said of many other items in the autistic’s early surroundings—television sets and cars, for instance. When the time comes for figuring out and participating in human cognition, the autistic individual will find himself not in possession of inside information as it were, but instead must come to his understanding almost entirely through external observation and experiment. Another analogy might be helpful at this point, that of considering how one computer can be made to mimic the operations of another. If the hardware characteristics of each computer are nearly identical, the simulation proceeds straightforwardly, and this would be similar to the circumstances neurotypicals find themselves in with respect to one another. But if the underlying hardware characteristics are fundamentally different, the simulation can proceed only through indirect means: the target computer’s operations are observed and surveyed, a model of that behavior is formulated, tested, adjusted and perfected, with the model itself eventually being run as software on the simulating computer. In a roughly similar manner, functioning autistics will begin to figure out the cognitions of the other humans around them, and will thereby learn to mimic their corresponding behavior.

We can take deception as an example. Deception has been adopted as part of the human cognitive norm because of the immediate biological advantage it can sometimes confer, and neurotypical children, open to perceived human usefulness, find it easy to understand and copy such behavior when observed in others; thus neurotypicals are good at both recognizing and practicing deception from a relatively early age. Young autistics, more or less oblivious to the notion of gaining human advantage, yet keen and hungry for the literal truthfulness in their environment, turn out to be notoriously bad at deception, both in recognizing it in others and being able to practice it themselves. But for developing autistics who have mapped out enough understanding of their world and of language to begin tackling the complexities of human behavior, they soon observe that people will say and do things that stand in direct contrast to objective reality. Based upon these observations and helped by explanations from others, they begin formulating mental models for describing and predicting such behavior, and eventually they can cognitively run these models themselves—that is, they can begin to effectively lie and deceive.

Such modeling of human cognition does not take place all at once; it is built up over time with varying degrees of success. And such modeling is never perfectly precise, because as with a software simulation of a computer hardware operation, nuances and efficiency are frequently compromised. Nonetheless, we must not overlook the importance of this cognitive step a significant number of autistics make, because it meets the requirements of what we defined at the beginning of this section—it meets the requirements of empathy. Functioning autistics—indeed, this could be made the definition of a functioning autistic—learn to model various aspects of neurotypical cognition well enough to recognize those aspects in others and to employ them themselves. That is, they come to cognitively recognize a nearly exact cognitive process to be found in their environment, and they use this recognition as a means for increasing interaction and reciprocal behavior with the large majority of humans to be found around them. This potential for the development of empathy through the means of the autistic cognitive process is the major reason for stating that under the precise definition of empathy we have been considering, autistics do not really possess an empathy disorder. For we see it is not so much a mental empathy function or apparatus that is missing or impaired, as it is the cognitive recognition that is initially lacking, a recognition that can be gained with time, education and effort, resulting eventually in effective empathy, the strength of which is commensurate with the level of the recognition.

Further bolstering this view that the empathy difficulties of autistics are more attributable to a full-scale cognitive difference than to a particular defect or flaw comes from turning the situation around and asking, do neurotypicals naturally experience empathy for autistics? Although it would appear no formal studies have been attempted for measuring the ability of non-autistics to recognize, understand and mimic the autistic cognitive process, such studies are conceivable and their results predictable. Informally, we observe neurotypicals are generally perplexed in the face of autistic cognition and will tend to describe autistics as aloof, in their own world, obsessed with details, inscrutable, a little odd—terms that betray not only a level of uncertainty about the manner of person they are dealing with, but also reveal persistent attempts to see and measure autistics through neurotypical eyes. A word such as aloof carries an implication that autistics should be experiencing a closer connection to other humans, but as we have been describing it, there is nothing within autistic cognition that would suggest humans are more likely to stand out as special features in the environment and thus be the objects of increased attention. The term obsessed with details hints there is something not quite healthy about this characteristic, but a certain amount of obsession with detail is essential within the autistic cognitive process in order for that process to uncover and build up meaning from the sensory world.

Neurotypicals find themselves ill at ease in the face of autistic cognition because at heart they do not recognize it, at least not in its purest form. And in a sense, this lack of recognition represents one of the major stumbling blocks for understanding the true nature of autism, because nearly all current explanations for the condition—colloquial and scientific—tend to describe the autistic cognitive process as one mostly similar to the neurotypical cognitive process, with only a certain amount of neural impairment accounting for the difference. But this grossly understates the distinction. The distinction between pure neurotypical cognition and pure autistic cognition is not one of a small quantitative difference. It is one of a vast qualitative difference. Each cognition, in its purest form, organizes the sensory world in an entirely different manner, the difference being so vast neither population can easily recognize the cognitive process of the other, and thus the term empathy disorder continues to sound out of place here, applied to either population, because the empathy difficulties between the two populations are the natural result of their large and reciprocal cognitive distinction.

That the two forms of cognition do manage to recognize each other at a certain level, enough to allow for mutual interaction in many circumstances, is attributable to their respective influence on each other over time, rendering pure versions of either cognition extremely rare within the adult world. And that one form of cognition is considered to be normal, and the other abnormal, is attributable to each population’s relative size, but that consideration alone does not mark either form of cognition as invalid. The attempts to explain autism as an empathy disorder, or as some other type of psychiatric disability, are certainly understandable under the current circumstances of human society and culture, but they also add unnecessary complexity to a description that can be stated in far fewer words: fundamentally, autism is simply an alternative and minority set of cognitive traits that has gained genetic foothold within the human population.

These cognitive distinctions between the two subpopulations can be observed easily enough in the everyday world. Here is a scenario which must play out in a similar fashion in many households every day: consider a family in which the mother is neurotypical, the father is a functioning autistic, and the first and only child is autistic. The child is now around three years of age and has begun to display the distinguishing characteristics of his population type. Repetition and rules are favorable constructs for this child, and we can imagine him engaged in a game of turning on and off light switches around the house in a particular order and repeated fashion, a game he can play literally for hours on end. We can also witness the autistic father looking up from his own activities from time to time to observe his son playing this game, experiencing a sense of familiarity that goes beyond the usual fatherly instincts. And now we might also imagine the neurotypical mother, perhaps a little concerned about this strange game that does not seem to include her, deciding her child needs a more interactive activity to engage in, such as playing pretend store with mom. She attempts to stop the child from playing the light game and begins to play store with him, but the child suddenly bursts into a screaming rage. Not only does he not understand what mom is trying to do with the salt and pepper shaker, the Raggedy-Ann doll and the toy cash register, worse yet, she has stopped the light game right in the middle of a round, and surely everyone knows you can only stop the light game at the end of a round, when all the lights are either on or off.

If we now take a look at the autistic father we can observe how keenly frustrated he has become: he wants all parties to be pleased but perhaps more than anything he can sense how this scenario is not quite right for his son, and we might easily imagine him crying out peevishly to his wife, “Can’t you see he just wants to play his game? Don’t you understand your own son?” And the neurotypical mother—hurt, confused and dazed—no doubt wonders what sin she has committed that has left her in the presence of these two enigmas, instead of with a husband and child like everyone else seems to have. Fortunately, her anguish is not going to be ignored entirely. Although the father is apt to have a natural affinity for his autistic son and be inclined to argue for allowing him to continue playing his game, he is also going to have a secondary understanding of what his wife is trying to accomplish with the play store scenario, and he is going to have a desire that she can have her wishes met too. And she also, sensitive and open to the needs of her husband and child, will be looking for ways to remain flexible in the face of their atypical behaviors. This situation and many others like it are not easily navigated because the parties come to them from fundamentally different cognitive points of view, but fortunately the parties have also been influenced over the course of a lifetime by the cognitive processes that come more naturally to the other, enough so as to provide for some common ground and mutual understanding, and a means by which to share experience and interaction.

Empathy laboratories such as this must exist all around us. They will reveal the cognitive differences that distinguish the neurotypical and autistic populations, they will reveal the more natural empathy each population has for its own population type, and they will reveal the secondary level of empathy each population has acquired over time for the other population type. These real world empathy laboratories demonstrate that the human population is composed fundamentally of two cognitively distinct subpopulations existing side-by-side.

To close this discussion of the first hypothesis, we can touch briefly on the motivations that encourage autistics to learn and adopt the features of neurotypical cognition, namely that without connections made to the neurotypical world the autistic individual would be vulnerable to the debilitating impact of loneliness and isolation. Autistics come into this world with scant few opportunities to experience, practice and strengthen empathy, because for them, finding an object in the environment for which there is going to be a strong cognitive recognition is an enormous challenge. As noted, neurotypicals cognate too differently to allow easy recognition to be found there, and inanimate objects and all other remaining species can also be ruled out for the obvious reasons. This leaves only other members of the relatively small autistic population, but even here, cognitive recognition is not all that easy. The issue is that although the cognitive process is mostly recognizable, the subject matter often is not. It is difficult to experience empathy when your deep abiding love is model train sets and the other’s deep abiding love is baseball statistics. This content mismatch results from autistic cognition appealing to the structural elements of a very broad and far-ranging environment—different autistics will find themselves drawn to and exploring different aspects of that environment at any given time, and therefore their respective cognitive frameworks often will not overlap. Occasionally among autistics, interests and backgrounds do overlap, and when this happens we often observe a deep connection made between the two individuals, with this connection generally continuing as long as the common interest remains. (Autistics do change the focus of their thinking from time to time, and when this occurs, any empathetic connections made through the original interest will tend to dissolve.)

Over time, some autistics do begin to realize they share common themes in their thinking that transcend the subject matter—themes like pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, a love of rules—and through recognition of such themes, they can make still more empathetic connections to other autistics. But these connections remain relatively weak; they are not strong enough to tie members of the autistic population together in the same way as for neurotypicals. All in all, both because of the nature of their cognitive traits and because of the environmental circumstances in which they find themselves, members of the autistic population discover there is a certain amount of natural loneliness and isolation to be associated with autism. And as has been suggested, empathy is not just a feel-good concept; it also serves survival and procreative purposes in a natural world that can be hostile to organisms left on their own. If autistics are cognitively ambivalent about their membership in the species Homo sapiens, their immediate physical circumstances will quickly remind them of the salient facts. More or less out of biological need, autistics are driven to bridge the cognitive gap to their neurotypical neighbors.

Little mention has been made so far about the reverse of this situation—the circumstances under which a member of the neurotypical population would come to recognize and incorporate aspects of autistic cognition. The same motivations clearly do not apply, for neurotypicals are usually surrounded by cognitions similar to their own and are seldom in danger of isolation or extreme loneliness. More importantly, it remains uncertain exactly what is meant by incorporating the autistic cognitive process. Would it work similarly to how autistics incorporate neurotypical thinking, through a kind of indirect cognitive modeling, or would an entirely different type of mechanism need to be applied? This is not an insignificant question, and its answer lies at the heart of the second hypothesis:

Second Hypothesis: A good definition for biological evolution is the combined process of genetic mutation and natural selection that explains how an organism becomes successful in its found environment. A good definition for biological anti-evolution is the process of an organism intentionally mutating its found environment in such a way as to allow the organism to become successful without undergoing genetic change and without being subject to the workings of natural selection. On the basis of these definitions, the presence of autism within the human population is anti-evolutionary.

The second hypothesis contains two related claims: the first is that the phenomenon of modern man—in particular his sudden biological and cultural success—is more elegantly explained by the process defined as anti-evolution than it is by the concept known as evolution. The second claim is that the presence of autism is the primary catalyst behind anti-evolution in man. We will explore each idea in turn.

The term biological anti-evolution might strike one at first as having a ring of science fiction to it, or perhaps the term is strongly associated in the minds of some with the ideas of creationist theory. The definition given here is in fact far more mundane and purely scientific. The definition borrows from the key terms and concepts of evolutionary theory—mutation, selection, environment—and rearranges them to describe a biological mechanism that in most respects runs counter to the well-understood workings of evolution. In most general descriptions of the evolutionary process, the environment is treated as a given, and organisms are described as being successful in that environment by being the emergent winners in the processes of genetic mutation and selection. In a corresponding description of biological anti-evolution, the opposite takes place: the organism is now the given—it will not undergo any significant genetic mutation—and it succeeds not through the process of natural selection, but instead by circumventing selection, by radically and intentionally altering the organism’s environment in such a way as to render the emergent surroundings more supportive and proliferative. Although in theory any organism might attempt to thrive through the process of anti-evolution, over the course of Earth’s history it would appear only one species has availed itself of that opportunity. We are members of that species.

To see how biological anti-evolution makes a more elegant description of the rise of modern man than evolution does, we need to develop first a good sense of cosmological time. A good sense of cosmological time provides two insights: first, the mechanisms of evolution take place over an immensely long period of time, much longer than anything we are accustomed to experiencing or even imagining, and second, relatively speaking, the emergent success of modern man has occurred in the blink of an eye.

The Earth has a tremendously long history. Scientists describe the infancy of this solar system as having taken place about four and a half billion years ago. Nearly two billion years ago, conditions were finally right for cellular life to form in the waters of this planet, and in the hundreds of millions of years since, evolution has been weaving Earth’s biological tapestry, with an assortment of organisms coming and going—some simple, some complex—all subject to the continuous processes of natural selection and genetic mutation. To grasp the immense amount of time we are contemplating, we might avail ourselves of a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment, if you will, there has been a cosmic traveler, a journeying laboratory technician, who has been checking in on this planet every five hundred thousand years or so to see how things are coming along. He has been noting the drifts of the continents and the changing weather patterns. He catalogs the species, both plant and animal, and takes a census. We might imagine him graphing and charting these findings for taking back to his supervisors, so that they too could analyze the changes and trends, and what might strike our technician the most from visit to visit is how incredibly little change takes place each time. The vegetation growing from the Earth’s crust would shift in kind and form in only the subtlest of ways, drifting slowly to the types of plants and flowers we observe today. And of the more complex organisms, only a handful of new ones would appear with each new visit, along with a corresponding handful of extinctions. With the exception of the occasional asteroid hit or massive volcanic eruption, each visit would be more noteworthy for what did not change than for what did—and this despite the fact each interval would be a mind-numbingly lengthy one half million years. “Ah, yes,” we might hear our visitor say on nearly each of these many many returns, holding up his graphs side-by-side, “only a few deviations from the last time I was here. The evolutionary laboratory seems to be progressing along quite nicely.”

Now imagine the last visit took place about fifty thousand years ago, a mere sliver within the gigantic time frame we have been considering. Once again, we might observe our cosmic lab technician plotting the subtle changes, and as he updates his catalog of the various species, he might pause for a moment at man. “Now this one is interesting,” he will say. “Only seen on a few of the more hospitable parts of the planet, yet appears to be expanding its reach. Genetically complex, shows some crude use of tools, one or two nuances beyond the communication skills of the other primates. On the other hand, he looks awfully puny and defenseless against the meteorological and biological forces on this planet—I wonder how long this creature can hold out before extinction. Yes, I must remember to check specifically for man when I return again in five hundred thousand years.”

But upon this last comment, we might imagine a supervisor crackling through on a communication channel, “Don’t wait five hundred thousand years this time. Check again on the planet in fifty thousand years.”

“Fifty thousand years!” our lab technician objects. “Nothing’s going to happen in just fifty thousand years. Why waste my time?”

“Just do it,” the supervisor replies.

And so dutifully, in less cosmological time than it would take to grab a quick cup of coffee, our technician returns. One glance—and we can only imagine the sound of his jaw hitting the cosmic floor. “My god! What has happened here?”

We do not easily grasp the immensity of the transformation ourselves because we live in the midst of it. But seeing it from the vantage of our imagined lab technician, who after all would have visited this planet thousands of times by now and would have observed it change so slowly over all that time, we might begin to get a sense of his overwhelming astonishment. “The immense cities!” we might hear him crying out. “The roads, pipelines, power lines, endless fields. Oil being sucked from the ground and burned for energy. The dearth of trees, the dearth of animals! Books, houses, song. And the machines—oh, the machines—cars, combines, ocean going ships, airplanes, telephones, televisions, computers, satellites, space probes. And just how many billion humans are down there? They were only in the tens of thousands the last time I looked! And look at where they are living—the deserts, polar regions, under the oceans. They’ve been to the moon, for God’s sake! How can this possibly be, and in no time whatsoever? What has happened here?”

We allowed our cosmic traveler a full fifty thousand years from his previous visit, but we ourselves could have experienced much the same sense of astonishment if only we might have taken a sunny-day plane flight from the east coast to the west coast of North America a mere three hundred years ago, followed by a similar flight today. The immense woodlands, endless prairies, pristine mountains and virgin coastlines—they are suddenly no more, the Earth’s skin having been thoroughly tattooed in a patchwork of concrete, asphalt, paper, wire, plastics, piping, steel, lumber, paint, drywall and crops. From a cosmological perspective, Earth’s environmental transformation can only be described as stunning, unbelievable, far beyond words—we might liken it to a powerful chemical explosion, or maybe the surprising and immediate blooming of a desert flower. If we could take just a moment, pause to look around us and gather in all we can from a few feet away to the farthest horizon, consider what that setting must have been like for so many millions of years and what it was still like until just so recently, then contrast that to what it has become now—then finally realize this observation could be repeated at countless locations all around the planet, almost always with similar astounding effect. If our sense of cosmological time is working at all, we cannot help but be overwhelmed with amazement and awe, for we are living in the midst of a nearly instantaneous transformational miracle, one of our own making.

Or at least, we would have to describe it as a miracle if evolution is guiding our view. I find myself often perplexed when reading books and articles from scholars who can weave—admittedly with great skill and cleverness—explanation after explanation attempting to link evolutionary concepts to the phenomenon of modern man (the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists currently lead this charge). I say perplexed, because I know such scientists are well versed in evolutionary theory—are experts, in fact—and yet it seems as though they are refusing belief in one of the most fundamental principles of what they claim they know. The biological evolutionary mechanism is a grindingly slow process, with significant change measured almost invariably on the scale of millions of years, not thousands or hundreds, and thus evolution is an exceedingly unlikely candidate for shedding light on the sudden bursting forth of modern man and his civilizations. I am of course not the first person to question this practice of applying evolution to the transformations of recent human history—Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, well aware of evolution’s glacial pace, was one of the foremost and more eloquent critics of those claiming to see evolution in nearly everything modern. Perhaps it has been the lack of a suitable alternative explanation that has compelled scientists to try again and again to fit the evolutionary square peg into the round hole, but this is a problem that needs to be stepped away from and seen afresh. This is a problem that needs to be turned around.

Modern man is not an evolutionary success. Instead, modern man finds himself engaged in the process of breaking free from evolution, with astounding effect. On Earth, man has become an anti-evolutionary force.

Evidence for biological anti-evolution is not to be looked for in the organism; instead, it can be found in a purposely transformed environment. Environment is a very broad term used in this context—it might be more meaningful to say something like, the entire physical surroundings that can be sensed directly or indirectly, or others might regard the concept as captured more succinctly in the term the world (as in “the world is all that is the case”). I will continue to use the term environment because of its biological connotation, but in addition to such things as trees, streams, clouds, rain forests and the like, we must open the concept to so much more: a baby’s laughter, smells wafting from a restaurant, our clothing, electromagnetic waves. The term encompasses concepts we might not typically consider as environmental, such as our language, but after all, all forms of our language manifest themselves in the environment—sound vibrations in the air, ink on a page, gestures with the hand. Humans too must be considered as part of this broad concept of environment—our behaviors, odors, memory lobes and prayers—because for each one of us, the others and their effect are palpably out there. And in a sense, nearly everything is out there—in the environment.

Some items in our environment still originate from nature and are not created, altered or otherwise impacted by man. But a major tenet of anti-evolution is that today, now, here in the early twenty-first century, an amazingly large portion of what we experience in our environment is man-made or man altered. We can grasp the enormity of the mark Homo sapiens has made upon this planet by simply holding an image before our mind’s eye of what Earth must have been like thousands of years ago compared with a corresponding image of how Earth stands today—nearly every observable, measurable difference is the result of man. To categorize all these countless changes would require the help of anthropologists, historians, religious scholars, political scientists, architects, engineers, agricultural experts, doctors and even fashion designers. All would need to be brought front and center, because the broadest categorizations of these etchings made into our surroundings would include such concepts as the harnessing of energy, the construction of cities and governments, the systematic production of food, the development of the written word and printing press, the flowering of the many branches of mathematics, literature, religion and philosophy, and the discovery and application of so many physical laws, engineering principles, medicines and computer science. And the smallest sampling of the many manifestations of these changes would include the gasoline tank on your car, a packet of love letters, the reciting of football scores on the local news, a dog-eared copy of Zarathustra, the opening bars of a Sousa march resounding in a concert hall, the policeman’s gun, the swishing skirt, a bottle containing blood pressure pills, every inch of wire connecting the Internet, and the corner ice cream shop on the way home. A complete listing of the environmental transformations would now take many lifetimes to assemble. We have been busy these last fifty thousand years, busily engaged in mutating our environment—and we are becoming more prolific at it at an exponential rate.

In attempting to explain these transformations of man and his surroundings, scholars have not typically looked outwards to the environment, but instead have looked inwards to man’s brain. It is often suggested man must have adaptively evolved the particular mental capacities that account for his tool usage, language, advanced social structures, sciences and all the rest. Some in the fields of cognitive and evolutionary psychology have postulated a modular framework for the human brain that includes specific regions devoted to functionality for language, logic, creativity and problem solving, and it is suggested that such modules adaptively evolved in the recent ancestry of man and burst into effective bloom around fifty thousand years ago. There are even serious arguments put forth that man must have evolved at one point a cerebular structure that works as the neuronal equivalent of a universal Turing machine, thereby allowing man to think algorithmically and computationally instead of just instinctively, thus accounting for his sudden separation from the rest of the animal kingdom. I do not mean to sound too dismissive of all these explanations—the phenomenon of modern man is sufficiently rich to allow for considerable speculation, some of which can be quite ingenious. But these attempts to build an evolutionary underpinning to man’s supposedly unique neuronal capacity suffer from one obvious and serious flaw—genetics.

Significant genetic mutation—the kind that alters species, let alone the planet—is not an everyday event. As an evolutionary mechanism, its expected frequency is measured in the millions of years. But to take seriously all the suggestions made of advanced brain development within the immediate forerunners of man would be to postulate an enormous number of highly significant, highly successful genetic mutations all occurring within the span of no more than perhaps a few hundred thousand years. The current genetic evidence does not point down that road. Genome research indicates man’s genetic structure does not vary in large degree from his primate relatives, and no doubt there is even less variation from man’s immediate biological ancestors, such as Homo erectus, and finally there must be less variation still (if significantly any at all) from the Homo sapiens who foraged on the African plains fifty to a hundred thousand years ago. Scientists believe it quite conceivable that if we could transpose a Cro-Magnon newborn to our modern times, nurture him, educate him, dress him up in the latest fashion and send him off to work, he would blend into the surroundings just fine, barely distinguishable from all the rest. And no less instructive would be the reverse of that thought experiment: that is, a newborn from today transposed to the prehistoric African plains and raised there would not suddenly begin spouting forth an alphabet or perform arithmetic tricks or construct dazzling architectures—such a child would grow up to be a hunter-gatherer, just like those around him. The mental capacities man utilizes to help create and navigate his modern culture must have been present from a long time back, perhaps far longer than we are willing to admit, and thus do not of themselves serve as the precipitating factor that suddenly propelled man to depart the savannah and go find his universe. In many ways this insistence that man’s brain capacity alone accounts for what distinguishes his species from all the rest is a continuation of the kind of anthropocentric nearsightedness that has nearly always plagued science. It is a variation on the kind of thinking that within the cosmological realm had man convinced to the point of dogma that Earth stood at the center of the universe. It took the expanded vision of a Copernicus to teach man to direct his attention outwards, and in the realm of psychology the time has come for a similar broadening of the context.

The other frequently invoked explanation for man’s sudden advancement on this planet is that it results from cultural evolution—the same basic principles and mechanisms of biological evolution, only applied now within the domains of behavior, society and culture. The crude early formulations of this philosophy were classified under the term Social Darwinism, but these days the tradition is carried on with far greater sophistication by scholars such as Richard Dawkins, in writings outlining concepts described as memes, selfish genes, replicators and the like, theoretical constructs depicting how cultural ideas can compete, mutate and effectively evolve. According to the memeticists, man and his brain still play a critical role in this drama, for man is the carrier of all these constructs, his neurons the cauldron in which competition, replication and mutation can take place. Although many objections have been made and can be made to such theories, we will focus here on the one most germane to the discussion at hand, namely that theoretical constructs are just that—theoretical. In biology, genes have a physical manifestation, they are made up of the chemical strands of DNA every organism possesses. Memes it would appear do not have an equivalent physical manifestation, or if they do, it is described as being etched in the neuronal connections of the human brain. But this would raise the question of how such neuronal connections get physically transmitted from brain to brain, especially given that some cultural ideas now spread around the planet in a matter of hours or even minutes. Or we might look at all this from another perspective. If mankind were to be suddenly wiped out tomorrow, say by an all-consuming plague, and Earth were to lie mostly dormant for thousands of years, would a visiting intelligence then have no means of reconstructing the ideas and cultures we take as the hallmark features of modern man? Would every architectural principle, every scientific discovery, every witty turn of phrase have vanished, dissolved in the final biological decay? Or would the evidence still be obvious, standing as it were right in front of the onlooker’s eyes?

Modern man, his civilizations, the transformations to this planet—all can be described more elegantly than with brain modules and memes. We need only appeal to the richness contained within the environment we have constructed all around us. As man has mutated his environment—first slowly by crafting tools, mastering fire and putting on clothes, then more quickly with agriculture and metallurgy and shelters, and finally accelerating to the cascades of alterations we experience today—in the process he has left markers of his newfound knowledge everywhere within the environment, and thereby has passed along the intelligence and the ability to recreate its effects from person to person, tribe to tribe, culture to culture, generation to generation. In some cases, these environmental markers are obvious, such as with books and the massive amount of information now stored electronically on the Internet. But there are many other education-filled, tangible markers we might underestimate until we become consciously aware of them. For instance, every building is a visual lesson plan in geometry. Our system of highways and roads is a living laboratory on topics such as networks, flow and cooperation. We humans experience a continuous flood of education simply by having our five senses open to the environment that exists around us, an environment that is increasingly man-made. We can no longer take a five-minute trip to the grocery store without being inundated by the accumulated knowledge of our past and present.

It is in this way that man insures the continued and increasing intelligence of his species—by storing his knowledge and discoveries more or less permanently into his environment, and not into his brain. We have the same brains we had tens of thousands of years ago, but we live in a far more intelligent setting. This is the likely explanation behind the Flynn effect, the discovery that intelligence measures such as IQ are steadily increasing around the globe at the rate of about three IQ points every decade. Each generation, both consciously and subliminally, picks up the additional information that has been added to the environment since the previous generation and thereby goes forth smarter than its forebears. In ancient Greece, geometry was accessible only to a genius like Euclid—today a high school student, having lived a childhood populated with lines and shapes, handles the subject with relative ease. Three centuries ago, calculus was an impenetrable fog to all but Newton, Leibniz and a few others—now college students, prepared all their lives by examples and experiences of accelerations and square footage, differentiate and integrate by the thousands. One day, relativity theory and quantum mechanics will by similar means become more widely mastered. As we gain knowledge about our environment we store that knowledge right back into the environment, encode it in our books, our machines, our behaviors, our lives. We build our human intelligence, literally, right there in the environment, and a human brain does not need special functionality to access this intelligence or to speak about it. A human brain needs only its senses, its memory and a decent start. Somewhere along the way, man began the immensely valuable practice of intentionally mutating his found environment, and the results have been explosive—and anti-evolutionary—ever since.

We can examine the other claim of the second hypothesis—that autism is the primary catalyst behind biological anti-evolution in man—by considering first the cognitive characteristics that would be necessary to allow an organism to mutate its environment to its own advantage. Nearly all successful organisms change their environment to some degree: the lion impacts the gazelle population, the bee pollinates the flower, and the mighty oak crowds out and shades the lesser trees. But in nature, these effects are mostly peripheral, having been produced at first by chance and having taken hold through natural selection; they are not directly perfected, generalized or built upon by the species itself. In contrast, man’s alterations to his environment have taken on an entirely different tenor. Instead of a handful of such transformations, they have now become countless, multi-faceted and ever more frequent, and man’s environmental mutations are seldom independent from one another, but instead form a linked chain or a mapped set of alterations, each building upon the previous—as when sickle becomes thresher becomes combine. Far from being produced by accident or chance, man’s alterations to his environment display overwhelming evidence of being skillful, precise, generalized and repeatable. This type of intentional manipulation would be impossible without the existence of two cognitive prerequisites.

The first prerequisite is awareness. An organism would need to be conscious of any environmental features to be altered, because that which is not perceived cannot be intentionally changed. The other animal species do not appear to have the same degree of environmental awareness as humans now possess. The bee knows the flower, but is ignorant of its roots; the lion discerns the weakened zebra, but fails to apprehend the clouds overhead. For all other species, it would appear the environmental features non-essential to their survival and procreation do not reach the level of consciousness, whereas man’s recent history can be described as an ongoing and accelerating saga of expanded spatial and temporal awareness, an awareness that now goes far beyond what is needed for survival and procreation alone. For humans, space now ranges all the way from quark to cosmos, time runs back from the Big Bang to the latest nanosecond. Our accumulated knowledge and intelligence hangs upon an ever-expanding framework of environmental awareness, and we have been using this framework to rapidly change who we are and what we can do.

The second cognitive prerequisite for skillful environmental manipulation is a capacity to see underlying structure and form, and to see these accurately. Awareness alone is not sufficient for allowing an organism to successfully alter its surroundings. The organism would need to understand its environment so deeply as to be able to penetrate into its laws and logic before attempting any alterations—otherwise, the mutations would more likely prove disastrous than to do good. Man has suffered his share of such disasters when his understanding of the environmental structure has proven to be inadequate, but by and large, man has displayed remarkable skill at deciphering the keys to most environmental situations before attempting to re-create them, a skill at deciphering that now forms the backbone of scientific method and artistic insight, and extends these days as far as fathoming the fundamental building blocks of the physical world and the fundamental building blocks of life itself.

In summary, man has become the one organism on this planet able to change its environment accurately and beneficially, because first, man is the only organism to have become consciously aware of that environment, and second, man has grown to understand the environment’s underlying structure and form so well as to be able to render the majority of his alterations more constructive than destructive.

It is time now to recall our earlier comparisons between the neurotypical and autistic populations, and to remember our descriptions of their respective cognitive traits. We recall that it is the non-autistic population that possesses a more natural affinity for strong species recognition, and thereby possesses a stronger awareness of the environmental features crucial to human survival and procreation. But also, precisely because of that, non-autistics are less naturally inclined to see the biologically non-essential pattern, structure and form to be found in the broader world around them. (Such broader awareness is more an acquired and learned skill for the non-autistic population.) Autistics, on the other hand, their cognition less predetermined by species recognition and its consequences, find themselves naturally drawn to making sense of their experience by appealing first to the structures and patterns that inherently stand out in their environment, an environment that is not predefined and not pre-bounded by the priority of any human-specific influences. Autistics by their very nature are able to cast an eye more widely across the field of their sensory world and are able to focus a gaze more deeply into the environment’s underlying structure and form. When not overwhelmed by the social and biological difficulties that their condition can so easily bring, and when able to maintain a reasonable connection back to their own species, autistics bring to mankind an expansion of environmental awareness that biologically would be difficult to obtain by any other means.

Thus, by comparing the cognitive traits of the autistic and non-autistic subpopulations to the cognitive prerequisites an organism would need in order to intentionally and skillfully mutate its surroundings, we are led to the conclusion that it is primarily the presence of autistic cognitive traits that accounts for mankind’s ability to make anti-evolutionary transformations to its found environment. Autism is the primary catalyst behind biological anti-evolution in man.

The above conclusion does not discount the enormous role the neurotypical population has played, and continues to play, in the reshaping of mankind’s environment—the word catalyst has been used precisely here—and any attempt to suggest that mankind’s discoveries and transformations are inspired and achieved solely by autistics would betray a gross misunderstanding. The neurotypical population, open to all forms of biological advantage, and imitative and pragmatic by instinct, has acquired over time a learned ability to apprehend and create in the broader environment, especially in circumstances where that apprehension and creation is perceived to be of immediate biological and social use (a perception which would be less easy for autistics to grasp). Although the presence of autistic cognitive traits has been the primary impetus behind humanity’s broader environmental awareness, that awareness has resulted in a profound and revolutionary impact upon the entire human population, not the least of which has been a shifting of the human cognitive norm away from the strictly neurotypical form it once took during the early years of Homo sapiens, and moving it to the far more blended form of cognition that can be observed in nearly all adults today. Broadly speaking, man’s ever-accelerating mutative impact upon his environment has fueled a kind of ongoing dance between the respective cognitive traits of the autistic and neurotypical populations, the autistic traits helping to open the door of knowledge to a much wider world, and the neurotypical traits helping to hone and spread this knowledge in such a way as to contribute to the overall success of the species. A fascinating symbiotic relationship now exists between the two subpopulations and their respective cognitive traits, with the contributions of neither party to be underestimated. In the modern age, it would not be accurate to describe the human cognitive norm as either purely neurotypical or purely autistic, but instead human cognition today stands as an intriguing blend of the effects of both forms of cognition, their respective characteristics having been thoroughly inscribed into the culture and into the surrounding environment.

Matching the autistic cognitive traits to the prerequisites allowing an organism to successfully mutate its environment has a certain logical appeal to it, but would not by itself be sufficient to make us accept autism as the primary driver behind biological anti-evolution in man—not without some form of tangible, corroborative evidence. But such evidence does exist, and in fair abundance. It exists in mankind’s history and in the biographies of many of its most innovative and influential individuals. Historians, biographers and social scientists have begun to note the extraordinary number of figures from our past who have both utterly changed the way we see ourselves as humans and reconstruct our world, and who have also displayed many behavioral and cognitive characteristics commonly associated with the functioning forms of autism. A list of such individuals might easily include artists, scientists and thinkers such as Socrates, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Newton, Blake, Beethoven, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Edison, Jung, Einstein, Yeats, Wittgenstein and Turing. And beyond the sciences, arts and philosophy, we can also note there are many distinctive personalities underlying major religious and political movements—Meister Eckhart, Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson come readily to mind, but it could also be argued that even the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, with his penetrating and revolutionary insight into the cultural and religious establishment of his day, his deeply felt frustrations at not being understood, and his frequent need to find solitude away from the crowd—even he might be described as someone displaying the traits and behaviors resembling those of a higher functioning form of autism.

Admittedly, it is not possible in the strictest sense to provide retrospectively accurate psychiatric diagnoses to historical figures, and at any rate, as has been suggested, the real catalyst here is the influence and presence of autistic cognitive traits, not the diagnostic label of autism itself. Nonetheless, in many cases we do possess enough biographical information to make the case for autism extremely compelling—Newton, Einstein and Wittgenstein are perhaps the most notable—and these cases alone would be highly suggestive that autism must be playing a substantial role in mankind’s anti-evolutionary turn. For if the rate of autism within the human population is indeed running at less than 1 percent, it would stand as an extraordinary coincidence to discover so many individuals with autistic-like characteristics standing at the forefront of mankind’s cultural development. What we see so frequently alongside each critical turning point in our anthropological history is an individual with a familiar set of features—often solitary, sometimes irascible, iconoclastic, misunderstood by contemporaries, detached from or naïve to the practical circumstances of his immediate surroundings—all while being deeply engaged in penetrating the heretofore mysteries of a much broader world. It must be more than mere coincidence that the landscape of human history is so broadly brushed with the work of distinctive individuals like these, who appear to have been high in the possession of autistic-like characteristics and who have made use of those characteristics to help open our eyes to where we are and what we can accomplish as a species. These individuals and their transformational legacies are the strong evidence indicating that somewhere along the way, the autistic cognitive traits were introduced into the human population, and from that moment on, man became increasingly anti-evolutionary.

Third Hypothesis: The natural trend will be for the size of the autistic population to continue to grow as a percentage of the human population.

Researchers and medical practitioners are noting today we seem to be in the middle of an autistic spectrum epidemic. The reported numbers of diagnoses are growing at what is considered to be an alarming pace, from a prevalence rate estimated by many to be about 1 in 2000 as little as thirty years ago, to currently reported figures that are fast approaching 1 in 100. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating the phenomenon to determine if the increase is genuine and if there might be a discernable explanation. Media outlets are running autism stories on nearly a daily basis, the bookstore shelves are sprouting autism-related titles like mushrooms, and local support services and school systems are sounding the alarm they may soon be overwhelmed with autistic spectrum caseloads. Therefore, it is not surprising that many concerned observers have been speculating as to possible environmental causes at the root of this upsurge, with some common proposals being the presence of mercury-based preservatives in childhood vaccines or an increased level of industrial pollution and toxins, enough to spawn severe immune system reactions.

Others have been quick to point out that a large portion of the increase can be attributed to the growing awareness of autism in the general community, allowing people to give a diagnostic name to what actually has been prevalent all along, but unrecognized. Parents and pediatricians are now more knowledgeable of the signs to look for in detecting autism early, and this, along with society’s generally increased focus on the developmental milestones of its youth, has almost certainly led to more children being diagnosed today who previously would have been regarded as simply quirky or a bit behind. The diagnostic criteria themselves have been seen as loosening and expanding somewhat, in particular to capture more instances of the less severe forms of autism, and this too has produced an increase in the reported numbers. Finally, the media attention itself has provided an opportunity for undiagnosed functioning autistics to recognize the condition in themselves, many realizing for the first time that their struggles with socialization and their tendencies towards obsessive interests might come with a medical name attached. So indeed, the increased awareness and attention being given to autism does explain in some measure the increasing number of autism cases, both those professionally and self-diagnosed.

But there is more to the story.

Many of the detailed prevalence studies, after factoring for the changing diagnostic criteria and accounting for such things as population growth, still suggest a residual increase in the rate of autism. In a sense, those who are convinced there must be an environmental factor behind autism’s rise are correct, although the factor they likely have in mind is not the one actually at work. What misleads us is that we look for specific things in the environment, instead of considering the impact of the environment as a whole. We have already encountered, previously in this essay, the real reason behind autism’s continuing rise. The human population, using the deep knowledge catalyzed in large measure by its autistic members, finds itself mutating the environment in a manner that naturally produces an increased propagation of its autistic traits.

Until recently in human history, propagation of autistic traits must have been a difficult and haphazard process. Autistics, due to their weak sense of species familiarity, find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the realms of survival and procreation, particularly in environments where physical dangers still lurk, food is not plentiful, disease remains prevalent, and sexual success depends largely on physical instincts and social ranking. In such environments, early death holds a high probability for the autistic, and even when adulthood can be attained, mating and family development remain problematic at best. To understand how the autistic traits might have originally taken hold within the human population and have continued to be propagated ever since will require further research and insight from the fields of anthropology and genetics. Two possible factors can be briefly mentioned here. One, the lengthy nurturing period of Homo sapiens and the resultant tendency to a family-based social structure may have resulted in a critically more tolerant setting for those members experiencing a major cognitive diversity. And two, there seems to be a high likelihood that the genetic markers for autism are carried in recessed form by the non-autistic members of the human population, allowing for the traits to be passed on by those who do not display the phenotype of the condition.

As difficult as the propagation of autistic traits may have been throughout human history, there can be no question the propagation keeps getting easier all the time. As the human population continues to alter its environment in the many astounding ways we have already considered, we note how beneficial the changes are to the autistic population. Raw survival itself is much easier now, supported by large communities, strong shelters, medicines and abundant food—all the result of man’s deeply informed environmental transformations. Earning a living today is less likely to be done by instinct or raw muscle, means that would have put an autistic individual at a disadvantage, but instead is earned more frequently with calculation, logic and the aid of various machines, means by which autistics can often excel. And as the environment itself has been rapidly transformed, so too has human sexuality changed in response. These changes are many—some subtle, some grand—but nearly all are to the advantage of the autistic population. As an example, these days an individual has a far larger pool of potential mates from which to make a successful match than has been available at any point in human history. Just a few hundred years ago, one’s selection of potential mates was essentially limited to those to be found in the immediate locale. But today, riding a crescendo of advanced communication systems and ubiquitous travel, a lusty individual finds virtually the entire human population to be in play. This is an advantage the neurotypical population does not really need, because it has been doing fine all along. Enmeshed in its glue of empathy and graced by the advantage of being the large majority, the neurotypical population has always found itself with an abundance of potential mating targets. But for the members of the autistic population, who relatively speaking have been finding willing and appropriate mates to be few and far between, having a large selection available is critical for increasing the odds of making a successful match and propagating the genetic traits.

Through the benefit of these and many similar environmental and social transformations, autistics now find themselves surviving into adulthood at far greater rates than before, making decent livings, attracting mates more frequently and raising families as they once seldom could. The autistic population is no longer struggling as a subpopulation—it has begun to thrive.

It is difficult to predict where the current circumstances might eventually lead; many uncertain factors come into play—genetics and politics, to name just two. In contemplating a future that includes mankind’s growing awareness of its increasing mixture of autistic and neurotypical cognitive traits, we would need first to emphasize the effective symbiotic relationship already existing between the two subpopulations—each benefits immensely from the traits of the other. To see this, we might imagine each population attempting to exist homogeneously. For a purely neurotypical population, one never having been exposed to the influence of autistic cognitive traits, we would have to assume a fate similar to that of the other species on this planet. Man’s closest primate cousins, such as the chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, apparently without an autistic influence of their own, find themselves still evolution bound to the exigencies of their immediate environment and to the call of survival and procreation within that environment. For such species—in fact, for all species other than man—notions of space, time, abstract language, architecture and biochemistry remain far outside their ken, their life forms and cognitive processes not open to what a broader universe might have to say to them. The forerunners of man, and Homo sapiens themselves, lived similarly for many hundreds of thousands of years. This was how our cosmic lab technician would have found them fifty thousand years ago and would have expected to find them still five hundred thousand years hence. To break evolution’s hold appears to require a cognitive process able to see beyond its immediate biological needs and surroundings, and a purely neurotypical population, by definition, would not have access to the spark of such a cognitive process.

A purely autistic population, one without the benefit of a neurotypical influence, would appear to have difficulties of its own. Although there are no examples to guide us, the obvious first question to ask is, could such a population survive? It would seem that the continuing propagation of autistic traits within the human population has depended in large measure on the social and nurturing characteristics of its neurotypical members, an influence that can be witnessed in full effect today as loving parents and dedicated professionals work diligently to understand the autistic individuals in their care and bring them closer to experiencing the fulfillment that comes with connectedness and community. Even if it were possible that a purely autistic population could survive independently, we might ask about the nature of such a life form and wonder if it held any of the elements normally associated with vitality. A cognitive process informed and shaped entirely by the patterns and structure to be found in the surrounding environment would be remarkably like the external world itself—except perhaps stripped of its life forms—and although we might marvel at the near crystalline purity of such an entity, we might also shudder at its relative coldness.

These speculations aside, the present reality is that both subpopulations find themselves to be critical components of a human population that, taken as a whole, is thriving. Indeed, it is more than just thriving—the human population finds itself engaged in the process of freeing itself from evolution’s grip and reaching for a much broader universe in which to flourish. This is not the place to wax poetic or philosophical, but I can still note with scientific intent that man’s environmental transformations show evidence of direction, structure and purpose, and stand in stark contrast to the random processes evolutionary theorists would have thrust upon us. There is a way of looking at the phenomenon of modern man and his self-created cultures that would suggest the structures and laws of the external world seem to be breathing through him, coming to life and consciousness through his work. I would be tempted to call it mystical if it were not so obviously unfolding before our very eyes, and at our own hands.

In the interest of fostering the symbiotic relationship that already has bestowed so many benefits upon the human population, I would urge consideration of the following two suggestions:

  1. Perhaps we should stop calling it an epidemic. In the first place, the autistic population is not sick; it simply possesses a different set of cognitive characteristics than the majority population, characteristics that come with their own set of challenges and benefits. More importantly, the autistic population’s growth is a natural consequence of its influence on the human population and on the environment as a whole. In a manner of speaking, this increase in autism was meant to be.
  2. Given that autistic prevalence will continue to increase within the human population, it would seem beneficial to both subpopulations to continue their efforts at making attempts to connect with each other. Fortunately, this process seems to be well underway. It has already been noted that most autistic individuals, motivated by the real benefits of empathy, are more than willing to reach across to the neurotypical population, and the presence of the many efforts in support of autistic spectrum children speaks to the desire of both subpopulations to make this connection happen, and happen more frequently. In turn, members of the neurotypical population, mostly through the processes of lifelong education and self-awareness, can continue to strengthen an activity they have been undertaking since the first, early appearances of autistic influences in their environment—that is, they can continue to learn about the deep environmental understandings that are the fruits of the autistic cognitive process, they can transform those understandings into general benefit for the population at large, and indeed, many can learn to grasp the essence of the transformational thought pattern itself and thereby contribute fundamentally to the continuing advancement of man. Reaches across the neurotypical-autistic cognitive gap are difficult, but not impossible. Each successful connection is a confirmation of the flexibility of the human mind and the glory of the human spirit.


That man is an extraordinary species will come as no surprise to those who have considered seriously the discoveries and accomplishments of the previous centuries—in particular those of the last century—or to those who have contemplated the possibilities yet to come. The suggestion that autism, a condition regarded until now as a psychiatric and developmental disorder, could be the major key for understanding humanity’s extraordinary transformational history might seem at first glance to be unlikely, perhaps outrageous. But autism, when deeply understood, will come to be recognized as representing the cognitive traits that have allowed man, unlike any other species on this planet, to see beyond his immediate biological needs and open for himself a world of immense discovery and profound creation.

Evolutionary psychologists are wont to explain man’s achievements as random by-products of a brain suited for survival on the jungle floor, and adherents to cultural evolution are apt to describe modern man through a labyrinthine interaction of theoretical constructs such as selfish genes, memes, replicators and the like. For me, such explanations do not rise to the level of the nearly cosmic formations taking shape all around us. My hope is that the hypotheses postulated here will help us see ourselves and see our found environment from a new perspective, one that more accurately conveys to us who we are, and what we can do.

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