Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Autism and Broken Eggs


Almost everyone knows someone with autism. 1 in every 88 children have it. Countless studies have attempted to explain the sudden and dramatic rise in autism cases. But, could autism, and broad spectrum disorders, simply be the direct result of humans pushing evolutionary boundaries?

There are some who believe the cause is vaccinations, even though the original report about the MMR vaccine and its link to autism was dismissed as fraud and retracted. Others think there is something in the water. However, correlation does not imply causation. XKCD illustrates this invaluable piece of information. Just because two trends happen to run parallel does not mean one is causing the other. In contrast, bad science causes me to want to slap scientists.

Juan Enriquez has given a few speeches at TED about his Homo Evolutis theory. Technology has a tremendous impact on how we learn and interact with others as a society. In the last 30 years we have made exponential growth in technological advancements that have forever changed the way we think, feel, behave, and even love. Humans have never before been bombarded with information as we do now. We are even altering what we decide to commit to memory because we can just look it up. Need to perform emergency surgery? Google it. Have a rash that looks suspect? Convince yourself you have a terminal rash with WebMD. Everywhere we look, there is new content, information readily available.

We are learning faster than ever before. Humans are capable of learning more in a single day that we did in a year just a couple centuries ago. And guess what? Our physical brains have to cope with increased neural activity. We are essentially pushing evolution of the human brain beyond what it has ever experienced before. Recent research is even showing us that we need to slow down.

Biological Evolution does not create perfectly adapted beings and is also messy. Since evolution in general typically spans multiple generations, could we reasonably assume that as evolution is taking shape, a few proverbial eggs are broken?

Geniuses and children with autism display similar characteristics. Specifically, both groups of children in that study had better than average memories. We also know that Homo Sapiens are intellectually superior to our ancestors. Ray Kurzweil suggests that machine A.I. will eventually exceed human intelligence. In order for humans to maintain their place on the evolutionary chain, we may have to adapt our own intelligence. Kurzweil believes we have to merge with machines to achieve this. I would suggest that we are capable of evolving naturally and the evidence is presenting itself before our very eyes.

Now, whenever I meet someone with autism I will think to myself, "you are probably the first glimpse we will get into the next chapter of humanity..."