Autism and Evolution

Truthfully, I did not intend to write this article (Or any other article today for that matter). However, I was just presented with an argument so false that I cannot help but to return to the ol’ keyboard and type a few paragraphs about it. The argument in question involved a highly controversial topic, and further, I am going to approach this entire subject from a purely analytical perspective. If you are easily offended, this is not the article for you.

“Autism could be evolution, who are you to say that it isn’t?”

This was the quote flung haphazardly into the air during what was supposed to be a civil discussion. Here we see a statement, followed by a question, and I would like to respond to the latter first. Who I am is irrelevant. I am a normal human being that happens to research topics thoroughly before addressing them. Phew. I feel better with that out of the way. Now, onto the statement.

The definition of evolution, provided for reference, is: “The process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.” The secondary and far less subjective definition is thus: “The gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form”. The term “evolution” is also synonymous with advancement, progression, and natural selection. I would also like to provide the definition of natural selection: “The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.”

giphy (4)

Now that we have some framework, let’s dive in. Our evolution from tree dwelling monkeys into the dominant species on the planet was brought about by the evolution of our genome. Evolution, by definition, provided us with traits that made us more likely to be able to survive and to adapt to our environment. It is also worth noting that evolution comes about as a result of mutations in the genome of a species that end up being positive and are therefore kept. Negative traits that would promote devolution are usually taken out of the genome over time.

To get more specific, in a study performed by researchers from Harvard Medical School at Boston Children’s Hospital, it was concluded that our species progressed as rapidly as it did because of small regions of our genome that we share with other species. These regions of our genome changed rather rapidly, specifically during out species’ divergence from our closest living relatives: The chimpanzee. All in all, there are about 2700 such beneficial sequences in the genome, which are known as human accelerated regions (HARS). Disturbingly, the current genome that the majority of us possess today sits in a very delicate balance, and is, as a result, highly susceptible to even minor changes.

Office-baboon-money-stacks

In addition to the generalized examination performed on the genome, a control group of 2100 American children with autism spectrum disorder was studied. In this study, it was shown that these children were 6.5 times more likely than their healthy siblings to exhibit duplication, or deletion, of a HAR. The non-beneficial duplication or deletion of an HAR is known as recession, or, recessive mutation. It is worth mentioning that at least half of our current advancement as a species came about as a direct result of HARs enabling us to perform and understand complex social behaviors.

It is believed that the genes partially responsible for causing autism are not inherently bad. In fact, these genetic variations could very well have been positively selected during our evolution due to the fact that they aid in cognition. The process of evolution tends to eliminate variants to the genome with large negative impact quickly, but, common variants that occur with higher frequency yet smaller effect can accumulate over time, manifesting in either positive, or negative inherited traits.

The difference between a child who exhibits normal development and a child whose development falls under the category of ASD is decided by an extremely small number of these traits. Think of the genome’s volatility like this. Adderall and methamphetamine are separated by only a methyl group, yet the effects of both are radically different.

Meth-or-Adderall

Finally, we arrive at the conclusion that this knowledge has brought us to. Autism, is not evolution; It is the result of a genetic mistake, and represents a regression of progress rather than a progression. 

With that being said, I want to address the subject of the autistic population. Those suffering from ASD are not a mistake. They are human beings the same as you or I that are living with a neurological disorder that falls under the category of mental disability. Keep in mind that autism belongs to the same family as Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Dementia, among others. Those with ASD are also nearly universally gifted above and beyond the rest of the world. Some individuals can accurately recreate and entire city’s skyline with pencil and paper (down to the exact number of streets and windows) from memory after having seen it only once. Some of our greatest mathematical advancement has come from those diagnosed with ASD. The list goes on and on, but I mention it for a purpose.

I am not ignorant to the benefits that this disorder can bless people with, nor do I perceive them as anything less than human. I stand for reality, and for truth, and I don’t believe in pandering to someone’s feelings because it is easier. I do not believe in calling something by a term that does not accurately describe it, and thus sends the wrong message. Finally, I do not believe in encouraging or otherwise validating outright denial.

Thank you for reading.

-More to follow.

P.S.- To the person that motivated me to write this article: You should always do research before arguing for something. 

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