The following is a transcript from an interview that I did about autism regarding the solitary forager hypothesis. The questions, formulated by ecologist Nelida Pohl, were really thoughtful and forced me to think carefully about the issues involved.
- First of all, how do you think an evolutionary perspective on autism could eventually help with developing new treatments? Are there any examples of other conditions whose evolutionary signature has helped elucidate new medical approaches?
Right, this is a difficult question to answer. Most theories in “evolutionary medicine” have helped to elucidate the problems conceptually but have not yet done a great deal in informing medical treatment. These theories have shown practical utility in predicting and treating the evolution of pathogens in terms of virulence, resistance to antibiotics and the subversion of a person’s immune system… but haven't done a great deal yet for specific, human diseases. Understanding why certain human disorders arise can encourage researchers to look at particular solutions and to disregard others. The “heterozygote advantage” theory of sickle cell anemia makes perfect sense and is embraced by virtually everyone, but has it really informed treatment strategies? Eventually such theories should allow scientists to identify and zero in on particular cellular and molecular pathways. How can the present evolutionary approach help with autism? In my opinion, the way it can help the most is through comparative biology. It will be interesting to see if oxytocin receptor distribution in the autism brain matches that in the brains of solitary animals. If so, it will be important for scientists to compare the relative distributions of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in different animals to determine which areas in the autism brain are not affected enough by these neuropeptides so that they can target these specific areas. Other species have found myriad ways to reduce social contact for adaptive purposes, and understanding how this is accomplished should provide much insight into psychopharmacology or even gene therapy for autism.
I also have a suspicion that autism, aside from the heritability, is to some extent an example of phenotypic plasticity and a predictive adaptive response. There are many of these in nature and they allow an organism to use specific early environmental cues to influence their behavioral strategies. You may have seen examples of this in the insects that you study. I think that cues indicative of social attenuation can program autism to some extent, but I can't prove it. Evolutionary theory would help in this regard. It would cause geneticists to completely reinterpret the epigenetic contributions to autism and to look for the molecular pathways that change gene expression resulting in the alternate behavioral strategy.
- What types of activities should be offered to autistic children in order to stimulate them properly?
I think that autistic children should be more motivated by pleasure and positive reinforcement to explore their social options and overcome social fears. I think that touching, cuddling, rubbing, talking and eye contact should be a parent’s priorities. I believe that with “proper stimulation” the sky is a limit for autistic people, just like it is for neurotypcial people. I personally believe that the majority of autistics can be "transformed" into Aspergians given the proper "brain training." Only in the last few decades have people been working towards findings way to assimilate individuals with autism and help them to express their potential. We have to better customize educational paths for them, influencing them to like certain things, get better at certain tasks and become knowledgeable about certain domains – the potential is there. Many people with autism may not be able to support themselves financially at this point in our society, but spiritually or intellectually they are our equals in my mind. Think about this, almost all neurotypical people think about the same kinds of things. Relative to our world, ruled by social concerns, their thoughts are highly original and abstract. We are just now beginning to understand what kinds of lives people on the autism spectrum can lead and how they can find outlets for their abilities. Autism advocacy will gradually become the documentation of successful autists as more and more people with autism surprise us with new formulas for being successful.
As to what activities should be offered to autistic children… I imagine that it sounds inhumane to many people to use food as a reinforce as my article implicitly suggests. Food is not a reinforcer for modern people but would have been for prehistoric people, even children. Most neurotypical children are motivated to learn by what they imagine is going on in the minds of others. They want to appease or please their parents, they want others to be proud of them or impressed by them… It is difficult to have these feelings and difficult to use these as motivators without having complex theories of other minds. I think that the main issue in autism is refocusing an autist’s interests and motivations and this is difficult to do without doing it through either their theory of mind or food. I think that this will be a difficult but not insurmountable obstacle for cognitive/behavioral psychologists. If a parent can increase the attachment and bond between them and their autistic child, I think the child will act on the theories of mind that they create.
- Would you say then that autism is not really a disease but a more complex evolutionary condition? And how would such a change in focus affect autistic people, their families and care givers?
I think that it is unlikely that it is a coincidence that individuals with autism have their brains wired up like other solitary foraging mammals. But yes, what we know as autism is not all disease and not all adaptive. It is a mixture of phenotypes lumped together by clinicians. I think that the solitary forager hypothesis represents reality but even still there is a ton of grey area because the modern, clinical picture of autism reflects many different things with different causes. Some issues, unrelated to natural selection for solitary foraging, mimic autism, and are lumped in with autism by the psychologists and psychiatrists making the diagnoses. All of the studies on autism are done on this heterogeneous group. I think it is a big mess that won't be entirely sorted out by geneticists for a good amount of time.
I think that, if proven true, they hypothesis should positively affect focus in autism advocacy. In my mind it shows that they are functional and not broken. I also think that it further establishes them on a social continuum with other humans instead of painting them as aberrant.
- Where should anthropologists concentrate their efforts to find evidence for early human solitary foraging? How would the evidence look like?
This is very difficult to answer. Even in the most remote areas hunter-gatherers are influenced by modernity. They do not have large ranges, there are not many of them, they may not be sufficiently profiled psychologically for us to identify foragers that are on the autism continuum. There are, however, always examples of brief periods of solitary foraging. Modern day hunter-gatherers want to be alone sometimes, just like all of us, but they haven’t been known to split up completely for long periods. This may simply reflect the fact that they live in environments that can support large groups and that they supplement their natural resources with supplies from nearby civilizations. In the evolutionary past, there would have been periods and environments where groups would have been forced to split up due to low food density and dispersed as opposed to clumped distribution. There is not much study on this, and it is not clear if these condition have been shown to exist in modern foraging environments. But, as the article cites, research has shown that similar factors do tend to break up human groups.
- And finally, are you planning on continuing this study? If so, what next? And if not, what should researchers (anthropologists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, medical doctors etc) be looking for next?
I have a ton of other theories that I am writing up now. I am currently writing an evolutionary interpretation of the stress cascade and my own take on working memory and consciousness. I would like to work on autism more, but may not do it right away unless I can find some collaborators.
I think that genetic evidence is a few years away still but the comparative biology and neuroscience is much closer. There is not a good deal of research on social instincts that makes comparisons between species. I think that comparative studies in the next few years could establish, in a reasonably firm way, whether or not the brain changes in autism are actually examples of strategic programming, shared with other animals.
Also, check out this interesting news story about a boy with autism that was lost in the woods. The article was sent to me by friend and physics student Paul Calhoun.
The article starts out like this...
"It's hard to know exactly what was going through 8-year-old Robert Wood Jr.'s mind as he wandered for five days through the woods in Hanover County, but it's possible that aspects of his autism helped him survive as much as they contributed to his disappearance. Educators familiar with Robert say his quiet determination and lack of self-awareness may have carried him through."