The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Asperger's. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Asperger's. Show all posts

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Next Stage of Human Evolution: The Revenge of the Aspies


 I had never thought of Spock as a case of Asperger's syndrome (an "aspie"), in turn, a mild version of autism. But it is a concept that others had noted and that perfectly describes the way Spock behaves in the "Star Trek" series. Spock's character was so successful because he may have been perceived as a possible new stage in human evolution, someone who can use logic to resist the onslaught of manipulation and propaganda that's destroying our civilization. Star Trek also illustrated how emotion and rationality can be balanced by respecting and valuing diversity. Live long and prosper, fellow aspies!


I keep discovering new things that completely change my view of the world. The latest one was just a few days ago when I found that I am probably an aspie, a term that describes Asperger's syndrome, in turn, a variant of the broader spectrum of autism.

What brought this revelation for me was the book by Temple Grandin "Thinking in Images." (1995) (1) Grandin was born with a serious case of autism, a condition that made her life very difficult in her youth. I never experienced the same level of difficulties but, as I was reading the book, I started seeing myself in Grandin's shoes. Things like being clumsy in everyday tasks, finding it difficult to follow a group conversation, getting lost in your thoughts while other people speak to you, and more. 

What clinched it was when Grandin said that most autistic people love Star Trek, especially the cold logic of first officer Spock. That's me: a Trekkie if there has ever been one. So, I concluded that I am a probable case of Asperger's, although in a mild form -- the kind familiarly know as "Aspie." (BTW, I have also been a member of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. Maybe that was a premonition, but it is another story!)

On the fact of considering myself an aspie, I know that there is such a thing as "confirmation bias," typically operating with horoscopes. You may also remember Jerome K. Jerome's book "Three Men in a Boat" where the protagonist describes how he became convinced to have all kinds of possible ailments (except the housemaid's knee) by reading a book of medical symptoms. Maybe I am just a little eccentric, as university professors often are. But I think there is something real in my self-diagnosis of mild autism. 

It is not just character that makes me behave in a certain way: my mind really clicks a little different. Let me give you just an example: I can't remember street names. It is not a choice. Really, I can't. Call it "toponymic dyslexia" if you like (a term I invented), but it is the way my mind works. With a few exceptions, such as the street where I live, my mental map of my town is purely visual, not verbal -- it contains no street names. As far as I can tell, I have always been like this.

That's not an impairment, I have no difficulties in orienting myself in my city. But people find strange, and sometimes maddening, that I go completely blank when they tell me something that has to do with a specific street name that they think everyone should know. I didn't find this symptom described exactly in this way as typical of autism, but it agrees with Grandin's description of how she doesn't think verbally, but by images.

There is more that I could tell you, but let me just add that my wife confirms my interpretation. When I told her, a few days ago, about having discovered I am an aspie, she was a little surprised at the idea of having lived with a neuropath for more than 40 years, without realizing it! But then she thought about that for a while and she said that, yes, that's what I am. She agrees that the term "aspie" describes me very well. 


Empathy and Autism

Autism is strongly related to the concept of "empathy" and autistic people are often supposed to be unable to feel empathy toward other people. But is it true? And what is empathy, exactly? It is often defined as the capability of "stepping into someone else's shoes." That's a necessary social skill: if we can't do that, we are bound to make people angry at us. Even worse, if we don't understand how Earth's ecosystem (aka Gaia) works, we are bound to make the Goddess angry at us. And that could be much worse. But what are we doing wrong, exactly? And what would it mean to do it right?

It is a subject that I have been discussing a lot with the "Empathy Guru," Chuck Pezeshky. We are even planning to write a book together on it. As you can imagine from the photo, working with Chuck may be a lot of fun, and his blog is a mine of ideas and concepts about empathy (a fundamental one being, "as we relate, so we think." It applies very well to aspies). 
It is a complex matter and, here, I can only summarize my views (not necessarily Chuck's ones) by referring to a rather abused metaphor, that of Zen story of how you can excel in the art of archery by "becoming the arrow." An even better way is to use the term that Robert A. Heinlein invented in one of his novels: "grokking," nowadays becoming common with Earthlings (especially with the one named Chuck Pezeshky).
"To grok" is a verb in the Martian language,  It is impossible to translate it exactly in earthling languages, but it means that you become the person, the animal, or the object you are trying to understand. 

Perhaps the best way to recursively grok grokking is to refer to an extremely ancient kind of earthling lore called "Shape-Shifting," the capability of wizards and deities to take the shape of other humans or animals. Of course, ancient wizards couldn't actually transform themselves into -- say -- stags. But grokking stags meant gaining something of the powers of the stags. Wearing a horned hat surely helped. The image on the left shows an ancient horned wizard from the Gundestrup Cauldron. That style of dressing seems to be still popular, nowadays, as some recent events showed. But let me not go into that. 
So, empathy means grokking and how do aspies fare with that? They are often described as people who can't feel empathy, but I think that is wrong. They are not cold-blooded, reptile-like individuals, unable to feel anything. Not at all! Aspies are potential, and sometimes real, hyper-grokkers.

Think about that: Spock, the prototypical aspie, is not someone who doesn't feel anything. He just uses logic to dominate emotion. The same is true for me, although I am not so glacial as Spock (and I am not even the first officer of a starship!). And it is true also of Temple Grandin who is a compassionate individual who dedicated much of her life to reduce the suffering of livestock. (1) That's true for most Aspies who are not impaired individuals, just people who behave a little differently from those we call "neurotypicals."

But why do aspies give the impression that they are the opposite of what they really are? It is because shape shifting/grokking is associated with the "imprisoning metamorphosis," The risk of turning oneself into something or someone else is to become that person or animal. Worse, the wizard may be unable to change back to his/her original form. In a modern version, this problem was masterfully described by Ursula le Guin in her Earthsea books. 

Grokking another mind is empathy in its purest form. And it is dangerous: mystics try that with God and they risk being burned to ashes by the pure brightness of God's spirit. With other humans, that's not the problem but, if you grok an evil person, you may become evil. If you grok a deranged person, you may become deranged in the same way. And if someone whom you grok wants you to do something bad, he or she may succeed at that.

It is a risk aspies run, so they put up a shield that protects their inside feelings. Sometimes, this shield becomes so heavy to be impenetrable. It is when a person becomes dysfunctional: too much protection shuts them off from the rest of the world. But, without shields, aspies would be an easy target for those predators who exploit empathy for their personal advantage. These people are called "psychopaths." (in short, "psychos").

Psychos are the exact opposite of aspies in terms of personality. Normally, they have little or no emphatic skills and, for them, other people are valuable only as tools. You can say that psychos are vampires of the mind: they will try to devour other people's souls if they have a chance to. 

The strategies of psychos are rarely subtle. Typically, they use intimidation. But they may exploit other weaknesses: greed, lust, pride, and vanity, as much as positive qualities such as kindness and compassion. Often, psychopaths tend to gang together to amplify their powers. National governments are typically colonized by psychopaths of the worst kind.

Now you can see how the counter-strategy of aspies works. Their personality is a defensive/evasive mechanism against psychopathic predators. They can "tune out," at least from the most blatant manipulation methods, for instance by their capability of intensely concentrating on something. It is what makes them poor socialites, but good scientists. It works especially well against government propaganda.

I understand that this is a controversial interpretation and I can't prove that it is correct. You could object, for instance, that autistic people just can't read some non verbal signals that are clear to "normal" people. And how would that be a barrier? It looks like a handicap. Besides, the fact that I can't remember street names, as I noted, is a barrier against exactly what?

True. But, as a rebuttal I could say that there may be several kinds of barriers that aspies build, not all of them are effective and some are counterproductive.  On the whole, I do think that my explanation works best for that fraction of aspies who are on the mild side of the spectrum of the condition, as Temple Grandin is. In that case, you may see autism not as a pathology, but as an ability. 

Of course, it is a delicate balance that these aspies seek for. If their barrier is truly impassable, they become dysfunctional people, useless to themselves and to others. If they can't keep the barrier strong enough, then they can be manipulated just like normal people. But when it works, the mechanism is effective as defense against the many attempts of manipulation that you face every day.


The Arms Race in the Social Holobiont

Why is it that there are psychopaths and aspies in the world? I think it is the result of an evolutionary mechanism. The human society can be described in terms of a "social holobiont" that changes and evolves all the time. A holobiont is an entity composed of various elements normally in symbiosis with each other. But, at times an unbalance develops, some elements of the holobiont become parasites of others, and the system must change and adapt to regain some balance.

In small social groups, as in the tribal societies where our ancestors lived, psychos may have played a useful role for the group. Their aggressive tendencies may have helped the tribe in war or in other occasions when the tribe needed to act fast and with all the members had to agree on some plan: migration, for instance. 

But, with larger societies, the role of psychos changed from symbionts to parasites. No more just the local big men, they became god-kings, then absolute rulers who pretended not just obedience, but uniformity of thought. With the development of mass media, the psychos in charge found that they could get whatever they wanted by hurling at the rest of the people the monster of the year to hate, just like, in the old days, the Detroit automakers would convince people to buy a new car using the trick of the "model of the year." It is the way our society works, nowadays. Psychos are social super-parasites that force all the other to follow a continuous emotional roller-coaster generated by the media. 

Of course, the dominance of psychopaths on society is generating tremendous damage to everybody and everything. It is pushing us toward disastrous choices in all fields, from developing nuclear weapons to polluting everything, and overexploiting all resources. 

Is it possible that the growing number of aspies is a manifestation of society moving toward a certain degree of resistance to this kind of manipulation? For sure, the growth has been unbelievably fast. Autism was nearly unknown 50 years ago, today about one person in 30 is born autistic in the US, an increase of nearly a factor of 300. In part, it is also the result of better detection techniques, but it is also true that there are many unrecognized mild cases, so aspies are not anymore a tiny minority of handicapped people.

This is, again, a controversial proposal. Assuming that autism is a genetic trait, as it seems to be, according to the standard interpretation of evolution by natural selection, you might well object that it is hard to see how genetic evolution could lead to such a rapid change in just 50 years. And you would have to assume that the aspies have more children than the non aspie -- hard to maintain, to say the least. 

What I can say on this point is that the modern views on evolution allow for much faster change than the traditional Neo-Darwinian version. Concepts such as horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics have completely changed our views (if you want a hint of the complexity of the evolution of the human brain, just take a look at this review!) Once you note how the human mind is affected by the microbiome of the human holobiont, you understand how the human mind is plastic. It can change, and change a lot as the result of changes in the chemical and physical environment. Besides, the behavior of a human being is a complex mix of cultural and genetic factors. In mild cases of autism, cultural factors may be important and we know that they can change very fast.

In the human societal holobiont, we can see aspies and psychos as two levels of a trophic chain where psychos are the predator and aspies are the prey. As in biological ecosystems, say, rabbits and foxes, in the social holobiont predators and prey are locked together in an arms race where they keep trying to improve their survival chances. So, the increasing number of aspies might be the result of society rebalancing itself to counteract the excessive power of psychos. A society where most people are aspies would be much less sensitive to propaganda and could be managed according to reason for the advantage of everyone. 

Is it possible? As usual, complex systems have always ways to surprise you, and the human society is one of the most complex systems known. So, it may well surprise us for its adaptive capabilities. Think of the command deck of the Enterprise in Star Trek. The rational approach of Spock (the aspie) was balanced, complemented, and enhanced by the approach of Captain Kirk. He was not a psychopath, but a person who could be driven by emotions and who needed some rational complement. The Enterprise was an example of a well-balanced holobiont. It perfectly illustrated the awesome power of diversity and reciprocal respect that's the strength of all holobionts, including the societal one. And don't forget that Greta Thunberg is an aspie, too!

And so, live long and prosper, fellow aspies!



image source



(1) Temple Grandin's book "Thinking in Images" is a remarkable book, even for those who are not aspies. It is, clearly, something different from the average self-help book. The first chapters are hard to describe: they are "strange" -- the author wanders among many different subjects, giving the impression that you are really reading something written by someone whose mind works differently from yours. But, as you progress, you start understanding what Grandin wants to say. The first chapters are a sort of test. As it is typical for aspies/autistic people, she is not opening herself to you right away. You have to read through more than half of the book before she really starts opening up herself and her inner thoughts to the reader. If you arrive to that point, you start understanding that she respects the reader and that she asks respect from the reader. She never opens up herself completely, but enough for the reader to appreciate her as a human being, a little different from the average, but worth of respect for her caring attitude for humankind and all living beings. 

(2). World leaders are typical examples of psychopaths, with a few exceptions. One may be Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who has been described as suffering of the Asperger's disease in the Western media. That was intended as an insult, but perhaps it is not so wrong as a description of Putin's personality. If you examine Putin's speeches, you will note that he never uses the kind of aggressive demonizing of enemies that Western leaders use all the time. He looks cold and rational, but occasionally he may show his feelings, as when he was shown to weep at a military parade. In the West, this behavior was understood as an especially devious trick. That would have been the case if Putin were a psychopath (imagine Donald Trump weeping at a parade!). But if Putin is an aspie, then an occasional puncturing of his defensive barrier might generate this behavior. Incidentally, have you noticed how all Russians seem to have some aspects of aspies? Try to ask for directions in the streets of Moscow, and you'll understand what I mean! In any case, that's not meant to disparage the Russians -- not at all! Once you pass the barrier, the Russians are the best people in the world. In fact, all the people in the world are the best people in the world once you come to know them well.