Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Autistics, Saints & Sinners: Ecological and Social Evolution

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It is common in evolutionary theory to distinguish between ecological and social evolution – evolution in interaction with the physical environment and other species versus that in interaction with other members of the same population or species. Of course in ecological evolution individuals compete with respect to some ecological phenomenon, but the difference is that it is a ‘scramble’ i.e. contact and interaction are not involved as they are in social evolution which includes phenomena such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, various kinds of ‘contests’ involving contact and aggression, sexual selection etc.

A case might be made that there is actually something else and not just an absence of autistic characteristics at the other end of the autism spectrum. Most fundamentally, autism may reflect an excessive preoccupation with, and behaviour oriented towards the physical and ecological environments, “things” (which may include animals), at the cost of neglect of the social. V. K. Jaswal and N. Akhtar in an article on autism in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in June (see also their article in the New York Times, July 13) describe motor stereotypes but not other restricted and repetitive interests and activities. After all, it is no secret that Silicon valley is populated by austicish individuals preoccupied with their computers, programmes and gadgets. At the other end of the spectrum “saints” (Williams syndrome?) but also “sinners” (psychopaths) reflect an excessive preoccupation with, and behaviour oriented towards the social environment at the cost of neglect of the physical and ecological. The distinction between saints and sinners simply reflects whether the prevailing social orientation at that end of the hypothesized spectrum tends towards cooperative (altruistic – + or mutualistic + + interactions) versus conflict (selfish + – or spiteful – – ones). Individuals with Williams syndrome are exuberantly social including linguistically but in addition to lacking many ecologically-oriented cognitive skills such as spatial ones, lack social caution or fear. Of course, few individuals are at either of these social extremes, just as few are at the ecological or social extremes, most being somewhere closer to the middle.

Unfortunately, because the same ecological versus social distinction could be drawn about any selection process, none of this speaks to which one or ones of several possible selection processes – biological evolution, development, individual learning or sociocultural evolution is responsible for giving rise to autistics versus saints and/or sinners. Jaswal and Akhtar argue that autistics do not lack social motivation or interest. Instead, there may be a lack of ability or even adaptive or cultural reasons to avoid engaging in various forms of social interaction towards that end of the spectrum. It seems likely that genetics and/or development is involved but Jaswal and Akhtar make a good case that individual learning (“adaptation”) and/or cultural transmission are also part of the story.

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Written by Marion Blute

September 3, 2018 at 2:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Glad you’ve got this out. By the way, it is Silcon Valley, not Silcone! (Can you fix that?)

    ________________________________

    Gail Greer

    September 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm


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