Autism: There is a condition called autism.  I am no authority on it, since my entire professional instruction has consisted of a few minutes in a lecture at Harvard Medical School many years ago.  At that time it was described as a difficulty in establishing normal social relationships.  I do not think the definition has changed a great deal although I am sure the specific criteria have evolved with more experience. 

I do remember the lecturer saying, “It is difficult to know how common this condition is.  The reason is that a doctor will do anything he can to avoid making the diagnosis.”  He did not elaborate by saying whether it was the feelings of the patient the doctor was sparing, the feelings of the parents of the patient or his own feelings.  But it seemed clear that this reluctance to make the diagnosis had something to do with somebody’s feelings.  And it seemed clear that the lecturer himself found the condition distressing. 

If you want to know more about autism itself, there are authoritative sources you can consult.

I have read recently about a debate as to whether autism is increasing in prevalence in recent years.  I thought about the lecture when I heard of the debate and thought that it was going to be a hard one to resolve. 

I have also read in recent years opinions that suggested that the social impairment of autism was due to some subtle abnormality in the development of the brain.  (For a recent editorial and a contribution to the debate see NATURE vol 454 issue 7201 July 10, 2008 pages 137 and 154.)

So my present suggestion is that autism might be increasing, and that it might be due to abnormal brain development.  If both are true, I have a suggestion.

The human body is a wonderful mechanism.  We excel among other animals in a number of ways.  But the thing that is most impressive is our ability to use our brains.  We are unmatched there by a large margin.

Not so very long ago, it was taught that the human brain was a completely blank slate.  Everything it did was due to environmental training and nothing was due to any genetic orders.  That idea, although I suppose it was invented for decent reasons, won’t hold water.  Of course there are genes that determine what the brain can do.  Show me an animal that is gainfully employed and paying taxes, and I shall be happy to show you a human being.  You can nurture a puppy or a lemur or a whistling marmot any way you want to and you will not get a taxpayer.  The brain is made by genetic information, just like the rest of the wonderful mechanism that is the human body. 

Our genes are precious to us.  I must confess I cannot say they are our greatest treasure.  That greatest of mortal treasures is our environment.  Given a suitable environment and no humans, there is a chance that after a long time humans or the equivalent will emerge, and you will have both.  But given humans and no suitable environment, you will very quickly have neither.  So environment trumps genes.  But our genes are precious, and the genes that go into making up our brains are particularly precious and particularly complex, since the human brain is so complex.  It is probably the most complex portable physical object.  The internet taken as a whole or a tropical rain forest might have a greater number of specific interactions, but do not expect either to come nock on your door. 

By now I am sure you see where I am going.  If disturbing the gene pool, making it too large and diverse, can interfere with fertility, as it most certainly does, then disturbing the gene pool in the same way can interfere with brain development.

Look at it this way.  One gene is trying to make one brain, and another gene is trying to make a different brain.  The result may be grossly functional in that it permits life, but subtle differences, differences that occur when the brain is placed under the greatest demands, will appear.  And those greatest demands will generally occur in the context of social interaction, since obviously social interaction means dealing with other people.  Other people have minds, each couched in that most complex of objects the human brain. 

So autism may be caused at least in part by the presence of a gene pool that is too large and diverse. 

There are two points.  The first is that this theory is testable.  If the prevalence of autism in Iceland is like that in other rich countries, then it would be a simple matter for the people who did the population and fertility study emphasized on the Main Page of this site to do a correlation between relatedness and autism.  It is hard to imagine them failing to do so.

If there is no autism in Iceland, then a similar study might be attempted in a place where autism is found.  This would not be easy, but might be worth a try.

The second point is that this would be wonderful news.  People could have a handle on how to avoid the condition that so distressed my professor so many years ago.

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