The Overclocked Human: Autism and evolution

“It turned out to be an idea as old as Hans Asperger’s notion that people with the traits of his syndrome have always been part of the human community, standing apart, quietly making the world that mocks and shuns them a better place.“ 

Steve Silberman

Overclocking is the computer equivalent of customising or hotting-up a car to increase performance. In the case of computers, it involves speeding up or “clocking” the components, in particular the CPU (Central Processor). 

So, more performance, why don’t we all do it? Well, there’s no free lunch, so there’s a cost, in this case, in both operation and stability. Operationally, faster chips need higher voltages and generate more heat, so there’s a flow-on effect right through the whole system, which in more extreme cases can involve having to change power supplies and install water cooling.

As for stability, the closer you walk to the edge, the more likely you are to fall off. So, while you may well end up with a whizz-bang, blindingly fast computer, because it’s performing outside of its intended limits, it’s not going to behave in the same way. You may find that you can run some programs but not others, or that software or hardware add-ons won’t load or run. As such, you often end up with a computer that over-performs - but only in certain circumstances and configurations. Which leads to the biggest problem in all of this: those circumstances can get so restrictive that you end up with a powerfully fast computer that won’t actually run at all. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s often no way of predicting beforehand which side of the will/won’t run line you’re going to fall on. 

Thus, in spite of its performance gains, overclocking involves two risks: firstly that there’s no certainty of the outcome, and secondly that you end up with a machine that’s so unstable that it won’t run.

So, to autism and evolution.

The primary drive of every organism is to pass on its genes through procreation and reproduction. Everything we do works towards those ends, and takes precedence over anything else. In order for this gene-passing to work, you have to a) keep yourself alive long enough to procreate, b) attract a mate and produce offspring, and c) give that offspring a reasonable chance of survival. Your chance of this process succeeding will be enhanced by positive traits, and diminished by negative ones, the famous survival of the fittest, where fitness refers to your potential for survival and your ability to cope with your environment.

In the longer term, traits that cause greater reproductive success will in turn be reproduced and the organisms bearing them will get to live another day. On the B-side, traits that reduce reproductive success will eventually die out, along with their bearers. Literally. There’s a reason we rarely see caterpillars in bright “look at me” colours. In evolutionary terms, anything that helps us pass on our genes successfully is said to be selected for, and anything that doesn’t is selected against.

Through paleogenetic research, we know that genes connected with autism were present 100 000 years ago. We also know that while there’s an enormous variation across the autistic spectrum, some autists can be quite disabled. Even for those who aren’t, atypical communication and sociality can make social interaction challenging at the least. Given that central to evolutionary success is the ability to find a mate and procreate, clearly the evolutionary cards are stacked against those on the spectrum.

But as we saw, evolution doesn’t only select against, it selects for. So what we have to consider is that as well as a number of traits on the minus side of the evolutionary ledger, on the plus side, autism also has the potential for substantial benefits. Accordingly, while it can be touch and go at times, we still manage to end up with a successful evolutionary mechanism. Of course, not all that successful, if not, eventually we’d all become autistic. But successful enough to keep autism ticking over, at around 1% of the population, throwing up both individuals who have severe challenges alongside individuals who have unique, sometimes remarkable capabilities - and including many individuals who combine both.

In other words, a whole class of people where in evolutionary terms we accept that there will be cases where we reach an evolutionary dead-end through failing to mate and procreate, but we’re prepared to take that chance because on the other side of the ledger, there’s a real performance boost: the overclocked human.

That performance boost isn’t just coming from the cliché of the savant autist who is able to memorise the phone book or recite Pi to 50 000 digits, though no doubt, there’ve been autists like that right through the history of our species. In his study of tribal Siberian reindeer herders, Piers Vitebsky describes an elderly man who had little social interaction with the rest of the tribe, but had a detailed memory of the parentage, medical history and character of each one of the 2,600 reindeer in the tribe’s herd. This vital knowledge made a significant contribution to their management and survival. He was more comfortable in the company of reindeer than of humans, but was much respected and, most importantly of all in terms of evolutionary success, had a wife, son and grandchildren. In his book, |The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain”, Thomas Armstrong speaks of “an individual in the congo, who had all the classic signs of autism but was regarded as a gifted individual by his tribe. He was a master weaver. His love of meticulous detail and patterns gave him an important niche in the community where his drawbacks were less important than what he had to contribute to the culture.”

But autists didn’t even need to be remarkable or unique, it was enough that they were different. In her paper, The Stone Age Origins of Autism, Penny Spikins makes the point that rather than any specific abilities, one of the main attributes that ensured the evolutionary success of autists was simply that they brought diversity: different and even heightened capabilities in terms of reasoning and logic, memory, visual and perceptual processing, methology and analysis, sensory capabilities such as hearing or smell, and even a heightened sense of social justice and honesty. 

This range of unique capabilities that complimented neurotypical behaviours was enough to give autists a valued place in the group, and through it, access to the resources they would have needed to survive, and to partners. As the group as a whole benefited from the presence of autists, they were able to ensure their evolutionary success, in spite of the fact that not all individual autists were able to contribute to group success or maintenance.

Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.