Everyone knows the experience: you happen upon a wreck and know you shouldn’t look but can’t help it. While there is a chance of seeing something disturbing, you look regardless. There should be a word for this and in the absence of one, I will call it car-wreck voyeurism. I felt something like this after coming across an article explaining how autism could have been adaptive in ancestral environments. I knew I shouldn’t look but couldn’t help it. What I saw was disturbing.
One might think that after decades of well-deserved criticism, overly enthusiastic evolutionary psychologists had learned some restraint. While most have, some stalwarts persist. Super-freak Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, recently caused an uproar by claiming that “black” women are less attractive than other women. He posted this drivel over at Psychology Today, which removed the offending article and belatedly terminated Kanazawa’s blog.
Fearing that Kanazawa was further sullying evolutionary psychology’s (EP) already dim reputation, 68 researchers who use evolutionary approaches to human behavior published an open letter criticizing Kanazawa. The letter, which astutely states that Kanazawa’s “work demonstrates a poor understanding of evolutionary theory, a disregard for data quality, and inappropriate interpretation of statistical techniques,” is posted over at Evolutionary Psychology (a peer reviewed journal) and it says this about peer review:
The peer review process is not perfect and appears to have failed when dealing with Kanazawa’s poor quality work. Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals.
This is an interesting statement signed by editors of the journal that on May 10, 2011, published Jared Reser’s article “Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis.” Reser hypothesizes that the “genes contributing to autism were selected and maintained because they facilitated solitary subsistence.” What follows is so bizarre and flawed it is hard to know where to begin.
Although Reser pays brief homage to parsimony and observes that autism “may appear” to be maladaptive, he never addresses the parsimonious possibility that autism is in fact maladaptive. Reser apparently is unfamiliar with antagonistic pleiotropy, a basic concept in evolutionary biology whereby selection on a single gene influences multiple phenotypic traits, some beneficial and others harmful. Autism, like senescence and cancer, seems like a good candidate for such an effect.
But EP’s a priori commitment to the Panglossian Paradigm — “If It Exists It Must Be Adaptive” — prevents Reser from considering pleiotropy or, horror of horrors, spandrels. Instead he rushes in to consider far more outlandish scenarios, all based in an imaginary and non-existent ancestral past. You know the one: “At some time and some place during the last 6 million years of hominin evolution, there must have been selection pressure for [insert modern trait].” Followed by the ineluctable just-so story: “This explains [insert modern trait].”
The imaginary past Reser postulates for this particular story is the one where difficult conditions during the Plio-Pleistocene forced social hominins to split up, living and foraging all by their lonesomes. Because they are asocial, Reser imagines that autistics would have been better adapted for this kind of solitary existence. Or as Reser puts it:
Individuals on the autism spectrum are described here as having had the potential to be self-sufficient and capable foragers in scenarios marked by diminished social contact. In other words, these individuals, unlike neurotypical humans, would not have been obligately social and may have been predisposed toward taking up a relatively solitary lifestyle.
Here, we have to suspend disbelief and ignore several inconvenient facts. There is no physiological, archaeological, or ethnographic evidence suggesting that human ancestors or humans have ever lived and foraged independently. Indeed, precisely the opposite is true and hominin evolutionary success is usually attributed to extraordinary sociality. Although Reser’s vision of solitary foraging is essentially Hobbesian, at least Hobbes understood the unfit consequences: “no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Reser will have none of this and imagines the “natural” past as being superior to the “artificial” present, at least for autistics:
In a natural environment though, it is likely that hunger would have motivated [autistics] to redirect their obsessive tendencies toward food procurement. Today, their hunger for food does not drive them to refine food procurement techniques because their parents feed them every time they are hungry….Because the compelling and coercing natural instinct of hunger does not actuate or motivate modern individuals with autism, their efforts and skills are misplaced onto irrelevant stimuli….Perhaps, when children with autism ignore their parent’s examples of social behavior today, it is because these examples seem uninteresting and meaningless, whereas in the ancestral past they would have been inspired by their parent’s hunting and gathering activities.
Oh, how we long for the ancestral past when hunger pangs and the food quest made everything so stimulating and relevant! Warming to his theme, Reser suggests that autistic children in modern society are placed in “unnatural or confining environments” and thus behave like caged animals. The shocking conclusion Reser draws from this is one for the ages:
This may indicate that the living conditions that many young individuals with autism experience are artificial, and possibly inhumane, as they are not as stimulating or motivating as the wild environment that they are born expecting.
Read that again; I am not making it up. First, Reser insults parents of autistic children and suggests their living conditions are stultifying and “inhumane.” Second, he claims that unborn autistic children expect to be delivered into a “wild environment” and are bewildered when they find themselves plopped into “artificial” modern environments.
I wish I could report that Reser’s article gets better but it doesn’t. He suggests that autistics are like orangutans in their penchant for being alone (supposedly evidence of a similar “adaptation”), claims that social skills are maladaptive in solitary settings, and speculates that “higher testosterone levels in autistic males may have increased their sexual aggressiveness as well as their sexual attractiveness.” This is just the tip of the iceberg and it only gets worse (never mind the grammar and spelling errors such as “moray” instead of “more” for social conventions). The strings of unsupported conjecture and disconnected speculation are truly jaw dropping.
Presumably, Reser’s therapeutic recommendation for parents of children with autism would be to send the kids to foraging camp, making sure they are hungry upon arrival. There, they can direct their energies and attention toward productive and stimulating things, like food, water, and shelter. They might even get lucky.
In the end, Reser’s article provides another example of everything that is wrong with certain kinds of evolutionary psychology. It is almost as if he deliberately decided to ignore all critiques of EP and write something outrageous. If so, he succeeded. So much for peer review.
Reser, Jared E. (2011). Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (2), 207-238.