Over at John Elder Robison's blog, there's a two-part guest post on what it's like to be a woman with Asperger's. The guest blogger's name is Deborah McCarthy, and she is 49 years old, a vegan, an animal-rights activist, a Christian, and lives in Oregon.
While most of her writing just deals with her own experiences, particularly the differences she's identified between the way she thinks, feels, and perceives the world and the way most people do (and therefore often expect her to be that way, too), there are a couple of instances where she decides to make general pronouncements about things she really doesn't understand all that well. The statements she makes are inflammatory, hurtful (one more than the other, but neither is totally innocuous) and scientifically illiterate on a grand scale.
First, there's this:
Everybody says Asperger's' main symptom is a lack of empathy but I don't think that's true. Women exhibit differently from men. I'm sure conditioning has a lot to do with it but also women are predisposed from birth to be more empathic I think. I know I cry at the news very often. So I wanted to look at this and other characteristics to get clear on just what I can claim as mine and what just doesn't belong.There are a lot of things wrong here, but since Sarah has already dealt with this part of the essay I will be brief, and stick to what is factually wrong with this paragraph, since Sarah focused on the failure of empathy involved. (Yes, I noticed the irony in such a massive display of bigotry cropping up as its author is trying to argue that autistics are fully capable of empathy. As they say at Shakesville, *lolsob*).
Empathy - I'm extremely empathic when it comes to the underdog, animals, children, the poor, the starving, etc. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the obese. Maybe that's from being bullied by my huge family members I don't know. Probably contributed. But for me it symbolizes greed and selfishness at the expense of another. After all, you don't get fat from veggies, you get fat from the flesh and mother's milk of another. Taking what doesn't belong to you. Taking more than your share. Taking more than giving. I have issues regarding fat. I admit it. Try not to hate me for it. I'm just being honest.
First: demographically speaking, poor women in America are much likelier than their richer counterparts to be obese. (The picture isn't as clear for men: some studies find that men of all classes are equally likely to be fat, while other studies find a relationship between low socioeconomic status and higher body weight that's significant, if not as pronounced as the corresponding trend among women). Second, it is possible to be fat and malnourished. We've all heard about how various systemic factors (agricultural subsidies making starchy, fatty, processed foods cheaper than produce and whole grains; lack of access to well-stocked grocery stores; lack of time to cook healthy meals, etc.) mean poorer people (who, as I mentioned, are fatter overall than richer people) tend to get a lot fewer nutrients out of their food, even when they're getting enough calories. There are also --- yes, even in the U.S. --- people so poor they can't always afford enough food. And, when bodies aren't getting enough energy, nutrients and raw materials (i.e., sugars, proteins, fats, starches), they start changing their metabolism to compensate for the scarcity. They become thriftier, hoarding more and more of the food they consume as fat.
As Kate Harding puts it:
Poor people are a lot more likely to go through cycles of eating too few calories followed by bingeing --- which, when it's known as "dieting," instead of "only being able to afford enough food sometimes" --- has indeed been shown to make people fatter in the long run.You also cannot extrapolate whether someone is a meat-eater from their degree of fatness. There are fat vegans and vegetarians, and there are rail-thin omnivores. You can't look at someone's body and reliably predict what they eat. There are too many variables at work for there to be such a cut-and-dried relationship.
And attempting to judge a person's moral character by the shape of hir body? That belongs in the intellectual trash bin with all the earlier pseudosciences conceived along such lines.
Anyway, on to the second thing I found deeply problematic:
I, and others, don't feel that Asperger's is a disorder. I feel it is a neurological difference. You can SEE the difference on a brain scan. We are literally hard-wired differently than a neuro-typical person. (How many times have I said I'm just not wired that way!!) I believe we are a leap in evolution. Leaps like this occur in nature all the time. I believe a more childlike and pure sort of human is on the horizon. One that is less caveman-like and more angelic-like. More ethereal, less dense.
This idea --- that evolution is a linear progression from simple to complex, or primitive to advanced, "caveman" to "angel" --- is very common, but wrong.
The outcome of evolution is not any one species; it's biodiversity itself. It's change in populations over time. Individual variations arise, natural selection acts on them; organisms either propagate their genes or they do not. Intelligence, morality, free will --- or any other objective Good you might be tempted to see (human) evolution as trending toward --- doesn't enter into it.
Evolution is also not hierarchical. Every kind of creature that exists now is equally "evolved," and each constitutes an equally viable solution to the particular bio-engineering problems that shaped its unique evolutionary history.
In other words, there is no Great Chain of Being.
Finally, evolution is not a succession of different attempts to solve the same problem; it's a succession of solutions to a succession of problems. The natural environment is not static: climates shift, continents move, mountain ranges rise up and are worn down, natural barriers isolating potentially interbreeding populations from each other arise or disappear. The selective pressures that act on one generation won't be exactly the same as the pressures that will act on the next generation.
Here's a relatively simple explanation of what evolution is from my college introductory-biology textbook (Biology, Sixth Edition, by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece):
Thus, there are as many outcomes of evolution as there are ecological niches to be filled.
In the Darwinian view, the history of life is like a tree, with multiple branching and rebranching from a common trunk all the way to the tips of the youngest twigs, symbolic of currently living organisms. At each fork of the evolutionary tree is an ancestor common to all lines of evolution branching from that fork. Closely related species, such as the Asian elephant and the African elephant, are very similar because they share the same line of descent until a relatively recent divergence from a common ancestor. Most branches of evolution, even major ones, are dead ends; about 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct.
We can summarize Darwin's main ideas as follows:
Natural selection is differential success in reproduction (unequal ability of individuals to survive and reproduce).
Natural selection occurs through an interaction between the environment and the variability inherent among the individual organisms making up a population.
The product of natural selection is the adaptation of populations of organisms to their environment.
I also like this image of a circular Tree of Life, in which all currently-extant taxa (er, categories of organisms, for the nonbiologists reading!) radiate out from the single hypothesized common ancestor of all. It conveys the never-ending, multifarious nature of evolution much better than any other drawing I've seen.
It will probably not strike regular readers of this blog as news that such a teleological, hierarchical view of evolution has acted as (pseudo-)scientific justification for race- and class-based oppression. This thread has been particularly noticeable in the history of racism: people of African descent have historically been seen as ape-like and "primitive" (i.e., less evolved, less civilized, certainly incapable of governing themselves without white people running the show for them!) by white people.
While I'm not really worried about autistic people oppressing neurotypicals --- we don't have the numbers or the political power or social privilege to do so systematically, although individual autistic chauvinists can, and do, loudly proclaim their neurological superiority on the Internet --- this kind of "Aspie-supremacist" rhetoric valorizing the Vulcan-like, superintelligent-but-socially-naive autistic person can further marginalize autistic people who don't fit that mold. If the autistic-rights movement embraces the "Aspie" to the exclusion of other autistic points of view, then other types of autistics will be right where they were before neurodiversity: voiceless and unnoticed.