Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"The Next Step in Evolution"

(Cross-posted to Turner & Kowalski)

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.

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.
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*).

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):

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.

Thus, there are as many outcomes of evolution as there are ecological niches to be filled.

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.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Hi Lindsay!

"rail thin omnivores" - I was this until three years ago. And I think I shall be again - probably not 'rail' thin, but more a 'healthier' weight (for my height).

Wikipedia has a Tree of Life which is really good. I don't agree with the Chain of Being concept either. There were several strands, of say, apes and primates. So with other species. And there will continue to be.

The only time I 'smell' is when I exercise for more than thirty minutes or when it is hot. There are other smells too. And smell is very much the neglected sense because of social pressures.

Probably the very same ones ... probably autism is more a different branch than the next step, if evolution has 'steps'.

And I hope 'we're more alike than we are different' is not unscientific.

Taking in the whole demographics aspect of your post. What makes demographics a science, rather than a pseudo-science? (For instance, phrenology and graphology and the phenomenon of the morphs).

Butters said...

Whether evolution is teleological or not is a metaphysical position, and cannot be established or disproven by science.

There is no way you can prove that human beings are not more angelic than other animals. Whether one believes they are depends on how they interpret the world around them, and is not entailed by merely the facts themselves.

It so happens that there is a teleological movement in evolution, or I should say, in Evolution. However, that autistics are an evolutionary leap is something I'll remain agnostic about.

Everyone is bigoted in some way or another. The one who believes himself stainless is the one you should be most worried about, not the one who comes right out and admits her bigotry.

Sadderbutwisergirl said...

Evolution actually doesn't depend on traits being "good" or "bad" at all. The idea of natural selection is that in a given environment, the animals with the traits most suited to their environment will prevail. In H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, the Time Traveler travels 800,000 years into the future and encounters two races that came from the present human race: the lazy, indolent, but friendly Eloi who live on the surface and do nothing but play and eat fruit and the cannibalistic Morlocks who live below, working the machines and coming up only to get food (some Eloi). Some people would say that humans "devolved" or went backward. But this isn't really so. The Eloi and the Morlocks were originally the aristocracy and the proletariat, respectively. The aristocracy lived lives of plenty, so of course they could afford to be compassionate towards each other. Eventually, that trait grew to into a concentrated childlike innocence due to this trait prevailing. One defining mark of aristocracy at the time was being overweight and relatively weak. That meant that the person could afford to not do hard physical labor for a living. Millenia of easy life combined with those who were the most lazy prevailing due to it being best for the circumstances for reasons of social status and lack of need to do physical labor caused this trait to prevail. In the case of the Morlocks, they were descendants of the marginalized proletariat whose life was hard. Most likely a resentment for the upper classes was understood, so with this understanding combined with need for food, you can see how it grew into the cannibalistic diet of the Morlocks feeding on Eloi. With their diet not being easy to acquire and their work with machines, obviously the Morlocks couldn't afford to be weak. And thus they turned into muscular, ape-like cannibals.

Lindsay said...

"Evolution actually doesn't depend on traits being 'good' or 'bad' at all. The idea of natural selection is that in a given environment, the animals with the traits most suited to their environment will prevail."

Yeah, that was the point I was making in this post. Sorry if it wasn't clear.

Nice analogy, though. I actually haven't read "The Time Machine," but I'd heard of Morlocks and Eloi by random cultural osmosis.

Lindsay said...

"There is no way you can prove that humans are not more angelic than other animals."

That's true; I also cannot prove that the manatee is not more mermaidlike than other sea-creatures, or that the Arabian horse is not a unicorn minus its horn.

Reasonable people do not generally run around hectoring you about the irrefutable potential of mermaids and unicorns to exist, though, as they seem to do for angels and (some pantheons') gods.

Butters said...

Your analogy does not work, as the author you're critiquing does not appear to have posited the existence of angels. She was using the word 'angelic' as an expression denoting a certain quality. You can not believe in angels and still believe something is angelic. So, to refute your point, a manatee may be more mermaid-like, and it may be reasonable to say so, without believing in mermaids. If being mermaid-like had moral importance, then that would make the observation worthwhile in a normative conversation of the sort people have on autism, disability etc.

On a general note: teleology is not the positing of a thing's existence, but merely a way of interpreting facts. Such interpretation does occur -- albeit more soberly -- in science, and without it we would not be able to either make sense of our world, or have models, theories or explanations.

You may interpret evolution as having no purpose, but that is no more justified epistemically than the interpretation that it does have a purpose. Scientifically a person cannot establish one thing or another, but within a broader philosophical worldview (and if you don't have a broader philosophical worldview, then you're either deceased, psychotic or a plant of some sort, so I'm going to presume you do have a broader philosophical worldview) one can make sense of the facts using a teleological model (or any other model).

If you positively hold that there is no purpose to evolution -- which you explicitly do in your post -- then your position requires justification as well.

Sadderbutwisergirl said...

@Lindsay: I could see the point. I just wanted to add to it. And about The Time Machine, I highly recommend it for reading. It's really quite fascinating. It's a story within a story, with the unnamed narrator being a scientist who goes over to the Time Traveler's house for dinner twice to hear of his experimentations with time travel. At the second time the scientists are invited for dinner, that's when the Time Traveler tells his story to the whole committee of scientists, interrupted only once by the Time Traveler taking some flowers from that era out of his pocket and throwing them on the table.