Monday, March 13, 2006


The Absent-Minded Professor and Evolutionary Theory

The stated aim of this blog is to reflect the stumbling around that appears to be necessary before arriving at a cohesive and coherent proposal arguing that an internal evolutionary mechanism should be tested for.

If opportunities arose to become involved in such testing, of if others were already engaged upon such an activity, then there would probably be little point in answering "If an internal evolutionary mechanism exists, then why hasn't it been found before?".

At this moment in time, however, I feel the question does need addressing - if only as a personal contribution (no matter how inconsequential!) towards identifying those factors which currently affect serious consideration being given to the proposal

In earlier posts I've spoken of an interest in the evolutionary origins of psychological trauma and why, as a consequence, I'm reluctant to pay much attention to 'cultural evolution' (as far as this blog is concerned). While recognizing trauma can unknowingly and inadvertently be passed from generation to generation owing to 'cultural factors', it follows that I am even less inclined to comment upon the evolutionary effects that such a persistence of transmission may be responsible for. It would only 'muddy the waters', so to speak.

On the other hand, the following BBC News Report is relevant and worth commenting upon:

Scientific brain linked to autism

Highly analytical couples, such as scientists, may be more likely to produce children with autism, an expert has argued.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the University of Cambridge, said the phenomenon might help explain the recent rise in diagnoses.

He believes the genes which make some analytical may also impair their social and communication skills.

A weakness in these areas is the key characteristic of autism...

...In a paper published in the journal Archives of Disease of Childhood, Professor Baron-Cohen labels people such as scientists, mathematicians and engineers as "systemizers".

They are skilled at analysing systems - whether it be a vehicle, or a maths equation - to figure out how they work.

But they also tend to be less interested in the social side of life, and can exhibit behaviour such as an obsession with detail - classic traits associated with autism.

Body of evidence

Professor Baron-Cohen argues that systemizers are often attracted to each other - and thus more likely to pass "autism" genes to their offspring.

Meet a person for the first time and you meet both the person and any psychological history they may have acquired: I agree with Baron-Cohen that systemizers are often attracted to one another but not that they are more likely to pass on 'autism genes' to their offspring in the sense implied.

I would argue that systemizers may seek out analytical/scientific careers to compensate for having had their "social and communication skills" impaired by their upbringing (see 'hands-off' trauma below) and that any genetic component would be the result of the persistence of such people meeting in succeeding generations - and it would only take one systemizer in a relationship to impair the "social and communication skills" in any progeny.

What better compensation could there be for the offspring of systemizers than to take refuge in the land of logic and analysis? The popular figure of the "Absent-minded Professor" springs to mind - someone who may be brilliant at scientific research but who, in everyday parlance, is often described as 'lacking common-sense'.

The problem, however, is greater than that: Truby King, as an example, once suggested that infants should be subjected to a fixed-feeding routine in order that they quickly become accustomed to the demands of Society. A logical way to treat infants?:

If an infant's next feed is due at 4 pm, but the infant unaccountably wakes up hungry at 3 pm, then the conditions for inflicting a 'hands-off' psychological trauma are all in place: the infant exists entirely in the 'present moment', has no awareness of the past, or that there will be a future (in which it might be fed). Cries of hunger will eventually turn to anger and should that anger reach an unsustainable peak then trauma may result. Systemizer parents would not even be aware that it had happened - the logic of "the next feed is not due until 4 pm" being unassailable.

The relevance of the above to evolution is that people who do not have an integrated experience of life may not be best placed to pay anything other than lip service to Gould & Lewontin's argument that "organisms should be analyzed as integrated wholes" - researching the possibility of an internal evolutionary mechanism requires that the nature of life is taken into account: organisms are integrated.

I suspect that reductionism holds an immense appeal for systemizers and that finding and holding on to an intellectually satisfying explanation/theory may hold a greater attraction than indulging in any risk-taking required to explore beyond the theory's intellectual boundaries: "Imagination is more important than knowledge" (Einstein again).

It is interesting to note the following:

Brilliant minds linked to autism

Historical figures including Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Andy Warhol probably had a form of autism, says a leading specialist.

Professor Michael Fitzgerald, of Dublin's Trinity College believes they showed signs of Asperger's syndrome.

Scientific geniuses Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein have also been previously linked to the condition.

Asperger's is associated with poor social skills, and obsessions with complex topics such as music.

Perhaps this is why Darwin came up with the concept of "Natural Selection" by way of explanation with the result that people today say "Natural Selection does this.." or "Natural Selection does that.." as if it were a natural entity.

The first five returns from putting "natural selection does" into Google gives:

1) natural selection does not act on individuals

2) Under some circumstances natural selection does play a role

3) Natural Selection does not only root out

4) natural selection does not say

5) natural selection does not go across

[My emphasis]

To what degree can Darwin be considered an "Absent-minded Professor"?

John Latter

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