Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies12 min read

 

If neurodiversity is the natural variation of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, then what role do autistic traits in particular play within human cultures and what cultural evolutionary pressures have allowed autistic traits to persist over hundreds of thousands of years?

The benefits of autistic traits such as autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an autistic person is embedded in.

  1. Hypersensitivity allows autistic people to perceive details and to recognise patterns that escape non-autistic people, but at the cost of behaviour that often clashes with established cultural norms.
  2. Hyperfocus and perseverance allow autistic people to develop levels of understanding and domain specific skills that surpass the abilities of non-autistic people, but at the cost of disregarding other skills that are regarded as basic life skills by the local culture.
  3. Lack of interest in social status and lack of inclination and ability to self promote greatly reduces social distractions and further amplifies the ability to hyperfocus and persevere, but at the cost of being perceived as non-cooperative, problematic and disrespectful.
  4. The inability to maintain hidden agendas enables autistic people to develop and maintain trusted relationships and very effective long term collaborations, but this ability is crippled in psychologically unsafe environments, and it makes autistic people dangerous from the perspective of anyone who is seeking to maintain and enhance their social status, resulting in the systematic side-lining of autistic people in competitive social environments.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

The neurochemistry of autism

Regardless of whether specific autistic traits have a genetic basis or are the result of early learning experiences made by autistic children in their local social environment (we don’t play “the right way”, we are absorbed in “our own world”, we ignore social status, we show little or no interest in participating in competitive games, etc.), the hypersensitivity and pattern recognition abilities of autistic people shape the specific experiences and situations that trigger neurochemical rewards in ways that differ significantly from cultural norms.

Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

In contrast, non-autistic people receive significant neurochemical rewards from conforming to cultural expectations, such that they are often incapable of recognising spurious cultural complexity when they encounter it in established “best practices”.

Pre-civilised societies

Prehistoric Cave Woman Hunter-Gatherer Searches for Nuts and Berries in the Forest. Primitive Neanderthal Woman Finding Food in the Sunny Forest

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others will have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In pre-civilised societies adversarial encounters with other groups would have been the only situations where the non-autistic human capability to deceive others would have been advantageous for the group. But such situations and costly conflict could easily be minimised by migrating and carving out a new niche in a different ecosystem.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

“Civilised” societies

Canva - Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo v small

“Civilised” societies are the result of increased human population densities and increased levels of inter-group conflicts. As the number of small scale human groups increased and as local resources became scarce, the ability and inclination to “out-compete” other groups became valuable, but this capability came at a cost – an appreciation of the ability to deceive other groups.

The people who are successful in maintaining hidden agendas to out-compete other groups are the same people who are capable of maintaining hidden agendas within their own social group.

Whilst cultural norms can successfully minimise the immediate or short-term collective cost that comes with granting social powers to competitive and deceptive individuals in the context of inter-group conflict, over the longer term hierarchical social structures dampen feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability – replacing cultural adaptability with cultural inertia.

Social power gradients became a permanent feature once the frequency of external conflicts increased to the point that such conflicts were considered a “normal” part of the human experience.

It is easy to see that autistic people are continuously at risk of being marginalised within “civilised” societies in which “collaboration” mainly refers to “negotiating social status & power gradients, and competing against each other using culturally defined rules”.

The creative capacity of autistic people continues to be relevant in “civilisation”, but the resulting capabilities and tools tend to be exploited for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening social power gradients.

Cultural immune systems

Canva - virus s

The competitive social environments that characterise “civilised” cultures systematically disable autistic people. However, whilst autistic people are usually not interested in social status and are therefore considered “socially naïve”, they are very astute observers, and learn to decode competitive social motivations – not intuitively, but intellectually, via careful analysis of social interactions and behavioural patterns observed over longer periods of time.

Often autistic children are traumatised by their experiences with culturally “well adjusted” parents, peers, and the education system.

Depending on the extent to which autistic children are prevented from developing their unique interests and are forced to comply with social expectations, their trauma may lead them into extreme levels of social isolation or prompt them to seek out a low visibility role within society that minimises their need to participate in the “civilised” social game.

Those who have grown up in relatively safe environments with at least one autistic parent, and have been encouraged to let their unique autistic cognitive lens shape their interests and activities, initially retain the courage to explore the world on their own terms, but then often run into major challenges in the social environments at work.

Within “civilisation” autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society.

This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies. To retain their sanity, autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so. Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people.

Societies with disabled cultural immune systems

Michael Moore’s new documentary Planet of the Humans makes the claim that humans are losing the battle to stop climate change because so-called “leaders” have taken us down the wrong road. “Civilisation” seems to have reached a dead end:

  1. Without a radical reduction in our level of energy and resource consumption a transition to renewable energy sources will not lead to a sustainable human presence on this planet.
  2. Projects that shift energy production to large-scale wind and solar farms are easily co-opted by corporate interests. The drive for profit extraction creates strong incentives for corner-cutting and often overrides environmental concerns.
  3. The development of local micro-grids and new ways of living that involve much less consumption are paramount for scaling down the human ecological footprint to sustainable levels.

A viable future of transportation won’t include heavy 1.5 to 2 tone electric cars and large numbers of electric air planes, and will likely include much less travel, and many more electric bikes, velomobiles, and trains. Capitalism systematically favours capital intensive – and hence energy intensive – investments. The world is awash in ads for Tesla and lacks awareness of alternative technologies like the following.

 

This extensive interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger offers an excellent introduction to the root causes of social dysfunction within our “civilisation”. It is interesting that even without considering the cultural implications of neurodiversity Daniel Schmachtenberger arrives at the following conclusions:

  1. There have always been non-competitive societies and subcultures, but such subcultures are marginalised within civilisations.
  2. The disorders identified by Western psychology are a refection of cultural bias rather than a reflection of human potential.
  3. The level of competitiveness and collective delusion within our civilisation has led to existential risks.
  4. The scope of trusted relationships is constrained by human cognitive limits (according to Robin Dunbar’s research, a human can maintain a maximum of 150 relationships at any point in time) and the ability to scale trusted collaboration beyond these human scale limits depends on using and developing communication technologies that assist us in maintaining trusted relationships between groups.
  5. The survival of the human species now depends on evolving new collaborative social operating systems that are based on mutual support rather than on social power gradients and a myth of meritocracy.

Note that it takes Daniel Schmachtenberger 3.5 hours to explain the rationale for developing a new collaborative social operating system. He is explaining what is self-evident to most autistic people who have spent three or four decades on this planet.

Eric Weinstein, the interviewer, offers good insights into the level of cultural indoctrination that underpins our “civilisation” – what I refer to as the collective learning disability of our society. It is fascinating how cultural bias has prevented an otherwise intelligent person from ever thinking about the full implications of the glaringly obvious truth dysfunction induced by competitive human behaviour.

Both Daniel and Eric seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity, and the one casual reference to autistic traits via a mention of “spectrumy people” indicates a very limited of understanding of the cultural role of autistic people.

The web of life

Agency at super-human scale (groups larger than 150 members) is an emergent phenomenon that can not be attributed to any specific individual. If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the emergent rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations.

Human organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.

NeurodiVentures are a concrete example of an emerging cultural species that provides safe and nurturing environments for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

NeurodiVentures are built on timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating trusted collaboration that predate the emergence of civilisation. All members share a commitment to:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock the tacit knowledge within the group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

Digital communication and collaboration technologies enable NeurodiVentures to act as a catalyst for trusted collaboration between groups. This is particularly relevant in a world of growing existential risks, where the energy and resource demands of competitive “civilised” social operating models, precisely for the reasons outlined by Daniel Schmachtenberger and documented in detail by historian Joseph Tainter, are exceeding the productive capacity of the biosphere.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that we have created a global digital network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV‑2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge.

Competitive autists?

I have yet to meet an autistic person who is capable of maintaining a hidden agenda. This means that autistic people are ill equipped for the competitive social game of “civilisation”.

However, in all domains that require specialised skills and deep knowledge, some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) have strong autistic traits. It is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, and may be perceived as “competitive”, simply because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

A relevant extract from an earlier article on bullying:

In particular the questions that autistic professionals ask may be very direct and their answers short and to the point, and they may praise outcomes achieved instead of the contributions of individuals, because they recognise that all good work takes a team and because they consider social status to be irrelevant. This easily gets autistic people into trouble with “superiors” as well as with “subordinates” who they are expected to manage. These autistic professionals are not bullies!

The key differences between an autistic professional and a professional bully:

  1. The autistic professional does not have a hidden agenda (may get angry in the moment but will never hold a grudge or follow a plot to “get ahead”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. The autistic professional does not exaggerate (or brush inconvenient things under the carpet) and will openly talk about uncertainties, risks, and mistakes made (a good indicator to clear up any perception of arrogance)
  4. The autistic professional is not interested in exerting power over other people (but will tend to use direct language which can be interpreted as authoritarian)
  5. The autistic professional cares a lot about and goes to great lengths to achieve optimal work results (this again may involve asking for appropriate actions from others in direct language)

The future role of autistic people

Hierarchical social structures stand in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale. In the face of existential risks, the cultural inertia of “civilisation” will either lead to the extinction of the human species, or humans will rediscover an interest in genuine collaboration (without hidden agendas) at human scale.

In the latter scenario autists are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups, because (a) they have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual, and (b) they are trustworthy due to their inability to maintain hidden agendas.

My favourite example to illustrate the potential for autistic people to act as catalysts for collaboration is Paul Erdős. In a psychologically safe environment, an autist is enabled and not disabled:

  • Erdős utmostly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians.
  • He was known both for his social practice of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle.
  • He spent most of his life as a vagabond, travelling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world.
  • He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting article, but you are assuming a lot of stereotypes about autistic people. I knew of someone who would in fact start drama and even spread rumors about my autistic friend. Plenty of others too. Also, whats wrong with being competitive? I am quite competitive, but I know not to be to an unhealthy extent where it jeopardizes my relationship with others and my job.

    My theory is that autism, like depression and bipolar, still is prevalent because of epigenetic factors and that is more of a complex gene pattern to say traditional diseases or whatnot.

    1. Author

      Many autistic people are traumatised, and many workplaces don’t offer psychological safety. Traumatised and fearful people may resort to defensive and competitive behaviour as a coping or survival strategy, but that does not mean that deep down they enjoy being competitive.

      Unfortunately our “civilisation” elevates competitiveness to a virtue. Our company is building a global database on psychological safety. Based on the data that we are collecting, many workplaces have to be considered unsafe, especially for neurodivergent people. In such unsafe environments people are inclined to assume that their colleagues are competitive, and they start to interpret the behaviour of their colleagues accordingly, creating a toxic spiral of competition and speculation about the motivations of others.

      If people grow up in a competitive culture they start to assume that “human nature” is inherently competitive, which is incorrect. The following article contains references to related research https://jornbettin.com/2020/04/14/the-dawn-of-the-second-knowledge-age/.

  2. I liked this part of your article in particular Often autistic children are traumatised by their experiences with culturally “well adjusted” parents, peers, and the education system.
    Depending on the extent to which autistic children are prevented from developing their unique interests and are forced to comply with social expectations, their trauma may lead them into extreme levels of social isolation or prompt them to seek out a low visibility role within society that minimises their need to participate in the “civilised” social game.

  3. Yeah, Erdos was great! A real example and exemplar.
    I am glad I discovered him when I did [mid-1998/1999 when the MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS was released].

    This bit:

    Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

    I did wonder what the cause and effect was when it came to overload and complexity.

    This copying is energy-intensive it is true.

    It is like a job — that teaches you what you don’t want!

    Seems the complexity could be bourne more easily if it were not social.

    Thinking too — about DISPLAY RULES. All this complexity is for display.

    And the point about “independent exploration and experimentation” and that it might only take a little; and then that little might add up and spread up and around.

    We try to look for those ways — and they find us. They become sticky.

    Less energy-intensive — not always faster or simpler!

    And I still find people learning to be competitive — and then unlearning it in circumstances like the novel coronavirus.

    When you drew out the differences between the autistic professional and the professional bully, I could see 2; 4 and 5. And 2 and 3 run together.

    An example of the microgrid: 20-minute cities which have access to services all around. Now we have 40÷60÷90 minute cities.

    And the five things/principles that NeurodiVentures do.

    Collaboration /=/ negotiation! [thinking of that article about governance and politics].

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