Grandmothers speak, autism not so much

Screenshot anime Amanchu, ep.1

Even when autism speaks, people don’t understand it… 

There is reason to think that the human race did not really come into its own until the evolution of the grandmother. I do not know which came first, speech or grandparents, but the two go particularly well together, and the combination made our ancestors superior to every other creature under the sky, including other human races.

But before we travel into the deep past where fossils lie, let me take a quick stop by my old grandmother. She once told me that she believed her son, my uncle, was brain damaged due to the long and hard birth. He was not her firstborn, in fact there were two girls before  him and two after him. But unlike them, he never learned to talk, and whenever I saw him he was simply sitting there rocking back and forth. I grew up thinking he was an idiot. Much later I realized he was almost certainly autistic. And even much later I realized that most likely so was I. A surprising trait often seen in autistic children is that their brain grows faster during their first three years, and in some cases this starts before birth. That would explain the hard birth of my uncle. There is no significant difference is adult brain size though. This implies that if autistic people were a separate race, they would mature faster than mainstream humans, at least in some aspects. But what if autistic people once was a separate race? A race of humans without grandmothers? Let me tell you why that makes sense.

***

We do not know how long humans have been talking. Some think it was related to the sudden spread of humankind all over the world, and the appearance of advanced weapons and art. In old books this is often described as happening as late as 40 000 years ago. This date has been pushed backward with ever new discoveries, which imply that African humans were universally making elaborate weapons and tools at least 65 000 years ago, and there are signs of elaborate tools in some places much earlier. In other places in Africa there are signs of trade (tools made from stone that only exists far away) and symbolic art. Then again, it seems that Neanderthals also had simple art, cared for sick family members, and even sometimes buried them with flowers. This implies symbolic thinking, which is usually associated with speech.

Recent reconstructions of Neanderthal throat and head show that they were physically capable of speech, although not with the same sounds that we use, and they would sound strange to us. The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived half a million years ago, probably a couple hundred thousand years longer than that again. This is attested not only by the fossil record but also the genome, which has been sequenced. If the common ancestor of Neanderthals and African humans was capable of some degree of speech, maybe that was not the magic ingredient after all. Perhaps our ancestors knew how to speak, but only spoke about boring things for hundreds of thousands of years. “Groo kill deer.” “Groo eat now.” “Groo want mate.” Half a million years of Facebook posts, until Heaven had mercy and let creativity descend on humankind.

Be that as it may, advanced speech made grandparents very valuable. Even when you were too brittle to hunt down animals, you still knew where they lived and what they did, because you had decades of hunting experience. You could tell the grandkids all about it so the first time they set out to hunt, they knew exactly what to expect. You could also tell them where to find edible plants, and not least how to avoid the poisonous ones. Suddenly a long childhood wasn’t such a terrible waste of time, because the elders of the tribe basically functioned as a school and a library, teaching you everything you needed to know and a lot you didn’t.

Humans are not entirely unique in having grandparents live to an old age, but it is pretty rare. Elephants have them too, but they tend to stay strong and healthy longer and lead the family. (Elephant blood was recently found to contain some kind of chemical that can overcome infections that antibiotics can’t. Hopefully we will find out what it is before the last of them is killed by poachers.) But the rule of thumb is that parents die pretty soon after they are no longer needed for their own children. Fish and squids basically give up on life once their eggs are hatched, if not before. Mammals need to be around a while to provide milk and protect their young, but that’s it: Menopause is quickly followed by death. Humans, on the other side, live a lot longer, often enough to see their grandchildren grow up unless some unfortunate event occurs. This makes perfect sense given their role as teachers. Only when dementia sets in do they wander off in the night and die in the snow or get lost in the jungle.

***

I don’t know the family structure of Neanderthals, but recent research does not really support the theory that autism comes from Neanderthal genes. It is a bit early to say, but autism seems to be common enough among African-Americans. Admittedly slave owners tended to take sexual liberties with their women slaves, so Neanderthal genes could have come in that way, but there should still be noticeably less of them. It is hard to say how common autism is in African countries, because very few black African countries have enough health care resources to deal with more than the most acute threats to life and limb. This is improving rapidly in the most peaceful countries, though, so we might soon find out how the status is with autism in Africa.

But a more likely hypothesis is that autism has been with us much longer, and may have been inherited from the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, Homo Heidelbergensis. While the early Heidelberger man had smaller brains than most of us today, a later variant of the species was visibly larger than modern man both in body and brain. We don’t know the timing of the life cycle of this race, but it seems that Neanderthal children had an early growth spurt which implies that they matured faster than their African cousins. Sounds familiar? It should.

In a world where speech was less important, if it existed at all, you needed to grow your brain quickly, you needed to observe details so you could do the same things you saw your parents do, without them explaining it to you. Being autistic would not be a big deal in that kind of human life. It might even be the default. And with your large brain came acute senses: Being able to hear sounds that modern humans don’t notice, register small changes in the light or details in touch or taste. All of them abilities that are common on the autism spectrum.

But at this point we are well within the realm of speculation. There is no proof or even widespread belief that autism is something we have carried with us from interbreeding with an older race of humans. The common view, I think, is that it appeared as some kind of mutation very long ago. Whatever the case, autism has been preserved in the human race for tens of thousands of years at the very least, since it is found across the world. The reason why it was preserved is surely that it has some positive survival value. Probably not in high dose, as in my low-functioning autistic uncle. I doubt he would have lived long on his own. But take a small dash of autism mixed with the normal non-autistic human, and you get someone with unusual abilities. Perhaps unusual disabilities too, so we don’t usually qualify as supermen. But having that one person who notices an unusual sound before the rest of the tribe? That can be a big help that one time when there is an attack by an enemy tribe or a dangerous beast. And the high-functioning autistic tend to have higher intelligence than the average, possibly because of combining two slightly different sets of brain genes.

Eurasian people do after all still carry around about 2% Neanderthal genes, not a lot but still noticeable. These genes do cause some trouble (like autoimmune diseases) but also add a larger arsenal to our immune system to face new pathogens. It is not unthinkable that we may carry genes from even further back, genes that are not present in everyone but that are needed for humanity as a whole to function at its best. It would be a shame if organizations like “Autiism Speaks” (surely that must be meant ironically) succeed in eliminating autism completely from the world. Because that would not just make people like my uncle disappear, but also my grandmother and me.

3 thoughts on “Grandmothers speak, autism not so much

  1. Interesting that you write about autism … from your posts over the years, I had always suspected you of having high-functioning autism of some sort. Correct me if I am wrong on that. While there is a great academic advantage in early maturation of that sort, so does the sociability hurt, I hear.

    As I have seen in various Anthropology classes, the grandparents you highlight in humanity indeed gave us a significant advantage. What having grandparents in the human species meant was that children could be taught and protected by their elders as their parents, hunter-gatherers, could do their respective tasks. We still see these happening today in areas of Central Africa and South/Central America, a miracle of how resilient humans can be.

    This reminds me of a gene, I believe it was for schizophrenia and the topic was relevant to natural genetic pruning and some other things. If you have not read it, the topic is a good read. There were some more interesting things, but I cannot remember them.

    • Yes, my suspicion goes back to the time when Al Schroeder was writing Nova Notes, a daily journal similar in style and content to the pre-Wordpress Chaos Node. He had married a woman he found through the Superman comics’ letter column and had three boys, two of them severely autistic and one much like himself.

      In January 2003 I read about Asperger’s Syndrome and realized that I probably had it myself. http://chaosnode.net//jan03/di030107.html
      This was also around the time when my nephew was diagnosed with Asperger, although I had not heard about that by then. I had seen his interactions with his “normal” older brother when I visited them in 2001 for my mother’s burial, and it had been painful for me to watch because it reminded me so much of myself versus my own oldest brother. So that pretty much clinched it for me.

      It is interesting to live on the genetic margins and have some unusual abilities and disabilities, but in later years I have come to wonder: If I am genetically different from ordinary people, perhaps they will never be able to understand me even if I keep writing. Or more accurately, they will never be able to understand themselves the way I understand myself, which is what I was really hoping for.
      What is the point in writing if people only see the strange ape in the mirror but never recognize themselves?

    • As for grandparents, I don’t need to go as far as Africa. Growing up on a farm with way too much work to do, my grandparents looked after me when both of my parents were working in the barn every morning and evening, and at many other times as well when they both had to labor in the fields. My grandmother was quite good at this, my grandfather not so much: My mother told me she came back once to find me playing with knives while my grandfather was lost in his reading. My earthly father, on the other hand, was an awesome babysitter and played a big role in raising my nephews on the farm.

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