How Neurodiversity Went From Evolutionary Advantage to Social Deficit
Why does ADHD have a heritability of 74%? Why would “disorders” like autism be inherited across generations if they didn’t somehow benefit our survival?
The human brain was not simply created; it developed over millions of years in a symphony of chaos. I try to view much of human nature through a wider evolutionary lens, and in reading about the genetic basis of things like ADHD and autism, I couldn’t help but wonder what evolutionary theory had to say.
Many people assume evolution to be a sentient kind of process, as in, giraffes needed to reach the leaves in tall trees, so they grew longer necks, but this is incorrect. Giraffes whose genes randomly mutated to grow longer necks survived better and passed on their genes more often, and so this trait grew over millions of generations.
Biodiversity is crucial in evolutionary systems. Mutation creates novelty, which gives life more options to grow stronger and proliferate. We know this to be true regarding physical traits, so why do we assume that diversity in brains is any different?
Psychiatry commonly focuses on our weaknesses, but there is little talk of our strengths.
Autistic people are called “socially inept” and “stunted” by rigid thinking and sensory sensitivities, but psychology rarely focuses on the systemizing and specialist skills of the autistic brain.
The focus on ADHD is always on attention deficits, lack of organizational skills, and the inability to sit still, but never on the gifts of creativity and ideation, and the advantages of being driven to discover new things.
Some scientists suggest these skills could have actually helped early humans survive. The novelty-seeking nature of ADHD could have driven migration, and hyperactivity would have been an asset in hunting and gathering food.
Likewise, the sensory sensitivities of autistic brains may have been advantageous in detecting danger. Wouldn’t it have been a good thing if you could hear a predator approaching before anyone else, or smell the beginnings of a fire before it engulfed an encampment?
What is considered a deficit now could have been an advantage for early humans. If everyone wanted to socialize and have sex, and nobody wanted to create tools to solve problems or track the stars to plan for seasons, we surely would not have gotten this far.
It has been theorized that autistic people invented the first calendars (a skill for pattern recognition would have been extremely advantageous here) and the autistic tendency toward systemizing may have resulted in the first social systems and rules that helped communities fairly allocate resources.
Some researchers think an autistic person created the first cave paintings. Many autistic brains think visually, and scholars have long been amazed by the detail in these early cave paintings, which would have required strong visualization skills.
The artist must have been able to look at an animal, go into a cave, and recreate that image solely from memory. Some of these paintings show a level of shading and an ability to render detailed forms that even now we have to teach most people how to do. Some autistic people, in contrast, can make detailed drawings without any formal art training.
Dyslexia, too, is seen as a deficit and learning disability, but only because our white supremacist culture recognizes intelligence in terms of literacy and values “one right way” of learning. We have to remember, though, that humanity is far older than the written word.
People with dyslexia have been shown to have strong visual-spatial skills; this includes an ability to identify anomalous “impossible objects”, 2D figures which the brain interprets as 3D objects (think MC Escher paintings).
This study found a substantial amount of dyslexic people in the field of astrophysics, where a skill for quickly recognizing visual anomalies is an advantage in spotting black holes.
This strength in three-dimensional thinking would have been very useful for visualizing hunting routes, creating tools, and building structures, and in a society where there was no written word or compulsory standard education, it would not have been a deficit at all.
The high energy and creativity of mania could have also been advantageous, both in the formation of novel ideas and also in heightened sexual activity, which we know is crucial for evolutionary success.
When we zoom out of our current point in history and consider the big picture of humanity’s existence as a whole, we can see how unnatural our current state really is.
The Homo genus emerged 2.8 million years ago. Civilization as we know it only began 5,000 years ago, and industrialization only 250 years ago. Many people who we would consider autistic or ADHD today were able to get by more easily in society before industrialization, when a shift toward wage labor and individualism created new hardships for families.
Suddenly, anyone who struggled to work a job and generate income for their family became a “burden”, which laid the foundation for mass institutionalization and eventually, the psy disciplines.
The institution of psychiatry emerged in the early 20th century with substantial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.
The rich, faced with the threat of growing labor movements, sought to find a “cure” for social ills not by addressing systemic oppression, but by forcing everyone who deviated from the norm — which included hyperactive, inattentive, and impulsive people — into compliance through medical “treatment” or else, containment.
Because evolution is a slow process, civilization has quickly eclipsed our bodies’ ability to adapt to our environments. (This is called evolutionary mismatch.)
We did not evolve for almost 3 million years to sit completely still in under-stimulating, temperature-controlled boxes with fluorescent lighting and four white walls, typing on a computer screen for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
That kind of environmental shock would cause any animal distress, and we are animals, lest we forget.
Psychiatry is not treating our defective brains with drugs, but finding ways to drug our brains into coping with a defective society. Reductive myths about chemical imbalances are pushed to sell pharmaceuticals and keep the blame for anxiety and depression on the individual instead of addressing the ways our social systems can cause trauma responses on a mass scale.
I can’t help but think that the “disorder” is in our values, not our heads. If we didn’t measure worth and success solely in terms of productivity, ADHD would not be so profoundly disabling.
If we didn’t insist that everyone have a certain kind of social skill to climb the capitalist ladder, autistic people would be less disadvantaged.
If we focused on care rather than compliance, people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia would be supported rather than institutionalized or imprisoned.
But because none of these kinds of brains serve capitalism well, they all must be “treated”, “fixed”, or else, discarded.