Sunday, March 29, 2009

Intelligence, Genius, and Autism

Professor James Flynn has incorporated an interesting sidebar into his book What is Intelligence? In it he lists his seven choices for Western civilization’s greatest minds: Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Newton, Gauss, and Einstein. The exact intent of the term “greatest minds” is left somewhat unclear—in fact, it sounds like deliberate fudging to me—but elsewhere in the sidebar discussion Professor Flynn suggests it is intelligence that is being discussed; these are Professor Flynn’s choices for history’s most intelligent men.

But of course if it is intelligence that is being discussed, then Professor Flynn’s list must be complete and utter nonsense. It is nonsense, ironically enough, precisely because of the Flynn effect, for as a direct corollary of that discovery, I should find I can walk onto almost any street at this very moment and at random choose seven individuals who could put Professor Flynn’s list to shame by any standard measure of human intelligence. That is what the Flynn effect means—or at least that is what it means if we, and Professor Flynn, are going to take it seriously.

Yet, truth be told, I actually have no argument with the selections on Professor Flynn’s list; to me, the list seems extraordinarily well chosen. Admittedly, I can think of other individuals also worthy of inclusion, but what remains compelling about Professor Flynn’s list is that he has attempted to capture a rare, valuable and immensely powerful human characteristic, and every one of his selections serves as an ideal example of that very characteristic. The problem I have is not with the individuals Professor Flynn has chosen, the problem I have is with the name he has given to his list’s defining characteristic; for it would seem Professor Flynn is confusing two very different concepts—he is confusing intelligence and genius. The seven men on Professor Flynn’s list are not examples of great intelligence, they are instead examples of profound genius. And even more telling, the seven men on Professor Flynn’s list are examples also of the transformational power of autism.

When it comes to understanding the true nature of intelligence I am certain I must live in a very dark age, the age of brain science ascendency. Hundreds of research teams, maybe even thousands by now, have so convinced themselves that intelligence must originate from inside our skulls, have so convinced themselves that only within networks of cranial neurons can be found the secrets to humanity’s growing mental capacity, that all have managed to overlook completely the far more plausible alternative—the one existing right before our very eyes.

Having no access myself to expensive pieces of neuroimaging equipment, having never secured the necessary funding for series of nuanced, split-second psychiatric experiments, I will begin instead by asking only a simple question: how intelligent was the human species approximately fifty thousand years ago? At around 50,000 B.C., how well would the average man have scored on any intelligence test?

If by intelligence we mean that set of skills that translates into enhanced performance on the modern forms of Stanford-Binet, Wechsler, Raven’s, and all the other intelligence scales—skills that correlate to better outcomes in academics and career and that lead on average to more favorable circumstances within modern society—then it is must be abundantly clear that fifty thousand years ago the average man possessed hardly any intelligence at all. Fifty thousand years ago, what humans possessed were the same skills as all the other animals possessed—skills appropriate and essential for survival and procreation, but skills that would not have been (and still would not be today) of much use on any intelligence test, because in point of fact, those are precisely the skills that get excluded from measure.

Look at the content of any intelligence test—language, arithmetic, patterns, designs. What we measure with the aid of those I.Q. booklets are not the abilities we inherited from out our animal past, but instead their exact counterpart; we measure only those skills the species has been adding throughout all its history since. In some sense, an intelligence test measures the modernness of an individual; an intelligence test measures an individual’s ability to appropriate for himself the same set of skills the species has been appropriating as a whole—skills that do not find their origin in our biological nature, but instead owe their existence to the strange, brewing mixture of non-biological pattern, structure and form that has been rapidly taking shape all around us.

Rather than focusing on the brain of modern man, we should instead be examining more carefully his surroundings, a study that can be made quite stark by contrasting the surroundings of two such men, each placed at an extreme of modern man’s timeline. The first man we will set down at the edge of the African savannah, near the beginning of man’s great leap forward; and the other we can position on a street corner in midtown Manhattan, right here at the start of the twenty-first century.

For the man located near the edge of the savannah, at around the fiftieth millennium B.C., we see that he is living in a locale teeming with biological intrigue but utterly bereft of such things as symmetry, number and pattern. It is not that such things do not exist in nature—stems grow in straight lines, faces, moon and sun betray symmetry, there is binary structure in the exchange of day and night, and there is repetition in the celestial patterns—but compared to the man-made environments we live within today, the examples of precise form to be found in nature are surprisingly paltry. And besides, for the man living in such an environment, he would be under no compulsion, would experience no motivation, to notice any of these patterned features. For this man, just as with all the other animals, the only order of business is survival and procreation—survival and procreation alone. Even space and time cannot rise to the level of consciousness—for how exactly can space and time be measured—this man is locked entirely inside his biological immediacy. And what could we possibly expect in the way of language? With space, time, pattern, symmetry, abstraction and so much else removed from ken, what would this man have found occasion to talk about, what could he have possibly have needed to say that he could not instead immediately sense or do?

It would be no exaggeration to say that an intelligence test offered to such a man would be an exercise in futility. Never mind how we might uncover any set of skills for which he might register even one scintilla of a positive score, ask instead how we could construct such an exam, construct it so that he might comprehend the first step of what he was being requested to do. The first thing to understand about the Flynn effect is that it must have started near the dawn of modern man’s history, because whatever humanity’s average raw intelligence score might happen to be today, at the very beginning that score was undoubtedly zero.

When we leap ahead to the circumstances of the man standing on a New York street corner, we realize the contrast could hardly be greater, but that contrast cannot be found inside respective brains, not unless we believe fifty thousand years is an evolutionary eternity—the biology of the man on today’s urban street is fundamentally no different than that of the man on the ancient savannah. No, the contrast is more clearly seen by simply taking a good look around. For the man living in today’s surroundings, what we notice first is how much the natural world has been eclipsed from view—in midtown Manhattan there are only a few trees, a brief glimpse of sky, the occasional drop of rain to remind this man from where his ancestors have come. And even the many other humans who are bustling around him—the most abundant and natural connection to his animal past—they appear now as something strangely transformed, in haircuts, lipstick, perfume and shoes. Instead of the sights and sounds of nature, it is man-made construction that now thoroughly dominates his landscape, a construction guided by, and in turn reflecting, the manifold concepts of symmetry, pattern, repetition, structure and form. Each building towering above him is a cornucopia of symmetry. The streets play out in symphonies of grids and symbols and lines. Window abutting window puts forth a kind of arithmetic, and light after blinking light announces the rhythms of logic and computation. Finally there is the incessant rush of language: structured by the form it represents, language has now blossomed into something ubiquitous and multi-dimensional, from the thousands of whispered sidewalk conversations, to the countless billboards screaming what to buy, to the not-so-subtle exhortations of madly honking horns.

Looking at and listening to what this Manhattan man must experience in less than a moment’s hesitation—the amount of structure, pattern and language literally cascading down around him—we might convince ourselves he must now be thoroughly overwhelmed, his senses must be completely overloaded (as would happen if we were to thrust this scene upon the savannah-dwelling man). But as a matter of fact we see that he is not overwhelmed at all, that having grown up in similar environments, having been trained from an early age to master all manner of structured nuance, he goes forth in such surroundings with the greatest of ease—hails a cab, reads a newspaper headline, calculates the number of minutes required to travel up town—and if we were to bring him inside and place him before an I.Q. exam, he would not be in the slightest bit amazed. He would find its designs, arithmetic and patterns to be objects perfectly familiar; he would require only minimal instruction to be quickly up and running, soon to impress us with his abundantly positive score.

The present man’s intelligence exceeds that of all who have gone before him because he lives in a far more intelligent setting, one increasingly suffused with pattern, structure, design. Today’s man grows up in that environment, is trained to work ably within it, lives it, breathes it, appropriates it deeply within his being, and thereby goes forth smarter than all his forebears. The form of our human surroundings—that is the secret to our growing mental capacity. The fast-accumulating changes to our experienced world—these are the transformations keeping pace with the Flynn effect. The human environment, in its entirety—there can be found the source, and the sustenance, of our expanding human intelligence.

And to add one more timeline example, for the sake of completeness—and for the sake of clarifying Professor Flynn’s list—let us consider the circumstances of one more individual, this one standing between the extremes of humanity’s calendar. Let us consider the circumstances, the surroundings, the intelligence of an ancient Greek named Aristotle.

The achievements of the ancient Greeks continue to impress us because of how greatly they surpassed everything that had gone before. One might almost believe structure, pattern and form began in ancient Greece, so richly did that culture emblazon those concepts into its architecture, pottery, science, literature and lives. But as impressive as the artifacts of ancient Greece undoubtedly were, they pale in comparison to the richly etched and far more abundant creations of our modern times. The Acropolis buildings, for instance, sublime in 400 B.C., are little more than slab models next to the cathedrals, terminals and skyscrapers of today. The branches of Greek mathematics, marvels of logic in the ancient world, are in the twenty-first century only the lessons of elementary school. The ancient Greek language, that thing of beauty upon Homer’s lips, in vocabulary and grammar stands far more crude and limited than even a simple email exchange. And finally we must consider the pace of ancient Greek life, never much faster than a horse’s canter. At such a leisurely speed how could an Athenian citizen have experienced even a fraction of the informational structure we experience in less than a day, we who race madly from scene to scene in airplanes, buses and cars, and we who have landscapes rapidly thrust back upon us, on computers, televisions and phones?

The ancient Greek culture was unquestionably a burst of structure into our experienced world, and its members, absorbing that burst, would have displayed far more intelligence than the hunter-gatherers who had gone before (indeed the ancient Greeks would have been capable of taking an intelligence test, they could have differentiated themselves by means of their scores). But having been reared in surroundings much simpler, more crude than those of current times, having passed through life at a significantly slower pace, the ancient Greeks would have been overwhelmed by circumstances as hurried and complex as our own, would have been mostly befuddled by intelligence exams as sophisticated as ours. Aristotle would have been no different (neither would have Pythagoras, Plato or Archimedes). Intelligent relative to his peers, Aristotle would have been nonetheless no smarter than his circumstances could allow, and would have performed poorly and slowly on the equivalent of a modern intelligence exam. And it does no good to argue that I am somehow slighting Aristotle in this backwards-looking scenario, that I am somehow not allowing Aristotle’s ample brain a fair enough chance; it does no good to argue that a man of his impressive cognitive ability, if he were to be raised in our modern world, if he were to be educated in one of our finer schools, if he were to be given the opportunity to experiment, to travel, would certainly score as brilliantly as any of us, nay even more so, on any modern intelligence exam—it does no good to make that argument at all, for when we stop to reflect about it, we realize that is precisely the point.

When we take the Flynn effect seriously, we see it cannot be just a twentieth century phenomenon alone—it must have started well before the dawn of civilized history, and has been shadowing human existence ever since. When we take the Flynn effect seriously, we understand it cannot be caused by better nutrition, selective breeding, greater education or socially-driven multiplier effects—its roots run much deeper than that. And when we take the Flynn effect seriously, we learn something about the nature of intelligence; we learn intelligence is not a concept neuronally based, it does not exist primarily inside our heads.

Genius is a name often bestowed upon individuals such as the seven comprising Professor Flynn’s list, and although here the appellation is correct, the understanding is usually wrong. Conventional wisdom regards genius as evidence for a better brain, the marker of a smoother, faster running neural machine; conventional wisdom regards genius as the equivalent of greater intelligence. But this conventional wisdom cannot possibly be accurate, for if it were, by the evidence of the Flynn effect alone, humans would be in possession of a different kind of brain today than they were in previous times, and here in the twenty-first century, genius would be blossoming as a commonplace trait. It is time to reconsider that conventional wisdom, time to regard genius with a different set of eyes; for genius is not a function of greater intelligence, genius is the description of how intelligence grows.

When we recognize intelligence to be the embodiment of non-biological form, structure and pattern to be found within our human surroundings, the question we ask next is how do these tangible changes occur, why do they happen at all? The other animal species do not produce similar structural changes into their own environment, and neither did humans for a very long time. To take just the artifacts of the industrial revolution alone—engines, cars, factories, rockets, and so much more crowding the spaces all around us—we recognize, perhaps with some sense of surprise, that it was only a few hundred years ago these artifacts did not exist at all. So how did they come to be, why do we now find ourselves awash in their abundant intelligence? Perhaps it was started by an edict of nation, you say. Maybe a private corporation launched a project. Could it be that we owe a debt of gratitude to that modern front for genius, the academic research team?

Professor Flynn knows the answer: Professor Flynn recognizes how much our entire industrialized, mechanized world owes to the writings of just one man—owes to the work of Sir Isaac Newton.

Before Newton scribbled his three laws of motion into his notebook, before his descriptions of color and gravitation began to make the rounds, there was scarcely one whit of our now mechanically dominated world that had yet to grace the human eye, there was scarcely one hint of physical logic that had yet to nestle against human consciousness. But beginning in the summer of Newton’s twenty-third year, a new door suddenly burst open, and through that door passed not only a world-altering material revolution, there passed also an avalanche of expanding human intelligence. The engines, cars, factories, rockets, and so much more crowding the spaces all around us—these artifacts exist not only as the product of Newton’s equations and laws, they exist also as reflections of the knowledge contained within, thereby spreading their skill and logic literally all around. Abundantly familiar now with trains, satellites, gas pedals, bulldozers, prisms, telescopes, and all the rest, humans easily master the concepts of inertia, acceleration, differentiation, spectrum, force; for humans have been absorbing these concepts not by reading the pages of the Principia Mathematica, they have been absorbing these concepts by living amongst the Principia’s many lingering effects.

Genius is the spark that sets the human world ablaze and helps re-create that world afresh.

An ironic feature of genius is that it does not of itself add the new intelligence into the human environment—Newton himself, for instance, produced not a single artifact of the industrial revolution. The broadcast, construction and accumulation of genius’s vision—that is the work of all mankind, drawing heavily upon humanity’s gregarious, imitative and socially selfish nature; and here can be found the reason genius is recognized almost always in hindsight, for it is only after its catalyzing effect has had sufficient opportunity to work that humanity gains enough confidence to celebrate the source. It is in this manner that Professor Flynn has compiled his list of seven men, for he is judging all these men in retrospect; he sees them from the vantage of living amongst their many lingering effects. Hindsight, however, is a vision easily distorted. Overly impressed by the acclaim that attaches to genius’s backwards looking glance, Professor Flynn adds attributes to his list of seven men that are dubious decorations at best. In addition to suggesting that these are the men of highest intelligence, he festoons them also in costumes of wisdom, critical acumen, humane egalitarianism—he turns each into a kind of affable colleague, one that might easily be found just down the university hall. It is in this manner that Professor Flynn demonstrates he does not have an eye for genius as genius truly is, he cannot see genius with a forwards looking glance. Professor Flynn is of the kind—and indeed there are many—who think relativity was first described by a likeable professor of physics, and not by an awkwardly shy patent office clerk.

Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Newton, Gauss, Einstein—what an unusual collection of men. And unusual not because of their hindsight-regarded achievements, unusual because in the moment of their catalyzing efforts, each betrayed a set of human characteristics surprisingly similar, disruptive and ultimately isolating. From the forwards looking direction, genius wears a guise exceedingly strange.

In the first place, genius is not in possession of the highest intelligence, genius possesses intelligence only good enough—good enough to be familiar with the environment of the age, for this environment becomes the canvas upon which genius works. But at the margins, genius’s intelligence will betray cracks, irritations, dissatisfactions with consensus descriptions; genius’s intelligence will score oddly, and not always the best. And in fact, genius remains closed to individuals of the highest intelligence: individuals of the highest intelligence are the ones most skilled, most adept at navigating their surroundings as those surroundings already are, but those same abilities serve as an impediment to seeing surroundings as they might possibly be. For similar reasons, genius remains closed also to groups and teams; the pooling of ideas, even when gathered from the best, reflects the consensus of what is already commonly known, and squelches examination of circumstances yet to be perceived.

To fulfill its revolutionary role, to work its paradigm-shifting magic, to jolt the human species right out of its animal past and into a re-constructed future, genius must remain the province of the individual—the individual acting ruthlessly alone. The introduction of new intelligence into the human environment is not an act of social kindness. The sudden bursting open of new doors to wider and better construction is not a biologically graceful event. This planet passed nearly four billion years without seeing anything remotely similar to the structural re-creation we now can witness all around us—genius has been working in defiance of a well established norm.

And far from being affable colleagues, individual geniuses are more prone to turning away from the common pursuits of their fellow man, are more prone to becoming madly obsessed, staring deeply into the patterns and structures of the non-social, non-biological world, teasing from out of those depths the hidden formations that are about to be. Adjectives such as intelligent, wise, egalitarian, socially graced—they ring hollow attached to the souls of genius. When we examine more carefully the lives of the seven men on Professor Flynn’s list—and indeed when we examine more carefully the characteristics of nearly all the geniuses who have graced the human species—we find them much better framed by a more dissonant sounding set of words: brooding, aloof, inscrutable, iconoclastic, temperamental, reticent, compulsive, detached. There is nothing coincidental in these oft-repeated descriptions. Although we have been apt to think the personality quirks of genius are the result of genius’s strain, a deeper understanding of genius’s essential task reveals we have been confusing cause and effect. The unusual characteristics of humanity’s transformational individuals are not the result of their genius, they are genius’s prerequisite.

And thus we come to autism—that one cognitive paradox, ironically enough, that Professor Flynn has likely never considered.

Autism is another poorly understood concept in this so-called scientific age. Although autism has been present within humanity for a very long time, its recognition has come only quite recently, a recognition accompanied by grave misunderstandings. In the early twenty-first century, autism is described exclusively as a medical condition, observable in children beginning around the ages of two or three, characterized by developmental delays, social deficits, language peculiarities, and unusual behaviors and interests. And the assumption of hundreds of research teams, maybe even thousands by now, is that autism’s traits are the result of various brain disorders, genetic defects, synaptic abnormalities and environmental toxins—we have become collectively convinced autism is the evidence of something gone terribly wrong. The blind acceptance of this assumption has resulted in humanity remaining blind to autism’s much larger and more positive consequence; for if the day-to-day impact of autism has been to pose unquestionable challenges for the autistic individuals who live within our midst, the era-to-era impact of autism has been to unleash upon the human species the most powerful transformation this planet has ever seen.

Autism’s fundamental characteristic is that the individuals possessing the condition do not easily recognize and assimilate to their own species. By contrast, non-autistic individuals—following the well established biological and evolutionary norm—display from birth a strong, natural affinity for the human features in their surrounding environment, can easily focus on human faces, quickly respond to human voices, and so on. Non-autistic individuals use this affinity to gain their sensory grounding—the human environment becomes foreground against a background of sensory noise—and they ride this species familiarity into the realms of imitation and assimilation, quickly learning to do what other humans do, swiftly taking their customary place within mankind’s domain. Just as bees perceive solely the bee-specific features in their surrounding environment, and thereby learn to behave as bees, just as lions perceive exclusively the lion-specific features in their own surroundings, and thereby assimilate to other lions, so too do humans perceive first and foremost the human-specific features presented all around them, and thereby attach with natural ease to the contours of human existence.

Autistic individuals are the only exception to this species recognition rule. For reasons as yet unknown, autistic individuals fail to gain the same species-specific focus as other humans do, and in consequence chart an entirely different perceptual and developmental course. The challenges are certainly daunting: autistic individuals to varying degree face lifelong struggles to gain sensory, cognitive and biological footing, and for a significant number there will be only limited progress. But counter to prevailing wisdom, there are many autistic individuals—most likely a majority—who do make substantial progress by means of an alternative perceptual course, a course that allows them not only to navigate meaningfully their surrounding world, but also to assimilate, if somewhat awkwardly and belatedly, to the human species itself (and thereby explaining how autism, estimated to be present in nearly one percent of the human population, could go entirely unrecognized until as recently as sixty-five years ago).

This alternative perceptual course that autistic individuals must follow is the natural response to an initial sensory chaos. Without a human-specific focus to serve for grounding, autistic individuals lack the customary means for determining biological foreground from a background of sensory noise, and thus autistic individuals are threatened right from birth with a massive sensory confusion (and indeed many do experience an assortment of sensory difficulties). Fortunately, not every feature in the surrounding environment presents itself as unbridled noise: in an environment of jumbled auditory impressions, for instance, repeated sounds inherently stand out; in an environment of chaotic visual scenes, symmetry pushes to the front; and in an environment of mostly random events, patterns can draw attention. Hungry for signal to relieve the overwhelming rush of sensory noise, autistic individuals focus on those environmental features that inherently stand out from the remainder, features rich in concepts already familiar to this discussion, concepts such as symmetry, pattern, repetition, structure, form. Stymied from the usual course of gaining a human-specific perception, autistic individuals forge their developmental progress by concentrating on the non-social, non-biological structure to be found in the world around them; and although some autistic individuals are more successful in this process than others, although some are quicker, some are slower, although many are drawn to widely varying aspects of the broadly arrayed environment, all autistic individuals must crystallize their existence by means of this alternative perceptual course—it becomes, in essence, autism’s most salient feature.

Strong evidence exists in support of this description of autism, evidence that is abundant, familiar and surprisingly close at hand. The unusual behaviors and interests of autistic children—lining up toys, staring at ceiling fans, twirling, flapping hands repeatedly, fascination with knobs, buttons, switches, letters, shapes and digits, watching the same video again and again, singing the same song over and over—these activities betray a form of perception completely unlike that of most other children, a perception noticeably absent in social and biological focus, but also noticeably drawn to symmetry, repetition and pattern. And these autistic behaviors and interests have not been taught by anyone, they are not the result of human prompting—they all have arisen spontaneously. The unusual routines of autistic children are the natural, indeed the expected, mode of expression for a form of perception engaged primarily by the structural aspects of the non-social, non-biological world.

And of course the irony accompanying these behaviors and interests is that they are so frequently demonized. In our current atmosphere of scientific orthodoxy regarding autism, out of the research community’s insistence on medicalizing this condition, from humanity’s near certitude that autism is the evidence of something gone terribly wrong, autistic behaviors have been decried as symptoms of a mental disease, the destructive by-products of genetic defects and brain dysfunction. Autistic interests have been branded as unworthy, undesirable, inhuman—they are slated again and again for correction, intervention, eradication.

How exceedingly misguided.

In a world in which the human environment has been suddenly transformed all around us, in a species that has been rapidly progressing from animal to questing knight of a massive universe, in a culture where intelligent men can author books entitled What is Intelligence?, and in an era in which the Flynn effect still confounds us as a mystery, how exceedingly misguided that we would insist on demonizing the behaviors and interests of autistic children—arguably the most natural example of non-biological form and structure being added into the human environment, arguably the most spontaneous occurrence of our expanding human intelligence.

It can be reasonably conjectured that it must have been around the time of the great leap forward that autistic individuals first gained significant presence within the human population, for it was at that moment evidence begins to appear of their transformational impact. Autistic individuals would have been the first to notice the inherent structure contained in the natural world—the geometry of plants, the isomorphisms of natural objects, the logic of the celestial seasons—only they would have had motivation to embrace such form, only they would have had the need to perceive nature’s symmetry, repetition and pattern in order to form their cognitive grounding. And from out of those strange new perceptions came the concepts now familiar to the entire species: from symmetry came the concept of space, from repetition came the concept of time, and from pattern appeared the first intimations of logic and mathematics. Alongside the introduction of the brand new concepts would have arisen also the need for language, for with the human world now bursting its biologically immediate bonds and reaching across realms of time and space in which to explore, there was now the need for a representational intermediary to help bridge that expanding conceptual gap.

This process of human transformation would have been slow and uncertain over the course of many millennia—by current standards of human environmental change, fifty thousand years is an immensely long period of time—but increasingly able to perceive non-biological structure and form within their surroundings, more and more capable of re-creating a similar structural effect, humans began adding an abundance of formative artifacts into their expanding world, and grew ever more intelligent with each new addition. By the era of ancient Greece we can begin to see preservation of a now increasingly familiar story: the unusual members of that society—the near outcasts such as Pythagoras, the ones barely attached, such as Socrates and Archimedes—positing strange new descriptions of the surrounding universe, offering up strange new methods of calculation and logical discourse, envisioning strange new contraptions with which to re-create again and again and again. We know only bits and pieces about the four Greeks on Professor Flynn’s list, but filling in with the traits from the list’s more modern members, we can reasonably summarize all the unifying characteristics: late- or strange-talking, socially awkward, irascible, obsessed with structure, compelled by form, unusually—not necessarily greatly—intelligent. As has always been the case—in famous ways we now celebrate in retrospect, and by more subtle means now long forgotten—genius has arisen out of a mode of perception quite unlike the human biological norm.

And even in the modern world, even with so much intelligence now embodied into our human environment, even with the templates of scientific method and artistic technique made available to nearly all—even today, genius remains the more natural domain of the autistic individual: tomorrow’s transformational vision will be derived by the one least attached to the common perception of today. The continuing medicalization of autism, the insistent demonization of autism’s spontaneous effect—these carry the danger of an unforeseen consequence. For the cure of autism will not be the end of a tragic brain disorder; autism’s eradication will not see the passing of a troubling mental disease. The removal of autism from the entire human species will produce only an ironic solution to the mystery of our expanding human intelligence, it will produce the ignoble end to the Flynn effect.

I continue to maintain a large degree of respect and gratitude for Professor Flynn and his work. His tireless promulgation of what has come to be known as the Flynn effect has been a research achievement of no small significance, a rare jewel of discovery that has jolted us right out of our accustomed way of seeing things, thereby leading to broadly expanded horizons. The only accomplishment I can think of to liken it to would be the Michelson-Morley experiment with its steadfast denial of the luminous ether, eventually paving the way to relativity.

But as grateful as I am to Professor Flynn for his namesake discovery, I am as equally dismayed by his book What is Intelligence? I am especially disappointed in its clumsy, unconvincing attempts to explain the Flynn effect away. The book is uninspired, shoddily organized, poorly reasoned, badly edited, and is transparent in only one respect—it makes it all too abundantly clear that Professor Flynn does not realize the significance of what he has himself discovered, he does not have a keen enough eye for the Flynn effect’s broadly expanded horizons. Michelson and Morley too, I would note, puzzled by their own unexpected results, made several attempts in later life to rationalize their findings away, none of these efforts ever redounding to either one’s credit. Data is data. When confronted by data that runs counter to our accustomed way of seeing things, we as humans have but two choices: we can try to explain the results away, or we can adjust our perception of the experienced world. The former choice paves the all-too-common road of modern academic science; the latter, as described above, walks the more promising path of genius.

Intelligence, genius, and autism—the common understandings of each of these constructs must fall. Intelligence is not the by-product of our biochemical brain, it is instead the harvest of the structured world we have been building around us. Genius is not the title to be conferred upon higher intelligence, it is instead the catalyst prompting human intelligence to grow. Autism is not a mental illness, not a brain disorder, it is instead the source of humanity’s changing perception of its experienced world; it is, with care and understanding, genius’s fertile soil.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

But Your Letter Said…

As noted previously, Geraldine Dawson, the Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, recently penned a public letter celebrating the many autism research achievements announced in the year 2008. In her lengthy missive, Dr. Dawson listed all the following factors as being promising explanations for autism’s etiology:

  • Deletions and duplications on chromosome 16
  • Pesticides and insecticides
  • Epileptic drugs
  • Mutations in the CNTNAP2 gene
  • April, June and October
  • Premature birth
  • A defective hippocampus
  • Laboratory mice
  • Living in a region of high precipitation
  • Secreted amyloid precursor protein-alpha
  • The Hannah Poling settlement case

However, now that the calendar has turned to 2009, we find Dr. Dawson popping up as a contributing author to a new and much ballyhooed paper pinning the blame for autism’s so-called social deficits on hyperactive amygdalas. It would seem that Hannah Poling’s lawyers (not to mention the months of April, June and October) have been moved to the back of the line.

At this point, I am groping to find some factor Dr. Dawson does not believe to be a promising explanation for autism’s etiology, but I find myself increasingly at a loss for words.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

An Odd Conclusion

The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders has recently published the paper The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence Revisited (Bölte, Dziobek, and Poustka, 2009, hereafter referred to as Bölte). Bölte is in response to the paper The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (Dawson, Soulières, Gernsbacher, and Mottron, 2007, hereafter referred to as Dawson) and serves as an effort to replicate Dawson’s findings. There is much that can be praised about Bölte—it lays out its methodology in good detail, and it is up front and honest about the various ways in which it does and does not match the techniques of Dawson—but there are also some very troubling aspects about Bölte. In the first place, the motivation for doing this follow-up study has been made somewhat suspicious by the Bölte authors setting up a fictitious target in Dawson for which to attack. But even more concerning, the main conclusion of Bölte can only be described as something extremely odd, puzzling in the highest degree, given that it is directly contradicted by Bölte’s own findings.

The alarm bells regarding Bölte’s motivations are set off in its introduction, during a discussion about the various merits of the Wechsler Intelligence Scales (WIS) and the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM). Bölte claims that Dawson “suggests that while RPM do allow fair IQ testing in autism, the WIS do not, which would dispute the utility of the WIS as the standard IQ measure for clinical or research purposes.” The problem with this claim is that I have been through Dawson at least twenty-five times (and went through it again just to make sure), and this so-called “suggestion,” let alone a direct statement, is never made. Absolutely nowhere in Dawson does the question of suitability of various intelligence scales for autism research and practice ever get raised—Bölte’s claim is no more than a canard. And although it might seem like a quibble of a canard, I have far too many times seen modern scientists approach their research work with purpose and outcome already set in stone, and here it appears as though Bölte’s authors have approached this particular study with the express intent of defending the use of WIS in autism research and practice, and are going to have that result no matter what, even if no one else has bothered to raise the issue, even if it means the facts be damned.

Which leads to the troubling aspect of Bölte’s main conclusion: Bölte’s facts be damned.

Bölte’s authors summarize their findings in the following way: “in conclusion, the claim that intelligence has been underestimated in autism seems somewhat premature.” They base this conclusion primarily on two pieces of evidence from their own study: 1. the average difference in WIS and RPM scores for autistic individuals, while significant, is less in Bölte than it is Dawson; and 2. in Bölte (unlike in Dawson), the difference in WIS and RPM scores for autistic individuals is noticeable only for those individuals with WIS scores less than 85.

Neither of these pieces of evidence supports the Bölte conclusion—in fact, exactly the opposite.

That the average difference in WIS and RPM scores for autistic individuals is less in Bölte than it is in Dawson is certainly interesting and warrants further investigation—it would be nice to obtain an accurate reading upon this number—but the far more important piece of information is that the difference continues to prevail in Bölte, and is statistically significant. So I would like to pose a question: just exactly how many times will Dawson need to be replicated before we can say it is not premature to claim that intelligence has been underestimated in autism? If the study gets re-performed and re-affirmed at least a hundred times, with the numbers coming out not exactly the same in each instance, will it still be necessary to hesitate about the Dawson conclusion? Do the Bölte authors volunteer to perform this study again and again and again? At what point do they propose to remove the word “premature”?

And if that were not bad enough, the other piece of evidence offered in support of Bölte’s summary, namely that the difference in WIS and RPM scores for autistic individuals is significantly large only for those individuals with WIS scores less than 85—well, that piece of evidence is even more damaging to the Bölte conclusion. Assuming that Bölte’s findings prove to be accurate, and that it is only for this particular autistic population that the WIS/RPM differences are significantly different, it is precisely this population that finds itself most at risk for having its intelligence underestimated. Dawson notes the precarious circumstances of this population in its Figure 3 chart, highlighting the cluster of autistic individuals in the upper left hand quadrant, the ones who by WIS measures would be labeled mentally impaired, but who by RPM scores are demonstrating strong fluid intelligence. Bölte does not provide the data to construct a similar chart, but based upon Bölte’s general findings, it is almost certain its upper left hand quadrant would display a similar cluster. So again, the question must be posed: do Bölte’s authors mean to claim that these autistic individuals are having their intelligence accurately described by such terms as “low-functioning” and “mentally retarded”? Exactly when would a reconsideration of such assessments not be “premature”?

Autism research never ceases to amaze me. I am told again and again that the purpose of such research is to help us better understand the autistic individuals within our midst and to allow us better to serve their needs. But here, on an occasion when the data (from two studies, no less) points to an instance where we have been clearly misunderstanding the characteristics of autistic individuals, the response from the autism research community seems to be a languorous effort to tamp those findings down, a ho-hum call to continue on as we were. Dawson is not an attempt to promote the use of RPM over WIS in autism research and practice; that at best would be a gross misreading. Dawson simply demonstrates that the level and nature of autistic intelligence has been poorly understood up to the present time—not just underestimated, but indeed mostly overlooked. In Bölte, there was an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this discussion by not only refining and elaborating on the Dawson data, but also by noting how Bölte in general validates the Dawson theme—an opportunity Bölte’s authors apparently decided to forgo, because they must have had a different sort of purpose in mind.

For Dawson, et al., the Bölte report, despite its defiant tone, serves essentially as a confirmation of Dawson’s original findings. The difference in data is certainly worthy of note, and is probably deserving of a follow-up check; but Dawson’s assertion that the level and nature of autistic intelligence is poorly understood has now been verified (in more ways than one) by another team’s work.

And for Bölte, et al., although they have my thanks for having made the effort and for having been thorough in the reporting of methods and findings, my suggestion would be that for their next paper, before they move on to writing the conclusion, they should probably take the time to read over their own results.

How Many Research Scientists Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Really, I do not get the multiple authorship thing. The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (Dawson, Soulières, Gernsbacher, and Mottron, 2007) is about as simple as a research report gets, and The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence Revisited (Bölte, Dziobek, and Poustka, 2009) is an easy replication of a simple research report. Why the hell would those things require a boatload of authors? If I asked my son to write a thank you letter, and he told me he needed three colleagues to help him complete the task, I would send him to his room without supper.

And if the response is that grown-up research is somehow different, that certain “political” factors must be taken into account, then allow me to point out that several of the authors involved in the above-referenced papers are frequent champions for standards of science and ethics in autism research; but I fail to see anything scientific, or ethical, about piled-on authorship.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Difficulty in Recognizing Autism for What It Is

There exists a class of people—by current estimates totaling approximately one percent of the population—whose members possess an underlying condition that fundamentally distinguishes the class from the remainder of the species.

  • Some of the class’s members are diagnosed with the condition in early childhood, usually at five years of age or less; these members are commonly labeled autistic.
  • Some of the class’s members are diagnosed in late childhood or adolescence, roughly between the ages of six and eighteen; these members are frequently labeled Asperger’s.
  • Some of the class’s members are diagnosed only after reaching adulthood; these are often described as schizophrenic or bipolar.

Note the word “diagnosis” in each of these descriptions—labeling occurs nearly always under conditions perceived to be psychiatrically negative. And note how the labels are a function of the age at diagnosis, and thus do not differentiate the underlying condition. Finally, note that the variable age of diagnosis suggests the labels do not complete the class: it is likely there are other members, perhaps a significantly large number, who do not get diagnosed or labeled at all.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Modest Proposal

In response to the news that children of older fathers performed less well on intelligence tests administered at 8 months, 4 years and 7 years, I would like to offer the following modest proposal: to avoid the burdensome costs of having to deal with defective children (not to mention the burdensome costs of having to perform inane studies), let’s begin administering intelligence tests from straight out the womb, and for those newborns who score less than average, we can dump them in the same bag as the placenta and have done with the matter.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Publishable Diploma

Does the average scientific research article remind you more of a high school term paper (a group project at that), or the opening pages of Einstein’s Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies?

It would appear the purpose of the entire educational system, from kindergarten through doctoral dissertation, is to teach humanity how to strive towards mediocrity.