Monday, September 20, 2021

More (biological) science! Human origins, and lots more...

Sorry for the delay this time, but I'll compensate with new insights into where we came from... 

Not everyone agrees how to interpret the “Big Bang” of human culture that seems to have happened around 40,000 years ago (that I describe and discuss in Existence), a relatively rapid period when we got prolific cave art, ritual burials, sewn clothing and a vastly expanded tool kit… and lost our Neanderthal cousins for debatable reasons. Some call the appearance of a 'rapid shift' an artifact of sparse paleo sampling. V. S. Ramachandran agrees with me that some small inner (perhaps genetic) change had non-linear effects by allowing our ancestors to correlate and combine many things they were already doing separately, with brains that had enlarged to do all those separate things by brute force. Ramachandran suspects it involved “mirror neurons” that allow some primates to envision internally the actions of others. 


My own variant is “reprogrammability…” a leap to a profoundly expanded facility to program our thought processes anew in software (culture) rather than firmware or even hardware. Supporting this notion is how rapidly there followed a series of later “bangs” that led to staged advances in agriculture (with the harsh pressures that came with the arrival of new diets, beer and kings)… then literacy, empires, and (shades of Julian Jaynes!) new kinds of conscious awareness… all the way up to the modern era’s harshly decisive conflict between enlightenment science and nostalgic romanticism.

I doubt it is as simple as "Mirror Neurons." But they might indeed have played a role. The original point that I offered, even back in the nineties, was that we appear to have developed a huge brain more than 200,000 years ago because only thus could we become sufficiently top-predator to barely survive. If we had had reprogrammability and resulting efficiencies earlier, ironically, we could have achieved that stopping place more easily, with a less costly brain... and thus halted the rapid advance. 

It was a possibly-rare sequence... achieving efficiency and reprogrammability AFTER the big brain... that led to a leap in abilities that may be unique in the galaxy. Making it a real pisser that many of our human-genius cousins quail back in terror from taking the last steps to decency and adulthood... and possibly being the rescuers of a whole galaxy.
== And Related ==

There’s much ballyhoo that researchers found that just 1.5% to 7% of the human genome is unique to Homo sapiens, free from signs of interbreeding or ancestral variants.  Only when you stop and think about it, this is an immense yawn.  So Neanderthals and Denisovans were close cousins. Fine. Actually, 1.5% to 7% is a lot!  More than I expected, in fact.


Much is made of the human relationship with dogs…  how that advantage may have helped relatively weak and gracile humans re-emerge from Africa 60,000 years ago or so… about 50,000 years after sturdy-strong Neanderthals kicked us out of Eurasia on our first attempt. But wolves might have already been ‘trained’ to cooperate with those outside their species and pack… and trained by… ravens! At minimum it’s verified the birds will cry and call a pack to a recent carcass so the ‘tooled’ wolves can open it for sharking. What is also suspected is that ravens will summon a pack to potential prey animals who are isolated or disabled, doing for the wolves what dogs later did for human hunting bands.


== Other biological news! ==


A new carnivorous plant - which traps insects using sticky hairs -has been recently identified in bogs of the U.S. Pacific Northwest.


Important news in computational biology. Deep learning systems can now solve the protein folding problem. "Proteins start out as a simple ribbon of amino acids, translated from DNA, and subsequently folded into intricate three-dimensional architectures. Many protein units then further assemble into massive, moving complexes that change their structure depending on their functional needs at a given time. And mis-folded proteins can be devastating—causing health problems from sickle cell anemia and cancer, to Alzheimer’s disease."


"Development of Covid-19 vaccines relied on scientists parsing multiple protein targets on the virus, including the spike proteins that vaccines target. Many proteins that lead to cancer have so far been out of the reach of drugs because their structure is hard to pin down."


The microbial diversity in the guts of today’s remaining hunter-gatherers far exceeds that of people in industrial societies, and researchers have linked low diversity to higher rates of “diseases of civilization,” including diabetes, obesity, and allergies. But it wasn't clear how much today's nonindustrial people have in common with ancient humans. Until bio archaeologists started mining 1000 year old poop -  ancient coprolites preserved by dryness and stable temperatures in three rock shelters in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

The coprolites yielded 181 genomes that were both ancient and likely came from a human gut. Many resembled those found in nonindustrial gut samples today, including species associated with high-fiber diets. Bits of food in the samples confirmed that the ancient people's diet included maize and beans, typical of early North American farmers. Samples from a site in Utah suggested a more eclectic, fiber-rich “famine diet” including prickly pear, ricegrass, and grasshoppers.” Notably lacking -- markers for antibiotic resistance. And they were notably more diverse, including dozens of unknown species. “In just these eight samples from a relatively confined geography and time period, we found 38% novel species.”


scidata said...

Mirror neurons, yup. 'Reprogrammability', yup. Clive Sinclair died a few days ago, I tore his Cambridge Programmable Calculator ads out of science mags and used them for bookmarks when reading the Foundation trilogy several times over. Strange/worrisome how little I've changed over the last half century.

I'd go for introspection. Feedback, bootstrapping, and 'crowd-sourcing' are greatly augmented when there's some perception of the thinking process itself.
"Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science." - James Clerk Maxwell

Only four more sleeps until FOUNDATION.

People are welcome to laugh at my nerdy adoration of Star Fleet and Foundation futures. I get it; it's justified; I sometimes laugh too. However, my primary concern is that eventual alien visitors to Earth will find nothing but dust and a few stelae*. No more laughing, crying, or arguing. Just the wind. Pluralism is messy life, but fascism is orderly death. My secondary concern was seeded by reading FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH while the pandemic raged. Planet-wide long Covid has an eerie similarity to the threat of chaos sickness. I yearn for Pengia, much as mariners once sought Serendip, pacing the deck of the good ship Calculemus. That's why I feel so betrayed by the scarf lady and the NIH director. Flimsy monuments to cowardice and romanticism do not guide people towards rationalism or even plain old vaccination. Privilege corrupts just as much as power does.

* Or even worse, there are no aliens out there, and we've extinguished the only flower in the desert.
(Not likely, but the most horrifying scenarios never are)

Hopefully, as David Goyer puts it, the world is finally ready for FOUNDATION. The cheesy entrepreneur in me wants to run off 50,000 "Shorten the Darkness" T-shirts. But this enlightenment grunt would just hand them out for free.

And DUNE too. French Canadian sensibility, spice everywhere, and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica.
Life is good. [takes a pull of tree sauce to toast a stable northern democracy]

John Kurman said...

40,000BCE boom? I'm gonna go with autism. I'm probably wrong. The other thing would be 40KBCE is only the most recent culture boom. Just as wolves domesticated themselves more than once with the most recent being dogs, so we could have had more than one efflorescence.

David Brin said...

JK please read more carefully. I said the 40kya boom was likely among the FIRST of MANY more booms that followed at an accelerating pace. And there is very little evidence for any such boom much earlier, given the persistence of of Aurignacian toolkit and low level of art. And especially the fact that humans went extinct in Eurasia earlier, when (likely) Neanderthals kicked our butts back to Africa.

John Kurman said...

Agreed. What about the autism hypothesis?

Slim Moldie said...

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead sited a 15,000 year old fractured (and healed) femur bone as the first evidence of civilization.

David Brin said...

JK pls explain that hypothesis.

gregory byshenk said...

From the previous....

Alfred, I am well aware of the academic discourse regarding "natural rights".

The point is, there is no univocal answer to what is "natural" or what "rights" might thereby arise. The history of debates around "natural rights" - slavery, domination of inferior races, submission of women - makes that clear. The idea of "natural rights" is an attempt to find some solid foundation, but there is no solid ground to be found. We have only a collection of competing "just so" stories used in an attempt to advance the positions of their tellers.

Robert said...

Presumably this:

Some of the genes that contribute to autism may have been selected and maintained because they created beneficial behaviors in a solitary environment, amounting to an autism advantage, Reser said.

The "autism advantage," a relatively new perspective, contends that sometimes autism has compensating benefits, including increased abilities for spatial intelligence, concentration and memory. Although individuals with autism have trouble with social cognition, their other cognitive abilities are sometimes largely intact.

scidata said...

Whether beneficial or not, we definitely need to figure this stuff out for deep space missions:

Sort of backs up my theme of 'either we all get to the stars, or none of us do'.

duncan cairncross said...

Re - "Natural Rights"

I'm an engineer - I like the idea that we should allocate "rights" and "requirements" in such a way as to provide the most benefit to everybody

A "Designer Society" as it were

David Brin said...

Sharing with you guys. This fun accounting of 'revenge' events has the almost full range, from rather sweet tricks pulled by friends and siblings wot -- well -- tasty but a bit harsh breakups.

Anonymous said...

The late anthropologist Richard Nelson ("Make Prayers to the Raven")wrote of the ravens in Koyukon culture. It was believed by the Natives (and likely true) that ravens would make a distinctive noise and fly toward game animals, leading hunters to prey. The payoff would be the gut sack, which is left after field-dressing the animal. I have no doubt that these intelligent birds would direct wolves as well.

Alfred Differ said...


I am well aware of the academic discourse regarding "natural rights".

One of the things that keeps bringing me back here to this community is someone can say this… and I believe them. Heh. Sorry for underestimating you. 8)

Having now adjusted my internal model for you…

no univocal answer

I completely agree. At best we have the academic answer and what appears to emerge from our communities. We do NOT all agree on what is let alone what was.

there is no solid ground to be found

I mostly agree in the same sense that there is no purpose to the universe. I'm not a believer, though, so that's not a big deal for me. I imagine some believers would disagree with you, though.

For me, I just stick to 'solid enough'. If we can agree on a vision of our future, we might backtrack to a 'useful' meaning for 'natural'. I fall back to working definitions. If they work, that's solid enough.

We have only a collection of competing "just so" stories…

This gets back to why I think it important to treat claims as what they are. Declaration of Rights. Personal Declarations. I capitalize all that because people who make them are often 'upper casing' them in their heads. My Right! Don't Mess With Me!

Obviously some declarations can't be tolerated, but many can without us ever needing to take positive steps to recognize them let alone list them. None of you will care if I wear mismatched socks. You might not care if I don't bathe every day. I can claim my liberty in those directions and need nothing from anyone except to be let be. Push me and I'll invent my own 'just so' rationalizations. There is a drought on, ya know?

Where we can't tolerate claims, we fight about stuff. That's okay. Expected even. If a fight leads to a community deciding to tolerate claims that a moderate fraction would prefer to deny, we write them down and forbid government from infringing them. That is the end product of a social process, though. It's a messy one that really isn't about a particular claim. It's about our disagreements about what we tolerate and how we go about denying.

Alfred Differ said...

I've seen the 'autism hypothesis' and I've got something to get off my chest about it.

To start, I do not mean to disparage anyone who thinks there is something to the hypothesis. My opinions are directed ONLY at the hypothesis.

Next, I think some are confusing autism with schizotypal personality disorder. The symptom list is similar. There might be connections. However, they aren't the same.

Lastly, and most importantly, autism is not a procreation advantage. The schizotypal folks often DO manage to have kids and some have argued that women put up with the disadvantages of that disorder to get the advantages. That is not the case for most autistic kids.


My evidence is anecdotal I'll admit, but it's not based on a tiny data set. My son is autistic and 22 years old now. I've been wrapped up in the 'special populations' community in this city for many years and met many, many, many others. My wife picked up a degree and a teaching credential for moderate to severe kids on the autism spectrum and has handled many over the last few years. She helped in my son's classes before that, so she has accumulated a lot of experience.

How does this background matter here? Well… these kids don't grow up to have kids. Most of them have the hormonal drives to manage it act, but can't handle the emotional complexities. The truth is the few who do are either on the very mild end of the spectrum… or they get raped.

Finally, if by some miracle one of these kids manages the act of procreation, their children are at a disadvantage much like kids of single parents… but worse. One of their parents isn't emotionally functional. That is a burden on the family.


I know the article Robert linked is up on the Harvard news site. I am DEEPLY skeptical that autism is an evolutionary advantage. I am SO SKEPTICAL that I would suspect the authors of telling a feel-good story for parents of autistic kids. They wouldn't be the first to pull that crap on us. Many, many people tell us they understand what the problem is and maybe even have a way of mitigating the damage. They are full of bullshit mostly, but many of them are well meaning. I can't just go scream at them, right? Unfortunately, some of them from early years were anti-vaxx types and we ALL know what that has led us.

DP said...

There has been a 30% increase in cases of Type 1 diabetes since 2017. Not better or more frequent diagnoses, more people are actually getting Type 1 (not Type II often triggered by obesity).

Nobody knows why.

Anyone want to venture a guess?

Larry Hart said...

I thought this was the case about the debt ceiling. The bolded part below (emphasis mine) is exactly as I remembered.

The United States' debt ceiling will celebrate its 104th birthday next Friday—undoubtedly, cake and punch will be served. It first came into being on October 1, 1917, as part of the Second Liberty Bond Act. For a number of reasons, including a desire to create the impression of scarcity, so that people would snap up the "limited" supply of war bonds, Congress imposed a limit on how much money the government could borrow to pay for World War I.

Over time, additional legislation expanded the debt limit, eventually applying it to all government spending, and not just spending on a particular war or particular federal department. Note that the limit applies to the aggregate national debt. The general goal is to impose government austerity by creating a financial "cliff" beyond which Congress will not go. Of course, Congress pretty much always rushes in where wise men fear to tread, and so the debt limit pretty much never encourages austerity. What generally happens is that the Department of the Treasury warns Congress that the debt limit is about to be reached, and then Congress just raises it for the umpteenth time. For a long time, the raising of the debt ceiling was essentially pro forma, but the hyperpartisanship of the last 20 years or so has turned it into a regularly scheduled game of chicken. Or chess, if you like our classier metaphor.

The whole thing is, if we may use a technical term, stupid. When Congress passes a budget, or any other legislation that affects the national debt, they are already approving the necessary expenditure. They shouldn't have to approve it a second time. For a period of time (1979-1995), the Gephardt Rule was in place; it established that any budget expenditure that would push the U.S. past the debt limit would automatically raise the debt limit. That very sensible workaround was eventually abolished thanks to the efforts of someone who believed he could use the debt ceiling as a tool to advance his party's agenda. We'd hate to use the blog to cast aspersions on anyone, but we'll give you a hint as to his identity: Ewtnay Ingrichgay.

Jon S. said...

On the other tentacle, I can see where milder autism (level 1 or some of 2 by current diagnostic criteria) could be considered an evolutionary advantage in times of struggle, as such a person is in my experience more likely to consider non-conventional solutions to issues. As severity increases, however, so does rigidity of thought - few level 3 autistics (such as my daughter) would fare well without a strong support structure and a defined routine. (I suppose that once organized religions developed, some autistics would be drawn to them because that's exactly what an abbey or similar organization can provide.)

Overall, though, no. There's a reason why even my own level 1 diagnosis is considered a disability. Humans are social creatures, and being unable to socialize can be a powerful drawback.

Larry Hart said...

Just to show what kind of mood I'm in...

My wife and I are laughing, probably more than deserved, trying to come up with a scheme to supplement solar power generation with kitten-generated power at night. We recognized that the scheme would require a constant resupply of new kittens, as the old ones quickly become adult cats who sleep most of the day.

Which led to the reimagining of cats as "spent kittens".

You probably had to be there. :)

David Smelser said...


Have you considered fostering for an endless supply of kittens? Over the years, we fostered over 30 litters of kittens, with only a single "failure" (a foster we adopted).


What is known about the non-autistic siblings of autistics? They have genes in common with their autistic relatives. Might that be where the evolutionary advantage is?

scidata said...

Larry Hart: "spent kittens"

You good folks have had to put up with my Forth babblings on CB for a few years. The winding road of Paradoctor - Rudy Rucker - John Walker will lead one to a true Forther. Astronomy, spaceflight, politics, anthropology, computer science, economics, business (founder of Autodesk and more), and English that rivals Laplace's French. Far too libertarian for my taste, but that shouldn't deter others here :) Here's a short Walker piece about rigorously calculating 'spent' lives:

BTW, if you're interested in Phil Salin, here's an eternity-in-an-hour-level essay:
"An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Kitchens"

Pappenheimer said...

Re: autism and David's last comment

Pretty sure that runs in my family, and of all my relations, the closest to me in temperament became the only scientist in the bunch. DeCamp (IIRC) wrote a short story decades ago in which he suggested that human technological progress needed people we'd diagnose today as HF autistic - standing outside the human norm and observing dispassionately. Not great for them, maybe, but good for the species.

Treebeard said...

I’ve long thought that science, technophilia, Enlightenmentism and related WEIRDo stuff were mostly developed by autistic people. Hell, maybe civilization in general is an autistic project. It takes a peculiar sort of mind to want to reduce the world to math, code, logic, laws, systems and machines. I’m probably mildly autistic myself, so I can do all that too. I know what it’s like to spend days scribbling equations or pecking at keyboards with monomaniacal focus and no interest in human interaction, but I’ve mostly gotten over it (save the occasional blogging). It’s not something you want to encourage, imo. Nothing is more dangerous than an autistic mind weaponized by technology and in the grip of ideology. What they lack in interpersonal skills, intuition and emotion they will try to make up for with technical power. To me modern technocracy looks increasingly like the work of such people, which is creating a large and growing disconnect between them and the more neurotypical masses of normals/deplorables.

Slim Moldie said...

Daniel "There has been a 30% increase in cases of Type 1 diabetes since 2017...Anyone want to venture a guess?"

Sure. I'm not an expert or anything but I'd guess part of it is due to epigenetic inheritance. Person A (Grandmother) becomes pregnant with person B (mother) whose ovaries contain thousands of eggs--one of which will become part of person C (daughter) who gets Type 1 diabetes. Both grandmother and mother's diet can effect the expression of daughter's genes.

All kinds of autoimmune conditions are going keep going boom boom (increasing) on the y-axis, too as people continue to eat mostly inflammatory foods. Read back in David's posting about all the variety that was in our ancestors tummies as they wandered around trying to fill them. That whole gut brain / connection.

David Brin said...

I've been ignoring notices from the spam filter, though apparently it's had a surge lately. But Treebeard is welcome here, despite my opinion he's a nutter. Because he's both polite and cogent in his nuttery. Example:

"Nothing is more dangerous than an autistic mind weaponized by technology and in the grip of ideology. What they lack in interpersonal skills, intuition and emotion they will try to make up for with technical power."

While it's true that far spectrum folks have trouble with emotional connections, they are also very seldom oppressive or violent toward others. Indeed, they work had to overcome those deficits with carefully deliberate substitutes for direct empathy which generally function pretty well.

It is emotionally adept humans who range from those who span the range of harm-doing, some of whom convert feral empathy into sympathy and noble behavior... all the way to those who use empathy as a predatory tool (probably how it started, in nature: tigers have huge empathy for their prey.)

Autistics who go predatory are self-limiting in their deficient ability to persuade or gather allies and followers. (Though sure, tech-weaponized autistics are portrayed in my novel EXISTENCE- approved by Temple Grandin!)

In contrast, most of the world's great evils were performed by vile normals who had great skills at empathy-manipulation of tens, thousands, millions, fgree to do so without any enlightenment methods for applying accountability and power limits to them.

In other words, it's not so much that Treebeard is a nutter, sure eveything he said is diametrically opposite to true, No, it is the fact that his reflex is always, always to attack anything that might limit the return of the King.

David Brin said...

Re autism and evolution, the elephant in the room is savant talents. Sure only a fraction of spectrum folks get them, but more commonly than normals. And they are a huge thing, I believe. Especially if they proved valuable in evolutionary times.

And more so if science ever unlocks their secrets.
It may indeed, be how we keep up with AI.

In EXISTENCE I have scenes speculating that Neanderthals had more access to such traits and it gave them advantages... till we found a workaround.

Slim Moldie said...

RE Autism. The "focus" Vernor Vinge's emergents impose to maintain power and enslave their people in Deepness seems to ring more consistent to what Alfred was saying and moreover, the people in power managing the slave force are exactly as David depicts with "great skills at empathy-manipulation."

Thinking to the way way back...even if someone on the spectrum who is a savant in a certain respect is unlikely to pass down a trait via reproduction, it seems plausible that their immediate group would find a focus skill task for them (IDK chipping stones, making the fire, tanning hides, standing watch) that would allow the individual to contribute to group AND if that individual developed an innovation the group that was able to adopt via observation, that innovation would potentially get passed down didactically, not hereditary. So the society moves forward by acceptance, observation and assimilation.

Slim Moldie said... more thing to Daniel.

In my above earlier post I said "Both grandmother and mother's DIET can effect the expression of daughter's genes" but I forgot to say that diet would be just a small part of it. Environment, exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, birth control, metals, plastics, and other toxins would probably be a better bet.

Alfred Differ said...

Jon S & others,

milder autism … could be considered an evolutionary advantage in times of struggle

Perhaps. I'm still skeptical, but I can imagine a way it might have happened. We humans are powerfully xenophobic. That trick is a damn good strategy for limiting the spread of disease in pre-medicine cultures like we had for the vast majority of our existence. An autistic in such a culture would have a difficult time comprehending the threats his/her family perceives and MIGHT do something that leads to a better chance of survival in a stress setting. Maybe. Basically, the autistic would be a source of variety on the evolutionary stage.

I'm much more inclined to believe that even the folks with a mild diagnosis find it more difficult to find a mate (mostly for boys… not so much for girls) and even more difficult to raise the kids who come as a result.

The first one would strongly trim genetic variation that leads this direction among boys. It would be slower among girls… who might have boys… thus the affect should average out as a bias against I think.

The second limiter involving parental effectiveness at raising successful children is exactly the same limiter that occurred during the Y-chromosome bottleneck a few thousand years ago. I doubt they are related, but the bottleneck had a powerful effect on human males. I would be shocked if an autism diagnosis didn't lead to social limits for their potential children too, so I expect another bias against.

However… I think it is an error to look at all this from a genetic evolution perspective. I strongly suspect autism is a 'collection' diagnosis that mostly describes social impacts related to fetal brain damage. Genes may come into play leaving some of us a tad more fragile in the womb than others, but I'd bet a lot of money that's all we will ever find like that.

Think about nervous system damage we suffer when ingesting heavy metals like Pb. In small doses, most of us never notice an impact. If billions are exposed across multiple generations, though, genetic variety exposes some to visible detrimental effects. Those few would be diagnosed with other maladies if we missed the correlation, but underpinning them is nervous tissue damage.

I strongly suspect fetal brains damaged by a mother's immune response to some event mostly go unnoticed. They heal. They grow around the injury. Young brains are impressively plastic. However, integrate over large populations and a few generations and genetic variety exposes some who simply can't. Add to this our recent changes to diet, access to medical help, and the range of pharmacological solutions in our medicine cabinets and we might be triggering those maternal immune responses in ways for which we have no evolutionary defenses just yet.

There is a way out of this trap, though. Just keep going as we are going. There are a huge number of people tackling the micro-details involved with human health. Do you have a genetic map for the critters in your micro-biome? You will one day. Soon. Do you know what sets off your immune system? You will one day. What are we going to do about the dangers we learn from all that? Say 'Hello' to personalized mRNA instructions. Scared yet? Heh. You should be scared about what's in the hot dog you ate at the ballpark. You should be scared about the critters in the microbiomes of strangers. You probably aren't, though. Not much. I'm not either. Humanity wants to survive and we have exactly the right tools to do it. The suffering we witness provides us the motivation to build and refine more of them too.

Alfred Differ said...

David Smelser,

non-autistic siblings of autistics

I suspect there is still a bias against them, but not a huge one. This is an emotionally cold thing to describe, but I'll take a crack at it.

In the not-so-distant past, children died at a rate we would consider horrific by modern standards. No doubt there were evolutionary impacts from this. It's typical among animals and we are no different there. What about the affect on surviving siblings?
1. Every dead child frees a mother to focus her efforts on surviving children. This is a big deal.
2. Every dead child moves a young mother to have another (on average) possibly over-correcting. This is a HUGE deal.
3. Every surviving child in a family is a natural ally for the others. This often extends to cousins. This might motivate the evolutionary bias causing #2.

If one examines human history from the perspective of family level evolution (my brother's survival is almost as good at propagating my genes as mine), one finds strong evidence that families are actually the social 'atom' when it comes to survival and prosperity. A person isolated is f%@$%d relative to strong family units.

I kinda like the analogy of families as social atoms. Some are fat with neutrons (extended family) while some are unstable and inclined to fission or radiate. Aren't political marriages between families a pion exchange? Heh.

So the question whether autistics are an advantage to non-autistic siblings comes down to whether they make the family more stable under bombardment/stressors. What is the evidence, hmm?

1. Many, many families fission shortly after receiving an autism diagnosis for one of their kids. The stress on the two parents is f@#!$ing huge. Many of them realize their dreams for the child died, but the child lingers among them still alive. It's hard to explain just how traumatic this is to those who haven't experienced it. For those who have, no explanation is needed. We just nod our heads mutely.

Score Siblings in fractured families suffer => bias against

2. Families that survive fission often face economic isolation of one of the parents. There many be limits on both of them. ONE autistic child can radically change your social options no matter how many other children you have. Want to go out to eat? Think carefully. Want to go to the office XMAS party and socialize? Can you find a babysitter capable of handling autism? Want to rely on one of your other children to provide cover for this? Oops. You just limited their options to expand yours.

Score Autistic kids are a social liability to their family => bias against

3. Some parents look at the odds of having another autistic kid and stop having kids. (This is the case with me.) The moral debate goes like this… Why should we create the suffering? Isn't that immoral? Should we have another and chance that they will be okay? Won't that child feel a burden to care for the one we have now? Isn't it immoral to intend for an unborn child to be trapped into a nursing career for special needs relatives? No matter how YOU might decide to answer such questions, some of us simply stop on the basis that it is the ethical thing to do.

Score Even one autistic child can limit family size among adults who worry about the ethics of raising children => strong bias against


I can go on with more examples, but I'll stop here and admit that I'm hard pressed to find advantages that would bias things in favor of non-autistic siblings. I CAN imagine a variety of coping mechanisms that leave such siblings well off to handle emotional crises, but unless such skill lead to more children among them, I don't see it as more than "coping well enough" to be socially viable. Kids who grow up never having needed to cope with those stresses would still have an advantage. They would have spent their energies doing something else useful.

Alfred Differ said...

Pappenheimer said…

Not great for them, maybe, but good for the species.


Back up enough steps away from the kid suffering the autism diagnosis and one CAN find a possible advantage. In our case, I wouldn't say it is so much an advantage to the species as it is to our civilization… which happens to include a whole lot of humans nowadays.

This gets back to our host's points made elsewhere involving 'horizon of inclusion'. If you live among a racially diverse community, there is a decent chance you'll identify them as Us instead of Them. If you are a young guy and have managed to make friends across gender categories, you are likely to identify them as Us instead of Them. If you have a moderate amount of experience with autistic kids and adults, you'll realize that human minds come in quite a bit of variety. They are all Us instead of Them.

The advantage here doesn't derive from our kids being autistic, though. It is a result of us liberating ourselves from a self-imposed cage. What exactly is a human? Any damn thing we SAY it is! When some of us admit variety creating a broad definition, our civilization benefits from a huge advantage. Reverse brain drain! Sure… it costs us a few adults to keep that variety alive. Those adults will suffer, but we can mitigate that by recognizing their efforts to keep variety alive. We can help them and spread the load a bit.

Whether savants occur at a high rate or not at all, our civilization benefits from a broader definition for 'human' because we expand the meaning of liberty to match.

David Brin said...

Very moving stuff, Alfred. I can relate, indeed.

In EXISTENCE I speculate on tays the tech might release spectrum folks from their limitations and to amplify their gifts. if a single lefty ever gave me a scintilla for all the horizons expansion and inclusiveness is so many stories.

Alfred Differ said...

Slim Moldie, (my fourth post in a row… I'm going to take a breather after this)

Vernor Vinge

Yah. I read the book. I had to stop occasionally because his descriptions of 'focused' behavior hit WAY too close to home. I would peak over the paperback at my son and how he interacted with the baby-level TV show (he as in 6th grade at the time) and shudder. I couldn't decide if that book was science fiction or horror. I soaked through my clothes sweating my way through those pages and haven't had the courage to re-read the novel since.

I also cried a lot. That was the year I came to terms with the fact there wasn't f#@k-all I could do to reverse the suffering my son was going to face. Vinge's novel actually helped me come to terms with my future too. I was never going to retire and live off my savings. That money had to go to my wife and son to ensure he stayed out of state-run homes. (I'm okay with that, but I will eventually tire.) I was also going to be looking out for empathic manipulators who might play him or us. I CAN do that. Heaven help them if they go there because I won't.

…that innovation would potentially get passed down didactically, not hereditary. So the society moves forward…

Yes. I think you right on that.

In economic terms we'd call it 'division of labor' which benefits from larger markets.
Specialists contribute in non-linear ways to a market as a whole.

I'm still looking for ways my son can contribute. It would be nice if he could make a little money at it too, but I won't hold my breath.

Alfred Differ said...

David, (okay... one more)

I did pick that up in your novel. I also picked up how you portrayed your patent work.

It was actually your patent work used in a different way that got me feeling the most hopeful years ago. Heh. I've seen enough innovation effort to recognize an idea that arrives too early for the market, but someday someone is going to use that idea for gisting in ways you aren't expecting.

[I pondered an inversion of the tool that could be tuned to the capabilities of the user instead of having it act as an extension of their natural attention filter. Same trick, different use. Too early for the market, though.]

Whether you get proper credit or not, we are all better off because you put the idea out there where we could see it.

Tim H. said...

I found this darkly amusing:

On top of pandemic horror, we still have to deal with those who feel NOTHING is too extreme when dealing with political enemies, for whom citizenship is a tertiary concern on a good day.
Dr. Brin, I suspect many self-professed conservatives now count you as a lefty, seeing where they are, not a bad thing.

TCB said...

@ Alfred Differ, the Donner party is famous for its extreme loss of life in a snowy pass. 39 members of the group died, 48 survived. What's less well known is that families tended to survive, even children. Singles tended not to. Single men fared worst: 2/3 of single men between the ages of 20 and 39 perished, some even before the party reached the mountains.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin: if a single lefty ever gave me a scintilla for all the horizons expansion and inclusiveness is so many stories.

Channeling Luke Skywalker...
"I care."

Jon S. said...

I don't think you're quite getting where I was going, Alfred. Remember that for any possible advantage, I'm talking about level 1 diagnoses - those of us who weren't even diagnosable until 1994 (when "Asperger's syndrome" was added to the DSM-IV), and who had to find a way to fake it through the world until we made it.

Imagine a group of early human hunters. They've long since worked out how to use little bits of chipped rock to sharpen the ends of sticks, so they can stab more effectively; one of their number even noticed that when he let a stick burn a little bit, then pulled it out of the fire, it was harder than it had been, and realized they could do the same thing with the sharp sticks.

But one of their number is dissatisfied. "Stick sharp, sure, but only a couple times. Then need new sharp stick. Rock stay sharp more. If we could make sharp rock stay on stick, could use more, kill more food with less sticks!"

His tribemates laughed, of course. The sharp sticks worked fine, and besides, everyone knows rocks don't stay on things! They needed sticks to hunt, not rocks! Oh, sure, rocks were fine in their place - nothing better to scrape hides and cut meat with - but hunting with rocks? Really, Thog? Ah, forget about it, everyone knows Thog is weird.

But Thog knew there had to be a way. He tried using a thong to tie the rock to the side of the stick, but it kept coming off. Then he thought about having the rock on the very end, but there just didn't seem to be a way to make it stay there (Thog's people knew about sticky things, of course, but inventing glue was still a long time away). So he looked at his stick, and he looked at his sharp rock, and he thought.

And one day it came to him. He used the sharp rock to cut into the end of his stick, put the rock into the slot, then used thongs to bind the wood tightly around the rock. He threw the stick at a tree, and it cut the wood! And the rock stayed on the stick! (He didn't make it stay in the tree, of course; Thog might have been an okay hunter, but he wasn't a truly mighty hunter like Bar.) He then took his invention back to his people.

They laughed again, as one might expect - hunting with a rock still sounded silly to them - but then Thog took his new toy on a hunt. And he brought down an antelope by himself, by using the sharp rock on a stick to stab the antelopes rear leg until it could no longer stand, much less run. Seeing this, the tribe's hunters understood how useful this new thing could be, and had Thog teach his new method to all the stickmakers in the tribe.

Bar wound up taking credit for the invention, of course - that's the way these things always happen - but Thog didn't mind too much. At least everyone had plenty to eat.

Pappenheimer said...

The (I think DeCamp) short story I referenced earlier does not end continue with Thog and Bar:

One day Thog came up with an even more brilliant idea by which the tribe could make a HUGE spear that, if all the men in the tribe (and some of the stronger women) threw it, could kill ALL of the neighboring band at once! Then Thog realized that if all the tribes did this, there wouldn't be any tribes any more.

But because Bar and the other guys had been mean to him, Thog just offered the idea without pointing out the consequences.

Alfred Differ said...


Donner Party

No need to convince me on that. One doesn't even need a blizzard to see the stats. On a personal level, I'd be dead three times over if not for my wife. Literally dead because the health risk that got me reduced my cognitive capabilities along with presenting a physical danger. I couldn't perceive the danger I was in.

Being single is kinda dangerous. Being alone is damn dangerous.

Alfred Differ said...

Jon S,

Okay. I'll limit my attention to mild cases. I think it is close to being a wash but still slightly negative.

I've worked with Asperger's folks on teams. They create headaches for those who aren't familiar with the diagnosis, but often make up for it. I've only met a couple of guys who couldn't, but maybe we weren't patient enough.

[Obviously I'm in IT.]

I don't think innovation works the way your Thog story suggests. Thog wouldn't be sure either, but he'd try it if properly motivated. IF Thog succeeded his family would imitate. If he wasn't, most Thogs would stop. Innovation is an evolutionary process. Meme = Gene. Imitation = Reproduction. Imperfect imitation -> Variety. Failure to be imitated = Memetic Death.

Innovation as you describe is the kind done with confidence acquired from personal or observational experience. "I can do it again" or "I can do what that person did" or "I KNOW I can do better." From where would this confidence arise? What would motivate it?

I'm tempted to talk to how innovation works, but I'll skip my beliefs for now and address what on-spectrum people do when innovating. In a nutshell, they do it under pressure caused by failures others don't suffer.

1. My experience has taught me the youngest among us, no matter their status on-spectrum or off, average out as the most socially conservative age group. They have their lives in front of them. Conflicts with their social group could lead to isolation and/or violence. Both of those options can lead to early death. I've also noticed it doesn't seem to matter whether their social skills are primitive or advanced. They KNOW a potential danger exists because they grow up with it. They don't have to learn it. They know it. Instinct? Maybe. How does this matter here? Show me a young Thog who is ACTUALLY confident and I'll show you a supportive family protecting Thog from stress, teaching Thog skills needed for success as an adult, and greasing the path in front of Thog ensuring that success.

2. My experience has taught me being on-spectrum is a disorder primarily impacting learning modes and speed. Mostly modes. The vast majority of us learn by imitation. I can watch someone throw a baseball and get the basic idea. I won't be any good at it until I practice a lot, but I CAN learn by watching and imitating. My son has a helluva time with that trick. It's not that he can't learn. He most certainly can. It's that he doesn't get what I'm attempting when I try to get him to imitate.

My first experience with this issue occurred when I was trying to teach him to speak years ago. We teach speech sounds by making them and then coaxing the baby to imitate. Doesn't take much coaxing usually. My son simply didn't do it. Ever. It eventually hit me that he didn't understand what I was trying to get him to do and nothing was moving him to try. What could that mean(?) I wondered. After more time we noticed he wasn't smiling when we did. No emotion connection. No imitation was occurring inside his head. That's when I learned about mirror neurons. Made sense at the time. Something was wrong.

So… how does an on-spectrum kid motivated to innovate and have the confidence to do it if they can't use the fastest learning mode (imitation) to acquire knowledge from those around them and be confident in that knowledge? My experience in the middle of the spectrum is they mostly don't. Ever. They fear failure and exposure and avoid that risk. [Exceptions exist in very functional families. Not many.]

Is Thog is a savant? That would produce a benefit. I'd bet a ton the benefit is smaller than a socially functional sibling using all learning modes. A confident sibling is a powerful ally. A savant is somewhere between liability and a source of brilliance simultaneously.

David Brin said...

Alfred well said.

Alfred Differ said...

Jon S, (continued)

There ARE exceptions to the broad rule I think applies to on-spectrum folks trying to innovate. Thank goodness there are exceptions because we'd fall into despair otherwise. Strong family support enables some of them to live better lives, but we were talking about whether there is a possible advantage to non-spectrum siblings and I don't think there is except at the level of the civilization.

My concern with innovation stories is that many of them are just-so stories... or feel-good stories which are worse. Humanity as a species is an innovator, but our ancestors were MUCH less so. It's a recent invention that pretty much defines our variety of hominid. I think it is terribly important that we understand how innovation actually works, so I go all OC when discussing the topic.

My strong suspicion is our brains got big enough to become memetic biomes supporting a complex evolutionary process. Little islands floating and moving about in a memetic sea. Occasionally we bump into each other and something happens that is a mix of sex and invasion. Modern humans are dependent on rapid growth of our mental biomes and given all the work that has to be done, we are amazingly fast at it. Except for the on-spectrum kids. They can't use the fastest learning mode. Something is broken and it leads to very slow uptake on vital social skills. We think their disorder IS about social skills, but I think that is a mistake. It's about a broken learning mode that teaches us a great deal about how human minds capable of innovation actually grow.

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

I can watch someone throw a baseball and get the basic idea. I won't be any good at it until I practice a lot, but I CAN learn by watching and imitating.

I have a distinct memory from when I was 10 or so, playing baseball at camp, and watching a left-handed boy pitch. I could feel that what he was doing was not possible. Even though I knew intellectually that some people were left-handed--including both of my grandmothers--my brain could feel that what he was doing with his left arm wouldn't work. Or more accurately, that my left arm wouldn't do that. From a distance, I could feel in real time what an attempt to imitate his action would be like, and simultaneously feel that such an imitation was not compatible with my own body.

Not sure if that adds to the discussion, but it seems relevant.

scidata said...

Apple's Foundation:
- really good
- great production quality, though a bit under-lit like The Expanse
- the gender swapping of 'Gail' Dornick works just fine
(and allows some romantic stuff, which Asimov was hopeless at)
- for 'Sal'vor Hardin it's a bit more of a stretch, but ok
- Hari is pronounced Harry, wonderful and brave choice
- Jarred Harris is great, so is the entire cast
- weird accents, space elevator, asteroid mining, Synnax, etc additions work well
- some contemporary content (rising sea levels, demagoguery, terrorism, 'faith' in science)
- main themes: evil of religion, evil of inherited power, genius of enlightenment
(about as Asimovian as it gets)
- haven't seen any OSC-type supermen yet
- deep yet approachable (this is not DUNE '84)
- spanning a millennium in a TV short series is quite a trick, kudos to David Goyer
- should be popular, which is my hope (I'm not an Asimov purist)

Larry Hart said...


- Hari [Seldon] is pronounced Harry, wonderful and brave choice

'Twas ever thus in my head.

matthew said...

Alfred, I feel like challenging one of your assertions above - you state that innovation would be more common now than in the past.

I don't think assertion is true. Before writing, all learned knowledge was either oral or imitation. Without a shortcut, our distant ancestors would be *forced* to innovate much much more often than we do day to day. But the fruits of that innovation would be limited to those that directly see or hear of the innovation.

I suspect that our 75X grandparents were innovating much more than we do now. They were just re-inventing the wheel, so to speak.

David Brin said...

Interesting assertion Matthew... categorized as another case of "let me offer an assertion that's clearly diametrically opposite to logic and factual observations of humans learning skills across all of anthropology. Asserting the opposite to common wisdom automatically makes one look like the smart rebel who 'wouldn't say it, if there weren't some basis!'"

Sorry. Apprenticeship has been well studied for centuries and it generally works by repetition and obeysance to authority. Innovation is generally quashed.

duncan cairncross said...

I agree with Dr Brin
Today we have (in most countries) a culture that is more innovation friendly

There are several different things going on

(1) - Dr Brin's "Culture"
(2) - matthew's empty cup that has to be filled before it can overflow
(3) - The background level of opportunities

I will expand on that last one - we need tools to make things - the industrial revolution massively extended the number of tools available
Our Confucian scholar may have been able to afford some steel to play with but after the Industrial revolution a normal person could afford steel tools
Each new piece of knowledge had links to further knowledge - each new tool enables more new tools
So today everybody has the opportunity to innovate - and most people DO actually innovate - 99% of innovations are too minor or too localized to be visible

Our 75X grandparents were as capable of innovating as we are - but today we have some advantages they did not

scidata said...

Re: Apple Foundation

The laundry room scene in Ep2 is a resounding negation of romanticism. Almost citizen science level encouragement. And Hari chose every single one of them and knows their names. I may need to attenuate my criticism of mathematicians :)

I'm a bit confused by the brutal anti-Anacreonian stuff, we'll see how the four kingdoms story unfolds.

Re: Neurology

I defer to Alfred Differ's expertise and experience of course. I'll just add one thing that took me years to work out. Empathy (mirror neurons) is the relating to others' emotional states. Syntonicity* (imitation/analogy/metaphor) is the subjective experience in one's own mind of others' reality. Walking in another's shoes. Books are one obvious example (one author, many experiencers), a less obvious but powerful one is... yup... Forth.

* In the non-musical sense of the word. The musical sense is a subject that my brother-in-law is a real expert on. We talk past each other often.

Alfred Differ said...


Rather than poke at your assertion as David does, let me approach it a different way.

1. I would never claim our ancestors weren't as smart as us. My suspicion is any human within the last half million years or so was pretty damn smart on average. Most of that was directed at dealing with the fact that they were surrounded by other smart humans, though. We've been top predator for a while. Recent brain size growth/neuron density increases have probably been about dealing with human predators.

2. Innovation is an evolutionary process. That means geometric growth rules apply for our ideas. Innovation rate is a birth rate. Failure to be imitated is a death rate. Doesn't matter whether we have writing or not way back when because they did NOT have as many ideas having sex with each other as we do.

3. We HAD to invent writing at some point, but not until we were dealing with ideas that could not be remembered faithfully. Among nomadic hunter-gatherers who do not trade outside their kin groups, there isn't much need. The band will remember what needs to be remembered. My suspicion is that trade outside kin groups drove us to write.

4. Most of what we know is acquired through imitation. A small fraction arrives through oral tradition. A tiny fraction is acquired from writing. Those fractions don't really matter, though. What matters is whether ideas have sex and get imperfectly copied from master to apprentice. No sex… no variation. No imperfections… no random mutations. No copying… death.

Our 75x grandparents were smart cookies, but they had much less variety among their ideas, thus sex between ideas didn't change things much. We've got WAY more idea variety now and billions of humans applying lube to them all before pushing them into the steam room.

Yah. I'm sexualizing the description. That's because people who do this tend to be excitable. It's as if our ideas had a way to hijack our pleasure responses. Hmm… That would mean the population explosion didn't really end. It just got diverted from the landscape to the memescape. 8)

Alfred Differ said...


watching a left-handed boy pitch

Yup. We've got pretty good evidence now that watching a behavior we can physically manage causes much of our brain to go through most of the steps of doing so just short of triggering motor function. Your brain tried to imitate and ran into issues causing a mental derailment.

I was about 12 growing up on a navy base in Iceland and often faced times when I really had nothing to do. Winter was dark, cold, windy, and icy. I'd stay indoors and read anything I could get out of the library. Ran through all the astronomy books on the shelf. In the summer it was light, cold, windy, and… everyone was elsewhere getting stuff done. I decided one day to improve my throwing skills. I spent HOURS throwing rocks at a small metal plate attached to a telephone pole and eventually got to where I could hit it reliably. Hours! I was damn sore the next day. I also learned I could not reproduce that skill with my left hand. Not a chance in hell. I know because I tried. I had HOURS to kill.

It's funny, though, because that's also the year I learned to type on a manual typewriter. No hunt-n-peck. My mother taught me it was better to make mistakes than trap myself into looking. She'd show me too by typing at what a thought was a blinding pace. (About 100 wpm I learned later.) She'd stare intently at the document to be copied and just let it fly never looking at her fingers. I didn't get that fast on a manual, but I blow past it on a computer keyboard nowadays. I type fast enough with enough force (unnecessary on modern keyboards) that I polish the frequently used keys and strike them hard enough that people near me wonder if I'm angry.

I can't throw a baseball with my left hand, but on a qwerty keyboard I can make the words fly. Typing I learned by imitating. Baseball throwing I learned by imitating. So how come I can do one and not the other, hmm? Typing is fine motor control. Throwing is gross and fine control. Ah. What would have happened, though, if I'd been able to watch a lefty throw for hours? Could I have learned it at 12? How about at 8? I honestly don't know.

With my son, it was me trying to teach him fricatives. Put your upper teeth on your lower lip and breath 'ffff'. He could see me do it, but nothing caused him to imitate. MANY years later he began imitating, but with a strong pause. He obviously calculates something. Why is Dad doing that? Hmm? Oh. I think maybe he's trying to get me to do something. Hmm? The pause can last several seconds and he's often coming to the right conclusion nowadays, but he obviously isn't doing it the way neuro-typical folks do. He's using a mental work around much like I would now if I HAD to throw a baseball left handed.

Alfred Differ said...


We've gone rounds about tools and I think I'm finally getting your perspective. CHEAP tools are the result of the Industrial Revolution. No doubt about that.

The explosive growth of tools was happening before the revolution, though. Industry made them cheap and caused a couple more explosive bursts to happen on top of what was already a rapidly expanding ball of plasma.

That Confucian scholar discovered a lot of things. China beat The West to a large number of discoveries. That same scholar (and much of academia in Europe up until the Dutch tossed out the Hapsburgs) were discouraged from

1) letting others copy their ideas,
2) teaching ideas not related to what the hierarchy wanted taught,
3) mixing new ideas with tradition.

So… Few extra copies, no memetic sex, and few direct progeny. Memetic extinction outside written tomes collecting dust.

This is essentially what the early Jesuits tried to do in the Counter Reformation period. Didn't work where they had no real power, though. No wonder ideas had to go north to have sex.

Strahlungsfluss said...

What amazes me is that we we had increasingly large brains over 100,000s of years, with little by way of noticeable improvements in tool manufacture. The most plausible reason for this is that our brains were getting bigger to allow for greater and more complex social networks (a la Dunbar). At some point language must have emerged as an outgrowth of this sociality. Whether this appeared all at once or in stages is an interesting question. I think it's generally (if not universally) accepted that Neanderthals—given our current understanding of their cultural abilities—had some sort of language skills, which suggests that proto-language skills must have existed in our common ancestor some 100,000s of years ago.

A sudden change in genetics cannot explain the advent of farming or cities, since the emerged independently after a long period of hunter gathering in both Asia and the Americas. It's fascinating that cities developed virtually simultaneously in completely separate physical environments, showing the there was an innate, unexpressed ability for city life in our species going back at least 10,000-20,000 years (if not far longer) before the first cities came into existence.

*[note: Nearly all cultural artifacts of ancient humans are lost now. We look in caves because it's easy to find stuff there. They were presumably were moving around alot in with tents outside. Our cousins, Neanderthals, for instance, must have had tailored clothing to survive in some of the colder climates. We know they used spears and presumably other wooden tools, but all the wood is now rotted away without trace. It's also nice to remember that our species didn't domestic fire, which we inherited from a pre-Homo Spapiens ancestor]

David Brin said...


David Brin said...

Goofd points GMT. Though if we had vetted pseudonymity far more sites and services could sempli ban any hint of actual anonymity and ANONYMOUS would find more gardens closed to them.