Autistic individuals are neanderthal hybrids?

Today’s misguided [mis]use of evolutionary anthropology is the “neanderthal autism theory” (NAT) which posits the traits associated with autism are the result of additional “neanderthal genes” being expressed. They’re perfectly normal, they’re just perfectly normal hybrids.

Unfortunately for people who might like this idea the theory was constructed without a lick of understanding about Neanderthals and so is horribly wrong. Unfortunately for me the NAT is thousands of words long, far too much for me to address. As such, I’ll focus on the 6 “most convincing” NAT arguments presented in this post.

#1

Neanderthals have less developed social life, so their social skills were less developed too, so are the social skills of autistic people

Whilst the idea that neanderthals lacked some of the social structures of humans is gaining popularity, this is still being debated and the issue is far from settled. As such there’s not much I can really say about this point other than “perhaps.” However, I can say that the following justification for this premise provided by the NAT is just so wrong it can’t be responded to:

The [neanderthal] forehead is most likely explained by a less advanced social system.

Males were accepted into the group by other males. Today this manifests itself as voluntary cuckoldry, a very odd behavior where whites invite blacks and other non-whites to have sex with their partner. The reason they choose non-whites, is that only males not part of other groups were allowed. Whites by these males are identified with other groups, while blacks are identified with “other” and not part of any group.

#2

most primates avoid eye contact as the sign of aggression, modern humans (neurotypicals) are the exception, both Neanderthals and autists are not

My first thought when reading this point was “how do they know how Neanderthals felt about eye contact.” It’s not as though this information is preserved in their fossils in technology. In an effort to uncover their source for this information I went to the original NAT article itself, which says

Many primate species regard direct eye contact as a threat. The same thing seems to be happening in autistic children. 236 It seems like autistics both are acused of staring 136 and of lacking eye contact. 237

So basically this argument rests on the assumption that Neanderthals were like modern non-human primates. Given that Neanderthals are actually very similar to modern humans genetically, behaviourally and culturally I’m not sure why this assumption should be made. As such I have no problems with dismissing this argument on the grounds they don’t provide any evidence for it.

#3

Neanderthals have bigger brains, and the proportion of brain size to body size was bigger, that could mean they were more intelligent, people with Asperger Syndrom are typically more intelligent than neurotypicals

The original NAT article derives their information about the brain size of autistic people from an informal online survey about hat size. Although this pretty shoddy evidence for autistics having larger brains, more rigerous research does appear to show this is the case.

However, differences is brain size is not the only thing that differentiates humans and neanderthals. Neanderthals also had differently shaped and organised brains and their cranium developed in a different way. Autistic people do not share these traits.

As such whilst this connection does lend some plausibility to the NAT the lack of any further similarities means that this is circumstantial evidence at best.

#4

Neanderthals women were dominating and were taking sexual initiative, autistic people find it especially difficult to adapt to sexual model of neurotypicals, where males are sexually dominant, increased tendency to behaviours such as exhibitiosm can also be explained by neanderthal genes, since among Neanderthals such behaviours were actually accepted as normal and dominant

Like with the eye contact point raised in #2, the first question you might be thinking is “how the hell do they know this.” In an effort to work this out I tried to find the justification for this point in the original NAT article. All I could find was

The Neanderthal group bonding likely looked strikingly similar to bonobos. Bonobos are a female dominated species. The bonobo female uses non-reproductive sex to handle males. They are also highly promiscuous, and cannot select to mate with only alpha males, rather mate with all the males in their group. The Schadenfreude and Rousseau affect, as well as masochism must have it’s origin in a female dominant species. For this reason, Neanderthals must have been a female dominated species.

All the citations are included in the previous quote i.e. there are none. This entire passage is simply a giant assertion and with no reason to think it true I’m going to conclude it provides no support for the NAT.

#5

Neanderthals were meat-eaters (for me meat is the best diet)

This argument contains 2 main flaws. Firstly, it’s trying to use anecdotes to make claims about everyone on the autism spectrum. That’s just bad science. The second major problem is that, whilst Neanderthals were big fans of meat, there’s very little to suggest this was a genetic preference. We know that the further north human groups live the more they eat meat because there is insufficient plant life around to sustain them, might this also be why neanderthals ate a lot of meat?

There’s no reason to think the meat preference was genetic and so no reason to think this point is relevant to autism since the NAT is trying to argue autism stems from neanderthal genes.

A neanderthal’s favourite beverage

#6

Neanderthals prefer cold to heat (I like when it’s cold and hate when it’s hot)

The NAT itself elaborates on this point by arguing that neanderthals didn’t use their tools to make clothes, didn’t use their fires to keep warm and didn’t change their toolkit to suit colder environments (hence their adaptations were biological, not cultural).  However, fire has been found in neanderthal structures and scrapers – tools associated with making hides – become more common during colder periods.

Whilst I can’t say whether or not neanderthals liked the cold I can say that any evidence for this position is lacking and so this point is lacking in the power to lend support for the NAT.

He wraps up warm because he likes the cold

In short, the NAT is an embodiment of the phrase “a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing.” They’ve gone looking for similarities between autism and neanderthal and stopped when they found them, not bothering to delve deeper and work out whether these traits actually existed in our extinct cousins. For example, one part relies heavily on the creationist tome “Buried Alive” despite the fact there are many flaws with the book’s reasoning. Although they acknowledge some of them, for the most part they just take the bits which agree with their idea and run with it. They simply stopped the research when they found an idea they liked, and thus the NAT was born.

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44 thoughts on “Autistic individuals are neanderthal hybrids?

  1. Boy I thought I heard everything when it comes to the “theories” surrounding autism. I think one of the key things for people to remember is that we still know very little about the condition itself. As a result, we can’t really make many definitive statements about it. I am glad that you addressed this theory, and very well I might add. I always enjoy seeing these sorts of pseudo-scientific theories analyzed so that people can be better informed. Great article.

    • When we don’t know what’s going on it’s easy for people to make stuff up (they even do it for things we do know about that). Combine that with the fact people want to feel good about themselves – particularly when they’ve been diagnosed with something non-normal – and you wind up with a breeding ground for people inventing positive connotations for autism. Then you feel like a dick for pointing out that some of these connotations aren’t true.

      • I am disappointed with you. You may have some good points, but I’ll never know because I stopped reading at: “Before continuing I’d like to approach slowly, speaking in a calm voice with my hands in the air because mental illness is an incredibly touchy issue.” I stopped here because the tone is insulting, true, but more important, you lost all credibility when you implied that autism is a mental illness. It is not. It is a developmental difference comprised of a constellation of traits that, amalgamated, amount to a disability (largely as a result of intolerance, insensitivity and ignorance from others). It is NOT a mental illness.

        • My expertise is in Neanderthals, not autism, so I apologies for any mistakes (or offence) caused. The opening paragraph has been amended to hopefully be more accurate and less insulting. Perhaps now you can examine the whole post.

  2. I think autism – especially Asperger’s and high-functioning autism and mild autistic spectrum disorders – are just similar to “nerds” or “geeks” – that the more intelligent you are, the more yoiu are percieved as socially inept or weird. Think about it – the popular kids in school usually aren’t the brainiacs; in fact, the cleverest kids tend to be unpopular or get bullied. Prominent mathematicians and some Nobel prize winners, contemporary and past, act strangely and some are now suspected to have been autistic.

    Btw the cuckold thing isn’t true, it works with white guys too and also with women being cuckolded by other women. And you could concievably put polyamory (in all its different forms) and the Moulin Rouge plot of loving a sex worker under the same heading. I don’t think ancient genes could be responsible for such specific behavious (including masochism – and how would female masochism or male sadism be explained? Or non-procreative fetishes?). Also, human females can also be sexually dominant, like the ancient Native Americans. Who knows, one day in the west women might be sexually dominant. The theory that male dominance is programmed into our genes and is a mark of humanity is a dangerous one, as it precludes all discussion of the double standard and how women are controlled by slut-shaming to ensure male sexual dominance.

    • I think that’s one of the key things about autism: it is a spectrum. There are people who don’t fit in the “stereotypical” image of autism since it includes a gradient of people.

      Also, I think that your cuckold/kink comment summarises the basic problem with the NAT. They simply stopped when they found what they wanted to hear, not digging deeper and trying to figure out what sexuality is and whether it actually supports their position. After all, that’s a spectrum in its own right. They just found something they liked and stopped there.

      On the plus side, I suppose you could always call Roland a neanderthal hybrid if he ever does anything domineering.

      • I even have a problem with the spectrum thing – as it still is sort of falls in the “autism as pathology” framework. A better way to view human neurological makeup and manifested behaviors would be a continuum on which every member of the species fits, or maybe more like a map like Meyers-Briggs charts. At least from my personal experience raising an aspie, the term “disorder” has always made me cringe. Our problems always seemed to stem from other people (myself at first, then teachers etc) not being able to understand and accept how sensory issues are affecting him, and making efforts to diffuse/relieve that stress. In other words, my son doesn’t have a problem, it’s the rest of the world just not “getting” him.

        The explanation for the varying degrees autism seems tied to the varying levels of hypo-sensitivity to sensory input — which I guess brings us back to a spectrum of sorts. Or perhaps we need to consider the differences between Aspergers (often called “high-functioning”) and Autism. There might be some clues to your evolution study when you examine more closely the subtle differences between all of those considered “on the spectrum”.

        • I don’t think the term “spectrum” necessarily suggests pathology. All it’s really saying is that there are a series of neurological states that – despite varying a fair bit – are similar enough to be grouped together. Like a genus or family in taxonomy.

          Though I think you’re correct in the sense could zoom out and see this spectrum as part of a larger continuum that encompasses all of human psychological variation.

        • Dear Jill,
          I think you are right there is nothing wrong with an Aspie brain its just different.Aspies live as an almost unrecognised minority in a world that largely rejects them.This is where the
          difficulties start and continue.Please don’t let anyone try and sway you or your son.Believe
          it in your hearts and vow never to compromise on this.It is that important

  3. None of those arguments are especially convincing. There is one observation that I find especially interesting though. It appears that both autistic and neanderthal individuals have reduced global connectivity.

    • Of the arguments presented that’s probably the closest one to being true but even then it is still the subject of considerable controversy. Some query whether neanderthals were actually like that (and had a fair few comments on the original piece arguing for that position).

      But even if that weren’t the case there’s still the fact that it assumes neanderthal genes are the only possible cause of such a trait. That is an assumption far from proven and when you realise that this is the best argument you also realise there’s not much meat to the idea.

  4. That is of course not to say that the Neanderthals were autistic or vice versa, just that it would be interesting to see if there was a preponderance of certain behaviours in both groups.

  5. Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis

    ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) are hypothesized as one of many adaptive human cognitive variations that have been maintained in modern populations via multiple genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Introgression from “archaic” hominids (adapted for less demanding social environments) is conjectured as the source of initial intraspecific heterogeneity because strict inclusive fitness does not adequately model the evolution of distinct, copy-number sensitive phenotypes within a freely reproducing population.

    Evidence is given of divergent encephalization and brain organization in the Neanderthal (including a ~1520 cc cranial capacity, larger than that of modern humans) to explain the origin of the autism subgroup characterized by abnormal brain growth.

    Autism and immune dysfunction are frequently comorbid. This supports an admixture model in light of the recent discovery that MHC alleles (genes linked to immune function, mate selection, neuronal “pruning,” etc.) found in most modern human populations come from “archaic” hominids.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction, differential fetal androgen exposure, lung abnormalities, and hypomethylation/CNV due to hybridization are also presented as evidence.

    https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B3dPqM3qgNSiY3p5TmFRMjhSekdyaV8wWUw0MTZiUQ

    A short video introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk_85vNaSMA

    The full 2-hour video presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6-6Naz-C0M

    Note:

    Evidence of transgenerational epigenetic effects due to recent environmental exposures to novel complex molecules also supports this hypothesis. Atavism may be advantageous when it’s restricted to a small number of individuals, but deleterious when the mechanisms maintaining this subpopulation are altered in a way that isn’t immediately apparent in the genome.

    The puzzlingly heterogeneous (yet statistically undeniable) components of autism might thus be united through a better understanding of epigenetics.

  6. Thank you for addressing these misconceptions! Can I encourage you to post a link and summary as an answer to the question you draw the example arguments from? That question continues to have a “I don’t know, but it could be reasonable, here’s some more info” thought as the top answer. It would be great if you quelled the misinformation at its source.

  7. The simple, and falsifiable, prediction is that Asperger’s Syndrome is very rare to unknown among indigenous sub-Saharan Africa people. The only comment on this subject is that autism is overrepresented among African mothers who immigrate to Sweden (and probably marry Swedes) – which is not much help either way.
    If AS were known among such people, in Africa, it surely would have been reported by the WHO; but it has not.

    • Whilst I’m no expert, I am given to understand that the prevalence of autism is influenced by changing and improving diagnostic standards/techniques. Given this, might we expect people who immigrate to the first world where such standards/techniques are implemented more frequently to have a higher rate?

  8. So you didn’t actually adress any of the arguments in Pleides by the theory itself, but those found in rather liberal summaries of the theory by bloggers that don’t feel comfortable discussing the science. You’ve set-up a straw man argument like debating the points of pop-psychology article and then announcing you’ve proven Freud or Jung wrong. Fail!

    • I simply used the list as a guide as to what (at least one person thought was) the best arguments. The actual critiques themselves are based around the original source material. Pay attention.

  9. I just thought of something that makes this neanderthal-hybrid argument a little disturbing to me. The idea that individuals on the autism spectrum are showing the traits of neanderthal genes carries the implication that they are somehow not human, or fundamentally different than homo sapiens.

    This is really dangerous when you consider that people of different skin color, sexuality, and the mentally ill have been described as a different species of human, or sub-human throughout history; and look at what happened to them in the past.

    • I’d never really thought of it like that. The promotors of this idea seem to be implying that this is a postive thing for autism, so had never really considered the negative implications of this idea. But you are correct, there’s the potential for great harm here.

  10. The skeletons of Neanderthal males indicate highly muscular indiviuals and were anything but passive. Infact that if this theory was true, why is it that there were no elderly female skeletons found yet there’s clear cut evidence of elderly males that were cared for. This IMO, seems to indicate more of a male oriented society.

    • I’m weary of concluding that elderly neanderthal females weren’t cared for given there are few examples of elderly males. Picking out a trend from such a sample size is something we should be cautious of. However, I think you’re spot on about the rest of it.

  11. I have Aspergers, and I just want to say there are some very well educated Psychiatrists who beleive this theory. You hand-picked some of the worst arguments from that web site and ran with it. Many autistics do have an Occlipital Bun in the back of their heads, and they do share some genes with Neanderthals that Neurotypicals lack. Neanderthals had fewer friends, were less sociable, women hunted (we know this, and in the same way, I’ve noticed that female autistics almost always want to work, even if they’re married. Look at Temple Grandin and Liane willey.) Neanderthals had no religion (almost all aspies I know are atheists) Neanderthals were visual thinkers, they had art but no music, (autistic culture is loaded with art, but we’re stereotypical white guys who can’t dance) We’re less suseptible to pain (hence the rodeo-style injuries that Neanderthals sustained) There’s three times as much autism in the asian and American Inidan races than the African race and two times as much autism in the Caucasian race than the Asian race (just like Neanderthal distribution.) Neanderthals didn’t need great motor skills to kill Wooly Mammoths, they had more advanced techonology than Homo Sapiens Sapiens (just like all the Aspie engineers) Dark days in Ice-age Europe explain sensitivity to light, drab days there explain sensory overload, Neanderthals used their brans, not their bodies to hunt (Aspie children want to be the scientist and the engineer or the College Professor. Neurotypical kids want to be the athlete.) Neanderthals hunted with traps, (many autistics are interested in traps) Neanderthals had less developed tribes (Aspies tend to be less nationalistic) etc.
    Now, there’s room for debate on this issue, but you shouldn’t portray it as a one-sided issue. There are some psychiatrists who are skeptical about the theory. Let me just say this: The advocates of this theory have a ways to go to PROVE it, but I think there’s enough evidence there to do a study to see if there’s a correlation between Neanderthal DNA and autism in individuals. If there is none, then I’ll admit that the theory is wrong. Until then, understand that this is a two-sided issue.

    • You’re right, one of the key tests of this idea would be whether or not we could identify a link between the Neanderthal genome and genes associated with autism. Researchers have looked to see whether or not this was the case, and found “some of the key genes for autism have been found to be lacking in the Neanderthal genome and that of the other closely related species to modern humans, the Denisovans.” (Spikins, P. (2013). The Stone Age Origins of Autism.)

      Which would seem pretty compelling evidence to reject the NAT

      • Compelling if genes can be used to diagnose autism in 100% of cases – it seems this is not the case by a wide margin.

        ” Clinicians can now identify the genetic basis of ASD in 10 to 20 percent of cases. ” autismspeaks.org

        So that leaves 80% of cases which (if you trust this site – i do not have the time to investigate fully) seems to debunk this argument.

        • If autism had a strong environmental component that would also be a compelling case against the NAT. Genetics is the only mechanism by which Neanderthals could influence the occurrence of autism in modern humans.

    • Not to start a fight, but a lot of your examples are still up in the air. There is evidence that Neanderthals had religion. Okay, maybe ‘religion’ is too strong of a word, but the evidence that they possessed some form of spirituality is apparent.

      Also, there’s a lot of western female humans who want to work, regardless of whether or not they’re neurotypical. A lot of this is cultural and not genetically inherent. To do so risks turning women’s rights on its head and saying that all homo sapiens, both male and female, ascribe to certain gender roles because of their basic genetics. In other words, you can make the argument that boys don’t cry, women are hysterical, etc. solely based on human evolution, and that would be a mistake.

      Most of your arguments can be summed up as cultural differences as opposed to inherent differences, and that can be dangerous.

      • In other words, Joseph’s post contains a lot of anecdote that can’t be used to separate a genetic component from a cultural one. A similar problem is present in the original NAT.

    • I also have Aspergers.
      I am interested in Neanderthals as well, and have nothing against the idea of Neanderthals and autism being linked. It is becoming more clear that they were far more intelligent than people used to think.
      However, there is insufficient evidence at the current time so support such an idea.
      It is unknown how many friends Neanderthals had.
      Their religion is also unknown. I am myself a very devout Catholic, and have known other Aspies who are religious.
      There is no evidence that Neanderthals had art rather than music, in fact Homo Sapiens appear to have had more decorative art.
      There is no evidence that they used brains rather than brawn to hunt.
      One thing that is known is that the region with the highest percentage of Neanderthal genes (yes, this can be measured!) is Tuscany.
      Persons of African descent have the lowest percentage of Neanderthal genes.

  12. Pingback: Autistic individuals are NOT Neanderthal hybirds | EvoAnth

  13. This article shocked me and now I am somewhat scared. I have Asperger’s syndrome. Did you say that neanderthal and autistic skulls are similar?

    • The people who think that autism and aspergers is a result of having Neanderthal genes try and find similarities between the two, including alleged similarities in the skull. However, Neanderthal skulls are vastly different from our own, and there is no condition that makes them resemble each other in any meaningful way. Any similarities they do manage to find (and I’m skeptical of the accuracy of their findings) are miniscule.

    • There is not much good evidence that autism has any connection to Neanderthals. However, you might be interested in knowing that many or most people have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA.
      Also, experts now say that Neanderthals were probably a lot more intelligent than was formerly believed.

  14. I’m just a parent of an Aspergers child, so be patient with lack of expertise in your field of study. This subject intrigues me and I was just wondering if instead of looking backward to Neanderthal, could we look forward in evolution and see the current, apparent “increase” in Autism diagnosis rates parallel to the predominance of Allism. (Okay, “allism” is actually a parody disorder used to describe the excessively neurotypical, but it comes in handy when one seeks to view autism as a physical difference, not a disease).

    I consider things like “Intense World Theory” of autism http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518049/ and wonder that recent societal changes – just in my own lifetime, the past 40 years – have greatly impacted how the autistic mind manifests these differences. Mainly, I’m referring to changes like rapid technological advances (computers, internet, video games… which result in severe over-bombardment of certain sensory & information input and distraction from ) but also indirectly things like widening socio-economic gaps, more extended families no longer living in close proximity, etc.

    I guess part of my question is: Since our species has been around, has autism been present all along as a certain proportion of the population – like left-handedness or homosexuality – and just not formally diagnosed because there was no terminology for it? OR Is there actually an increase in the percentage of people that have the autistic brain structure/chemistries?

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Identifying behaviours in the past is very difficult given they don’t preserve well. An archaeologist can’t look at a skeleton, for example, and identify if they’re autistic. This makes it hard to figure out just how long autism has been around.

      There are a few clues however. Most notably, the genes associated with autism are absent from Neanderthals. This suggests that it arose after we diverged from the Neanderthals, around 500,000 years ago. 500,000 years is longer than Homo sapiens have been around, but is a blink of an eye compared to the entirety of human evolution (which stretches back 7 million years).

      So autism is relatively recent, but still seems to be very old by most people’s standard.

      • Well, the point is that autistic minds themselves are not recent, just the use of the word “autistic” to describe them. Heck, the word “personality” didn’t exist until like the late 19th century or something like that. So while you obviously can’t “go back in time” to observe behavior, I was wondering if comparing the different environmental triggers of modern day autists just with each other – if that could somehow help your studies. Odds are you will find a great balance of nurture and nature yielding the behaviors (I’m guessing.)

        • I don’t know much about the environmental triggers surrounding autism, but a quick search of the NHS website reveals a few possible candidates. Most seem to be fairly recent developments, such as air pollution and pesticides but a few would’ve been present throughout most of human history (like age of the father).

          Based on this I’d be inclined to suggest autism has been a round for a while, but rates were likely lower during prehistory. However, this suggestion is a bit too speculative for my taste since I’m not sure the environmental causes posited have not been conclusively linked to autism.

          • I’m sorry. Poor choice of words on my part. I did not mean triggers – as in chemical reactions in the brain. I’m talking about societal influences, cultural and educational trends, such as overcrowded/underfunded schools that force teachers to “teach to the test” instead of on finding ways to teach to each individual student’s strengths and learning styles. Schools that view autism in the pathology paradigm, they view autism as something that is “wrong” with people and work to “conform” them to “normal” – as opposed to working with their strengths, and making allowances for things like stimming.

            I’m just a little bitter because public education has been somewhat traumatic for my son, who was denied any differentiated instruction because we could not prove his differences had impact on performance. He was too smart and scored so well on standardized tests, so no one cared if he was crying and hiding under his desk. He hid to get away from loud chaotic classrooms, and an ignorant teacher who viewed his stimming as mere defiance. After 9 years with little help, we are finally on track now with an IEP/504 documents (selective mutism got their attention). Basically, these documents are legal papers that say teachers must cut him some slack because he is different. Forty years ago, when the education system was less focused on standard measures of achievement and more on individualized learning (before all the NCLB crap in the US) these legal measures might not have been necessary at all, and my son would have simply been placed in a gifted program.

            So you can probably tell, I’m thinking autistic brains have been around a long, long time and were vital, if not for evolution, at least for the progress of civilization and obviously for technological developments. The way our society has narrowed its view of “normal” behavior and has lost the ability to empathize with each other, makes it seem like an “epidemic” has recently occured. It’s Ironic that neurotypicals often mistakenly view autistics as having difficulty with empathy, when it’s actually the other way around. Autisitics can feel empathy quite deeply, they just have trouble expressing it because of sensory input overloads. I think many neurotypicals lack the intelligence, patience and/or openmindedness to even imagine what an autistic person is experiencing.

            • In all honesty I don’t know enough to be able to say how long autism has been around and how important it has been to our development. All I really know is that autistic people are nothing like Neanderthals.

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