Today’s misguided [mis]use of evolutionary anthropology is the “neanderthal autism theory” which posits the traits associated with autism are the result of additional “neanderthal genes” being expressed. In this sense autistic individuals are not people with – for want of a better word – a “deficit” but actually fully functional individuals. They’re just hybrid individuals.
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. This is amplified by the fact I’m arguing against an idea which posits that autistic people are fully functional; in their own way. No doubt many could take severe offence from this so I’m going to refrain from talking about autism itself. This will purely be a discussion of whether the NAT offers an accurate description of neanderthals not whether autistic individuals are – again for want of a better word – “ill.”
Specifically it will be a discussion of the 6 NAT arguments raised in this post since the entire NAT makes too many claims to be dealt with in a single sitting.
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 some of the justification the NAT provides for this premise is wrong. Some of it is so wrong there’s no real way to respond to it.
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.
most primates avoid eye contact as the sign of aggression, modern humans (neurotypicals) are the exception, both Neanderthals and autists are not
In the NAT itself, this “argument” is presented as the following. I put “argument” in quote marks because it doesn’t seem to be trying to argue this is a similarity between autistic individuals and neanderthals.
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
The only real way this could be used as an argument for the NAT is if one tries to say that neanderthals behaved like primates in this regard. However, there’s no compelling reason for this to be the case unless one tries to suggest that neanderthals had all primate characteristics. However, there’s also no compelling reason to accept that argument either.
Alternatively they could be trying to suggest that since autistic individuals are like neanderthals and autistic individuals avoid eye contact, neanderthals did too. However if you want to make your hypothesis seem plausible then starting with your conclusion as your foundational premise is a particularly poor way of arguing.
In essence, there’s no real reason to think neanderthals avoided eye contact so the fact autistic people avoid it is irrelevant.
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 actual NAT goes into more detail and is – as far as I know – correct (although the actual measurements for human and neanderthal brains are a bit off).
Neanderthals had a 1500cc brain volume, while modern humans have 1400cc. 226 This means a difference of 7-8% percent. The difference measured on autistic children was 10%. 227 In Aspie-quiz, there is a positive correlation between larger head / hat size and autism in adults. 228 This means the difference doesn’t go away after the first year of age, but rather this difference stays.
Whilst I’m skeptical comparing hat size is relevant – particularly given the data appears to be from an informal online survey – it would seem that the average autistic individual has a larger brain. 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.
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. As you can tell, 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.
Neanderthals were meat-eaters (for me meat is the best diet)
It is true that neanderthals did eat a lot of meant, being top carnivores in Europe (although they also ate plants). So could this also be circumstantial support for NAT? Unlike the brain size connection I’m not even going to grant it that level of evidence since it contains a hidden assumption: the neanderthal preference for meat was genetic. 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).
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.
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.