Can Autism be Cured via a Gluten Free Diet?

I’d like to share a story from a friend and her son–let’s call them Heidi and Sven.

Sven was always a sickly child, delicate and underweight. (Heidi did not seem neglectful.) Once Sven started school, Heidi started receiving concerned notes from his teachers. He wasn’t paying attention in class. He wasn’t doing his work. They reported repetitious behavior like walking slowly around the room and tapping all of the books. Conversation didn’t quite work with Sven. He was friendly, but rarely responded when spoken to and often completely ignored people. He moved slowly.

Sven’s teachers suggested autism. Several doctors later, he’d been diagnosed.

Heidi began researching everything she could about autism. Thankfully she didn’t fall down any of the weirder rabbit holes, but when Sven’s started complaining that his stomach hurt, she decided to try a gluten-free diet.

And it worked. Not only did Sven’s stomach stop hurting, but his school performance improved. He stopped laying his head down on his desk every afternoon. He started doing his work and responding to classmates.

Had a gluten free diet cured his autism?

Wait.

A gluten free diet cured his celiac disease (aka coeliac disease). Sven’s troublesome behavior was most likely caused by anemia, caused by long-term inflammation, caused by gluten intolerance.

When we are sick, our bodies sequester iron to prevent whatever pathogen is infecting us from using it. This is a sensible response to short-term pathogens that we can easily defeat, but in long-term sicknesses, leads to anemia. Since Sven was sick with undiagnosed celiac disease for years, his intestines were inflamed for years–and his body responded by sequestering iron for years, leaving him continually tired, spacey, and unable to concentrate in school.

The removal of gluten from his diet allowed his intestines to heal and his body to finally start releasing iron.

Whether or not Sven had (or has) autism is a matter of debate. What is autism? It’s generally defined by a list of symptoms/behaviors, not a list of causes. So very different causes could nonetheless trigger similar symptoms in different people.

Saying that Sven’s autism was “cured” by this diet is somewhat misleading, since gluten-free diets clearly won’t work for the majority of people with autism–those folks don’t have celiac disease. But by the same token, Sven was diagnosed with autism and his diet certainly did work for him, just as it might for other people with similar symptoms. We just don’t have the ability right now to easily distinguish between the many potential causes for the symptoms lumped together under “autism,” so parents are left trying to figure out what might work for their kid.

Interestingly, the overlap between “autism” and feeding problems /gastrointestinal disorders is huge. Now, when I say things like this, I often notice that people are confused about the scale of problems. Nearly every parent swears, at some point, that their child is terribly picky. This is normal pickiness that goes away with time and isn’t a real problem. The problems autistic children face are not normal.

Parent of normal child: “My kid is so picky! She won’t eat peas!”

Parent of autistic child: “My kid only eats peas.”

See the difference?

Let’s cut to Wikipedia, which has a nice summary:

Gastrointestinal problems are one of the most commonly associated medical disorders in people with autism.[80] These are linked to greater social impairment, irritability, behavior and sleep problems, language impairments and mood changes, so the theory that they are an overlap syndrome has been postulated.[80][81] Studies indicate that gastrointestinalinflammation, immunoglobulin E-mediated or cell-mediated food allergies, gluten-related disorders (celiac diseasewheat allergynon-celiac gluten sensitivity), visceral hypersensitivity, dysautonomia and gastroesophageal reflux are the mechanisms that possibly link both.[81]

A 2016 review concludes that enteric nervous system abnormalities might play a role in several neurological disorders, including autism. Neural connections and the immune system are a pathway that may allow diseases originated in the intestine to spread to the brain.[82] A 2018 review suggests that the frequent association of gastrointestinal disorders and autism is due to abnormalities of the gut–brain axis.[80]

The “leaky gut” hypothesis is popular among parents of children with autism. It is based on the idea that defects in the intestinal barrier produce an excessive increase of the intestinal permeability, allowing substances present in the intestine, including bacteria, environmental toxins and food antigens, to pass into the blood. The data supporting this theory are limited and contradictory, since both increased intestinal permeability and normal permeability have been documented in people with autism. Studies with mice provide some support to this theory and suggest the importance of intestinal flora, demonstrating that the normalization of the intestinal barrier was associated with an improvement in some of the ASD-like behaviours.[82] Studies on subgroups of people with ASD showed the presence of high plasma levels of zonulin, a protein that regulates permeability opening the “pores” of the intestinal wall, as well as intestinal dysbiosis (reduced levels of Bifidobacteria and increased abundance of Akkermansia muciniphilaEscherichia coliClostridia and Candida fungi) that promotes the production of proinflammatory cytokines, all of which produces excessive intestinal permeability.[83] This allows passage of bacterial endotoxins from the gut into the bloodstream, stimulating liver cells to secrete tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), which modulates blood–brain barrier permeability. Studies on ASD people showed that TNFα cascades produce proinflammatory cytokines, leading to peripheral inflammation and activation of microglia in the brain, which indicates neuroinflammation.[83] In addition, neuroactive opioid peptides from digested foods have been shown to leak into the bloodstream and permeate the blood–brain barrier, influencing neural cells and causing autistic symptoms.[83] (See Endogenous opiate precursor theory)

Here is an interesting case report of psychosis caused by gluten sensitivity:

 In May 2012, after a febrile episode, she became increasingly irritable and reported daily headache and concentration difficulties. One month after, her symptoms worsened presenting with severe headache, sleep problems, and behavior alterations, with several unmotivated crying spells and apathy. Her school performance deteriorated… The patient was referred to a local neuropsychiatric outpatient clinic, where a conversion somatic disorder was diagnosed and a benzodiazepine treatment (i.e., bromazepam) was started. In June 2012, during the final school examinations, psychiatric symptoms, occurring sporadically in the previous two months, worsened. Indeed, she began to have complex hallucinations. The types of these hallucinations varied and were reported as indistinguishable from reality. The hallucinations involved vivid scenes either with family members (she heard her sister and her boyfriend having bad discussions) or without (she saw people coming off the television to follow and scare her)… She also presented weight loss (about 5% of her weight) and gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal distension and severe constipation.

So she’s hospitalized and they do a bunch of tests. Eventually she’s put on steroids, which helps a little.

Her mother recalled that she did not return a “normal girl”. In September 2012, shortly after eating pasta, she presented crying spells, relevant confusion, ataxia, severe anxiety and paranoid delirium. Then she was again referred to the psychiatric unit. A relapse of autoimmune encephalitis was suspected and treatment with endovenous steroid and immunoglobulins was started. During the following months, several hospitalizations were done, for recurrence of psychotic symptoms.

Again, more testing.

In September 2013, she presented with severe abdominal pain, associated with asthenia, slowed speech, depression, distorted and paranoid thinking and suicidal ideation up to a state of pre-coma. The clinical suspicion was moving towards a fluctuating psychotic disorder. Treatment with a second-generation anti-psychotic (i.e., olanzapine) was started, but psychotic symptoms persisted. In November 2013, due to gastro-intestinal symptoms and further weight loss (about 15% of her weight in the last year), a nutritionist was consulted, and a gluten-free diet (GFD) was recommended for symptomatic treatment of the intestinal complaints; unexpectedly, within a week of gluten-free diet, the symptoms (both gastro-intestinal and psychiatric) dramatically improvedDespite her efforts, she occasionally experienced inadvertent gluten exposures, which triggered the recurrence of her psychotic symptoms within about four hours. Symptoms took two to three days to subside again.

Note: she has non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

One month after [beginning the gluten free diet] AGA IgG and calprotectin resulted negative, as well as the EEG, and ferritin levels improved.

Note: those are tests of inflammation and anemia–that means she no longer has inflammation and her iron levels are returning to normal.

She returned to the same neuro-psychiatric specialists that now reported a “normal behavior” and progressively stopped the olanzapine therapy without any problem. Her mother finally recalled that she was returned a “normal girl”. Nine months after definitely starting the GFD, she is still symptoms-free.

This case is absolutely crazy. That poor girl. Here she was in constant pain, had constant constipation, was losing weight (at an age when children should be growing,) and the idiot adults thought she had a psychiatric problem.

This is not the only case of gastro-intestinal disorder I have heard of that presented as psychosis.

Speaking of stomach pain, did you know Curt Cobain suffered frequent stomach pain that was so severe it made him vomit and want to commit suicide, and he started self-medicating with heroin just to stop the pain? And then he died.

Back to autism and gastrointestinal issues other than gluten, here is a fascinating new study on fecal transplants (h/t WrathofGnon):

Many studies have reported abnormal gut microbiota in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), suggesting a link between gut microbiome and autism-like behaviors. Modifying the gut microbiome is a potential route to improve gastrointestinal (GI) and behavioral symptoms in children with ASD, and fecal microbiota transplant could transform the dysbiotic gut microbiome toward a healthy one by delivering a large number of commensal microbes from a healthy donor. We previously performed an open-label trial of Microbiota Transfer Therapy (MTT) that combined antibiotics, a bowel cleanse, a stomach-acid suppressant, and fecal microbiota transplant, and observed significant improvements in GI symptoms, autism-related symptoms, and gut microbiota. Here, we report on a follow-up with the same 18 participants two years after treatment was completed. Notably, most improvements in GI symptoms were maintained, and autism-related symptoms improved even more after the end of treatment.

Fecal transplant is exactly what it sounds like. The doctors clear out a person’s intestines as best they can, then put in new feces, from a donor, via a tube (up the butt or through the stomach; either direction works.)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a double-blind study, but the authors are hopeful that they can get funding for a double-blind placebo controlled study soon.

I’d like to quote a little more from this study:

Two years after the MTT was completed, we invited the 18 original subjects in our treatment group to participate in a follow-up study … Two years after treatment, most participants reported GI symptoms remaining improved compared to baseline … The improvement was on average 58% reduction in Gastrointestinal Symptom Rating Scale (GSRS) and 26% reduction in % days of abnormal stools… The improvement in GI symptoms was observed for all sub-categories of GSRS (abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation, Supplementary Fig. S2a) as well as for all sub-categories of DSR (no stool, hard stool, and soft/liquid stool, Supplementary Fig. S2b), although the degree of improvement on indigestion symptom (a sub-category of GSRS) was reduced after 2 years compared with weeks 10 and 18. This achievement is notable, because all 18 participants reported that they had had chronic GI problems (chronic constipation and/or diarrhea) since infancy, without any period of normal GI health.

Note that these children were chosen because they had both autism and lifelong gastrointestinal problems. This treatment may do nothing at all for people who don’t have gastrointestinal problems.

The families generally reported that ASD-related symptoms had slowly, steadily improved since week 18 of the Phase 1 trial… Based on the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) rated by a professional evaluator, the severity of ASD at the two-year follow-up was 47% lower than baseline (Fig. 1b), compared to 23% lower at the end of week 10. At the beginning of the open-label trial, 83% of participants rated in the severe ASD diagnosis per the CARS (Fig. 2a). At the two-year follow-up, only 17% were rated as severe, 39% were in the mild to moderate range, and 44% of participants were below the ASD diagnostic cut-off scores (Fig. 2a). … The Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (VABS) equivalent age continued to improve (Fig. 1f), although not as quickly as during the treatment, resulting in an increase of 2.5 years over 2 years, which is much faster than typical for the ASD population, whose developmental age was only 49% of their physical age at the start of this study.

Important point: their behavior matured faster than it normally does in autistic children.

This is a really interesting study, and I hope the authors can follow it up with a solid double-blind.

Of course, not all autists suffer from gastrointestinal complaints. Many eat and digest without difficulty. But the connection between physical complaints and mental disruption across a variety of conditions is fascinating. How many conditions that we currently believe are psychological might actually be caused a by an untreated biological illness?

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Does the DSM need to be re-written?

I recently came across an interesting paper that looked at the likelihood that a person, once diagnosed with one mental disorder, would be diagnosed with another. (Exploring Comorbidity Within Mental Disorders Among a Danish National Population, by Oleguer Plana-Ripoll.)

This was a remarkable study in two ways. First, it had a sample size of 5,940,778, followed up for 83.9 million person-years–basically, the entire population of Denmark over 15 years. (Big Data indeed.)

Second, it found that for virtually every disorder, one diagnoses increased your chances of being diagnosed with a second disorder. (“Comorbid” is a fancy word for “two diseases or conditions occurring together,” not “dying at the same time.”) Some diseases were particularly likely to co-occur–in particular, people diagnosed with “mood disorders” had a 30% chance of also being diagnosed with “neurotic disorders” during the 15 years covered by the study.

Mood disorders includes bipolar, depression, and SAD;

Neurotic disorders include anxieties, phobias, and OCD.

Those chances were considerably higher for people diagnosed at younger ages, and decreased significantly for the elderly–those diagnosed with mood disorders before the age of 20 had a +40% chance of also being diagnosed with a neurotic disorder, while those diagnosed after 80 had only a 5% chance.

I don’t find this terribly surprising, since I know someone with at least five different psychological diagnoses, (nor is it surprising that many people with “intellectual disabilities” also have “developmental disorders”) but it’s interesting just how pervasive comorbidity is across conditions that are ostensibly separate diseases.

This suggests to me that either many people are being mis-diagnosed (perhaps diagnosis itself is very difficult,) or what look like separate disorders are often actually one, single disorder. While it is certainly possible, of course, for someone to have both a phobia of snakes and seasonal affective disorder, the person I know with five diagnoses most likely has only one “true” disorder that has just been diagnosed and treated differently by different clinicians. It seems likely that some people’s depression also manifests itself as deep-rooted anxiety or phobias, for example.

While this is a bit of a blow for many psychiatric diagnoses, (and I am quite certain that many diagnostic categories will need a fair amount of revision before all is said and done,) autism recently got a validity boost–How brain scans can diagnose Autism with 97% accuracy.

The title is overselling it, but it’s interesting anyway:

Lead study author Marcel Just, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, and his team performed fMRI scans on 17 young adults with high-functioning autism and 17 people without autism while they thought about a range of different social interactions, like “hug,” “humiliate,” “kick” and “adore.” The researchers used machine-learning techniques to measure the activation in 135 tiny pieces of the brain, each the size of a peppercorn, and analyzed how the activation levels formed a pattern. …

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

N=34 is not quite as impressive as N=Denmark, but it’s a good start.

Learning in Numbers

There is strength in numbers, but is there wisdom?

I’ve heard from multiple sources the claim that parenting, paradoxically, gets easier after the fourth child. There are several simple explanations for this phenomenon: people get more skilled at parenting after lots of practice; the older kids start helping out with the younger ones, etc.

But what if the phenomenon rests on something much more basic about human psychology–our desire to imitate others?

(Perhaps you don’t, dear reader. There are always exceptions.)

As Aristotle put it, man is a political animal–by which he meant that we are inherently social and prone to building communities (polities) together, not that we are inherently prone to arguing about who should govern North Carolina, though that may be political, too. In Aristotle’s words, a man who lives entirely alone is either a beast (living like an animal) or a god (able to fulfill all of his own needs without recourse to other humans.) Normal humans depend in many ways on other humans.

Compared to our pathetic ability to learn math (just look at most people’s SAT-math scores) and inability to read without direct instruction, humans learn socially-imparted skills like the ability to speak multiple languages, play games, assert dominance over each other, which clothes are fashionable, and how to crack a socially-appropriate joke with ease.

Social learning comes so naturally to people that we only notice it in cases of extreme deficit–like autism–or when parents protest that their children are becoming horribly corrupted by their peers.

So perhaps households with more than 4 children have hit a threshold beyond which social learning takes over and the younger children simply seem to “absorb” knowledge from their older siblings instead of having to be explicitly taught.

Consider learning to eat, a hopefully simple task. We are born with instincts to nurse, put random things in our mouths, and swallow. Preventing babies from eating random non-food objects is a bit of a problem for new parents. But learning things like “how to get this squishy food into your mouth with a spoon without also getting it everywhere else in the room” is much more complicated–and humans take food rituals to much more complicated heights than strained peas and carrots.

Parents of new children put a great deal of effort into teaching them to eat (something that ought to be an instinct.) Those with means puree fresh veggies, chop bits of meat, show a sudden interest in organics, and sit down to spoon every single last bit into their infants’ mouths. It is as if they are convinced that kids cannot learn to eat without at least as much instruction as a student learning to wield a welding torch. (And based on my own experience, they’re probably right.)

By contrast, parents of multiple children have–by necessity–relaxed. As a popular comic once depicted (though I can’t find it now,) feeding at this point becomes throwing Cheerios at the highchair as you run by.

Yet I’ve never seen any evidence that the younger children in large families are likely to be malnourished–they seem to catch the Cheerios on the fly and do just fine.

What if imitation is a strong factor in larger families, allowing infants and young children to learn skills like “how to eat” without needing direct parental instruction just by watching their older siblings? You might object that even infants in single parent households could learn to eat by imitating their parents (and they probably do,) but having more people around probably enforces the behavior more strongly, and having younger children around gives an example that is much more similar to the infant. We adults are massive compared to children, after all.

If basic learning of life skills proceeds more easily in an environment with more peers,(for infants or adults,) then what effects should we expect from our current trend toward extreme atomization?

I recently came across an essay about life in a trailer park vs sturdier housing:

To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

This is more about atomization than learning, but still interesting. Is it good for humans to be so far apart? To live far from relatives, in houses with thick walls, as single children or single adults, working and commuting every day among strangers?

Certainly the downsides of being among relatives are well-documented. Many tribal societies have downright cruel customs directed at relatives, like sati or adult circumcision. But that doesn’t mean that the extreme opposite–total atomization–is perfect. Atomization carries other risks. Among them, staying indoors and not socializing with our neighbors may cause us to lose some of our social knowledge, our ability to learn how to exist together.

We might expect that physical atomization due to technological change (sturdier houses, more entertaining TV, comfier climate control systems,) could cause symptoms in people similar to those caused by medical deficits in social learning, like autism. A recent study on the subject found an interesting variation between the brains of normies and autists:

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

This might explain the high rates of body dysmorphias in autism. It might also explain the high rates in society.

I remember another study which I read ages ago which found that people basically thought about “God” in the same parts of their brain where they thought about themselves. This explains why God tends to have the same morals as His believers. If autists have trouble imagining themselves, then they may also have trouble imagining God–and this might explain rising atheism rates.

Even our rising autism rates, though probably driven primarily by shifts in diagnostic fads, might be influenced by shrinking families and greater atomization, as kids with borderline conditions might show more severe symptoms if they are also more isolated.

On the other hand, social media is allowing people to come together and behave socially in new and ever larger groups.

For all their weaknesses, autists are probably better at normies at certain kinds of tasks, like abstract reasoning where you don’t want to think too much about yourself. I have long suspected that normies balk at philosophical dilemmas such as the trolley problem because they over-empathize with the subjects. Imagining themselves as one of the victims of the runaway trolley causes them distress, and distress causes them to attack the person causing them distress–the philosopher.

And so the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

But just as people can overcome their natural and very sensible fear of heights in order to work on skyscrapers, perhaps they can train themselves not to empathize with the subjects of trolley problems. Spending time on problems with no human subjects (such as mathematics or engineering) may also help people practice ways of approaching problems that don’t immediately resort to imagining themselves as the subject. On the converse, perhaps a bit of atomization (as seen historically in countries like Britain and France, and recently AFAIK in Japan,) helps equip people to think about difficult, non-human related mathematical or engineering problems.

Thoughts?

A theory of male and female Sociopathy, pt 2

Note: this is just a theory, developed in reaction to recent conversations. 

As we were discussing Friday, one form of female sociopathy (at least relevant to this conversation) likely involves manipulating or coercing others into providing resources for her children.

There are a couple of obvious tropes:

  1. The evil stepmother, who shunts resources away from a man’s first child, toward his later children. 
  2. The cuckoldress, who tricks or convinces a man to care for another man’s children (this is not always seen as evil, since the male drive to provide for children is triggered at least partly by their proximity, since men cannot give birth, and thus men feel genuine affection for children who happen to be around them,)
  3. The crazy ex, who sues a man for all he is worth, doing her best to prevent him from being able to provide for any future children. 

How crazy are women? 

NSDUH_AMI-_2012_GRAPH_148270_2

22%–slightly more than 1 in 5–women have been diagnosed with a mental illness, at least according to all of the data I’ve seen. Since mental illness peaks during the childbearing ages and falls off quickly after menopause, we can also assume that this rate is closer to 1 in 4 during these years. 

(The dramatic problems our Native American communities are facing is a separate matter, deserving of its own post.)

The odd thing about this data is that mental illness rates are higher for women than men, despite the fact that mental retardation and mental disability rates are higher for men than women. Men are more likely than women to have serious conditions like non-verbal autism and schizophrenia, more likely to be homeless or commit suicide. When things go terribly wrong, the sufferers are disproportionately male (an unfortunate side effect of the Y chromosome causing greater male variability than female variability on a variety of traits.) 

So why on earth do more women than men suffer from mental illness? 

Perhaps some forms of mental illness confer some unexpected benefits on women. 

Many (perhaps most) “mental illnesses” correlate with a single personality trait–neuroticism

“Previously we thought that mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse, were completely separate diseases,” Ystrøm says.

But research has now shown that these illnesses are often linked. If you suffer from one mental illness, you are more likely to develop another. And if someone in your immediate family has a psychiatric illness, your risk increases not only for this disorder, but for all other disorders.

These findings have led researchers to suspect that there could be a common underlying factor that increases an idividual’s risk of mental illness, overall. … 

Ystrøm and colleagues have used new statistical methods to look for patterns in personality, mental disorders, genes, and environmental factors, among the twins in the Twin Register. 

And the answer to the question the researchers asked is: yes, neuroticism seems to be the personality trait that best describes the risk of all mental disorders. …

“This one trait doesn’t explain everything. Anyone can develop a mental illness…”

And in women, neuroticism correlates with… more surviving offspring (in at least one study)

Taking an evolutionary approach, we use data from a contemporary polygynous high-fertility human population living in rural Senegal to investigate whether personality dimensions are associated with key life-history traits in humans, i.e., quantity and quality of offspring. We show that personality dimensions predict reproductive success differently in men and women in such societies and, in women, are associated with a trade-off between offspring quantity and quality. In women, neuroticism positively predicts the number of children, both between and within polygynous families. Furthermore, within the low social class, offspring quality (i.e., child nutritional status) decreases with a woman’s neuroticism, indicating a reproductive trade-off between offspring quantity and quality. 

What is neuroticism, in the Big 5 Personality Traits* sense? 

*Note: I am not endorsing or denying all five traits one way or another.

It’s worrying. Mothers who worry more about their offspring have more offspring–though it’s quite easy to imagine that the causality points in the opposite direction as the study’s authors conclude–poor women with lots of skinny babies have more reason to worry about their children than women with a few fat babies. 

When are women most likely to experience mental illness?

Immediately after the birth of a child. It’s called post-partum depression, and it can be very bad–one woman in my moms’ group ended up in the mental hospital after developing post-partum psychosis. Andrea Yates famously drowned her five children during a bout of post-partum depression/psychosis.

Why on earth would women develop a debilitating mental illness at the most vulnerable time in their offspring’s life? Wouldn’t natural selection select rather quickly against anything that makes women worse at taking care of their offspring? 

Let’s turn to everyone’s favorite genetic disease, sickle cell anemia. SCA is famous for being a relatively simple genetic mutation of the sort where if you have one copy of the sickle cell gene, you are less likely to get malaria, and if you have two copies, you tend to die. In areas where malaria is common, the cost of having a quarter of your children die from SCA is lower than the cost of loosing them to malaria. 

Personality traits, including neuroticism, generally exist on a continuum. People may become more neurotic when life warrants it, and less neurotic when they don’t need to worry. A mother with a new baby is in a very vulnerable state–she has just lost a good deal of blood, may not be able to walk, and has an infant to care for every other hour, day and night. It is not a normal state by any measure. It is a time when being extra attentive and extra aware of threats and predators is in a woman’s interest.

It is also a time when women are most in need of help from their mates, relatives, or other friends. Increased neuroticism may also prompt others to attend more closely to the new mother, helping her out. . Increased neuroticism may be so helpful during this time period that a few women getting way too much neuroticism and becoming extremely depressed or even killing their children is a cost outweighed by the increased survival of babies whose mothers had moderate levels of neuroticism. 

Let us note that nature doesn’t care about your feelings. Male praying mantises who allow themselves be eaten by their mates have more offspring than the ones who don’t, but that doesn’t mean male praying mantises enjoy getting eaten. Children who die of sickle

cell anemia don’t much appreciate that their siblings were protected from malaria, either.

An increase in neuroticism immediately after the birth of a baby may prompt a mother to take better care of it, but that doesn’t mean she enjoys the neuroticism. Neither does it mean that post-partum depression is healthy, any more than sickle cell anemia is healthy just because it’s a side effect of a trait that helps people avoid malaria. 

But wait, I have more studies!

Reproductive Fitness and Genetic Risk of Psychiatric Disorders in the General Population

The persistence of common, heritable psychiatric disorders that reduce reproductive fitness is an evolutionary paradox. Here, we investigate the selection pressures on sequence variants that predispose to schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using genomic data from 150,656 Icelanders, excluding those diagnosed with these psychiatric diseases. … Higher polygenic risk of autism is associated with fewer children and older age at first child whereas higher polygenic risk of ADHD is associated with having more children. We find no evidence for a selective advantage of a high polygenic risk of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Rare copy-number variants conferring moderate to high risk of psychiatric illness are associated with having fewer children and are under stronger negative selection pressure than common sequence variants. …

In summary, our results show that common sequence variants conferring risk of autism and ADHD are currently under weak selection in the general population of Iceland. However, rare CNVs that also impact cognition are under stronger selection pressure, consistent with mutation-selection balance. The hypothesis that a selective advantage accounts for the prevalence of sequence variants conferring risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is unproven, but rather this empirical evidence suggests that common sequence variants largely escape selection as their individual effect sizes are weak.

Unfortunately, this study mostly looks at the data in aggregate, instead of breaking it down by males and females. (And I don’t know why they would bother excluding people who actually have the conditions they are trying to study, but perhaps it doesn’t make much difference.) 

Thankfully, they did break down the data by male/female in the tables–Table 1 and Table 2. These tables are confusing, but the takeaway is that mental illness has a bigger effect on male fertility than female fertility. 

Also: Fecundity of Patients with Schizophrenia, Autism, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anorexia Nervosa, or Substance Abuse vs. their Unffected Siblings

Results Except for women with depression, affected patients had significantly fewer children (FR range for those with psychiatric disorder, 0.23-0.93; P < 10−10). This reduction was consistently greater among men than women, suggesting that male fitness was particularly sensitive. Although sisters of patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder had increased fecundity (FR range, 1.02-1.03; P < .01), this was too small on its own to counterbalance the reduced fitness of affected patients. Brothers of patients with schizophrenia and autism showed reduced fecundity (FR range, 0.94-0.97; P < .001). Siblings of patients with depression and substance abuse had significantly increased fecundity (FR range, 1.01-1.05; P < 10−10). In the case of depression, this more than compensated for the lower fecundity of affected individuals.

Conclusions Our results suggest that strong selection exists against schizophrenia, autism, and anorexia nervosa and that these variants may be maintained by new mutations or an as-yet unknown mechanism. Bipolar disorder did not seem to be under strong negative selection. Vulnerability to depression, and perhaps substance abuse, may be preserved by balancing selection, suggesting the involvement of common genetic variants in ways that depend on other genes and on environment.

Now, this study gets interesting in its graphs: 

m_yoa120017f1
From Fecundity of Patients with Schizophrenia, Autism, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anorexia Nervosa, or Substance Abuse vs their Unaffected Siblings

In every case, mental illness has a bigger effect on male fertility than female–and in the case of depression, it has no effect on female fertility. 

But wait: 

m_yoa120017f2
Same source.

This graph is confusingly labeled, but it is breaking down the correlation on the brothers and sisters of people with mental disorders. So the first dot represents the brothers of people with schizophrenia; the second dot represents the sisters of people with schizophrenia. 

None of these effects are huge, and some of them changed when “comorbidities were included in the analysis,” though it’s not clear exactly what that means–the word comorbidity in this context refers to people with more than one diagnosis. 

For the objectives of this study, we first analyzed each disorder separately without accounting for comorbidities. A secondary analysis was then performed that corrected for comorbidities by analyzing all disorders simultaneously.

So when you analyze all of the disorders together, sisters of schizophrenics had no increased fertility, and neither did the siblings of people with bipolar. Depressed men had average fertility, while depressed women actually had slightly above average fertility. The results for anorexia, substance abuse, and autism didn’t change. 

And from Spain: Seven Dimensions of Personality Pathology are Under Sexual Selection in Modern Spain

Personality variation is increasingly thought to have an adaptive function. This is less clear for personality disorders (PDs)—extreme variants of personality that cause harm in most aspects of life. However, the possibility that PDs may be maintained in the population because of their advantages for fitness has been not convincingly tested. In a sample of 959 outpatients, we examined whether, and how, sexual selection acts on the seven main dimensions of personality pathology, taking into account mating success, reproductive success, and the mediating role of status. We find that, to varying extents, all personality dimensions are under sexual selection. Far from being predominantly purifying, selective forces push traits in diverging, often pathological, directions. These pressures differ moderately between the sexes. Sexual selection largely acts in males through the acquisition of wealth, and through the duration (rather than the number) of mates. This gives a reproductive advantage to males high in persistence–compulsivity. Conversely, because of the decoupling between the number of mates and offspring, the promiscuous strategy of psychopaths is not so successful. Negative emotionality, the most clinically detrimental trait, is slightly deleterious in males but is positively selected in females, which can help to preserve variation. 

It’s interesting that the invention of birth control may have inadvertently selected against promiscuous psychopaths–rather similar to the theory that abortion is responsible for the decrease in crime since the early 90s. 

“Negative emotionality” is likely equivalent to “neuroticism.”

There are two obvious reasons why mental illness might have more of an effect on males than females–one is that mental illness might simply be mores severe for males than females, on average. The second is that mental illness interferes more with holding down a job than with being a housewife, so women with mental illnesses have more options than men. 

Less obvious, though, is that some of these traits might actually be beneficial–in small quantities–for women.

That’s enough for now; let’s continue this discussion on Friday. (Wednesday is book club.) 

Testosterone metabolization, autism, male brain, and female identity

I began this post intending to write about testosterone metabolization in autism and possible connections with transgender identity, but realized halfway through that I didn’t actually know whether the autist-trans connection was primarily male-to-female or female-to-male. I had assumed that the relevant population is primarily MtF because both autists and trans people are primarily male, but both groups do have female populations that are large enough to contribute significantly. Here’s a sample of the data I’ve found so far:

A study conducted by a team of British scientists in 2012 found that of a pool of individuals not diagnosed on the autism spectrum, female-to-male (FTM) transgender people have higher rates of autistic features than do male-to-female (MTF) transgender people or cisgender males and females. Another study, which looked at children and adolescents admitted to a gender identity clinic in the Netherlands, found that almost 8 percent of subjects were also diagnosed with ASD.

Note that both of these studies are looking at trans people and assessing whether or not they have autism symptoms, not looking at autists and asking if they have trans symptoms. Given the characterization of autism as “extreme male brain” and that autism is diagnosed in males at about 4x the rate of females, the fact that there is some overlap between “women who think they think like men” and “traits associated with male thought patterns” is not surprising.

If the reported connection between autism and trans identity is just “autistic women feel like men,” that’s pretty non-mysterious and I just wasted an afternoon.

Though the data I have found so far still does not look directly at autists and ask how many of them have trans symptoms, the wikipedia page devoted to transgender and transsexual computer programmers lists only MtFs and no FtMs. Whether this is a pattern throughout the wider autism community, it definitely seems to be a thing among programmers. (Relevant discussion.)

So, returning to the original post:

Autism contains an amusing contradiction: on the one hand, autism is sometimes characterized as “extreme male brain,” and on the other hand, (some) autists (may be) more likely than neurotypicals to self-identify as transwomen–that is, biological men who see themselves as women. This seems contradictory: if autists are more masculine, mentally, than the average male, why don’t they identify as football players, army rangers, or something else equally masculine? For that matter, why isn’t a group with “extreme male brains” regarded as more, well, masculine?

(And if autists have extreme male brains, does that mean football players don’t? Do football players have more feminine brains than autists? Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously? DO WORDS MEAN?)

*Ahem*

In favor of the “extreme male brain” hypothesis, we have evidence that testosterone is important for certain brain functions, like spacial recognition, we have articles like this one: Testosterone and the brain:

Gender differences in spatial recognition, and age-related declines in cognition and mood, point towards testosterone as an important modulator of cerebral functions. Testosterone appears to activate a distributed cortical network, the ventral processing stream, during spatial cognition tasks, and addition of testosterone improves spatial cognition in younger and older hypogonadal men. In addition, reduced testosterone is associated with depressive disorders.

(Note that women also suffer depression at higher rates than men.)

So people with more testosterone are better at spacial cognition and other tasks that “autistic” brains typically excel at, and brains with less testosterone tend to be moody and depressed.

But hormones are tricky things. Where do they come from? Where do they go? How do we use them?

According to Wikipedia:

During the second trimester [of pregnancy], androgen level is associated with gender formation.[13] This period affects the femininization or masculinization of the fetus and can be a better predictor of feminine or masculine behaviours such as sex typed behaviour than an adult’s own levels. A mother’s testosterone level during pregnancy is correlated with her daughter’s sex-typical behavior as an adult, and the correlation is even stronger than with the daughter’s own adult testosterone level.[14]

… Early infancy androgen effects are the least understood. In the first weeks of life for male infants, testosterone levels rise. The levels remain in a pubertal range for a few months, but usually reach the barely detectable levels of childhood by 4–6 months of age.[15][16] The function of this rise in humans is unknown. It has been theorized that brain masculinization is occurring since no significant changes have been identified in other parts of the body.[17] The male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen, which crosses the blood–brain barrier and enters the male brain, whereas female fetuses have α-fetoprotein, which binds the estrogen so that female brains are not affected.[18]

(Bold mine.)

Let’s re-read that: the male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen.

If that’s not a weird sentence, I don’t know what is.

Let’s hop over to the scientific literature, eg, Estrogen Actions in the Brain and the Basis for Differential Action in Men and Women: A Case for Sex-Specific Medicines:

Burgeoning evidence now documents profound effects of estrogens on learning, memory, and mood as well as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative processes. Most data derive from studies in females, but there is mounting recognition that estrogens play important roles in the male brain, where they can be generated from circulating testosterone by local aromatase enzymes or synthesized de novo by neurons and glia. Estrogen-based therapy therefore holds considerable promise for brain disorders that affect both men and women. However, as investigations are beginning to consider the role of estrogens in the male brain more carefully, it emerges that they have different, even opposite, effects as well as similar effects in male and female brains. This review focuses on these differences, including sex dimorphisms in the ability of estradiol to influence synaptic plasticity, neurotransmission, neurodegeneration, and cognition, which, we argue, are due in a large part to sex differences in the organization of the underlying circuitry.

Hypothesis: the way testosterone works in the brain (where we both do math and “feel” male or female) and the way it works in the muscles might be very different.

Do autists actually differ from other people in testosterone (or other hormone) levels?

In Elevated rates of testosterone-related disorders in women with autism spectrum conditions, researchers surveyed autistic women and mothers of autistic children about various testosterone-related medical conditions:

Compared to controls, significantly more women with ASC [Autism Spectrum Conditions] reported (a) hirsutism, (b) bisexuality or asexuality, (c) irregular menstrual cycle, (d) dysmenorrhea, (e) polycystic ovary syndrome, (f) severe acne, (g) epilepsy, (h) tomboyism, and (i) family history of ovarian, uterine, and prostate cancers, tumors, or growths. Compared to controls, significantly more mothers of ASC children reported (a) severe acne, (b) breast and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths, and (c) family history of ovarian and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths.

Androgenic Activity in Autism has an unfortunately low number of subjects (N=9) but their results are nonetheless intriguing:

Three of the children had exhibited explosive aggression against others (anger, broken objects, violence toward others). Three engaged in self-mutilations, and three demonstrated no aggression and were in a severe state of autistic withdrawal. The appearance of aggression against others was associated with having fewer of the main symptoms of autism (autistic withdrawal, stereotypies, language dysfunctions).

Three of their subjects (they don’t say which, but presumably from the first group,) had abnormally high testosterone levels (including one of the girls in the study.) The other six subjects had normal androgen levels.

This is the first report of an association between abnormally high androgenic activity and aggression in subjects with autism. Although a previously reported study did not find group mean elevations in plasma testosterone in prepubertal autistic subjects (4), it appears here that in certain autistic individuals, especially those in puberty, hyperandrogeny may play a role in aggressive behaviors. Also, there appear to be distinct clinical forms of autism that are based on aggressive behaviors and are not classified in DSM-IV. Our preliminary findings suggest that abnormally high plasma testosterone concentration is associated with aggression against others and having fewer of the main autistic symptoms.

So, some autists have do have abnormally high testosterone levels, but those same autists are less autistic, overall, than other autists. More autistic behavior, aggression aside, is associated with normal hormone levels. Probably.

But of course that’s not fetal or early infancy testosterone levels. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to study fetal testosterone levels in autists, as few autists were diagnosed as fetuses. However, Foetal testosterone and autistic traits in 18 to 24-month-old children comes close:

Levels of FT [Fetal Testosterone] were analysed in amniotic fluid and compared with autistic traits, measured using the Quantitative Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (Q-CHAT) in 129 typically developing toddlers aged between 18 and 24 months (mean ± SD 19.25 ± 1.52 months). …

Sex differences were observed in Q-CHAT scores, with boys scoring significantly higher (indicating more autistic traits) than girls. In addition, we confirmed a significant positive relationship between FT levels and autistic traits.

I feel like this is veering into “we found that boys score higher on a test of male traits than girls did” territory, though.

In Polymorphisms in Genes Involved in Testosterone Metabolism in Slovak Autistic Boys, researchers found:

The present study evaluates androgen and estrogen levels in saliva as well as polymorphisms in genes for androgen receptor (AR), 5-alpha reductase (SRD5A2), and estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1) in the Slovak population of prepubertal (under 10 years) and pubertal (over 10 years) children with autism spectrum disorders. The examined prepubertal patients with autism, pubertal patients with autism, and prepubertal patients with Asperger syndrome had significantly increased levels of salivary testosterone (P < 0.05, P < 0.01, and P < 0.05, respectively) in comparison with control subjects. We found a lower number of (CAG)n repeats in the AR gene in boys with Asperger syndrome (P < 0.001). Autistic boys had an increased frequency of the T allele in the SRD5A2 gene in comparison with the control group. The frequencies of T and C alleles in ESR1 gene were comparable in all assessed groups.

What’s the significance of CAG repeats in the AR gene? Apparently they vary inversely with sensitivity to androgens:

Individuals with a lower number of CAG repeats exhibit higher AR gene expression levels and generate more functional AR receptors increasing their sensitivity to testosterone…

Fewer repeats, more sensitivity to androgens. The SRD5A2 gene is also involved in testosterone metabolization, though I’m not sure exactly what the T allele does relative to the other variants.

But just because there’s a lot of something in the blood (or saliva) doesn’t mean the body is using it. Diabetics can have high blood sugar because their bodies lack the necessary insulin to move the sugar from the blood, into their cells. Fewer androgen receptors could mean the body is metabolizing testosterone less effectively, which in turn leaves more of it floating in the blood… Biology is complicated.

What about estrogen and the autistic brain? That gets really complicated. According to Sex Hormones in Autism: Androgens and Estrogens Differentially and Reciprocally Regulate RORA, a Novel Candidate Gene for Autism:

Here, we show that male and female hormones differentially regulate the expression of a novel autism candidate gene, retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha (RORA) in a neuronal cell line, SH-SY5Y. In addition, we demonstrate that RORA transcriptionally regulates aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. We further show that aromatase protein is significantly reduced in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects relative to sex- and age-matched controls, and is strongly correlated with RORA protein levels in the brain.

If autists are bad at converting testosterone to estrogen, this could leave extra testosterone floating around in their blood… but doens’t explain their supposed “extreme male brain.” Here’s another study on the same subject, since it’s confusing:

Comparing the brains of 13 children with and 13 children without autism spectrum disorder, the researchers found a 35 percent decrease in estrogen receptor beta expression as well as a 38 percent reduction in the amount of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.

Levels of estrogen receptor beta proteins, the active molecules that result from gene expression and enable functions like brain protection, were similarly low. There was no discernable change in expression levels of estrogen receptor alpha, which mediates sexual behavior.

I don’t know if anyone has tried injecting RORA-deficient mice with estrogen, but here is a study about the effects of injecting reelin-deficient mice with estrogen:

The animals in the new studies, called ‘reeler’ mice, have one defective copy of the reelin gene and make about half the amount of reelin compared with controls. …

Reeler mice with one faulty copy serve as a model of one of the most well-established neuro-anatomical abnormalities in autism. Since the mid-1980s, scientists have known that people with autism have fewer Purkinje cells in the cerebellum than normal. These cells integrate information from throughout the cerebellum and relay it to other parts of the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex.

But there’s a twist: both male and female reeler mice have less reelin than control mice, but only the males lose Purkinje cells. …

In one of the studies, the researchers found that five days after birth, reeler mice have higher levels of testosterone in the cerebellum compared with genetically normal males3.

Keller’s team then injected estradiol — a form of the female sex hormone estrogen — into the brains of 5-day-old mice. In the male reeler mice, this treatment increases reelin levels in the cerebellum and partially blocks Purkinje cell loss. Giving more estrogen to female reeler mice has no effect — but females injected with tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker, lose Purkinje cells. …

In another study, the researchers investigated the effects of reelin deficiency and estrogen treatment on cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch strategies to solve a problem4. …

“And we saw indeed that the reeler mice are slower to switch. They tend to persevere in the old strategy,” Keller says. However, male reeler mice treated with estrogen at 5 days old show improved cognitive flexibility as adults, suggesting that the estrogen has a long-term effect.

This still doesn’t explain why autists would self-identify as transgender women (mtf) at higher rates than average, but it does suggest that any who do start hormone therapy might receive benefits completely independent of gender identity.

Let’s stop and step back a moment.

Autism is, unfortunately, badly defined. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autist, you’ve met one autist. There are probably a variety of different, complicated things going on in the brains of different autists simply because a variety of different, complicated conditions are all being lumped together under a single label. Any mental disability that can include both non-verbal people who can barely dress and feed themselves and require lifetime care and billionaires like Bill Gates is a very badly defined condition.

(Unfortunately, people diagnose autism with questionnaires that include questions like “Is the child pedantic?” which could be equally true of both an autistic child and a child who is merely very smart and has learned more about a particular subject than their peers and so is responding in more detail than the adult is used to.)

The average autistic person is not a programmer. Autism is a disability, and the average diagnosed autist is pretty darn disabled. Among the people who have jobs and friends but nonetheless share some symptoms with formally diagnosed autists, though, programmer and the like appear to be pretty popular professions.

Back in my day, we just called these folks nerds.

Here’s a theory from a completely different direction: People feel the differences between themselves and a group they are supposed to fit into and associate with a lot more strongly than the differences between themselves and a distant group. Growing up, you probably got into more conflicts with your siblings and parents than with random strangers, even though–or perhaps because–your family is nearly identical to you genetically, culturally, and environmentally. “I am nothing like my brother!” a man declares, while simultaneously affirming that there is a great deal in common between himself and members of a race and culture from the other side of the planet. Your  coworker, someone specifically selected for the fact that they have similar mental and technical aptitudes and training as yourself, has a distinct list of traits that drive you nuts, from the way he staples papers to the way he pronounces his Ts, while the women of an obscure Afghan tribe of goat herders simply don’t enter your consciousness.

Nerds, somewhat by definition, don’t fit in. You don’t worry much about fitting into a group you’re not part of in the fist place–you probably don’t worry much about whether or not you fit in with Melanesian fishermen–but most people work hard at fitting in with their own group.

So if you’re male, but you don’t fit in with other males (say, because you’re a nerd,) and you’re down at the bottom of the highschool totem pole and feel like all of the women you’d like to date are judging you negatively next to the football players, then you might feel, rather strongly, the differences between you and other males. Other males are aggressive, they call you a faggot, they push you out of their spaces and threaten you with violence, and there’s very little you can do to respond besides retreat into your “nerd games.”

By contrast, women are polite to you, not aggressive, and don’t aggressively push you out of their spaces. Your differences with them are much less problematic, so you feel like you “fit in” with them.

(There is probably a similar dynamic at play with American men who are obsessed with anime. It’s not so much that they are truly into Japanese culture–which is mostly about quietly working hard–as they don’t fit in very well with their own culture.) (Note: not intended as a knock on anime, which certainly has some good works.)

And here’s another theory: autists have some interesting difficulties with constructing categories and making inferences from data. They also have trouble going along with the crowd, and may have fewer “mirror neurons” than normal people. So maybe autists just process the categories of “male” and “female” a little differently than everyone else, and in a small subset of autists, this results in trans identity.*

And another: maybe there are certain intersex disorders which result in differences in brain wiring/organization. (Yes, there are real interesx disorders, like Klinefelter’s, in which people have XXY chromosomes instead of XX or XY.) In a small set of cases, these unusually wired brains may be extremely good at doing certain tasks (like programming) resulting people who are both “autism spectrum” and “trans”. This is actually the theory I’ve been running with for years, though it is not incompatible with the hormonal theories discussed above.

But we are talking small: trans people of any sort are extremely rare, probably on the order of <1/1000. Even if autists were trans at 8 times the rates of non-autists, that’s still only 8/1000 or 1/125. Autists themselves are pretty rare (estimates vary, but the vast majority of people are not autistic at all,) so we are talking about a very small subset of a very small population in the first place. We only notice these correlations at all because the total population has gotten so huge.

Sometimes, extremely rare things are random chance.

Species of Exit: Israel

Israel is–as far as I can tell–one of the sanest, least self-destructive states in the entire West. (Note: this is not to say that I love everything about Israel; this is actually a pretty low bar, given what’s happening everywhere else.) Their people are literate and healthy, they have a per capita GDP of 36.5k, (33rd in the world,) and they’re 18th globally on the Human Development Index. They don’t throw people off of buildings or have public floggings, and despite the fact that they have birth control and the state actually pays for abortions, the Jewish population still has a positive fertility rate:

The fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women were identical for the first time in Israeli history in 2015, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday….Jewish and Arab women had given birth to an average of 3.13 children as of last year.

According to Newsweek:

This high fertility rate is not simply an artifact of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population; the non-Haredi fertility rate is 2.6. (This is, by the way, a far higher fertility rate than that of American Jews, which is 1.9; the replacement rate is 2.3.)

Did you think we were getting through this without a Polandball joke? And they’ve managed to resist getting conquered by their aggressive and numerically superior neighbors several times in the past century.

Not bad for a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago, had to be built from the sand up, and is filled with people whom conventional wisdom holds ought to have been rendered completely useless by multi-generational epigenetic trauma.

Now, yes, Israel does get a lot of support from the US, and who knows what it would look like (or if it would exist at all,) in an alternative timeline where the US ignores it. Israel probably isn’t perfect, just interesting.

Harking back to my Measures of Meaning post, I propose that Israel has 4 things going for it:

Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jewish member of the IDF

1. Israelis have meaningful work. Their work has been, literally, to build and secure their nation. Israelis have had to build almost the entire infrastructure of their country over the past hundred years, from irrigation systems to roads to cities. Today, Tel Aviv is a city with a population of 430,000 people. In 1900, Tel Aviv didn’t exist.

Unlike the US, Israel has a draft: every Israeli citizen, male and female, has to serve in the Israeli army. (Obviously exceptions exist.) This is not seen as state-run slavery but part of making sure the entire society continues to exist, because Israel faces some pretty real threats to its borders.

The IDF even has a special division for autists:

Many autistic soldiers who would otherwise be exempt from military service have found a place in Unit 9900, a selective intelligence squad where their heightened perceptual skills are an asset. …

The relationship is a mutually beneficial one. For these young people, the unit is an opportunity to participate in a part of Israeli life that might otherwise be closed to them. And for the military, it’s an opportunity to harness the unique skill sets that often come with autism: extraordinary capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which lend themselves well to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis.

picture-5

I suspect–based on personal conversations–that there is something similar in the US military, but have no proof.

My anthropological work suggests that one of the reasons people enter the military is to find meaning in their lives, (though this doesn’t work nearly as well when your country does things like invade completely irrelevant countries you don’t actually care about like Vietnam.)

2. Like I said, Israelis have above-replacement total fertility–meaning that many Israelis hail from large families, with lots of children, siblings, and cousins. Israelis appear to have managed to achieve this in part by subsidizing births (which probably will have some long-term negative effects for them,*) and in part by explicitly advocating high birth rates in order to prevent themselves from being out-bred by the Palestinians and to show that Hitler what for.

*ETA: See the comments for a discussion of dysgenic fertility on Israel.

I have been saving this picture for so long3. Religion is so obviously a unifying force in Israeli life that I don’t think I need to detail it.

What about that fourth thing? Oh yes: Many of the Jews who don’t like the idea of “nations” and “ethno states” and “religion” probably moved to the US instead of Israel. The US got the SJW Jews and Israel got the nationalist Jews.

4. A sense of themselves as a distinct nation. As I’ve discussed before, this is not exactly genetic, due to different Jewish groups having absorbed about 50% of their DNA from the folks around them during the diaspora years, and of course a big part of the country is Arab/Palestinians, but there is still much genetically in common.

There is probably a lot I’m missing.

15han-2-master675Of course there are religious Jews in the US (and their numbers are growing relative to the secular Jewish population.) While Jews as a whole voted 70% for Hillary, only 56% of the Orthodox supported her. (I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere, but these are the ones I’ve been able to find a source for.)

(I suspect that America’s high-IQ secular Jews suffer from being in America instead of Israel. They don’t have religion to guide them, children to focus them, nor (in many cases) meaningful work. Without something positive to work towards, they turn to politics/ideology to provide meaning in their lives, while simultaneously suffering the psychological stress of knowing that the Holocaust was directed at people like them.)

But that’s irrelevant to Israeli Jews.

Long-term, I’m not bullish on Israel, given its precarious location, surrounded by nations that aren’t very fond of it–and I am not offering any opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation–but as first world nations go, it at least desires to keep existing.

Autism

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

The autist’s greatest strength–and weakness–is his deficiency in the neural mechanisms of mimicry. Without the necessary feedback loops, he fails to subconsciously adopt of his peers’ words, actions, and beliefs, leaving him is free to develop his own–caring little about how strange they seem to everyone else.

At his most unfortunate, the infant autist lacks even the instincts necessary to imitate the mouth-shapes and mouth-sounds of his parents, leaving him unable to develop speech. Some of these autists understand speech perfectly well, but simply cannot produce it.

At his most fortunate, the autist, immune to other people’s preconceived notions, revolutionizes some field of science or math–or both:

Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25 December 1642, and died on 20 March 1726/7.—Translation from G.L. Smyth, The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey (1826), ii, 703–4.[115]

What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?

Is there a correlation between intelligence and taste?

(I am annoyed by the lack of bands between 1200 and 1350)
(source)

De gustibus non disputandum est. — Confucius

We’re talking about foods, not whether you prefer Beethoven or Lil’ Wayne.

Certainly there are broad correlations between the foods people enjoy and their ethnicity/social class. If you know whether I chose fried okra, chicken feet, gefilte fish, escargot, or grasshoppers for dinner, you can make a pretty good guess about my background. (Actually, I have eaten all of these things. The grasshoppers were over-salted, but otherwise fine.) The world’s plethora of tasty (and not-so-tasty) cuisines is due primarily to regional variations in what grows well where (not a lot of chili peppers growing up in Nunavut, Canada,) and cost (the rich can always afford fancier fare than the poor,) with a side dish of seemingly random cultural taboos like “don’t eat pork” or “don’t eat cows” or “don’t eat grasshoppers.”

But do people vary in their experience of taste? Does intelligence influence how you perceive your meal, driving smarter (or less-smart) people to seek out particular flavor profiles or combinations? Or could there be other psychological or neurological factors at play n people’s eating decisions?

This post was inspired by a meal my husband, an older relative and I shared recently at McDonald’s. It had been a while since we’d last patronized McDonald’s, but older relative likes their burgers, so we went and ordered some new-to-us variety of meat-on-a-bun. As my husband and I sat there, deconstructing the novel taste experience and comparing it to other burgers, the older relative gave us this look of “Jeez, the idiots are discussing the flavor of a burger! Just eat it already!”

As we dined later that evening at my nemesis, Olive Garden, I began wondering whether we actually experienced the food the same way. Perhaps there is something in people that makes them prefer bland, predictable food. Perhaps some people are better at discerning different flavors, and the people who cannot discern them end up with worse food because they can’t tell?

Unfortunately, it appears that not a lot of people have studied whether there is any sort of correlation between IQ and taste (or smell.) There’s a fair amount of research on taste (and smell,) like “do relatives of schizophrenics have impaired senses of smell?” (More on Schizophrenics and their decreased ability to smell) or “can we get fat kids to eat more vegetables?” Oh, and apparently the nature of auditory hallucinations in epileptics varies with IQ (IIRC.) But not much that directly addresses the question.

I did find two references that, somewhat in passing, noted that they found no relationship between taste and IQ, but these weren’t studies designed to test for that. For example, in A Food Study of Monotony, published in 1958 (you know I am really looking for sources when I have to go back to 1958,) researchers restricted the diets of military personnel employed at an army hospital to only 4 menus to see how quickly and badly they’d get bored of the food. They found no correlation between boredom and IQ, but people employed at an army hospital are probably pre-selected for being pretty bright (and having certain personality traits in common, including ability to stand army food.)

Interestingly, three traits did correlate with (or against) boredom:

Fatter people got bored fastest (the authors speculate that they care the most about their food,) while depressed and feminine men (all subjects in the study were men) got bored the least. Depressed people are already disinterested in food, so it is hard to get less-interested, but no explanation was given of what they meant by “femininity” or how this might affect food preferences. (Also, the hypochondriacs got bored quickly.)

Some foods inspire boredom (or even disgust) quickly, while others are virtually immune. Milk and bread, for example, can be eaten every day without complaint (though you might get bored if bread were your only food.) Potted meat, by contrast, gets old fast.

Likewise, Personality Traits and Eating Habits (warning PDF) notes that:

Although self-reported eating practices were not associated with educational level, intelligence, nor various indices of psychopathology, they were related to the demographic variables of gender and age: older participants reported eating more fiber in their diets than did younger ones, and women reported more avoidance of fats from meats than did men.

Self-reported eating habits may not be all that reliable, though.

Autistic children do seem to be worse at distinguishing flavors (and smells) than non-autistic children, eg Olfaction and Taste Processing in Autism:

Participants with autism were significantly less accurate than control participants in identifying sour tastes and marginally less accurate for bitter tastes, but they were not different in identifying sweet and salty stimuli. … Olfactory identification was significantly worse among participants with autism. … True differences exist in taste and olfactory identification in autism. Impairment in taste identification with normal detection thresholds suggests cortical, rather than brainstem dysfunction.

(Another study of the eating habits of autistic kids found that the pickier ones were rated by their parents as more severely impaired than the less picky ones, but then severe food aversions are a form of life impairment. By the way, do not tell the parents of an autistic kid, “oh, he’ll eat when he’s hungry.” They will probably respond politely, but mentally they are stabbing you.)

On brainstem vs. cortical function–it appears that we do some of our basic flavor identification way down in the most instinctual part of the brain, as Facial Expressions in Response to Taste and Smell Stimulation explores. The authors found that pretty much everyone makes the same faces in response to sweet, sour, and bitter flavors–whites and blacks, old people and newborns, retarded people and blind people, even premature infants, blind infants, and infants born missing most of their brains. All of which is another point in favor of my theory that disgust is real. (And if that is not enough science of taste for you, I recommend Place and Taste Aversion Learning, in which animals with brain lesions lost their fear of new foods.)

Genetics obviously plays a role in taste. If you are one of the 14% or so of people who think cilantro tastes like soap (and I sympathize, because cilantro definitely tastes like soap,) then you’ve already discovered this in a very practical way. Genetics also obviously determine whether you continue producing the enzyme for milk digestion after infancy (lactase persistence). According to Why are you a picky eater? Blame genes, brains, and breastmilk:

In many cases, mom and dad have only themselves to blame for unwittingly passing on the genes that can govern finicky tastes. Studies show that genes play a major role in determining who becomes a picky eater, including recent research on a group of 4- to 7-year-old twins. Part of the pickiness can be attributed to specific genes that govern taste. Variants of the TAS2R38 gene, for example, have been found to encode for taste receptors that determine how strongly someone tastes bitter flavors.

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, a scientific institute dedicated to the study of smell and taste, have found that this same gene also predicts the strength of sweet-tooth cravings among children. Kids who were more sensitive to bitterness preferred sugary foods and drinks. However, adults with the bitter receptor genes remained picky about bitter foods but did not prefer more sweets, the Monell study found. This suggests that sometimes age and experience can override genetics.

I suspect that there is actually a sound biological, evolutionary reason why kids crave sweets more than grownups, and this desire for sweets is somewhat “turned off” as we age.

Picture 10

From a review of Why some like it hot: Food, Genetics, and Cultural Diversity:

Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan suggests that diet had a key role in human evolution, specifically, that human genetic diversity is predominately a product of regional differences in ancestral diets. Chemical compounds found within animals and plants varied depending on climate. These compounds induced changes in gene expression, which can vary depending on the amount within the particular food and its availability. The Agricultural Age led to further diet-based genetic diversity. Cultivation of foods led to the development of novel plants and animals that were not available in the ancestral environment. …

There are other fascinating examples of gene-diet interaction. Culturally specific recipes, semi-quantitative blending of locally available foods and herbs, and cooking directions needed in order to reduce toxins present in plants, emerged over time through a process of trial-and error and were transmitted through the ages. The effects on genes by foods can be extremely complex given the range of plant-derived compounds available within a given region. The advent of agriculture is suggested to have overridden natural selection by random changes in the environment. The results of human-driven selection can be highly unexpected. …

In sedentary herding societies, drinking water was frequently contaminated by livestock waste. The author suggests in order to avoid contaminated water, beverages made with fermented grains or fruit were drunk instead. Thus, alcohol resistance was selected for in populations that herded animals, such as Europeans. By contrast, those groups which did not practice herding, such as East Asians and Native Americans, did not need to utilize alcohol as a water substitute and are highly sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

Speaking of genetics:

(source?)
From Eating Green could be in your Genes

Indians and Africans are much more likely than Europeans and native South Americans to have an allele that lets them eat a vegetarian diet:

The vegetarian allele evolved in populations that have eaten a plant-based diet over hundreds of generations. The adaptation allows these people to efficiently process omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and convert them into compounds essential for early brain development and controlling inflammation. In populations that live on plant-based diets, this genetic variation provided an advantage and was positively selected in those groups.

In Inuit populations of Greenland, the researchers uncovered that a previously identified adaptation is opposite to the one found in long-standing vegetarian populations: While the vegetarian allele has an insertion of 22 bases (a base is a building block of DNA) within the gene, this insertion was found to be deleted in the seafood allele.

Of course, this sort of thing inspires a wealth of pop-psych investigations like Dr. Hirsch’s What Flavor is your Personality?  (from a review:

Dr. Hirsh, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Research and Treatment Foundation in Chicago, stands by his book that is based on over 24 years of scientific study and tests on more than 18,000 people’s food choices and personalities.)

that nonetheless may have some basis in fact, eg: Personality may predict if you like spicy foods:

Byrnes assessed the group using the Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking (AISS), a test for the personality trait of sensation-seeking, defined as desiring novel and intense stimulation and presumed to contribute to risk preferences. Those in the group who score above the mean AISS score are considered more open to risks and new experiences, while those scoring below the mean are considered less open to those things.

The subjects were given 25 micrometers of capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, and asked to rate how much they liked a spicy meal as the burn from the capsaicin increased in intensity. Those in the group who fell below the mean AISS rapidly disliked the meal as the burn increased. People who were above the mean AISS had a consistently high liking of the meal even as the burn increased. Those in the mean group liked the meal less as the burn increased, but not nearly as rapidly as those below the mean.

And then there are the roughly 25% of us who are “supertasters“:

A supertaster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. Women are more likely to be supertasters, as are those from Asia, South America and Africa.[1] The cause of this heightened response is unknown, although it is thought to be related to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene, the ability to taste PROP and PTC, and at least in part, due to an increased number of fungiform papillae.[2]

Perhaps the global distribution of supertasters is related to the distribution of vegetarian-friendly alleles. It’s not surprising that women are more likely to be supertasters, as they have a better sense of smell than men. What may be surprising is that supertasters tend not to be foodies who delight in flavoring their foods with all sorts of new spices, but instead tend toward more restricted, bland diets. Because their sense of taste is essentially on overdrive, flavors that taste “mild” to most people taste “overwhelming” on their tongues. As a result, they tend to prefer a much more subdued palette–which is, of course, perfectly tasty to them.

Picture 8A French study, Changes in Food Preferences and Food Neophobia during a Weight Reduction Session, measured kids’ ability to taste flavors, then the rate at which they became accustomed to new foods. The more sensitive the kids were to flavors, the less likely they were to adopt a new food; the less adept they were at tasting flavors, the more likely they were to start eating vegetables.

Speaking of pickiness again:

“During research back in the 1980s, we discovered that people are more reluctant to try new foods of animal origin than those of plant origin,” Pelchat says. “That’s ironic in two ways. As far as taste is concerned, the range of flavors in animal meat isn’t that large compared to plants, so there isn’t as much of a difference. And, of course, people are much more likely to be poisoned by eating plants than by animals, as long as the meat is properly cooked.” …

It’s also possible that reward mechanisms in our brain can drive changes in taste. Pelchat’s team once had test subjects sample tiny bits of unfamiliar food with no substantial nutritional value, and accompanied them with pills that contained either nothing or a potent cocktail of caloric sugar and fat. Subjects had no idea what was in the pills they swallowed. They learned to like the unfamiliar flavors more quickly when they were paired with a big caloric impact—suggesting that body and brain combined can alter tastes more easily when unappetizing foods deliver big benefits.

So trying to get people to adopt new foods while losing weight may not be the best idea.

(For all that people complain about kids’ pickiness, parents are much pickier. Kids will happily eat playdoh and crayons, but one stray chicken heart in your parents’ soup and suddenly it’s “no more eating at your house.”)

Of course, you can’t talk about food without encountering meddlers who are convinced that people should eat whatever they’re convinced is the perfect diet, like these probably well-meaning folks trying to get Latinos to eat fewer snacks:

Latinos are the largest racial and ethnic minority group in the United States and bear a disproportionate burden of obesity related chronic disease. Despite national efforts to improve dietary habits and prevent obesity among Latinos, obesity rates remain high. …

there is a need for more targeted health promotion and nutrition education efforts on the risks associated with soda and energy-dense food consumption to help improve dietary habits and obesity levels in low-income Latino communities.

Never mind that Latinos are one of the healthiest groups in the country, with longer life expectancies than whites! We’d better make sure they know that their food ways are not approved of!

I have been saving this graph for just such an occasion.
Only now I feel bad because I forgot to write down who made this graph so I can properly credit them. If you know, please tell me!

(Just in case it is not clear already: different people are adapted to and will be healthy on different diets. There is no magical, one-size-fits-all diet.)

And finally, to bring this full circle, it’s hard to miss the folks claiming that Kids Who Eat Fast Food Have Lower IQs:

4,000 Scottish children aged 3-5 years old were examined to compare the intelligence dampening effects of fast food consumption versus  “from scratch”  fare prepared with only fresh ingredients.

Higher fast food consumption by the children was linked with lower intelligence and this was even after adjustments for wealth and social status were taken into account.

It’d be better if they controlled for parental IQ.

The conclusions of this study confirm previous research which shows long lasting effects on IQ from a child’s diet. An Australian study from the University of Adelaide published in August 2012 showed that toddlers who consume junk food grow less smart as they get older. In that study, 7000 children were examined at the age of 6 months, 15 months, 2 years to examine their diet.

When the children were examined again at age 8, children who were consuming the most unhealthy food had IQs up to 2 points lower than children eating a wholesome diet.

 

 

The Big Bang Theory is not “My People”: aspies, tribalism, and the development of nerd politics

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t watch much TV, other than the odd documentary and some children’s programs. So while I’ve heard of The Big Bang Theory, I’ve only actually seen a couple of episodes. An acquaintance recently expressed surprise at this fact, asserting that TBBT depicts “[my] people.”

Curiosity got the better of me, so I attempted to watch some episodes on YouTube. Unfortunately, I could only find highlight reels; curse the zealous and effective enforcement of copyright laws. Regardless, I have watched a couple hours of highlights and read the relevant Wikipedia pages.

And these are not “my people.”

To be fair, I laughed. I’m not going to go on a rant claiming that a popular, successful show that lots of people enjoy is actually bad for reasons particular to my own taste in TV. Neither is this going to be an in-depth deconstruction of the good or bad points of a show I’ve barely seen. I’m content to say that it’s funny and I see what other people like in it.

I just don’t see myself in it.

“My people” is a bit of a fuzzy concept. Certainly plenty of “my people” like video games or comic books or have OCD or autism. But this is not what defines us; this is not what separates us from the rest of you.

If anything, video games, Star Trek, comic books, etc., are the things that connect us to normal people. Video games are immensely popular–Farmville2 had, as of 2013, 40 million regular players, which is about the same as the total number of copies of Super Mario Bros. (1985) sold. Then there’s The Sims, which sold over 125 million copies between 2000 and 2010 and has probably kept on selling.

“The success of The Sims resulted in Guinness World Records awarding the series five world records in the Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition 2008. These records include “World’s Biggest-Selling Simulation Series” and “Best Selling PC Game of All Time” for the original The Sims game, which sold 16 million units…” (Wikipedia)

There’s nothing wrong with videogames. I like them; lots of people like them. The same goes for the rest of the list. Are nerds more into Star Wars or Star Trek than the average Joe? I think so, but the vast quantities of Star Wars merchandise available at Target certainly isn’t being driven by my tiny demographic; I own more things (books) on P. A. M. Dirac’s contributions to quantum physics than Star Wars and Star Trek-related things combined.

Maybe TBBT is what “my people” look like from the outside, but it’s not what we look like from the inside.

Let’s start with the clothes:

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This show is set in southern California. It is hot there all the time. They have no winter. WHY ARE THEY WEARING JACKETS AND SWEATERS?

While nerds do occasionally dress nicely–especially for SCA events–most of the time, we wear clothes to cover our fleshy meat sacks. We do not (generally) have colorful, curated wardrobes.  Most of us don’t really think about clothing. I have seen nerds walking in the snow wearing less clothing than these guys are wearing for the simple reason that they were thinking about something else and had not thought to put on clothes.

If Sheldon were really an autistic (or OCD,) quantum physicist with an IQ around 178 or whatever, he’d look more like the guy on the left:

yesss physics yesss
From left to right: Dirac, youngest Nobel prize winner in physics; Nobel laureate Robert A. Millikan; and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Caltech, Calif., May 28, 1935.

(Say what you will, Dirac clearly did not notice that he put on a vest that’s too small for himself this morning.)

Or maybe this guy:

Blatant attempt to cram Niels Bohr into a post
Blatantly cramming Niels Bohr into post

Of course, the modern style of Caltech Physicists is a little less formal–they appear to have ditched the jackets–but still a far cry from curated colors.

But clothes are a triviality. They are not my real objection; they’re just the easiest to express objection.

According to the Wikipedia’s summary of TBBT, the show revolves around the characters’ pop-culture obsessions and failures at dating:

One of the recurring plot lines is the relationship between Leonard and Penny. Leonard becomes attracted to Penny in the pilot episode and his need to do favors for her is a frequent point of humor in the first season. Their first long term relationship begins when Leonard returns from a three-month expedition to the North Pole in the season 3 premiere. However, when Leonard tells Penny that he loves her, she realizes she cannot say it back. Both Leonard and Penny go on to date other people; most notably with Leonard dating Raj’s sister Priya for much of season 4. This relationship is jeopardized when Leonard comes to falsely believe that Raj has slept with Penny, and ultimately ends when Priya sleeps with a former boyfriend in “The Good Guy Fluctuation“.

Penny, who admits to missing Leonard in “The Roommate Transmogrification”, accepts his request to renew their relationship in “The Beta Test Initiation”. After Penny suggests having sex in “The Launch Acceleration”, Leonard breaks the mood by proposing to her. Penny says “no” but does not break up with him. She stops a proposal a second time in “The Tangible Affection Proof”. In the sixth season episode, “The 43 Peculiarity”, Penny finally tells Leonard that she loves him. Although they both feel jealousy when the other receives significant attention from the opposite sex, Penny is secure enough in their relationship to send him off on an exciting four-month expedition without worrying in “The Bon Voyage Reaction”. After Leonard returns, their relationship blossoms over the seventh season. In the penultimate episode “The Gorilla Dissolution”, Penny admits that they should marry and when Leonard realizes that she is serious, he proposes with a ring that he had been saving for years.

Jeez. Who goes through that much crap for a relationship? Here’s what a normal relationship looks like:

Day 1: meet; ask other person out. Yes => date. No => meet someone else and ask them out.

Within a month or two: if you’re in love, keep dating. If not, break up.

Within a few years: get married or break up.

I feel like I am harping on something trivially mundane and totally obvious, except that a lot of people watch TBBT, and I honestly think that plotlines like this (which serve to draw back viewers for subsequent episodes with their constant “will they or won’t they finally get together?” rather than depict reality,) actually give some people (mostly beta males) the wrong impression about how to go about their relationships. Anime is also guilty of this. DO NOT SPEND YEARS OF YOUR LIFE WAITING FOR THE GIRL YOU LIKE TO FINALLY NOTICE YOU. If you don’t ask her out, she will not date you. If she says no, she’s probably not interested and you should go ask someone else out. Doing the “nice guy” beta-male best friend thing for years in the hope that someday she will notice you does not work and tends to work out badly for everyone involved.

Here’s what my life revolves around: personal relationships (kids, husband, friends, relatives, job, etc.,) and my ideas.

I have a lot of ideas, hence this blog and a few other projects I’ve got going.

The ideas permeate everything. Picking the kids up from school? Thinking about the evolution of social structures. Conversing with mom-friend on the playground while watching the kids? Calculating estimated total fertility rate for the neighborhood. Trying to fall asleep? Narrating the French Revolution in my head.

Sometimes the ideas are so intense, it’s agony to do anything else. I can’t sleep, can’t converse, can’t be still until I write them down.

It’s ideas, all the way down.

I wouldn’t care a whit about the colorful t-shirts and weird relationships if the show just focused on Sheldon’s ideas! Admittedly, each episode would be Sheldon wrangling his friends into the apartment and then 2o minutes of enthusiastic physics lecture, which might not go over so well with the intended audience. But real life tends not to be all that TV-worthy.

I am now going to break an unstated rule of this blog and talk about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

No, I don’t watch MLP. I have kids; my kids watch MLP. (But I admit that MLP is one of the kids’ shows that doesn’t make me want to light the TV on fire and defenestrate it.)

Anyway, if I were a pony, I’d be Maud Pie:

Picture 5

She likes rocks. (I like rocks.)

Unlike Sheldon, Maud was not written for the audience to connect with. Maud is the pony the other ponies cannot connect with; the one they cannot be friends with. (This is aside from her sister, Pinkie Pie, who loves her unconditionally because she’s family.) The point of Maud’s episode is that there are some people in this world who, though they are not bad or evil people, are simply interested in things you aren’t, and you don’t have any connection to them.

Maud is interested in rocks, rocks, and nothing but rocks. She writes poetry about rocks. She has a pet rock. Her special magic abilities have to do with rocks. Her cutie mark is probably a rock. She doesn’t really have interests outside of rocks.

The audience, like the main cast, is supposed to find Maud boring. You are supposed to connect with their total lack of anything in common with someone like Maud.

Of course, since I like rocks, I spent the episode going, “Why don’t they just learn to love rocks like Maud does? Why don’t they try connecting with her by finding out what she finds so fascinating about rocks?”

But the idea that one might try to connect with someone by being willing to discuss their passion did not occur to the show’s creators. This is why physics and ideas can never be the focus of TBBT–the viewers have no real interest in what makes Sheldon passionate about physics.

While researching this post, I happened into a conversation on whether or not Maud has Asperger’s. All but one of the folks in the thread who actually have Asperger’s agreed that Maud comes across as Aspie. All but one of the folks saying that Maud was not Aspie were neurotypicals.

Their arguments tended to go like this: “Maud is not Aspie. There is nothing wrong with her, and Aspies have something wrong with them because Asperger’s is a disorder. She is just very passionate about rocks.”

Yes, well, fuck you.

Let’s get something straight. We can call Maud “Aspie” without saying that there is anything “wrong” with her.

I don’t think the show’s creators intended to create an Aspie pony. I think they wanted to create a pony none of the other ponies could connect with because she was boring, uninterested in the other ponies, and only talked about one boring thing.

Which is basically the colloquial definition of “Aspie.”

Here I need to pause and clarify the difference between a formal diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s with the colloquial usage of “Aspie.”

Autism and Asperger’s were never all that well defined to begin with, with a tremendous overlap between there. Asperger’s is thought of as the less severe of the two diagnoses, but there are “low functioning aspies” who are much worse off than many “high functioning autistics.” My suspicion is that the distinction drawn between the two (language delay and IQ,) wasn’t really the correct distinction, and the whole business should have been determined via degree of impairment in the first place.

Which I suppose is what they are trying to do, now that they’ve formally removed Asperger’s from the DSM.

A formal diagnosis of autism means that there probably is, in fact, something “wrong” with you. As Slate Star Codex notes, formally diagnosed, institutionalized autistics do a lot of things that are definitely problematic, like try to chew off their hands.

I do not have a formal diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, or anything of the like.

According to the Wikipedia, “Asperger syndrome is characterized by impairment in social interaction accompanied by restricted and repetitive interests and behavior; it differs from the other ASDs by having no general delay in language or cognitive development.” Autism, “is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior.”

Unlike the stereotype of autistics as “idiot savants,” most of them are intellectually impaired across the board, cannot work, and will be dependent on others for their entire lives. Many of them cannot talk, put on their own clothes, use the toilet unassisted, or communicate their needs to others.

A recent study of people with actual, diagnosed Autism found a bunch of de novo mutations. These kids can’t talk because there is actually something genetically wrong with them:

By comparing affected to unaffected siblings, we show that 13% of de novo missense mutations and 43% of de novo likely gene-disrupting (LGD) mutations contribute to 12% and 9% of diagnoses, respectively. Including copy number variants, coding de novo mutations contribute to about 30% of all simplex and 45% of female diagnoses.

The colloquial definition of “Aspie” is someone who’s interested in stuff you’re not interested in and who has trouble interacting with normal people. This definition has nothing to do with functionality; it’s really just a matter of whether or not you “fit in” with dumbs. So, a teenage girl who talks endlessly about boys and makeup is considered “normal” by most people, but a teenage girl who talks passionately about quantum physics is “aspie” because other teenage girls don’t want to hear about quantum physics. A man who is obsessed with motorcycles is “normal” because only an idiot risks getting punched in the face, but a man who is passionate about trains is “aspie.”

“Aspie” is the new “faggot,” now that you’re not supposed to make fun of gay people. (Is it mere coincidence that the actor picked to play Sheldon is, in fact, flamingly gay?)

There’s a major problem here that anyone who is exceptionally intelligent is probably going to have ideas floating around in their head that normal people can’t understand and is going to learn far more about any subject they’re interested in than the average person. If I am trying to express the idea that different environments favor mitochondrial or viral memes, and you’re trying to express the idea that a popular actor is very attractive, we are not going to socialize terribly well together.

But I have no difficulty socializing with other people like myself.

A recent study of “autism-spectrum-quotient” traits found that men do, indeed, rate higher than women on autism surveys, and people in STEM professions score higher than folks in non-STEM professions, true to stereotypes:

We examine correlations between the AQ and age, sex, occupation, and UK geographic region in 450,394 individuals. We predicted that age and geography would not be correlated with AQ, whilst sex and occupation would have a correlation. Mean AQ for the total sample score was m = 19.83 (SD = 8.71), slightly higher than a previous systematic review of 6,900 individuals in a non-clinical sample (mean of means = 16.94) This likely reflects that this big-data sample includes individuals with autism who in the systematic review score much higher (mean of means = 35.19). As predicted, sex and occupation differences were observed: on average, males (m = 21.55, SD = 8.82) scored higher than females (m = 18.95; SD = 8.52), and individuals working in a STEM career (m = 21.92, SD = 8.92) scored higher than individuals non-STEM careers (m = 18.92, SD = 8.48). Also as predicted, age and geographic region were not meaningfully correlated with AQ.

Hold on a second and look at that last sentence again: age was not meaningfully correlated with AQ. The number of autism diagnoses has been skyrocketing over the past couple of days, accompanied by a great deal of debate on why. Here we have evidence–from nearly half a million people–that the overall “AQ” of the British population has not increased (or decreased) significantly over the years. Either the increase in “autism” diagnoses is entirely an artifact of some other process–like kids who would previously have been diagnosed as just “retarded” getting diagnosed as “autisitic”–or the distribution of “Aspie” traits in the general population has nothing to do with autistics.

At any rate, I see no reason to assume that people in STEM fields are retarded; their aspieness strikes me as far more of the colloquial, “normal people just aren’t into this,” variety. Whereby “normal” I mean “people who talk about their emotions all the damn time.”

Stupid emotions.

Now, I have no idea whether or not Sheldon is really autistic. At this point, I’m not even comfortable with the colloquial use of “Aspie.” And I’m not saying that nerds never act like the guys on TBBT. I’m just saying that this isn’t really “my people,” at least as I see them.

A show about people like me would have one programmer guy who starts out libertarian in season one and then starts reading Moldbug in season two. The main character would be a prominent rationalist blogger/physicist, whose ex-girlfriend is in a bi-poly open relationship with an SJW Asian bio-major, who gets in frequent fights with the programmer. Their room would be full of computers, disassembled computers, computer parts, and robots. (TBBT has one Jewish and one Indian character, which I would obviously retain.)

It’s getting late, so I’m going to continue this tomorrow.