Cultural evolution allows human society to evolve much faster than the speed of genetic evolution, which is constrained by the interval between generations. However, within any given society, the vast majority of people only experience a very limited sense of individual agency. Gene-culture co-evolution has led to a mix of capabilities in a group where:
- The beliefs and behaviours of the vast majority of people are shaped by cultural transmission from the people around them – the majority of people primarily learn by imitation.
- A minority of atypical people is much less influenced by cultural transmission – this minority learns by consciously observing the human and non-human environment, and then drawing inferences that form the basis of beliefs and behaviours.
Amongst the atypical people those who are capable of deriving pleasure from exerting power over others and are capable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as psychopaths, whereas those who are incapable of deriving pleasure from exerting power and are incapable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as autists.
In pre-civilised societies psychopaths tended to be subject to severe constraints via egalitarian cultural norms that penalised any attempts to gain power over others, whereas autists tended to be recognised as carriers of valuable knowledge and insights about the world (shamans, healers, teachers, artists, makers of specialised tools, etc.).
As part of the broader picture of neurodiversity, any cognitive difference that interferes with or weakens social learning (subconscious imitation) enhances creativity. Since autism is characterised by differences in social motivation and by weakened subconscious social learning, autistic people tend to be at the core of many deep innovations.
David Sloan Wilson observes that from an evolutionary perspective small groups are the organisms in human society. This has profound implications for the construction of healthy human scale societies.
The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution – it is a major step in the evolution of evolution, comparable to less than two handful of other major steps such as the emergence of the first cells, the emergence of multi-celled life forms, the emergence of sexual reproduction, etc.
Cultural evolution allows the behaviour of human societies to evolve much faster than the behaviour of other complex life forms, to the point that our collective knowledge and medical technologies allow us to engage in an evolutionary arms race with various strains of microbes that used to represent a serious threat to human health.
Whilst in some domains humans have been able to harness our capacity for culture for the benefit of all humans, in other domains our capacity for culture has been used to establish and operate highly oppressive and stratified societies.
“Civilised” societies are characterised by an absence of egalitarian cultural norms, and by the construction of primate dominance hierarchies and perpetuation of supporting myths of superiority that tend to dehumanise outsiders and non-conformists.
In “civilised” societies autistic people very easily become prime targets of exploitation, persecution and pathologisation. Once autistic people are sidelined, there is little to stop myths of superiority and progress from becoming the focus of cultural beliefs, resulting in ideologies that celebrate the growth of larger and larger primate dominance hierarchies – ultimately leading to super-human scale groups with cultures that are no longer understandable by any person nor by any group of people.
Historians refer to super-human scale groups as “states” and “empires”, usually without noticing that their own perspective and assessments of historic events is heavily shaped by the contemporary “civilised” ideology of their own culture.
It is akin to troops of chimpanzees and everything is mired in unwritten rules and social niceties specific to your place in the hierarchy. Shining excessively in terms of performance is often penalised because immediate superiors interpret it as a challenge to their dominance.
Hierarchical forms of organisation significantly limit and weaken the feedback loops within society, i.e. they induce a collective learning disability that reduces the ability of the organisation to adapt to rapid changes in its operating environment. This is not a problem during times of environmental stability but it can become a deadly threat during times of rapid environmental changes.
From within “civilisation” any critique of the unavoidable learning disability induced by hierarchical organisation is perceived as an act of dissent and as a potential threat to the “natural” order of society. In the past some empires managed to survive several hundred years, but ultimately collapse is unavoidable. The history of “civilisation” is the history of super-human scale groups (states and empires).
Anthropocentrism and ignorance of human scale are the social diseases of our civilisation. These diseases are obvious to most autistic people but they are only just beginning to be recognised by a growing number of people in wider society.
Over the last 200 years, starting with the deployment of the first electrical telegraphs, human societies have been incrementally equipped with global zero-marginal cost communication technologies, culminating in what we now refer to as the web. This development, made possible by people with creative autistic minds, has fundamentally altered the social power dynamics within human societies.
On the one hand modern industrialised empires, states, and corporations have unprecedented abilities to influence and manipulate large populations, and on the other hand, there is nothing that can stop autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people from connecting and collaborating across spatial and cultural boundaries.
Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games. Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.
Strategic disablement of autistic people
The social model of disability explains two of the most disabling aspects of autism. To a significant extent autistic experience can be described in terms of the downstream effects of:
- the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
- hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.
The inability to maintain hidden agendas:
- makes us prime targets for exploitation, and
- induces fear by our tendency to expose the hidden agendas of others.
Hypersensitivities – including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status:
- lead to the perception of just not trying hard enough or of being uncooperative,
- result in frequent sensory overload, autistic burn-out, depression, suicidal ideation.
These two “disabilities” are also our greatest strengths. We are uniquely positioned to create good company for neurodivergent people.
NeurodiVenture : an inclusive non-hierarchical organisation operated by neurodivergent people that provides a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.
Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative small groups, which strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between small groups. In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group. The tools of civilisation, including abstract currencies, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.
This tweet brought to you by people arguing that autism should be cured because some autistics will never be independent. All humans are hard-wired to be interdependent on each other. There is nothing shameful about needing someone else. You’ve been duped by capitalists.
The NeurodiVerse : minority cultures created by neurodiversity within the human species
- (a) the universe of NeurodiVentures
- (b) the set of all neurodivergent people
Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time. Autistic people are finally connecting and establishing a social habitat on this planet that limits our exposure to insane super-human scale societies.
Autistic people are disabled because even in environments with many autistic people, the majority is still non-autistic, and those in the latter group are the ones with an interest in social status and in wielding power.
In pockets of academia, the arts, and in technology between 10% and 20% of people can be autistic, but that does not mean that their voices are being heard. Most autistic professionals are closet autists who recognise that openly identifying as autistic would amount to career suicide.
Enablement of autistic people
Autistic people must take ownership of the label in the same way that other minorities describe their experience and define their identity. Pathologisation of autism is a social power game that removes agency from autistic people.
Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.
Our economy optimises for busyness and maximal energy use. Other results, whether positive or negative, are viewed as secondary or irrelevant. Organisations are continuously transforming themselves to keep people busy and to instil the fear needed to maintain hierarchical control. It is no coincidence that reorganisations are often cynically referred to as “rearranging the deck chairs”. The main objective is to be seen to be doing something “significant”, and then for the reorganisers to take “credit” for the “streamlined” organisation.
The chasm that manifests as the double empathy problem can be understood in terms of fundamental differences in social motivation.
Typical social motivations:
- Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs.
- Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of a particular human culture.
- Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations.
Autistic social motivations:
- Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs, in particular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs.
- Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding.
- Recognition – attribution of creative agency.
In “civilised” cultures the ability to fully understand the needs of someone whose social motivations are situated on the respective “other” side of the chasm is quite limited.
The main variable that we can work on to reduce the chasm is to collaborate in small teams that are powered by autistic culture. Non-autistic people in such teams will over time adapt to autistic culture, and they will re-discover what it means to retain individual agency in a team.
In contrast, autistic people are not “pliable” enough to adapt to a conformist non-autistic culture. We are incapable of continuous masking over extended periods of time, we quickly burn-out, and then must retreat from an environment that is toxic for our mental and physical health.
Autistic culture is minimalistic, able to accommodate profound differences in individual cognitive lenses, and it is the source of deep innovation.
Mental health statistics tell us that mainstream culture has diverged too far from autistic culture. In many organisations bullying has reached toxic levels. Trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community. Large parts of society are already paralysed by irrational fear of change, i.e. “the system is bad but at least it’s familiar”.
Techniques for creating shared understanding
To move forward we need a system of language tools and interaction patterns that allow the people within small groups to increase their level of shared understanding as outlined the section “Tools for creating learning organisations” in this article.
The challenge for autists is that “civilised” non-autistic people are not necessarily motivated to understand the autistic perspective. From their perspective there is very little to gain from understanding us. Nothing that they can learn from us will make them more popular with their peers. If however we provide tools that assists an entire group in reducing the level of misunderstandings within the group, we suddenly have something of value to offer.
Autistic people can play the role of a catalyst, we assist, but we are not part of the social game. It usually takes explicit questions to confirm the level of shared understanding with respect to a particular topic within a given group. That’s where an autistic person in a catalyst role, ideally someone who is not a major stakeholder in the discussion, and with a mandate to interrupt and ask questions as needed, is extremely valuable.
When an autistic person is a major stakeholder in a group discussion and attempts to ask clarifying questions, the autistic person will usually be shot down – perceived as being difficult or trying to obtain an advantage. In groups of non-autistic people often there is very little genuine discussion and a lot of “talking past each other”. People don’t tend to notice miscommunication as long as their non-verbal cues provide them with the illusion of shared understanding within the group. Social perception is everything in non-autistic cultures.
Why autistic people continue to suffer
So I’m studying neuroscience at a prestigious UK University and many of the papers we read are very offensive, backward, and just plain wrong with regard to neurodiverse populations (autistics included). Indeed my own tutor refers to us (autistics) as “diseased patients”.
The notion of “understanding autistic people” amongst autism “professionals” is anaemic to say the least. The level of ignorance is often toxic and endangering the mental health and lives of vulnerable autistic people. The level of over-confidence of “professionals” in their ability to assess autistic people and their situations is staggering. Not to mention the complete lack of understanding of autistic culture and autistic community.
Autistic minds come with a high performance engine and an accelerator (autistic agency) but inadequate brakes (self care). We need trusted peers who help us decelerate and take the corners on our journeys without crashing.
The last thing an autistic person needs is is advice along the lines of “you will succeed if you try harder” when there is a fundamental mismatch of social motivations and notions of “success”.
Autistic people continuously work at the edge of their performance limit, which is often much higher than what non-autistic people are capable of sustaining, whilst not making a fuss about it. This invites exploitation …
Torture of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate busyness opportunity and money making machine, to the extent that they’re even fighting over who gets to exploit us. I am lost for words.
In an unsafe environment we operate under burn-out conditions, resulting in mental and physical health problems. Additionally, autistic ways of developing trust and making friends differ from the norm. This creates significant challenges for autistic individuals without a strong support network.