The Virus Thread

As of last Friday, I received my third and last Gardasil shot which covers types 6, 11, 16 & 18. Other than a slight fever, I didn’t have anything Resident Evil-like happen like growing spikes or gaining superhuman strength. :stuck_out_tongue:

So in continuation of the virus/vaccine discussion from the Vote! thread that derailed and crashed horribly, here is the orphaned lovechild of that thread. Have at it.

Anyone mentioning RELIGION, politics or the three-letter “W” word will be subjected to unpleasant things. >:|


First, this is an absurd application of evolutionary theory. Genetic degrading due to lack of selective pressure doesn’t occur significantly over one generation. Our sexual potency hasn’t decreased by 30% since our parents’ generation because our genetics are warped. That would require a ridiculous rate of mutation, which simply isn’t there.

Most genetic abnormalities are from a conflux of unusual traits from both parents, which happen to interact in some problematic way. This means, assuming no incest, they probably won’t pass on. The other mate will have the “usual” trait, and therefore the “conflux of unusual traits” won’t happen next generation. According to this scheme, there’s no reason to think we’re worse off than our parents genetically, unless there’s more incest (leading to more doubling up on bad traits). And even if there were, we could totally fix it in one generation by not being incestuous.

It can happen(drastic genetic changes over one generation), and does happen frequently in the wild. Mutation is not the main cause of genetic change in a species. Environmental changes are. If a species’ environment changes very fast, a species will change just as fast.

For instance, there is the famous example of moths living in London. Before the Industrial Revolution, most moths were white with black color being a recessive gene. Then the factories polluted London. All of sudden, white moths stood out like sore thumbs and were gobbled up really quickly by predators. Black moths, within a decade or two(not sure on the time frame here quite frankly), took over the species.

What does this have to do with humanity? Our environment has changed drastically in a few decades. The invention of computers and other technology could account for the profound differences between us and our parents. Skills which wouldn’t have been attractive 50 years ago, are now attractive, due to new technology. Semi-autistic math geniuses who may have been living on the fringes a few decades ago, are now millionaires with plenty of opportunities to reproduce. Which may account for the rise of autism.

For instance, there is a higher-than-average incidence of autism in Silicon Valley. For years, people thought it was because of a certain vaccine used there. Could it maybe, just maybe, have to do with the fact that there is a high incidence of computer nerds there reproducing with each other?

Men may indeed be becoming less potent. Its been proven testosterone levels are decreasting. You say its because of unconsious reactions to environment. That may be possible. It does happen in some animals - there have been experiments with fish and such where the fish grew larger than average if they were raised with attractive females, or something like that. But, it may also be because of selective pressure, as Cless says. Technology has changed the social structure of environment, which has changed our species. Testosterone is not nearly as important to finding a mate now as it was even just 50 years ago. In our society, the men with the most testosterone are generally kept locked up. These same men would probably be the most successful reproducers in a ‘natural’ environment.

Anyway, frankly I haven’t had time to read through everyone’s responses, so if I’m beating a dead horse, or have failed to respond to the salient points, be gentle :stuck_out_tongue:

Man, you’re making so many wild assumptions in that last post I don’t even know where to start replying. I’ve already addressed the reproduction issue. Bring me data or don’t bring it up. And vaccines are not related to autism.

I would also state that while you can get a drastic change in 1 allele over a few generation (the moths - which I agree with), you’re selecting for 1 simple trait. Everything else you brought up is way more complex.


First, the Silicon Valley-autism link…

The Geek Syndrome

Autism - and its milder cousin Asperger’s syndrome - is surging among the children of Silicon Valley. Are math-and-tech genes to blame?

By Steve Silberman

Nick is building a universe on his computer. He’s already mapped out his first planet: an anvil-shaped world called Denthaim that is home to gnomes and gods, along with a three-gendered race known as kiman. As he tells me about his universe, Nick looks up at the ceiling, humming fragments of a melody over and over. “I’m thinking of making magic a form of quantum physics, but I haven’t decided yet, actually,” he explains. The music of his speech is pitched high, alternately poetic and pedantic - as if the soul of an Oxford don has been awkwardly reincarnated in the body of a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy from Silicon Valley. Nick is 11 years old.

Nick’s father is a software engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer. They’ve known that Nick was an unusual child for a long time. He’s infatuated with fantasy novels, but he has a hard time reading people. Clearly bright and imaginative, he has no friends his own age. His inability to pick up on hidden agendas makes him easy prey to certain cruelties, as when some kids paid him a few dollars to wear a ridiculous outfit to school.

One therapist suggested that Nick was suffering from an anxiety disorder. Another said he had a speech impediment. Then his mother read a book called Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. In it, psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor skills, seem unable to decode body language and sense the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, and frequently launch into monologues about narrowly defined - and often highly technical - interests. Even when very young, these children become obsessed with order, arranging their toys in a regimented fashion on the floor and flying into tantrums when their routines are disturbed. As teenagers, they’re prone to getting into trouble with teachers and other figures of authority, partly because the subtle cues that define societal hierarchies are invisible to them.

“I thought, ‘That’s Nick,’” his mother recalls.

Asperger’s syndrome is one of the disorders on the autistic spectrum - a milder form of the condition that afflicted Raymond Babbitt, the character played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. In the taxonomy of autism, those with Asperger’s syndrome have average - or even very high - IQs, while 70 percent of those with other autistic disorders suffer from mild to severe mental retardation. One of the estimated 450,000 people in the US living with autism, Nick is more fortunate than most. He can read, write, and speak. He’ll be able to live and work on his own. Once he gets out of junior high hell, it’s not hard to imagine Nick creating a niche for himself in all his exuberant strangeness. At the less fortunate end of the spectrum are what diagnosticians call “profoundly affected” children. If not forcibly engaged, these children spend their waking hours in trancelike states, staring at lights, rocking, making high-pitched squeaks, and flapping their hands, repetitively stimulating (“stimming”) their miswired nervous systems.

In one of the uncanny synchronicities of science, autism was first recognized on two continents nearly simultaneously. In 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner published a monograph outlining a curious set of behaviors he noticed in 11 children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A year later, a pediatrician in Vienna named Hans Asperger, who had never seen Kanner’s work, published a paper describing four children who shared many of the same traits. Both Kanner and Asperger gave the condition the same name: autism - from the Greek word for self, autòs - because the children in their care seemed to withdraw into iron-walled universes of their own.

Kanner went on to launch the field of child psychiatry in the US, while Asperger’s clinic was destroyed by a shower of Allied bombs. Over the next 40 years, Kanner became widely known as the author of the canonical textbook in his field, in which he classified autism as a subset of childhood schizophrenia. Asperger was virtually ignored outside of Europe and died in 1980. The term Asperger syndrome wasn’t coined until a year later, by UK psychologist Lorna Wing, and Asperger’s original paper wasn’t even translated into English until 1991. Wing built upon Asperger’s intuition that even certain gifted children might also be autistic. She described the disorder as a continuum that “ranges from the most profoundly physically and mentally retarded person … to the most able, highly intelligent person with social impairment in its subtlest form as his only disability. It overlaps with learning disabilities and shades into eccentric normality.”

Asperger’s notion of a continuum that embraces both smart, geeky kids like Nick and those with so-called classic or profound autism has been accepted by the medical establishment only in the last decade. Like most distinctions in the world of childhood developmental disorders, the line between classic autism and Asperger’s syndrome is hazy, shifting with the state of diagnostic opinion. Autism was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, but Asperger’s syndrome wasn’t included as a separate disorder until the fourth edition in 1994. The taxonomy is further complicated by the fact that few if any people who have Asperger’s syndrome will exhibit all of the behaviors listed in the DSM-IV. (The syn in syndrome derives from the same root as the syn in synchronicity - the word means that certain symptoms tend to cluster together, but all need not be present to make the diagnosis.) Though Asperger’s syndrome is less disabling than “low-functioning” forms of autism, kids who have it suffer difficulties in the same areas as classically autistic children do: social interactions, motor skills, sensory processing, and a tendency toward repetitive behavior.

In the last 20 years, significant advances have been made in developing methods of behavioral training that help autistic children find ways to communicate. These techniques, however, require prodigious amounts of persistence, time, money, and love. Though more than half a century has passed since Kanner and Asperger first gave a name to autism, there is still no known cause, no miracle drug, and no cure.

And now, something dark and unsettling is happening in Silicon Valley.

In the past decade, there has been a significant surge in the number of kids diagnosed with autism throughout California. In August 1993, there were 4,911 cases of so-called level-one autism logged in the state’s Department of Developmental Services client-management system. This figure doesn’t include kids with Asperger’s syndrome, like Nick, but only those who have received a diagnosis of classic autism. In the mid-'90s, this caseload started spiraling up. In 1999, the number of clients was more than double what it had been six years earlier. Then the curve started spiking. By July 2001, there were 15,441 clients in the DDS database. Now there are more than seven new cases of level-one autism - 85 percent of them children - entering the system every day.

Through the '90s, cases tripled in California. “Anyone who says this is due to better diagnostics has his head in the sand.”

California is not alone. Rates of both classic autism and Asperger’s syndrome are going up all over the world, which is certainly cause for alarm and for the urgent mobilization of research. Autism was once considered a very rare disorder, occurring in one out of every 10,000 births. Now it’s understood to be much more common - perhaps 20 times more. But according to local authorities, the picture in California is particularly bleak in Santa Clara County. Here in Silicon Valley, family support services provided by the DDS are brokered by the San Andreas Regional Center, one of 21 such centers in the state. SARC dispenses desperately needed resources (such as in-home behavioral training, educational aides, and respite care) to families in four counties. While the autistic caseload is rising in all four, the percentage of cases of classic autism among the total client population in Santa Clara County is higher enough to be worrisome, says SARC’s director, Santi Rogers.

“There’s a significant difference, and no signs that it’s abating,” says Rogers. “We’ve been watching these numbers for years. We feared that something like this was coming. But this is a burst that has staggered us in our steps.”

It’s not easy to arrive at a clear picture of whether there actually is a startling rise in the incidence of autism in California, as opposed to just an increase in diagnoses. One problem, says Linda Lotspeich, director of the Stanford Pervasive Developmental Disorders Clinic, is that “the rules in the DSM-IV don’t work.” The diagnostic criteria are subjective, like “Marked impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction.”

“How much ‘eye-to-eye gaze’ do you have to have to be normal?” asks Lotspeich. “How do you define what ‘marked’ is? In shades of gray, when does black become white?”

Some children will receive a diagnosis of classic autism, and another diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, from two different clinicians. Tony Attwood’s advice to parents is strictly practical: “Use the diagnosis that provides the services.”

While diagnostic fuzziness may be contributing to a pervasive sense that autism is on the rise, Ron Huff, the consulting psychologist for the DDS who uncovered the statistical trend, does not believe that all we’re seeing now is an increase in children who would have previously been tagged with some other disability, such as mental retardation - or overlooked as perfectly healthy, if quirky, kids.

“While we certainly need to do more research,” says Huff, “I don’t think the change in diagnostic criteria will account for all of this rise by any means.”

The department is making its data available to the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis, to tease out what’s behind the numbers. The results of that research will be published next year. But the effects of a surging influx are already rippling through the local schools. Carol Zepecki, director of student services and special education for the Palo Alto Unified School District, is disturbed by what she’s seeing. “To be honest with you, as I look back on the special-ed students I’ve worked with for 20 years, it’s clear to me that these kids would not have been placed in another category. The numbers are definitely higher.” Elizabeth Rochin, a special-ed teacher at Cupertino High, says local educators are scrambling to create new resources. “We know it’s happening, because they’re coming through our schools. Our director saw the iceberg approaching and said, ‘We’ve got to build something for them.’”

The people scrambling hardest are parents. In-home therapy alone can cost $60,000 or more a year, and requires so much dedication that parents (particularly mothers) are often forced to quit their jobs and make managing a team of specialists their new 80-hour-a-week career. Before their children become eligible for state funding, parents must obtain a diagnosis from a qualified clinician, which requires hours of testing and observation. Local facilities, such as the Stanford Pervasive Development Disorders Clinic and its counterpart at UC San Francisco, are swamped. The Stanford clinic is able to perform only two or three diagnoses a week. It currently has a two- to six-month waiting list.

For Rick Rollens, former secretary of the California Senate and cofounder of the MIND Institute, the notion that there is a frightening increase in autism worldwide is no longer in question. “Anyone who says this epidemic is due to better diagnostics,” he says, “has his head in the sand.”

Autism’s insidious style of onset is particularly cruel to parents, because for the first two years of life, nothing seems to be wrong. Their child is engaged with the world, progressing normally, taking first steps into language. Then, suddenly, some unknown cascade of neurological events washes it all away.

One father of an autistic child, Jonathan Shestack, describes what happened to his son, Dov, as “watching our sweet, beautiful boy disappear in front of our eyes.” At two, Dov’s first words - Mom, Dad, flower, park - abruptly retreated into silence. Over the next six months, Dov ceased to recognize his own name and the faces of his parents. It took Dov a year of intensive behavioral therapy to learn how to point. At age 9, after the most effective interventions available (such as the step-by-step behavioral training methods developed by Ivar Lovaas at UCLA), Dov can speak 20 words.

Even children who make significant progress require levels of day-to-day attention from their families that can best be described as heroic. Marnin Kligfeld is the founder of a software mergers-and-acquisitions firm. His wife, Margo Estrin, a doctor of internal medicine, is the daughter of Gerald Estrin, who was a mentor to many of the original architects of the Internet (see “Meet the Bellbusters,” Wired 9.11, page 164). When their daughter, Leah, was 3, a pediatrician at Oakland Children’s Hospital looked at her on the examining table and declared, “There is very little difference between your daughter and an animal. We have no idea what she will be able to do in the future.” After eight years of interventions - behavioral training, occupational therapy, speech therapy - Leah is a happy, upbeat 11-year-old who downloads her favorite songs by the hundreds. And she is still deeply autistic.

Leah’s first visit to the dentist required weeks of preparation, because autistic people are made deeply anxious by any change in routine. “We took pictures of the dentist’s office and the staff, and drove Leah past the office several times,” Kligfeld recalls. “Our dentist scheduled us for the end of the day, when there were no other patients, and set goals with us. The goal of the first session was to have Leah sit in the chair. The second session was so Leah could rehearse the steps involved in treatment without actually doing them. The dentist gave all of his equipment special names for her. Throughout this process, we used a large mirror so Leah could see exactly what was being done, to ensure that there were no surprises.”

Daily ordeals like this, common in the autistic community, underline the folly of the hypothesis that prevailed among psychologists 20 years ago, who were convinced that autism was caused by a lack of parental affection. The influential psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim aggressively promoted a theory that has come to be known as the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis. He declared in his best-selling book, The Empty Fortress, “The precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that his child should not exist. … To this the child responds with massive withdrawal.” He prescribed “parentectomy” - removal of the child from the parents - and years of family therapy. His hypothesis added the burden of guilt to the grief of having an autistic child, and made autism a source of shame and secrecy, which hampered efforts to obtain clinical data. The hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. Richard Pollak’s The Creation of Dr. B exposed Bettelheim as a brilliant liar who concocted case histories and exaggerated both his experience with autistic children and the success of his treatments.

One thing nearly everyone in the field agrees on: genetic predisposition. Identical twins share the disorder 9 times out of 10.

But the debates about the causes of autism are certainly not over. Controversies rage about whether environmental factors - such as mercury and other chemicals in universally administered vaccines, industrial pollutants in air and water, and even certain foods - act as catalysts that trigger the disorder. Bernard Rimland, the first psychologist to oppose Bettelheim and promote the idea that autism was organic in origin, has become a leading advocate for intensified investigation in this area. The father of an autistic son, Rimland has been instrumental in marshaling medical expertise and family data to create better assessment protocols.

The one thing that almost all researchers in the field agree on is that genetic predisposition plays a crucial role in laying the neurological foundations of autism in most cases. Studies have shown that if one identical twin is autistic, there’s a 90 percent chance that the other twin will also have the disorder. If parents have had one autistic child, the risk of their second child being autistic rises from 1 in 500 to 1 in 20. After two children with the disorder, the sobering odds are 1 in 3. (So many parents refrain from having more offspring after one autistic child, geneticists even have a term for it: stoppage.) The chances that the siblings of an autistic child will display one or more of the other developmental disorders with a known genetic basis - such as dyslexia or Tourette’s syndrome - are also significantly higher than normal.

The bad news from Santa Clara County raises an inescapable question. Unless the genetic hypothesis is proven false, which is unlikely, regions with a higher than normal distribution of people on the autistic spectrum are something no researcher could ask for: living laboratories for the study of genetic expression. When the rain that fell on the Rain Man falls harder on certain communities than others, what becomes of the children?

The answer may be raining all over Silicon Valley. And one of the best hopes of finding a cure may be locked in the DNA sequences that produced the minds that have made this area the technological powerhouse of the world.

It’s a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics - coming to work early, leaving late, sucking down Big Gulps in their cubicles while they code for hours - are residing somewhere in Asperger’s domain. Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger’s syndrome “the engineers’ disorder.” Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov’s father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers “could be diagnosed with ODD - they’re odd.” In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, “I think all tech people are slightly autistic.”

Though no one has tried to convince the Valley’s best and brightest to sign up for batteries of tests, the culture of the area has subtly evolved to meet the social needs of adults in high-functioning regions of the spectrum. In the geek warrens of engineering and R&D, social graces are beside the point. You can be as off-the-wall as you want to be, but if your code is bulletproof, no one’s going to point out that you’ve been wearing the same shirt for two weeks. Autistic people have a hard time multitasking - particularly when one of the channels is face-to-face communication. Replacing the hubbub of the traditional office with a screen and an email address inserts a controllable interface between a programmer and the chaos of everyday life. Flattened workplace hierarchies are more comfortable for those who find it hard to read social cues. A WYSIWYG world, where respect and rewards are based strictly on merit, is an Asperger’s dream.

Obviously, this kind of accommodation is not unique to the Valley. The halls of academe have long been a forgiving environment for absentminded professors. Temple Grandin - the inspiring and accomplished autistic woman profiled in Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars - calls NASA the largest sheltered workshop in the world.

A recurring theme in case histories of autism, going all the way back to Kanner’s and Asperger’s original monographs, is an attraction to highly organized systems and complex machines. There’s even a perennial cast of hackers: early adopters with a subversive streak. In 1944, Asperger wrote of a boy “chemist [who] uses all his money for experiments which often horrify his family and even steals to fund them.” Another boy proved a mathematical error in Isaac Newton’s calculations while he was still a freshman in college. A third escaped neighborhood bullies by taking lessons from an old watchmaker. And a fourth, wrote Asperger, “came to be preoccupied with fantastic inventions, such as spaceships and the like.” Here he added, “one observes how remote from reality autistic interests really are” - a comment he qualified years later, when spaceships were no longer remote or fantastic, by joking that the inventors of spaceships might themselves be autistic.

Clumsy and easily overwhelmed in the physical world, autistic minds soar in the virtual realms of mathematics, symbols, and code. Asperger compared the children in his clinic to calculating machines: “intelligent automata” - a metaphor employed by many autistic people themselves to describe their own rule-based, image-driven thought processes. In her autobiography, Thinking in Pictures, Grandin compares her mind to a VCR. When she hears the word dog, she mentally replays what she calls “videotapes” of various dogs that she’s seen, to arrive at something close to the average person’s abstract notion of the category that includes all dogs. This visual concreteness has been a boon to her work as a designer of more humane machinery for handling livestock. Grandin sees the machines in her head and sets them running, debugging as she goes. When the design in her mind does everything it’s supposed to, she draws a blueprint of what she sees.

“In another age, these men would have been monks, developing new ink for printing presses. Suddenly, they’re reproducing at a much higher rate.”

These days, the autistic fascinations with technology, ordered systems, visual modes of thinking, and subversive creativity have plenty of outlets. There’s even a cheeky Asperger’s term for the rest of us - NTs, “neurotypicals.” Many children on the spectrum become obsessed with VCRs, Pokémon, and computer games, working the joysticks until blisters appear on their fingers. (In the diagnostic lexicon, this kind of relentless behavior is called “perseveration.”) Even when playing alongside someone their own age, however, autistic kids tend to play separately. Echoing Asperger, the director of the clinic in San Jose where I met Nick, Michelle Garcia Winner, suggests that “Pokémon must have been invented by a team of Japanese engineers with Asperger.” Attwood writes that computers “are an ideal interest for a person with Asperger’s syndrome … they are logical, consistent, and not prone to moods.”

This affinity for computers gives teachers and parents leverage they can use to build on the natural strengths of autistic children. Many teenagers who lack the motor skills to write by hand find it easier to use a keyboard. At Orion Academy, every student is required to buy an iBook fitted with an AirPort card. Class notes are written on electronic whiteboards that port the instructional materials to the school server for retrieval. (At lunch, the iBooks are shut off, and if the kids want to play a two-person game, they’re directed to a chess board.) The next generation of assistive technology is being designed by Neil Scott’s Archimedes Project at Stanford. Scott’s team is currently developing the equivalent of a PDA for autistic kids, able to parse subtle movements of an eyebrow or fingertip into streams of text, voice, or images. The devices will incorporate video cameras, head and eye tracking, intelligent agents, and speech recognition to suit the needs of the individual child.

The Valley is a self-selecting community where passionately bright people migrate from all over the world to make smart machines work smarter. The nuts-and-bolts practicality of hard labor among the bits appeals to the predilections of the high-functioning autistic mind. The hidden cost of building enclaves like this, however, may be lurking in the findings of nearly every major genetic study of autism in the last 10 years. Over and over again, researchers have concluded that the DNA scripts for autism are probably passed down not only by relatives who are classically autistic, but by those who display only a few typically autistic behaviors. (Geneticists call those who don’t fit into the diagnostic pigeonholes “broad autistic phenotypes.”)

The chilling possibility is that what’s happening now is the first proof that the genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults - the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future - are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation. For parents employed in prominent IT firms here, the news of increased diagnoses of autism in their ranks is a confirmation of rumors that have quietly circulated for months. Every day, more and more of their coworkers are running into one another in the waiting rooms of local clinics, taking the first uncertain steps on a journey with their children that lasts for the rest of their lives.

In previous eras, even those who recognized early that autism might have a genetic underpinning considered it a disorder that only moved diagonally down branches of a family tree. Direct inheritance was almost out of the question, because autistic people rarely had children. The profoundly affected spent their lives in institutions, and those with Asperger’s syndrome tended to be loners. They were the strange uncle who droned on in a tuneless voice, tending his private logs of baseball statistics or military arcana; the cousin who never married, celibate by choice, fussy about the arrangement of her things, who spoke in a lexicon mined reading dictionaries cover to cover.

The old line “insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids” has a twist in the autistic world. It has become commonplace for parents to diagnose themselves as having Asperger’s syndrome, or to pinpoint other relatives living on the spectrum, only after their own children have been diagnosed.

High tech hot spots like the Valley, and Route 128 outside of Boston, are a curious oxymoron: They’re fraternal associations of loners. In these places, if you’re a geek living in the high-functioning regions of the spectrum, your chances of meeting someone who shares your perseverating obsession (think Linux or Star Trek) are greatly expanded. As more women enter the IT workplace, guys who might never have had a prayer of finding a kindred spirit suddenly discover that she’s hacking Perl scripts in the next cubicle.

One provocative hypothesis that might account for the rise of spectrum disorders in technically adept communities like Silicon Valley, some geneticists speculate, is an increase in assortative mating. Superficially, assortative mating is the blond gentleman who prefers blondes; the hyperverbal intellectual who meets her soul mate in the therapist’s waiting room. There are additional pressures and incentives for autistic people to find companionship - if they wish to do so - with someone who is also on the spectrum. Grandin writes, “Marriages work out best when two people with autism marry or when a person marries a handicapped or eccentric spouse… They are attracted because their intellects work on a similar wavelength.”

That’s not to say that geeks, even autistic ones, are attracted only to other geeks. Compensatory unions of opposites also thrive along the continuum, and in the last 10 years, geekitude has become sexy and associated with financial success. The lone-wolf programmer may be the research director of a major company, managing the back end of an IT empire at a comfortable remove from the actual clients. Says Bryna Siegel, author of The World of the Autistic Child and director of the PDD clinic at UCSF, “In another historical time, these men would have become monks, developing new ink for early printing presses. Suddenly they’re making $150,000 a year with stock options. They’re reproducing at a much higher rate.”

Genetic hypotheses like these don’t rule out environmental factors playing a role in the rising numbers. Autism is almost certainly not caused by the action of a single gene, but by some orchestration of multiple genes that may make the developing child more susceptible to a trigger in the environment. One consequence of increased reproduction among people carrying some of these genes might be to boost “genetic loading” in successive generations - leaving them more vulnerable to threats posed by toxins in vaccines, candida, or any number of agents lurking in the industrialized world.

At clinics and schools in the Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either. Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother told me that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son’s needs. “They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids,” she recalls. “It was recommended I move to that part of town.”

For Dov’s parents, Jonathan Shestack and Portia Iversen, Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth with enough critical mass of supercomputing resources, bio-informatics expertise, genomics savvy, pharmaceutical muscle, and VC dollars to boost autism research to the next phase. For six years, the organization they founded, Cure Autism Now, has led a focused assault on the iron-walled fortress of the medical establishment, including the creation of its own bank of DNA samples, available to any scientist in the field on a Web site called the Autism Genetic Resources Exchange (see “The Citizen Scientists,” Wired 9.09, page 144).

At least a third of CAN’s funding comes from donors in the Valley. Now Shestack and Iversen want to deliver the ultimate return on that investment: better treatments, smarter assistive technology - and, eventually, a cure.

“We have the human data,” says Shestack. “Now we need the brute-force processing power. We need high-density SNP mapping and microarray analysis so we can design pharmaceutical interventions. We need Big Pharma to wake up to the fact that while 450,000 people in America may not be as large a market as for cholesterol drugs, we’re talking about a demand for new products that will be needed from age 2 to age 70. We need new technology that measures modes of perception, and tools for neural retraining. And we need a Web site where families with a newly diagnosed kid can plug into a network of therapists in their town who have been rated by buyers - just like eBay.”

The ultimate hack for a team of Valley programmers may turn out to be cracking the genetic code that makes them so good at what they do. Taking on that challenge will require extensive use of technology invented by two people who think in pictures: Bill Dreyer, who invented the first protein sequencer, and Carver Mead, the father of very large scale integrated circuits. As Dreyer explains, “I think in three-dimensional Technicolor.” Neither Mead nor Dreyer is autistic, but there is a word for the way they think - dyslexic. Like autism, dyslexia seems to move down genetic pathways. Dreyer has three daughters who think in Technicolor.

One of the things that Dan Geschwind, director of the neurogenetics lab at UCLA, finds fascinating about dyslexia and autism is what they suggest about human intelligence: that certain kinds of excellence might require not just various modes of thinking, but different kinds of brains.

“Autism gets to fundamental issues of how we view talents and disabilities,” he says. “The flip side of dyslexia is enhanced abilities in math and architecture. There may be an aspect of this going on with autism and assortative mating in places like Silicon Valley. In the parents, who carry a few of the genes, they’re a good thing. In the kids, who carry too many, it’s very bad.”

Issues like this were at the crux of arguments that Bryna Siegel had with Bruno Bettelheim in a Stanford graduate seminar in the early '80s, published in Bettelheim’s The Art of the Obvious. (Siegel’s name was changed to Dan Berenson.) The text makes poignant reading, as two paradigms of scientific humanism clash in the night. Siegel told “Dr. B” that she wanted to do a large study of children with various developmental disorders to search for a shared biochemical defect. Bettelheim shot back that if such a marker were to be uncovered it would dehumanize autistic children, by making them essentially different from ourselves.

Still an iconoclast, Siegel questions whether a “cure” for autism could ever be found. “The genetics of autism may turn out to be no simpler to unravel than the genetics of personality. I think what we’ll end up with is something more like, ‘Mrs. Smith, here are the results of your amnio. There’s a 1 in 10 chance that you’ll have an autistic child, or the next Bill Gates. Would you like to have an abortion?’”

For UCSF neurologist Kirk Wilhelmsen - who describes himself and his son as being “somewhere on that grand spectrum” - such statements cut to the heart of the most difficult issue that autism raises for society. It may be that autistic people are essentially different from “normal” people, he says, and that it is precisely those differences that make them invaluable to the ongoing evolution of the human race.

“If we could eliminate the genes for things like autism, I think it would be disastrous,” says Wilhelmsen. “The healthiest state for a gene pool is maximum diversity of things that might be good.”

One of the first people to intuit the significance of this was Asperger himself - weaving his continuum like a protective blanket over the young patients in his clinic as the Nazis shipped so-called mental defectives to the camps. “It seems that for success in science and art,” he wrote, “a dash of autism is essential.”

For all we know, the first tools on earth might have been developed by a loner sitting at the back of the cave, chipping at thousands of rocks to find the one that made the sharpest spear, while the neurotypicals chattered away in the firelight. Perhaps certain arcane systems of logic, mathematics, music, and stories - particularly remote and fantastic ones - have been passed down from phenotype to phenotype, in parallel with the DNA that helped shape minds which would know exactly what to do with these strange and elegant creations.

Hanging on the wall of Bryna Siegel’s clinic in San Francisco is a painting of a Victorian house at night, by Jessy Park, an autistic woman whose mother, Clara Claiborne Park, wrote one of the first accounts of raising a child with autism, The Siege. Now 40, Jessy still lives at home. In her recent book, Exiting Nirvana, Clara writes of having come to a profound sense of peace with all the ways that Jessy is.

Jessy sent Siegel a letter with her painting, in flowing handwriting and words that are - there is no other way to say it - marvelously autistic. “The lunar eclipse with 92% cover is below Cassiopeia. In the upper right-hand corner is Aurora Borealis. There are three sets of six-color pastel rainbow on the shingles, seven-color bright rainbow on the clapboards next to the drain pipe, six-color paler pastel rainbow around the circular window, six-color darker pastel rainbow on the rosette …”

But the words aren’t the thing. Jessy’s painting is the thing. Our world, but not our world. A house under the night sky shining in all the colors of the spectrum.

Okay, the thing about testostorone being antithetical to modern society…

Men, in general, are much more aggressive than women – a fact that has led researchers to investigate possible links between levels of male hormones (particularly testosterone) and aggressive or criminal behavior.

James Dabbs, Jr., studied 4,462 men in 1990 and found that “the overall picture among the high-testosterone men is one of delinquency, substance abuse and a tendency toward excess.” These men, he added, “have more trouble with people like teachers while they are growing up, have more sexual partners, are more likely to have gone AWOL in the service and to have used hard drugs,” particularly if they had poor educations and low incomes. A separate study by Dabbs of young male prison inmates found that high testosterone levels were associated with more violent crimes, parole board decisions against release, and more prison rule violations. Even in women, Dabbs found, high testosterone levels were related to crimes of unprovoked violence, increased numbers of prior charges, and decisions against parole.

The latest study by Dabbs et al., which pooled data from two groups of prisoners, measured testosterone levels in the saliva of 692 adult male prisoners. The researchers found that inmates who committed crimes of sex and violence had higher testosterone levels than inmates who were incarcerated for property crimes or drug abuse. In addition, they say, “inmates with higher testosterone levels… violated more rules in prison, especially rules involving overt confrontation.”

Dabbs et al. say that “the variety of rule violations suggests the behavior of high testosterone individuals reflects intractability, unmanageability, and lack of docility as well as aggression and violence.”

“Testosterone, crime, and misbehavior among 692 male prison inmates,” James M. Dabbs, Jr., et al., Person. individ. Diff., Vol. 18, No. 5, 1995. Address: James M. Dabbs, Jr., Dept. of Psychology, Georgia State University, University Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30303- 3083.

faulty article, wait a sec

In one of the largest study of its kind, Travison et al. report a population-wide decline in Massachusetts’s men’s testosterone levels during the last 20 years that is not related to normal aging or to health and lifestyle factors known to influence testosterone levels.

They found that testosterone concentrations dropped about 1.2% per year, or about 17% overall, from 1987 to 2004. The downward trend was seen in both the population and in individuals over time.

The decline is consistent with other long-term trends in male reproductive health, including decreases in sperm quality and increases in testicular cancer, hypospadias and cryptorchidism.

The strongest association was observed in same-aged men from different sampling years. For example, a 65-year-old in 2002 had lower testosterone levels than a 65-year-old in 1987.

Lower concentrations of testosterone can increase a man’s risk for age-related diseases, depression and infertility.

Also, the younger and older men in the study experienced similar hormone declines that dropped faster than would be predicted by normal aging.

Context: In men, the hormone testosterone guides behavior and reproduction. It controls growth and development of sex organs and other typically male characteristics, such as facial hair and a deep voice.

Normally, levels fluctuate from conception through puberty then level out during adulthood before declining as men age. Some chronic health problems typically seen in older adults, such as diabetes, depression and obesity, are associated with lower testosterone levels.

Recent studies have that found environmental impacts on testosterone levels. For example, testosterone levels were lower in US Air Force veterans exposed to dioxins while spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, as well as in men exposed to phthalates at work.

What did they do?

Travison et al. used blood hormone data and personal information collected from men living in Boston, MA, as part of the Massachusetts Male Aging Study (MMAS). The MMAS examined men’s health and endocrine function. Data were gathered during three home visits from 1987-89 (T1), 1995-97 (T2), and 2002-04 (T3). Total testosterone (TT) and serum sex hormone-binding globulin were measured in the blood and available testosterone (BT) was calculated. The men self-reported such things as basic demographics, health status, and smoking and alcohol use.

In this study, Travison et al. analyzed data from 1,532 men (1,383, 955, and 568, respectively, from T1, T2 and T3) that met age and birth year requirements. Participants ranged from 45 to 79 years old and were born between 1916 and 1945. The researchers excluded high and low T levels, missing data, and unidentified prostate cancer treatment. Within the sample, they calculated and compared three separate but related associations among concentration, age, and time. They looked at changes in testosterone concentrations in the group of men at different years and ages associated with T1, T2, and T3; testosterone declines in individual men as they aged during the study; and testosterone concentrations of men of the same age but in different years (age-matched).

What did they find?

Travison et al. found strong evidence of a decline of more than 1% per year in men’s blood testosterone levels during the last two decades. The graph to the right shows average levels for each for men of different ages in each of the three measurement periods (T1-T3).

Dotted lines are 95% confidence bands. Adapted from Travison et al.

The first comparison to make is that within a cohort, older men tend to have lower testosterone levels. Compare, for example, 80 yr old men in T3 compared to 60 yr old men.

The crucial comparison to make is from one cohort to the next, comparing men of the same age. For example, 60 yr old men during the first measurement period (red line, 1987-1989) had total testosterone levels over 500 ng/dL. Men aged 60 yrs old in the third cohort (blue line, measured 2002-2004) had TT below 450 ng/dL. There is no overlap between the confidence bands of T1 vs T3: T3 (measured 2002-2004) is always lower than T1.

The trend holds regardless of the men’s age. Similar declines over the 17 years were seen in all ages of men in the study.

Travison et al. note that the decline within the cohorts related to age is less than the decrease observed across cohorts. For example, men aged 70 in T1 had TT only 6% less than men aged 45 in the same cohort. But 60 yr old men in T3 had TT concentration approximately 13% lower than men the same age in T1.

To illustrate this point another way, Travison et al. compared the average decline of testosterone levels in T1 vs T2 as a function of age, and then contrast that with differences in testosterone between men of the same age in T1 vs T2. Note that T1 and T2 were only separated by 9 years. The average declines in T1 and T2 per decade of life were 17 and 20 ng/mL, respectively. But 65 yr old men in T2 had total testosterone levels 50 ng/mL lower than those in T1, even though the samples were separated by less than a decade.

Travison et al. then estimated the decline over time, from the first cohort to the third, for men of the same age (what they called the age-matched decline). They found that testosterone declined by 1.2% per year (95% CI 1.0% to 1.4%).

Bioavailable testosterone (BT) also showed similar declines over time. The strongest associations again held for age-matched trends with declines of 1.3% per year (95% CI 1.7% - 1.1%).

None of the health and lifestyle factors examined were associated with either age-matched declines in either TT or BT: The age-matched declines remained essentially the same after controlling for chronic illness, general health, medications, smoking, body mass index, employment, marital status, and other indicators.

Finally, the trends held when analyzing the data in a number of different ways, including by interview date, study cohort, restricting to men of certain ages or birth cohorts, and considering incomplete versus complete data.

What does it mean?

Travison et al. find that testosterone levels declined in Massachusetts men by approximately 1.2% per year from the late 1980s through 2004, controlling for the age of the men and other possible confounding variables.

This study is important because of its large sample size and long duration. Few studies have looked directly at testosterone levels over time.

The results are surprisingly consistent with another set of long-term human epidemiology studies. Those studies also show a long-term decline in male reproductive functions, such as decreased sperm health and increased infertility, which are highly associated with or controlled by testosterone and other androgen hormones. The rate of decline reported in this study is roughly comparable to the rate of decline of sperm count reported first by Carlson et al. in 1992 and then reanalyzed by Swan et 2000.

In commentary accompanying Travison et al.'s study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Dr. Shalender Bhasin (Boston Medical Center) writes: The data in this study are “important because they provide independent support for the concerns raised earlier about the reproductive health of men.” … “it would be unwise to dismiss these reports as mere statistical aberrations because of the potential threat these trends-- if confirmed-- pose to the survival of the human race and other living residents of our planet.”

Um, if anyone wants these articles paired down, say the word. Laziness on my part :stuck_out_tongue:


  1. There is a high incidence of autism in Silicon Valley.
  2. High levels of testorone result in what we think of as ‘criminal behavior’, as well as multiple sex partners.
  3. The levels of the average American man’s testosterone are decreasing.

I’m still looking for the thing about the fish.

I’ve proven what I can prove. I do make a lot of assumptions. Given the info provided, I don’t believe those assumptions are unreasonable.

tons of kids get autism from mmr vaccine. im not gunna vaccinate my kids (if i ever have any) cause i dont want to take the risk just because some scientist “disproved” it.

Environmental changes generally equal selective pressure. Note that I did not say the gene pool can’t be drastically altered in one generation. It can. Situations where that occurs are extremely easy to imagine, and they all involve <i>intense selective pressure</i> (e.g., regarding those moths, the Industrial Revolution and its pollution). What we’re discussing is the (im)possibility of widescale genetic changes in a short time <i>without</i> selective pressure driving them.

To explain: Minute mutations occur every time we reproduce, and occasionally they are harmful. People with harmful mutations would have been more likely to die in centuries past. As a simplified example, take colorblindness. A small mutation can result in colorblindness (let’s ignore the fact that nowadays it’s more often received from parents). A colorblind person in ancient times may not have been able to distinguish healthy berries from poisonous berries, and therefore died without reproducing. Nowadays, there’s virtually no reason a colorblind person would be hindered from reproducing. We buy our food at supermarkets. Therefore, in a situation where prior selective pressure is now absent, the traits that selective pressure led us to develop, gradually begin to fade.

The gist of my evolutionary argument is that, given the way genetics work, it’s absurd to imagine major changes in the genepool over the course of one generation, without intense selective pressure to drive such change. E.g., it’s absurd to imagine a 30% increase in colorblindness from one generation to the next, without some selective pressure <i>in favor of</i> colorblindness. Lacking selective pressure, such an increase must be due to spontaneous widescale mutation at a ridiculous rate. Likewise, it is virtually impossible that the genetics determining our potency and allergies would change significantly in one generation, without selective pressure (i.e. widescale death or neutering) that is simply not present in the modern world.

On a side note, I will look for sources to back up my claims about the changing rates of potency and allergies.

Edit: Curtis, that autism article was fascinating. The latter article on declining testosterone levels was also similar to the article that gave me the “30% decrease in potency” statistic.

Also, testosterone is linked to sperm production. More testosterone = more sperm. Forgot to mention that.

Kaseli would be the example idiot that I pointed out in the last thread where there is a link even if everyone and their mother has shown there wasn’t one.

I’m going to need some time to digest through what Curtis mentioned. If true, it is very interesting. I would like to make it important to note that the study showed high testosterone levels were correlated with what you listed. They didn’t cause anything. You have to be careful with how you interpret it. You also have to be careful in how you link decreased testosterone with decreased viability. There wasn’t a link anywhere that there was a decrease in men’s ability to fertilize women.

And people like you are exactly why we’ve seen a mumps outbreak in Canada 6 months ago.

If a condition was <i>repressed</i> by the presence of some selecting environmental factor for a long time, and if the pressure suddenly disappears, you’d still see a significant increase in the condition being expressed. <i>Lack of selective pressure for a condition is also an intense selective pressure.</i>

Imagine a flow of water, carrying particles of varying sizes, to a basin at the end. These particles pass through a filter of a defined size and shape. <i>Whether the filter is exchanged for a different one, or whether the filter is removed entirely, are both massive changes in the composition of whatever gets put into the basin.</i>

This is the thing about selection - it is a change in the genetic makeup of the population as a whole due to changes in the environment. If we agree that the environment has changed, it is logical to say that the pressures on selecting which genes to reproduce most successfully are also changed.

I actually considered this possibility earlier:

The point is that, <i>immediately prior</i> to the generation in question, children with allergies and low potency were not dying en masse or having mass reproductive failure. The 1950’s and 1960’s were not the first period in which people with allergies and low potency would easily survive and reproduce. Therefore, a sudden, major change should not have occurred after the 50’s-60’s.

I guess your scheme could also work if <i>every generation</i> since people with allergies and low potency stopped dying without reproducing, there has been significant increase in both in the next generation. I.e. every generation since, say, 1700, there has been a significant increase in allergies and decrease in potency. Maybe. Is there any evidence of that? I doubt that our genetics are that feeble.

<i>Lack of selective pressure for a condition is also an intense selective pressure.</i>
Yes, it all depends on your point of reference. However, there is an intuitively obvious distinction between disease, poison, predators and wars, which are generally called selective pressures, and the absence of those deadly phenomena, which is generally called an absence of selective pressure. I prefer to take the intuitive standpoint and stay there unless given reason to do otherwise. Your relativist line of reasoning contends that colorblindness, impotency, and physical decrepitude are not “negative” traits in any absolute sense, because you can construct weird situations where they’d be favorable for survival. On the contrary, I find the “ordinary man’s” point of reference – where deadly phenomena are called “pressures” until they stop happening and physical abnormalities that would have inhibited survival in the wild are called “defects” – to be much more practical for constructing healthy and energetic policy.

I honestly wish I had read that “Vote!” thread so that I knew where to go with this; therefore, please forgive my ignorance. In regard to the autism-MMR matter, I had heard someone mention once upon a time that there “may” be a suspected link between the condition and getting a one-time only vaccine as opposed to the series of vaccinations most people my age had to undergo. If such a vaccine doesn’t exist or if this has already been disproven, don’t beat me up too much.

I think the benefits of many of these vaccines outweigh the risks (known known, known unknown, and unknown unknown - thanks Gin Rummy/Don Rumsfeld).

With Gardasil… I wish that had been around several years ago, because I probably would have had the injections, needle-shy or not, with the knowledge at hand. Thankfully nothing really serious happened to me, but it really does suck to go to the doctor again and again and again for abnormal Paps. I’m all good now, but since HPV is so prevalent and guys really won’t have a clue if they’re carrying unless something visibly nasty shows up, a lot of girls end up screwed (don’t laugh!). I apologize for the TMI moment.

For the “there MAY be a link” I refer you to my statement on people that will never be satisfied because its inconvenient for them.

i’m right you’re wrong here is 5 pages explaining why that you won’t read please respond with 5-10 more pages that i will not read so that we may argue!

What do you do with your spare time? Are you in a band? Do you write deflated lyrics to songs with monotone vocals and country instrumentals but rock sensibility? Do you have a job? I’m curious how it pays. What ever happened to your hot girlfriend who used to post here? I assume you’re not doing her anymore (if you ever did).

In short, I’m dying to know what treasured life experiences I’m missing by taking the time to make coherent arguments about interesting subjects. And what I’d gain by hanging around a message board to post vaguely deprecating one-liners that lack even comic value.