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The Hominidae Family

I read a book recently called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – buy it immediately – and it changed. my. life. It made the world make a little bit of sense.

Yuval Noah Harari explains  how biology sets our limits and how culture shapes what happens within those bounds. He narrates humankind from the creation of the Homo genos to the ultimate dominance of the Sapiens species.

What is especially interesting is that we are a species of the genus Homo, which is the  genus of the family Hominidae (order Primates). Our characteristics include: large cranial capacity, limb structure adapted to a habitual erect posture and a bipedal gait, well-developed and fully opposable thumbs, hands capable of power and precision grips, and the ability to make standardized precision tools, using one tool to make another. For example, the biological family Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as cats. The species included in this family are panthers, cats, tigers etc.

So!

Sapiens (us) are a species of Hominidae together with the (allegendly) extinct species H. habilis, H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis as well as the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis), the early form of Homo sapiens called Cro-Magnon, and the enigmatic H. naledi, which may be the oldest known member of the genus.

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In fact, Sapiens and Neanderthals, H. erectus etc are likely to have existed in the world at the same time. We evolved at the same time as them. Neanderthal anatomy differed from modern humans in that they had a more robust build and distinctive morphological features including shorter limb proportions, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin, sloping forehead, and a large nose.

In 2010  a study was published which determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA and researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Project found that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. Which means that at some point, our species interbred and that Caucasians are more likely to have Neanderthal DNA.

From this study and further genotyping undertaken, Dannemann and Kelso published  “The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans,” Am J Hum Genet, 101:1-12, 2017. They narrowed the sample to include 112,338 individuals with white European ancestry (whose genomes contain Neanderthal DNA), and used these data to tease out which traits are influenced by Neanderthal genetic variants. The traits they identified included those that affect hair color, skin color, skin tanning and burning, sleeping patterns, mood, and tobacco use. For example, being a self-described night owl and being prone to daytime napping were both traits positively influenced by Neanderthal variants, as were loneliness, low mood, and smoking. Genetic loci associated with having red hair were found to be devoid of Neanderthal variants, suggesting red-headed Neanderthals were either rare or non-existent. The new study also supports Capra and colleagues’ previous observations that Neanderthal variants are associated with sun-induced skin lesions, mood disorders, and smoking.”

Next time you’re tempted to call someone a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

What’s the point of this? Basically that we know nothing about who we are, what makes us. The only reason Sapiens went on to dominate the world was because of their unprecedented congnitive ability to imagine, and to believe in their imagination. They went on to imagine new ways to hunt, gather, cook. They imagined states, countries, borders. They imagined religion, human rights, corporations and money.

For millenia, our ancestors imagined things that control our lives, that give us the ability to research, understand and explain where we came from. Their imagination created the world you live in today.

And yet at the cognitive peak of our species, our generations are unable to create a world where we are all accepted because we can’t imagine people with disabilities living up to the culture and demands our society has conjured up.

At the core, we are simply a family that has different traits. If this is fact – why is it so hard to imagine?

In other science news:

Remember when we talked about the gut? Well, you may remember that the gut has always been under observation in autism study.

The Biology of Autism: Where Marilyn Le Breton explained that “When you eat, the food you consume is broken down in your stomach. The bits that are not used by the body are flushed out as waste matter. In autistic people, the breakdown of two proteins present in some foods, gluten and casein, is not completed properly. The resulting fragments of these proteins are called peptides. Peptides are small enough to pass through the wall of the gut, rather than being processed in the normal way. As the peptides journey around the body, they make a pit stop at the brain, where they do untold damage before continuing their journey and finally making their way out of the body, via urine. Both are very similar to morphine, a highly addictive drug.”

Hope in Poo? In 2017, a study was published in the Microbiome Journal (here) which claims that Microbiota Transfer Therapy (Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant, is the process of transplantation of fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient) alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms.

Building on the research above, new findings now have reinforced the theory that some autism symptoms – including behavioral symptoms – can be manipulated with FMT. In fact, the results appear to be long-lasting, continuing to have an effect even years after the fecal transplant.

The researchers presented a follow-up to this study at the Beneficial Microbes Conference this month. According to the reports, the scores on a gastrointestinal-symptom scale remained over 60% better before the transplants through maintaining beneficial bacteria gained from the transplant.

This breakthrough could be groundbreaking for the autism community. If we can understand the causes/origins of autism we can work towards mitigating effects and implementing precautionary tests. This isn’t a cure but it’s hope.

Happy summer my humans!

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What if?

Question: What if the people below were treated (in their time) the same way autistic people are treated now?

Although reports are inconclusive, for obvious reasons (due to the lack of a comprehensive history and the fact that the diagnoses given are post-mortem) many of them have been able to at least point towards a person on the Autistic Spectrum which means that notable figures in history may have been on the autism spectrum.  Michael Fitzgerald in his book, “Autism and Creativity”  argues that many of the most creatively talented artists and thinkers in history exhibited classic signs of Asperger’s.

Einstein is said to have had difficulty with social interactions, had tactile sensitivity, was very intelligent yet found his language difficult at times, and learning in school.  It is therefore possible that different teaching styles, attitudes that weren’t available in this time contributed to him falling behind in school. Many people on the spectrum have a lack of desire for food and the same disregard for them as Einstein had.  However, Einstein did not care what he ate and completed his meals with no complaints; this is the exact opposite of Chris, again showing how diverse people on the spectrum can be.  Many of our kids are very specific about the kinds, colours, textures, and smells of foods; therefore it is indeterminate whether this should be classified as an autistic trait or not.  Einstein had a relationship with a woman whom he eventually married and had three children with.  The marriage seemed to have quite a bit of difficulty, but  the woman gave birth to three children with him – much like a lot of people living with high-functioning autism.

More details http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3676-einstein-and-newton-showed-signs-of-autism.html

Sir Isaac Newton was very quiet . He was extraordinarily focused on his work and had a hard time breaking away.  Newton also relied strongly upon routines.  For example,  if he had been scheduled to give a lecture, that lecture was going to happen whether there was an audience or not.

More details http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2988647.stm

Charles Darwin: Prof Michael Fitzgerald conducted research on Charles Darwin, and supplied numerous facts supporting his theory that Darwin was autistic. Fitzgerald stated that Darwin was a solitary child. Darwin collected many things and was very intrigued by chemistry and gadgets. Fitzgerald describes Darwin in this article as, “a rather obsessive-compulsive and ritualistic man”.

More details http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/4680971/Charles-Darwin-had-autism-leading-psychiatrist-claims.html

Michelangelo: Outlining their evidence in the Journal of Medical Biography, Dr Arshad and Professor Fitzgerald said: “Michelangelo’s single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills, and various issues of life control appear to be features of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome.”

More details http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/was-michelangelos-artistic-genius-a-symptom-of-autism-756718.html

Andy Warholl: The symptoms include a preference for repetition, difficulty in social interactions, extreme focus and productivity, an obsession with detail, a tendency to go from the specific to the general and minimalized language. Although many historical figures are thought to have had Asperger’s, the Warhol case may be stronger due the fact that so many artefacts from his life remain.

More details http://mapmagazine.com/andy-warhol-artistic-or-autistic/

The word Autism wasn’t properly used in medical circles until the 1940’s. It is important to realise that all these men were considered different in their time. This idiosyncrasy, whether they were on the spectrum or not, helped them develop ideas that changed our world. So, shouldn’t you at least give a second look at those you consider different? Being different is not a bad thing, its a quality. It is what makes them unique, their aversion to following the crowd, and compromising to society’s dos and don’t s allows them to flourish and take an individual view of the world.

Don’t outcast Autism. Learn about it, educate yourself.