Innovators and Copiers

I recently finished Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel. My official review of the book is in Politics and the Life Sciences, so I’m not going to go into a lot about the book right now. But there is something Pagel points out that I think is very important, and which I have been thinking about a great deal since I read it.

Pagel observes that (despite pop psychological narratives to the contrary), the vast majority of people are neither creative nor inventive. Rather, the vast, vast majority of people are ultrasocial — they copy what others do exactly as those others do them. This is known as social learning, and it is what allows human beings to live in such huge groups. In fact, if most people were creative or inventive, that would undermine ultrasociality (237).

Yet, it seems obvious that humans are inventive and creative. Look at all the technology we have around us. Look at all of the art and scientific discoveries.

Yes, and look at all the outrage over the latest discoveries. Look at all the outrage over the latest styles in the arts. Look at all the complaints about technology. Most people are reluctant adopters of anything new, and are in many ways Luddites at heart.

Thus, we see the same patterns for science, the arts, and technology. We have the inventor/discoverer. Then we have the early adopters. Then, when enough people adopt it, we have everyone else adopt it — once they see that it is good, they copy it.

The great innovations are rare. More common are social learning plus mutations, resulting in slow cultural evolution.And truly revolutionary innovations are extremely rare — and often result in the creator/inventor becoming social outcasts for their trouble. More strategic innovators will tinker on the edges of what we have so that others will accept the new things more easily. Poetic innovations go farther with more people if you introduce them in the context of poetic forms people like and know.

Humans are, overall, very good copiers, but very bad innovators (340). He observes that in game theory models, systems with many innovators tend to do far worse than those with many copiers. The systems that survive best are those in which almost all of the agents copy and there are only one or two innovators. The copiers all free ride off of the innovators, but if that did not happen, there would not be the kinds of complex societies we find in the world. To have spontaneous orders, you need mostly copiers, with few innovators disrupting the system.

I have primarily discussed artists, scientists, and inventors as innovators disrupting things, but there is another kind who also arises: political leaders. Political leaders emerge precisely because most people are strong social learners and, therefore, followers (362). As a result,

the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered (363)

as all rulers in fact try to do. The difference between scientists, artists, and innovators and politicians is that the latter use their tendency to innovate to try to subvert the system and make it work toward their own advantage, while the former are not working so strategically, and are primarily interested in their narrow interests.

Coincidentally, there are two groups of people widely recognized as being unaffected by social pressures.

There are poor social learners, like those with autism — whose poor social learning may allow them to be more innovative, since they don’t feel the need to adapt to what everyone else is doing. Such people also happen to be rather focused on narrow interests. If this sounds like most scientists, artists, and innovators, it may not be entirely a coincidence.

Then there are the sociopaths, who are good social learners and highly strategic, like the vast majority of people, but who do not have a conscience. They work to subvert the system toward their own gain without being caught or overpowered. We see this in the cheaters of society, those who try to scam people, those who try to get power over others. Governments are full of these people. We elect them all the time.

People from either group lead the world. The rest of the world copies them and their innovations. In the case of the cultural innovators, the result is ever-more wealth for everyone. In the case of the sociopaths in government, the result is ever-more power for themselves.

Daniel Turns 8

Today is Daniel’s 8th birthday. He’s very excited. I’m sure he will be even more excited when he gets his presents, which are a couple plush sharks and some Star Wars toys he wanted.

Yesterday Anna noted that Daniel was talking a great deal more, and that he was sharing how his day went without being prompted. All last year, Anna made Daniel tell her three things that happened while he was at school and she made him listen to her as she told him about her day. It was often a struggle, as he didn’t want to say anything about how his day went. That, after all, smacks of smalltalk, and we on the spectrum aren’t exactly the biggest fans of smalltalk. We don’t much see the point of it.

But now Daniel is starting to talk more. He’s been telling us both a few things that have happened at school, though most of Daniel’s talk is really him asking me an endless series of questions. I’m guessing that in many ways, the average parent of an autistic child has it fairly easy when their child does this. Easy, you say? Let’s be honest, most people know a great deal about whatever it is they do, but almost certainly don’t know whatever obscure details their child wants to know about their obsessions. That means the child will have to do all the research on his or her own, and that also means they will eventually give up on asking their parents for information.

I’m not so lucky. Did you know that, other than the bull shark, which is found worldwide, that there are several other species of river shark, mostly around India and Australia? I do. Did you know that basking sharks are called basking sharks because they swim slowly near the surface of the ocean and thus appear to be basking in the sun? I do. Did you know that basking sharks annually shed their gill rakers, which they need to feed on plankton? I do. I know that the shortfin mako is the fasted shark in the world and that tiger sharks give birth to live young and that there is a species of epaulette shark that can use its pectoral fins to walk short distances on land to get back into the water. So when Daniel asks me questions about sharks, I can answer them.

None o which prevents him from asking me to look up more information about sharks anyway, including anything I have given him answers to. So don’t think I get out of looking up the information with and for him. I don’t.

On the other hand, I don’t mind in the least answering his questions, though it can be a problem when he is asking questions from the back seat of the van while I’m driving, and I’m guessing he’s less annoyed than he might otherwise be precisely because I can answer most of his questions (I’m a bit of an information junky, so most of his questions about most things).

In any case, the birthday boy will be getting a gluten-free cake decorated with sharks. Or at least, that’s how I intend to decorate the cake when I make it this afternoon.

“Asperger’s” and “Other” Poems at Awe in Autism

Two of my poems have been published at Awe in Autism, a website dedicated to art created by autistic people (or by people writing about autism). My two poems are “Asperger’s” and “Other.” Since discovering I have Asperger’s (autism, according to the DSM-5), I have been working out how I feel about it. Yes, we do have feelings! We often just have difficulties articulating those feelings. For someone like me, poetry truly is an attempt to say the unsayable.

Of course, from a certain perspective all my poems are “autistic poems,” since they are poems written by an autistic person and thus are necessarily from an autistic perspective, but not all poems are explicitly about the experience of being autistic. But a few are, such as those mentioned above.

Here is a more recent poem I wrote on what it’s like to be autistic:

My Burning Heat, My Light

I do not mean to burn you out–my wife,
My friends, acquaintances are blistered, red
From my white coals–I’m meaning well, but dread
Is why I’ve bred from blackened soles and strife.
You dance around me–each flame feels a knife–
I only want a welcome warmth to wed
Your weary soul to mine–I find instead
I only seem to transform every life.

I cannot seem to follow, lead–I stand
Alone–too conscious, too oblivious–
I know each of the rules and cannot play.
You’re standing on the boat that you call land–
When I shine light, my flame’s called dangerous–
You’ll die of lies so long as I don’t stay.

You can find pretty much all of my poems at Thyme and Time Again.

What Kind of Blog Is This?

Most of the blogs you’re going to find out there on autism are going to be by parents of autistic children. Parents who are not, themselves, on the spectrum. For your average parent who is not on the spectrum but who has a child on the spectrum, such blogs are useful and even necessary, from an emotional standpoint.

But I would hope that many of those same parents would come by this blog and read things from my perspective as an autistic father with an autistic son. You’re not going to get a lot of emotional satisfaction here at my blog, I’m afraid. That’s just not my thing (which shouldn’t surprise you if you have an autistic child). What you will find here, though, is a combination of my own experiences as someone on the spectrum, my experiences as a father of an autistic child, my experiences as a father of two children not on the spectrum (but who have a few features), my experiences as a husband of a wife not on the spectrum, and my research and (hopefully) insights into that research on autism.

That means you’re probably going to find as many discussions of oxytocin as my autistic son’s obsessions with sharks (especially basking sharks of late) and Star Wars (most especially Storm Troopers). In fact, in the area of shark obsessions, he is particularly obsessed with the fact that people eat shark fin soup. He is very upset by this fact and keeps asking me why people who eat shark fin soup want to hurt nature. He doesn’t understand why anyone would ever want to harm a shark.

If there is a problem with this blog, it will be that I will tend to follow my own obsessions. Combine that with the way my memory works, where I have a tendency to forget a great many things when I need to remember them (including ideas for blog posts, all too often), and it’s more likely you’ll learn about the glutamine-glutamate cycle than Daniels’ dental obsession. But I do promise to try.

Also, if you have any specific questions you would like me to answer in a future post, please feel free to ask me!

Autism, Empathy, and ADD

One theory of autism is that of “mind-blindness,” developed by Simon Baron-Cohen. Out of this mind-blindness come a general lack of empathy. If you are mind-blind, you literally cannot empathize, after all.

Being a person with Asperger’s and having a son (Daniel) with autism, I both know what it’s like to have autism and to live with someone with autism. This is a quite different experience than studying autism in the lab, through surveys (of neurotypical parents), etc.

For example, when I am ill, Daniel doesn’t notice that I’m ill the way my neurotypical son, Dylan, or daughter, Melina, does. They immediately notice and show empathy. Daniel is still primarily interested in getting me to do whatever it is he’s interested in doing. Most would argue that this proves lack of empathy. However, something interesting happens when my wife points out to Daniel that I am sick: he immediately looks worried and asks me if I’m okay. When you direct his attention to how I feel, he shows empathy. And he will periodically ask me how I’m doing until I’m well again. Also, we have a set of doctor toys, and he will go get them and give me a “check up” with them to make sure I’m okay. If those behaviors aren’t empathy, I don’t know what is (of course, my being autistic myself might mean I don’t in fact know what empathy is — but my answer to that is the same as that of George Takai on an episode of The Big Bang Theory when he was questioned as to how he could know anything about what a woman wants: “I read!”).

In any case, this at least has the surface appearance of empathy. And I do in fact feel bad when my wife feels bad, and seeing her in pain induces feelings of pain. More, when my father lost his left arm in a mining accident when I was in high school, I experienced sympathy pains. Now, I will also admit that I don’t always come across as the most empathetic person — but that might be due to what I suggested with my son: I probably need my attention brought to the fact that the person is suffering. I am quite sensitive to suffering in general — it affects my politics and support for free markets — but I sometimes miss it in person.

Missing someone’s suffering is part of the general problem of being constantly bombarded with information. It can be distracting. If there is any amount of noise in the house, I have a hard time hearing the television. While neurotypicals have the ability to cut off all but what they are trying to pay attention to — indeed, can make background noise just that: background — I hear the background noise at at least the same level, or higher, than what I want to pay attention to. Thus, I have to turn the T.V. volume up quite a bit. When there is nobody in the house, I can hear the T.V. at a volume of 30; when people are in the house, I have to have the volume up to at least 70, and I may have to have it all the way up to 100. And I’ll still have to tell people to please quite down so I can hear.

This happens too when I am in public, at say a Starbucks, with a friend. My eyes are all over the place, noticing everyone and everything. At the same time, I am able to remain focused on the conversation. The distraction is thus sense-dependent. I can be visually distracted and pay attention to what you say. I can have auditory distraction and think and write. (I can even think while talking under the right conditions.)

Since much human communication is through visual cues, the fact that I am often visually distracted while I’m supposed to be focused on you, I can miss those visual cues you are communicating to me. This can result in socially awkward situations and an appearance of a lack of empathy on my part.

If this sounds a lot like attention deficit disorder, that may not be a coincidence. Many with autism are also diagnosed with ADD. I would not be surprised if ADD were in fact part of the spectrum, if we were to extend the spectrum out beyond Asperger’s. Mere ADD does not result in missing social cues — or at least, not as many as are missed by those with autism — which is what keeps it outside the autism spectrum, but I must wonder if it is not unrelated. I will also note that, like autism, far more boys have ADD than do girls.

4 Major Misunderstandings About Autism

In the few months after I learned I have Asperger’s, I was overwhelmed by the level of misunderstanding about autism prevalent not just in the general population, but with doctors and even parents of autistic children.

One major misunderstanding about autism involves the nature of our social anxiety. The fact that we have social anxiety does not mean that we don’t like to be around people per se, or that we won’t do things that involve groups of people. When I told my Aunt Cindy that I had Asperger’s and that I suspected her father also had Asperger’s, she objected that he went to church and was a member of the Audubon Society (coincidentally, I recently read somewhere that people with autism are particularly good at bird spotting). The fact that he was involved in a social group or two does not prove he did not have Asperger’s. The fact that in his diaries there is no mention of the births of any of his grandchildren, and the fact that on the very day I was born, he discovered the nesting site of the upland sandpiper in South Bend, IN (when most grandparents would have been at the hospital where their daughter was giving birth to their grandson), suggest he probably did have Asperger’s. My maternal grandfather was not particularly social, and the fact that he was a member of a club and a church doesn’t mean he was social. I was not only a member of several clubs in high school and college — I was elected president of the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists (AUG) at WKU. But I am definitely autistic.

Another example came from a question at the talk my wife and I gave on our experience with autism. A man in the audience was curious how it was that I could stand in front of a large group and talk. Well, standing in front of a large group and talking about something about which I am very interested is in fact pretty easy for me. In fact, you may not be able to get me to shut up. I am not dealing with people as people, but as an audience; I am not interacting personally, but rather discussing something I want to discuss. There is no small talk involved; there are few if any emotions involved. But when I go with my wife to our bimonthly support group at The Warren Center, I am extremely anxious. I have to chit-chat with people, I am faced with some pretty raw emotions at times from people having a hard time with what they and their children are going through, etc. But if someone asks me a question and I am in the position to talk about what I know about autism, my anxiety tends to dissipate. I can focus on the topic, and thus I am in a more comfortable place.

I have also learned to force myself to do social things even when I don’t want to do them. Again, it’s not that we don’t want to ever do anything social; rather, it is that we don’t want to do social things all that often. Sometimes I’m in the mood to hang out with a bunch of friends. Often, I’m not. But I learned that I had to agree to hang out when I really didn’t want to so that I would be invited to hang out when I did really want to. That makes me appear to be more social than I really am; in other words, I act more social than I want to act. And I do so to get what I want, not because I feel any social pressure. You cannot use social pressure on me to get me to do anything; that is the very last thing that will work on me.

Another misunderstanding involves the ability to look someone in the eye. Now, I do understand that there is a range involved, that there are those who are severely autistic who can never look someone in the eye. But what many people fail to understand is that there is, in fact, a range involved. More, I have learned over the years to look people in the eye when I talk to them. Again, it is not my preference to do so. But I do understand that it makes people uncomfortable if I don’t. And that can create problems for me. I used to look at people’s mouths, and I still often do. But I had several people complain about that and demand I look them in the eye. So I learned to look people in the eye. But to do so means I am consciously thinking about the fact that I need to look that person in the eyes. Often, when I am in a meeting, I will look at my notepad and generally avoid looking at anyone. But if I speak or am addressed, I will make the mental effort to look at the person. But it is a mental effort to do so. And it means you don’t have my full attention.

Finally, I have had people express surprise that I am a poet. I’m not sure why people don’t think someone with autism can be a poet. The singer/songwriter of The Vines and Courtney Love both have Asperger’s, and they write songs. So yes, it is possible to have autism and to be a poet. Perhaps it is because people with autism tend to be literal in their understanding of language; but in my case, that tendency to be literal with language has resulted in an interest in metaphors and other figures of speech. I often find what neurotypicals do to be of interest for their very oddity to me. And that strangeness of language use is particularly useful for being a poet.

Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

What constitutes the “social awkwardness” of those with autism? I have discussed how autistics’ discomfort with lying can lead to socially awkward situations, but there is another thing I have noticed by observing my son and reflecting on what I know both through experience with and through reading about autism that definitely leads people to consider autistics as socially awkward.

Neurotypicals are naturally social, and the reason they are naturally social is that they are uncomfortable unless they are conforming to the group they are in. If you are a Catholic, you would feel uncomfortable not kneeling to pray when everyone else is. Or pick any social situation and refuse to do what everyone else is doing — that anxiety you feel is how people with autism feel in pretty much any social situation. Neurotypicals of course know how to solve the problem: conform. Conforming does not solve the problem for autistics.

More, autistics don’t feel the need to conform. We will join in if we want to join in — or we will not join in if we don’t want to join in. How is this going to be perceived by neurotypicals? As socially awkward behavior. Neurotypicals think everyone should conform because, after all, if they are uncomfortable not conforming, then others must be as well. This feeling gets transferred into a social rule (sometimes into an explicitly moral rule), and those who do not conform are at best perceived as socially awkward, at worst as not being a member of the social group at all. Yet, this failure to conform may be a source of a great deal of social change. How many cultural changes have been made because someone with autism did something different? Perhaps more often than we realize.

Someone with autism is going to only do something if he or she wants to do it. There is no social pressure felt by them. They may try something everyone else is doing, simply to see what it’s about, and if they like doing it, they will continue doing it, but if they don’t like doing it, they simply won’t do it. Like everyone else, though, they aren’t likely to merely say they aren’t doing it because they don’t want to; rather, they are likely to rationalize it after the fact, declare it “stupid” or “irrational.” It’s likely neither irrational nor stupid (from a cultural standpoint), but rarely do people allow you to say outright that you don’t like something because you simply don’t like it. They demand a reason, and in the end, you will get one — though it may be expressed in a “socially awkward” fashion.

So it seems to me that autistics’ tendency to not conform would be interpreted by neurotypicals as being “socially awkward” behavior. However, it might be the very behavior that makes us question what we are doing, and which can sometimes lead to cultural changes and social transformation.