EP Therapy: Foraging Camp for Autistics

Everyone knows the experience: you happen upon a wreck and know you shouldn’t look but can’t help it. While there is a chance of seeing something disturbing, you look regardless. There should be a word for this and in the absence of one, I will call it car-wreck voyeurism. I felt something like this after coming across an article explaining how autism could have been adaptive in ancestral environments. I knew I shouldn’t look but couldn’t help it. What I saw was disturbing.

One might think that after decades of well-deserved criticism, overly enthusiastic evolutionary psychologists had learned some restraint. While most have, some stalwarts persist. Super-freak Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, recently caused an uproar by claiming that “black” women are less attractive than other women. He posted this drivel over at Psychology Today, which removed the offending article and belatedly terminated Kanazawa’s blog.

Fearing that Kanazawa was further sullying evolutionary psychology’s (EP) already dim reputation, 68 researchers who use evolutionary approaches to human behavior published an open letter criticizing Kanazawa. The letter, which astutely states that Kanazawa’s “work demonstrates a poor understanding of evolutionary theory, a disregard for data quality, and inappropriate interpretation of statistical techniques,” is posted over at Evolutionary Psychology (a peer reviewed journal) and it says this about peer review:

The peer review process is not perfect and appears to have failed when dealing with Kanazawa’s poor quality work. Those of us who have reviewed his papers have had experiences where we have rejected papers of his for certain journals on scientific grounds, only to see the papers appear virtually unaltered in print in other journals.

This is an interesting statement signed by editors of the journal that on May 10, 2011, published Jared Reser’s article “Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis.” Reser hypothesizes that the “genes contributing to autism were selected and maintained because they facilitated solitary subsistence.” What follows is so bizarre and flawed it is hard to know where to begin.

Although Reser pays brief homage to parsimony and observes that autism “may appear” to be maladaptive, he never addresses the parsimonious possibility that autism is in fact maladaptive. Reser apparently is unfamiliar with antagonistic pleiotropy, a basic concept in evolutionary biology whereby selection on a single gene influences multiple phenotypic traits, some beneficial and others harmful. Autism, like senescence and cancer, seems like a good candidate for such an effect.

But EP’s a priori commitment to the Panglossian Paradigm — “If It Exists It Must Be Adaptive” — prevents Reser from considering pleiotropy or, horror of horrors, spandrels. Instead he rushes in to consider far more outlandish scenarios, all based in an imaginary and non-existent ancestral past. You know the one: “At some time and some place during the last 6 million years of hominin evolution, there must have been selection pressure for [insert modern trait].” Followed by the ineluctable just-so story: “This explains [insert modern trait].”

The imaginary past Reser postulates for this particular story is the one where difficult conditions during the Plio-Pleistocene forced social hominins to split up, living and foraging all by their lonesomes. Because they are asocial, Reser imagines that autistics would have been better adapted for this kind of solitary existence. Or as Reser puts it:

Individuals on the autism spectrum are described here as having had the potential to be self-sufficient and capable foragers in scenarios marked by diminished social contact. In other words, these individuals, unlike neurotypical humans, would not have been obligately social and may have been predisposed toward taking up a relatively solitary lifestyle.

Here, we have to suspend disbelief and ignore several inconvenient facts. There is no physiological, archaeological, or ethnographic evidence suggesting that human ancestors or humans have ever lived and foraged independently. Indeed, precisely the opposite is true and hominin evolutionary success is usually attributed to extraordinary sociality. Although Reser’s vision of solitary foraging is essentially Hobbesian, at least Hobbes understood the unfit consequences: “no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Reser will have none of this and imagines the “natural” past as being superior to the “artificial” present, at least for autistics:

In a natural environment though, it is likely that hunger would have motivated [autistics] to redirect their obsessive tendencies toward food procurement. Today, their hunger for food does not drive them to refine food procurement techniques because their parents feed them every time they are hungry….Because the compelling and coercing natural instinct of hunger does not actuate or motivate modern individuals with autism, their efforts and skills are misplaced onto irrelevant stimuli….Perhaps, when children with autism ignore their parent’s examples of social behavior today, it is because these examples seem uninteresting and meaningless, whereas in the ancestral past they would have been inspired by their parent’s hunting and gathering activities.

Oh, how we long for the ancestral past when hunger pangs and the food quest made everything so stimulating and relevant! Warming to his theme, Reser suggests that autistic children in modern society are placed in “unnatural or confining environments” and thus behave like caged animals. The shocking conclusion Reser draws from this is one for the ages:

This may indicate that the living conditions that many young individuals with autism experience are artificial, and possibly inhumane, as they are not as stimulating or motivating as the wild environment that they are born expecting.

Read that again; I am not making it up. First, Reser insults parents of autistic children and suggests their living conditions are stultifying and “inhumane.” Second, he claims that unborn autistic children expect to be delivered into a “wild environment” and are bewildered when they find themselves plopped into “artificial” modern environments.

I wish I could report that Reser’s article gets better but it doesn’t. He suggests that autistics are like orangutans in their penchant for being alone (supposedly evidence of a similar “adaptation”), claims that social skills are maladaptive in solitary settings, and speculates that “higher testosterone levels in autistic males may have increased their sexual aggressiveness as well as their sexual attractiveness.” This is just the tip of the iceberg and it only gets worse (never mind the grammar and spelling errors such as “moray” instead of “more” for social conventions). The strings of unsupported conjecture and disconnected speculation are truly jaw dropping.

Presumably, Reser’s therapeutic recommendation for parents of children with autism would be to send the kids to foraging camp, making sure they are hungry upon arrival. There, they can direct their energies and attention toward productive and stimulating things, like food, water, and shelter. They might even get lucky.

In the end, Reser’s article provides another example of everything that is wrong with certain kinds of evolutionary psychology. It is almost as if he deliberately decided to ignore all critiques of EP and write something outrageous. If so, he succeeded. So much for peer review.


Reser, Jared E. (2011). Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (2), 207-238.


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14 thoughts on “EP Therapy: Foraging Camp for Autistics

  1. Kevin F

    He’s also written papers “showing” how Alzheimer’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Schizophrenia are evolutionarily adaptive. Looking at his resume would provide a therapist like myself with a number of hints about his psychological profile….

  2. admin Post author

    I noticed that after writing the post. While I find novel hypotheses fruitful and believe we should encourage creative thinking, such thinking should at least have some kind of evidence or data in support, or generate predictions that can be tested. These kinds of analyses, if you can call them that, fall woefully short. They are all dressed up in scientific/academic garb, but this window dressing does not rise to the level of acceptable science.

  3. Azkyroth

    Has this guy ever MET a person on the spectrum?

    He seems to imagine they’re kind of like pets. >.>

  4. admin Post author

    I don’t know, but he does observe that they could have found a niche similar to that occupied by “feral children.” I am surprised Rudyard Kipling’s character Mowgli wasn’t mentioned and used as a point of comparison.

  5. admin Post author

    I am not sure testing is in this repertoire. It is a comparative enterprise; to wit, the extended comparison of “solitary” orangutans and autistics. Indeed, the comparison is so extensive the author feels compelled to apologize: “It is also important to affirm that no offense is intended toward autistic individuals in this comparison with orangutans.” Weird.

    And then there is this gem: “Hypothetically though, it would be much more difficult to place a young orangutan in a human elementary school classroom than it would be to place the average autistic child, and yet orangutans are capable of reaching full ecological independence before age 10.” If you can decipher this for me I would appreciate it.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    I would decipher that comment as a minor apology, where he is confessing to be over extending his analogy (but not offering to drop it).

  7. Nmissi

    My son is on the spectrum, he has Asperger’s syndrome. Actually, autistic spectrum traits are common in our family. The problem here is assuming that people with spectrum traits, but not classic Kanner’s Autism, are asocial. They are decidedly not; they do form social bonds, and seek out companionship and people to share tasks. But the basis of the relationship is usually different, less superficial and more functional. (Shared perseverating interests, shared goals, not just socialising for the sake of it.)

    I don’t think Reser is entirely off base- some aspects of autistic behavior might have been beneficial in a prehistoric environment, just as they are beneficial in the modern one. The monofocus, the ability to exclude all other stimuli and really lose yourself in your work- this is a functional and useful ability in the right situation. I’ve a great uncle who was almost certainly an Aspie; he made stills during the depression and later designed machines for a juice company. He had zero social skills, but he had a knack for machinery; I could see his prehistoric counterpart figuring out how to improve flintknapping techniques.

  8. admin Post author

    To his credit, Reser does now and again say that he is talking mostly about “high functioning” people on the spectrum. As you mention, this does not make any such people asocial or more capable of being alone and “solitary” (surely a death sentence in the Paleolithic). It does however allow them to stay on task and focus almost incessantly or obsessively. I think many high performers in modern society have this ability and are near the spectrum if not on it, including many scholarly types who can latch onto a subject and flog it to submission.

    Funny you should mention knapping, because I thought this would perhaps be the best hypothetical for Paleolithic Aspies and wondered why it wasn’t mentioned. It was the first thing that came to my mind when reading the article.

  9. ttch

    The 68 researchers’ open letter comment on peer review suggests that reviews should be somehow “attached” to rejected articles so that other journals considering them later could see the problems noted and whether they had been addressed. This would not be too hard in this computer age, and with the increasing volume of published research it would certainly be a boon both to overworked editors and reviewers as well as increasing overall article quality.

  10. admin Post author

    I agree. In this case, I wonder whether the editors even read the article or whether it was reviewed by any outsiders in a serious sort of way. I imagine it being given a cursory glance and that is about it. The professional pressure to publish is so intense, and the amount of writing so voluminous, that I have a hard time imagining how writers and reviewers have time for anything else. The proliferation of journals does not help matters. For a discipline like EP, which has been subject to so much criticism (a good deal of it justified), one might think they would have learned some lessons and been more careful. Reser’s article demonstrates otherwise.

  11. Steven Sacks

    I was disappointed by your take on Reser’s article, and I think it is important to address some of the points that you bring up. The main point that I am writing to address is the one about self-injurious behavior, especially because Reser’s words were taken completely out of context. It is clear that many intelligent primates begin self-slapping, scratching and head banging when they are confined to an unstimulating environment. Individuals with autism that hurt themselves probably do so because they are seeking stimulation. Reser does not criticize parents of children with autism here, he clearly only tries to point out that when someone engages in self-injurious behaviors, it is very important to assess and restructure their current environment.

    I think that your comment about antagonisitic pleiotropy is perfectly valid and Reser certainly does address (in the article) the “parsimonious possibility that autism is in fact maladaptive.” However, I think you disregard the positive abilities in autism too quickly. Many researchers now agree that there are huge compensatory advantages in autism. That the autism brain looks very much like the brains of other solitary mammals and that this may be an example of convergent evolution is a hypothesis that is worth your unbiased consideration.

  12. admin Post author

    Reser may not directly criticize parents of autistic children who harm themselves, but the obvious implication is that these children need stimulation and it is not being provided. By whom? The parents. Reser should do fieldwork with these parents and the children before speculating about how much stimulation the parents are or are not providing. In many cases, these parents entire lives revolve around the children, and they spend all waking hours attempting to stimulate them and divert their attention. They also take their children to every imaginable environment and try every imaginable activity, all in an effort to stimulate the children. Alas, their best efforts are not enough. These children are in no way like captive and caged primates, who are deprived of their natural setting and social interaction. And the parents are in no way like captors or zookeepers.

    Reser mentions in passing that autism may be maladaptive and leaves it at that. The entire article is devoted to wild speculation about how it might be adaptive. There is no analysis of the 99 ways in which medium to severe autism would have been maladaptive, or why autism related genes/alleles can be found in the genome. Instead, his default assumption is that if there are genes for it, they must have been selected for in the past and this accounts for them in the present. This is ridiculous and ignores most of what we know about evolutionary genetics.

    “Autism,” as we all know, is a broad spectrum (a point Reser mostly ignores) and may not even be a consistent spectrum. Sure, there may be advantages to “high function” autism and some of these things could have been useful in the “ancestral past” (another essential part of Reser’s hypothesis that remains unidentified and unexplained). What specific kinds of autism-related traits and behaviors might have been useful in the past? He should have identified them specifically and then linked them to what we actually know about that past.

    One thing we know almost for certain: hominids were not solitary foragers. Reser’s article does not even get out of the scientific gate for this reason alone. I could go on but it really would be a waste of time. In my estimation, Reser’s article has one good use: it can be given to students in critical thinking courses as a “target” article.

  13. Hoban

    Reser’s paper rings artificial and is constructed on current extensions of historic prejudices. Nowhere is equal weight or the consideration of any source given other than those of his fellows-in-arms.

    Often he uses fiction in far reaching attempts to support fact. Many interesting ideas are sprinkled throughout but unfortunately are immediately negated by the seemingly absurd ‘scientific data’.

    The aim of this paper is clearly to extend a hidden agenda being propagated by many in the industry.

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