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Planet Earth

Could Autism Be the Next Stage of Human Evolution?

By Jessica RuvinskyNovember 6, 2007 7:46 PM

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In the play “Lucy,” an emotionally distant anthropologist (Lisa Emery) decides that her severely autistic daughter Lucy (Lucy DeVito) is not sick. Instead, says the hermit scientist, she is the future: Lucy’s lack of connection to other human beings is actually an evolutionary leap forward. The rest of us? Obsolete—mental health fossils.

Our anthropologist supposes that hypersociality has created a poisonous overgrowth of society curable only by turning inward, and that autism (the diagnosis of which has increased tenfold) arose to accomplish that.

Thanks for the science, but she’s wrong.

Even if the assumptions are correct, her evolutionary hypothesis doesn’t work: Mutations don’t have a purpose; natural selection works on individuals and not whole species; the rise in autism, if it’s even real, has happened in just the last 20 years. Unlike the evolutionary “leaps” the anthropologist cites, autism involves many genes, and would take even more generations to spread if it were advantageous. And most of all, there’s the sex. As one character actually points out, it’s only an adaptation if it makes you have more kids, so a literal human connection is essential.

While science-based theater is potentially more profound and illuminating than, say, science-based cosmetics, Damien Atkins’s “Lucy” doesn’t get much past putting on scienceface. Even so, the basic idea is great. It IS possible that autism could be the next stage in evolution. As long as there is variation, it’s heritable, and it leads to differential reproductive success—that is to say, if slightly-autistic geeks get more play—then natural selection may increase the frequency of autism in the future.

And I’m not only saying this because DISCOVER is a prop on the scientist’s coffee table.

Lucy, the current offering from the E.S.T. and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Science & Technology Project, is showing through November 18 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan.

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