Today’s misguided [mis]use of evolutionary anthropology is the “neanderthal autism theory” (NAT) which posits the traits associated with autism are the result of additional “neanderthal genes” being expressed. They’re perfectly normal, they’re just perfectly normal hybrids.
Unfortunately for people who might like this idea the theory was constructed without a lick of understanding about Neanderthals and so is horribly wrong. Unfortunately for me the NAT is thousands of words long, far too much for me to address. As such, I’ll focus on the 6 “most convincing” NAT arguments presented in this post.
Neanderthals have less developed social life, so their social skills were less developed too, so are the social skills of autistic people
Whilst the idea that neanderthals lacked some of the social structures of humans is gaining popularity, this is still being debated and the issue is far from settled. As such there’s not much I can really say about this point other than “perhaps.” However, I can say that the following justification for this premise provided by the NAT is just so wrong it can’t be responded to:
The [neanderthal] forehead is most likely explained by a less advanced social system.
Males were accepted into the group by other males. Today this manifests itself as voluntary cuckoldry, a very odd behavior where whites invite blacks and other non-whites to have sex with their partner. The reason they choose non-whites, is that only males not part of other groups were allowed. Whites by these males are identified with other groups, while blacks are identified with “other” and not part of any group.
most primates avoid eye contact as the sign of aggression, modern humans (neurotypicals) are the exception, both Neanderthals and autists are not
My first thought when reading this point was “how do they know how Neanderthals felt about eye contact.” It’s not as though this information is preserved in their fossils in technology. In an effort to uncover their source for this information I went to the original NAT article itself, which says
Many primate species regard direct eye contact as a threat. The same thing seems to be happening in autistic children. 236 It seems like autistics both are acused of staring 136 and of lacking eye contact. 237
So basically this argument rests on the assumption that Neanderthals were like modern non-human primates. Given that Neanderthals are actually very similar to modern humans genetically, behaviourally and culturally I’m not sure why this assumption should be made. As such I have no problems with dismissing this argument on the grounds they don’t provide any evidence for it.
Neanderthals have bigger brains, and the proportion of brain size to body size was bigger, that could mean they were more intelligent, people with Asperger Syndrom are typically more intelligent than neurotypicals
The original NAT article derives their information about the brain size of autistic people from an informal online survey about hat size. Although this pretty shoddy evidence for autistics having larger brains, more rigerous research does appear to show this is the case.
However, differences is brain size is not the only thing that differentiates humans and neanderthals. Neanderthals also had differently shaped and organised brains and their cranium developed in a different way. Autistic people do not share these traits.
As such whilst this connection does lend some plausibility to the NAT the lack of any further similarities means that this is circumstantial evidence at best.
Neanderthals women were dominating and were taking sexual initiative, autistic people find it especially difficult to adapt to sexual model of neurotypicals, where males are sexually dominant, increased tendency to behaviours such as exhibitiosm can also be explained by neanderthal genes, since among Neanderthals such behaviours were actually accepted as normal and dominant
Like with the eye contact point raised in #2, the first question you might be thinking is “how the hell do they know this.” In an effort to work this out I tried to find the justification for this point in the original NAT article. All I could find was
The Neanderthal group bonding likely looked strikingly similar to bonobos. Bonobos are a female dominated species. The bonobo female uses non-reproductive sex to handle males. They are also highly promiscuous, and cannot select to mate with only alpha males, rather mate with all the males in their group. The Schadenfreude and Rousseau affect, as well as masochism must have it’s origin in a female dominant species. For this reason, Neanderthals must have been a female dominated species.
All the citations are included in the previous quote i.e. there are none. This entire passage is simply a giant assertion and with no reason to think it true I’m going to conclude it provides no support for the NAT.
Neanderthals were meat-eaters (for me meat is the best diet)
This argument contains 2 main flaws. Firstly, it’s trying to use anecdotes to make claims about everyone on the autism spectrum. That’s just bad science. The second major problem is that, whilst Neanderthals were big fans of meat, there’s very little to suggest this was a genetic preference. We know that the further north human groups live the more they eat meat because there is insufficient plant life around to sustain them, might this also be why neanderthals ate a lot of meat?
There’s no reason to think the meat preference was genetic and so no reason to think this point is relevant to autism since the NAT is trying to argue autism stems from neanderthal genes.
Neanderthals prefer cold to heat (I like when it’s cold and hate when it’s hot)
The NAT itself elaborates on this point by arguing that neanderthals didn’t use their tools to make clothes, didn’t use their fires to keep warm and didn’t change their toolkit to suit colder environments (hence their adaptations were biological, not cultural). However, fire has been found in neanderthal structures and scrapers – tools associated with making hides – become more common during colder periods.
Whilst I can’t say whether or not neanderthals liked the cold I can say that any evidence for this position is lacking and so this point is lacking in the power to lend support for the NAT.
In short, the NAT is an embodiment of the phrase “a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing.” They’ve gone looking for similarities between autism and neanderthal and stopped when they found them, not bothering to delve deeper and work out whether these traits actually existed in our extinct cousins. For example, one part relies heavily on the creationist tome “Buried Alive” despite the fact there are many flaws with the book’s reasoning. Although they acknowledge some of them, for the most part they just take the bits which agree with their idea and run with it. They simply stopped the research when they found an idea they liked, and thus the NAT was born.