Genetic engineering and autism

As far as I know, all of the arguments about the increase in autism diagnoses being too rapid to be purely genetic are based on an assumption of randomness in the process. From that perspective I must admit that it seems unlikely that you could explain the increase in autism diagnoses purely to genetics.

But is this really a random process?

This thought occurred to me yesterday when I heard a teaser for yesterday‘s Talk of the Nation on NPR, on which they had a segment titled Genetically Engineering a ‘Perfect’ Baby. In the teaser, they played a quote from one of the guests in which he said something along the lines of:

We’ve been engaged in genetic engineering for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It happens every night in bars and clubs and every where around the world, when men and women ‘select’ the mate they want to help parent their child.

Which got me thinking: What if we (humans) have been engaged in a process of informal genetic engineering – maybe more appropriately referred to as selective breeding – over the past hundred years that has contributed to the increase in autism during that time, especially of the “high-functioning”, Asperger’s type of autism? I can hear many of you, even as I type this: What the hell are you talking about? And you can bet I’ve got my fire-suit on for all the flames that are sure to come my way. But I’m serious.

Consider this: Over the past 100 years or more, the engineers, scientists, mathematicians and other technically oriented people have become more important to the success and progress of our society. As these people’s importance has grown, so has their power and their desirability as a mate. As a result, these “geeks” have more opportunities to reproduce and further the survival of geek genes. When two geeks get together, especially if they are geeky in different ways, that is even more geekiness that passes down to their children.

Or, as a good friend once put it, “Geeks are breeding more now than they used to.” I apologize for the bluntness of the statement, or if it offends, but this is how she said it. (I’ve actually used that quote before, in an August 2005 post discussing the article Scientists begin to trace autism’s genetic roots in my hometown newspaper the St. Louis Post Dispatch.)

Does anyone know of any studies that address the non-randomness of mate selection and potential impact on genetic diversity, especially as it may relate to autism? I did a quick Google search, but didn’t really come up with much.

(Back on the subject of the Talk of the Nation segment, make sure you check it out. You can also join the conversation on the subject on their blog. Some very interesting comments so far.)

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2 thoughts on “Genetic engineering and autism

  1. I definitely dislike the tying of the question whether true ASD prevalence is increasing to the question of genetic vs. environmental causation. I guess, the broadening of diagnostic criteria will soon stop and the diagnosis prevalence will reach a plateau. This will not necessarily mean 100% genetic causation. Now, we are in a period of broadening criteria and expanding diagnosis. If we attribute this to environment, we must look only for factors that are also increasing – and we are likely to omit other factors that are relevant.
    It is difficult right now to determine whether there is real increase, but if you want it due to environment – medicine is more and more successful in saving premature babies, and they are more likely to become autistic.
    If you want it due to genetics – Westerners tend to postpone their reproduction, meaning increased paternal age and more point mutations; also, autistics and “autistic cousins” now maybe have more opportunities to reproduce, e.g. the Web dating sites and sperm banks may help people who would otherwise have no children.
    To the point of your post – I agree. I have thought myself that the abstract thinking characteristic of humans requires some alienation from the world. So I suppose that genes predisposing to autism have been selected for during human evolution and that even typical humans will seem autistic if compared to other species.

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  2. Pingback: npr autism

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