the predator 2018 hero

Science Behind the Fiction: Predator suggests autism is human evolution - is that true?

Contributed by
Sep 19, 2018

Shane Black’s involvement in the Predator franchise has evolved since the intergalactic hunter first reached Earth in 1987. Black played a character called Hawkins in that first installment, but his true purpose there was to do some re-writes on the script, if necessary.

He has since evolved into one of the most renowned writer/directors in Hollywood. Black wrote scripts for Lethal Weapon and a long run of classic (and not so classic '90s films), and has directed such films as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys. His most recent film brings him back to the beginning with The Predator.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for The Predator below**

The fourth installment (sixth if you count the Alien vs. Predator flicks) in the franchise, out last week, attempts some evolution of its own, retconning the reason for the Predator’s interest in Earth. Until now, the alien trophy hunters appeared to be interested only in the sport of hunting and killing, this film makes clear their true intentions. The behavior of the predators isn’t all about the hunt; instead, they are collecting specimens from species across space in order to incorporate what they determine to be the most desirable genetic traits into their own DNA in an attempt to improve themselves.

The film begins with Quinn McKenna (played by Boyd Holbrook), a military veteran, encountering a predator. He’s shipped off to a psychiatric hospital for his trouble, in order to keep him quiet about what he knows. But not before he hides some alien tech at his home, within the grasp of his son, Rory.

Rory, for his part, is on the autism spectrum and has a big part to play in the plot of the movie. See, the predators are here looking for beneficial genetic materials with which they can work, and they’ve got their eye on Rory.

While on the surface, any Predator movie is an alien vs human gore fest, Black attempts to inject a few bigger ideas into this latest entry. Primary among them is the notion that being on the autism spectrum is the next step in human evolution. Evolution, it seems, is the name of the game, making the predators bigger, better, and badder.

This, of course, isn’t the first time people have suggested that particular psychological or neurological differences might be advantageous. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that what we consider disorders today might have been the key to surviving and thriving in the past.

The modern environment changes faster than our biology can keep up, especially over the last couple of centuries. At the end of the day, all of us are ancient animals living in a rapidly evolving world. Sometimes that means things that were once beneficial are now seen as outside of the norm. A mental tick that makes you particularly good at avoiding lions might appear unusual in a world largely devoid of lions.

The thesis of The Predator, however, takes this notion a step further in suggesting not only that autism is or was advantageous, but that it represents a forward step on the human evolutionary path.

There are a number of issues with this sort of story mechanic, not the least of which is the fetishization of minority communities. Fiction has a long history of misunderstanding neurological disorders and using those misunderstandings to further plots. Perhaps the most common example is that of Dissociative Identity Disorder, commonly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. The Predator isn’t the first movie to use autism as a plot device and not every movie with autistic characters is problematic, but we should all be wary when an on-screen characterization leans heavily on cliche in order to use the character as a sort of deus ex machina for the plot.

Autistic characters in movies, especially genre movies, are often portrayed as being savants. They have some specialized skill or skills that make them useful in a way the other characters are not. The risk here is in turning people into sideshow attractions. Ultimately, it’s up to members of the Autism Spectrum Disorder community to determine whether or not the use of Rory as a character and plot mechanic was appropriate.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the frequency and presentation of savant behavior in those with ASD.

The exact number of autism patients who exhibit savant qualities isn’t exactly known, nor is the percent of presentation within the community. What we do have are estimates anywhere from 10 to 30 percent, maybe a little more. It’s difficult to nail down a precise number, in large part because there’s no clear definition of what savant behavior means.

It’s characterized as an “island of genius which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” But what constitutes an “island of genius”? That’s up to individuals to decide. Additionally, some studies have relied on patients and their families to self-report. Finally, sample sizes aren’t great, with a recent study having little more than a hundred participants.

What we can determine with some certainty is that savant behavior is not as rare as you might think. Even low estimates suggest that 1 in 10 patients diagnosed with autism present with at least one savant behavior, meaning that they are markedly better at that specific activity than the rest of the population while perhaps being below par in other areas. In a way, this isn’t all that unusual. All of us have things we are below average at and other things in which we excel. Autism seems to enhance these variations in behavior to extremes in some people.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Sue Fletcher-Watson, a developmental psychologist at the Patrick Wild Centre at the University of Edinburgh. When asked if there was any merit to the claim made in the film that autism is the next step in human evolution, Fletcher-Watson wasn't buying it.

"No, I don’t think so," she told us in an email. "Evolution is not a staircase but a slope — even if individual genetic mutations arise spontaneously, their behavioral effects are normally subtle and only gradually become apparent, let alone prevalent, in a population. Autistic people genetically are indistinguishable from non-autistic people. There may be a combination of genes that confer higher likelihood of autism, but we’re not yet confident about what that genetic combination is. And different combinations probably contribute to autism for different people. All this is very different from an evolutionary 'step' — which implies a new species, to me."

While savants are interesting, sometimes incredibly so, there’s nothing in their abilities or behavior that isn’t human. But they do open up windows into the workings of the mind and allow us to understand ourselves a bit better.

It may seem as though there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency of autism diagnoses over the last several years. Most doctors believe this to be a result of improvements in diagnostics, not an actual increase in the prevalence of the disorder.

In truth, autism has been with us for as long as we’ve been people.

Autism is not the next step in human evolution, at least not in the way presented in the film. This shows an acute misunderstanding of how evolution works.

When asked if there was any evidence that autism was an evolutionary advantage, Fletcher-Watson responded, "Not evidence that I’m aware of. But I think you could argue that anything that is prevalent today in about 1 percent of people can’t have been historically disadvantageous. I guess in a tribal scenario you need diversity — different people with different skills.  And so that would include autism and other forms of neurodiversity."

SYFY WIRE also spoke with R.J. Walsh, a neuropsychology PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam who is also on the spectrum. "Autism is by far one of the most strongly genetically influenced psychological traits, and this indicates that if autism weren’t at least somewhat evolutionarily advantageous, some of the genes involved in producing it would have been bred out of the population," Walsh said.

All of this suggests not that autism is some new development promising a grand change in the human species, but that it is wholly human, something that has been with us for a long time.

Evolution doesn’t work in any predictable, linear fashion. Because humanity has progressed from what we consider to be lesser to what we are now, we assume that’s the way evolution always works. But the evidence shows that isn’t the case. Environmental pressures can go any which way.

Whales are mammals precisely because they left the water for the land, then returned. Evolution doesn’t care what the species thinks is good, bad, or indifferent. It cares about passing on genes. That’s all. From a certain point of view, every new person born is the next step in evolution. Every one of us represents billions of years of collective adaptation at the hands of natural pressures.

Evolution is little more than the collection of those changes over vast swathes of time. Those changes include the good and the bad, the beneficial and the malicious, the unique and unusual as well as the blindingly boring.

All of these changes in our collective DNA represent the latest in a millennia-long crawl from the cosmic sludge.

These evolutionary changes were not divergent steps away from what is typically known as humanity. Instead, they are ordinary variations within the human genome that, according to some hypotheses, allowed individuals to see the world in unique ways, ultimately increasing the collected knowledge of the species.

So, yes, if we want to get pedantic, those who live along the autism spectrum do represent the latest step in human evolution… just like everyone else.

If research into the history of ASD is to be understood and honored, it teaches us that we wouldn’t be where we are as a species if not for the few people who were able to look at the world and see it just a little differently.

To that end, I hope we can all learn to respect one another’s differences, celebrate what we have in common, and be kind to one another. Because when the alien hunters do show up to eat us all, they sure as hell won’t.

The Predator is in theaters now.


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