The eternal search for what makes us human goes on. There has long been a debate over the origin of altruism. Every religion has a version of “The Golden Rule”, that is treat others as you would wish to be treated, and it is ingrained in everybody’s ethics even if not always practiced. Although it is a misconception that evolution teaches us to be selfish and to put our own interests above others, it is widely believed that there is little personal benefit to altruism. However this is untrue as cooperation has its own benefits too. Now, researchers may have found the first instance of altruism in prehistory and it concerns the possibility of a change in attitude towards those with what we today would call learning difficulties.
Autism in Prehistory?
When looking for the origin of altruism, we wouldn’t necessarily think of attitudes towards autism. Researchers have long thought that learning difficulties go back much further into our past than originally believed; some cave art shows the possibility that the designer had autism. With little recorded data on learning difficulties, particularly those on the autism spectrum, it’s hard to know precisely what attitudes ancient humans had to people with conditions that we today are familiar.
From one perspective, they may have been problematic to early societies, yet 100,000 years ago something potentially remarkable happened. This is when researchers believe that those whose brains worked differently were integrated socially into the kinship groups in which they were born. It seems that early humans began to see autism as a gift rather than a burden. It all rests on an idea that humans have struggled with and over for generations – collaborative morality and social identity.
How Ancient People Might Have Perceived Autism
It is not clear how autism develops, although there does seem to be genetic markers for the condition. Despite being labelled as a learning difficulty, people with autism do have higher functions:
- Superior skills with regard to long-term memory
- Heightened perception in several senses including sight, taste and smell
- Superior understanding and ability to comprehend nature
- Skills with animals, including perceiving behaviour
From the perspective of small nomadic communities that rely on foraging for food, ascertaining natural threats, always wondering about where the next meal is coming from, the need to understand topography and much more – it’s not difficult to see why early peoples with ASD would have been valued in a community.
Arguably, anybody with these skills would not just have been accepted for their gifts, but ultimately valued for them in a time when higher functioning thought patterns had clear uses to small groups. They may have become equivalents of shamans or soothsayers, or the community wise man or wise woman.
Autism and Altruism
Whether this is evidence of altruism is still a matter of debate. There are still many questions to answer – particularly whether altruism permitted the acceptance of people with autism, or whether the realisation that people who may previously have been seen as a burden were now identified as having unique skills was the contributing factor. What researchers now call “collaborative morality” certainly emerged around this time. It is believed that it drove humanity’s early success in a time before towns and cities. Furthermore, anthropologists feel that humans have always had an “altruism gene”. We are, after all, largely social creatures who understand the benefit of working together.
For most of our existence, we have survived in small kinship groups. This certainly would have been true 100,000 years ago. Rather than seeing the less fortunate as a burden or a hindrance, they would certainly have had a role within the group.