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Occupy for a more compassionate society

November 14, 2011

This is my latest contribution to some thoughts on parts of the agenda of the Occupy movement, and some thoughts for how a better socio-economic system might work. This entry was written in relation to an interesting article published in New Scientist magazine.

The link to the relevant article is here:, but it’s about to end up behind a paywall, so I’ll summarise.

The idea, published in the Cambridge Archaeology Journal (Vol 19, p179), is that what our society calls mental illness is the origin of technological development. About 2.6 million years ago, the first stone tools appeared. For most of the time that followed that, we muddled along with primitive scrapers and hand axes. About 100,000 years ago, there was a revolution in tool use – the first spears, throwing sticks, bows and arrows and so on appeared.

The view of archaeologist Penny Spikins (University of York) is that at some point humans developed compassion, and people with alternative, perhaps more creative mindsets, came to be tolerated. For reasons I’ll come to, I don’t fully agree with her, but the consequences are much the same. People with what we call autism, as well as other mental “disorders” were able to become creative in their societies, allowing the members of those societies to out-compete other species, including other hominids.

This may not have been a great thing in the long run – the other hominid species are now all extinct – but the point is that this enabled Homo sapiens to be the successful species it is today.

I differ from Spikins on one point. She is of the view that our species “began to develop very complex emotions such as compassion, gratitude and admiration”. With some hesitancy, I’ll accept the latter two, but I’ve seen too much evidence of some of those same humans wanting to be able to identify autistic genes, for example, in utero, with only one obvious motive.


That’s not what I call compassion. I could go on.

Interestingly, the genes that cause many of these disorders first appeared at the same time that these technological advances began to occur. Of course, anyone who has studied logic will tell you that post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) is a fallacy. That said, these are the same genes that code for the ability to think outside the box, and to be able to reason through a complex problem and keep obsessively tinkering with it until it works.

At the same time we see a burst of artistic creativity. Our ancestors began making beads and creating simple musical instruments. Thirty-five thousand years ago they were working on realistic cave paintings oddly similar to those produced by those autistics with the coordination and demand for precision to create the same forms today.

Modern gatherer-hunter societies have shamans – with what would look like bipolar disorder if they lived anywhere else – creating more abstract art, also seen in cave paintings, and going into trances (and sometimes hearing voices) that seem consistent with what we call schizophrenia. These are the people binding their cultures together.

Of course, in modern societies there is evidence that these disorders are associated with a reduction in reproductive fitness. There are all kinds of problems with dealing with just about anything in the DSM. Part of the definition for many of them includes words to the effect that “the disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

Does that say more about us, or does that say more about our societies?

I would argue it says more about our societies. I present two pieces of evidence. The first is the gene responsible for the serotonin transporter protein, SERT, which is involved in the regulation of mood. Everyone has a pair of these genes, but they can be the short version, or the long one. If you have two copies of the long version, you seem to be immune to extreme low mood. I probably have at least one short copy.

The short version also confers an advantage. It increases emotional responsivity. In a stressful environment, those with one or two copies of this version of the gene tend to end up more vulnerable to depression. In a more nurturing one, we can be highly successful. Here’s something else. There is one other species that shares this trait with the SERT genes: the rhesus monkey. We are both are highly successful species able to exploit a range of ecological niches.

Similarly, you have the gene that codes for the D4 dopamine receptor, DRD4-7R . This gene is linked to high physical energy levels and hyperactivity – which is pathologised in western societies, but very useful in others.

The second piece of evidence is the existence of clusters. The DRD4-7R gene clusters in several indigenous Amazonian cultures (although several have wisely resisted genetic testing, but that’s for another blog). There are clusters of Asperger syndrome. We know of definite clusters around Oxford, Cambridge and Eindhoven: the first two are major intellectual centres; the third a technological hub, and in Silicon Valley in California, where much of the work is done on IT development. These are places where lots of geeks (many of them high-functioning autistics) come to work, and ultimately to meet each other, mate, and have more high-functioning autistic offspring.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point. What we pathologise as mental illness confers a benefit at an individual and species level. These genes became widespread in our societies partly because they are often recessive (or only express in certain circumstances) and partly because they confer a specific evolutionary advantage. It’s all very well competing for a mate among those big thugs with the big spears.

Alternatively, you can mate with the one who worked out that smart new point that makes the spear stay in the animal after it was thrown using the throwing stick he also made. You can mate with the one who is cussed enough to make sure he comes home with food long after the others have given in to a hungry night’s sleep. You can mate with the one who build that really interesting oven thing, and rewards you with the choicest bits that come out of it. He might be quiet, but he’s not a loudmouth round the campfire. He’s probably working out how to get at those berries you couldn’t quite reach. He’s also downright imaginative in, well, anyway…. You wouldn’t believe what he … yes … well….

Or you can mate with the shaman, who knows all about getting rid of those nasty evil spirits that made you sick, and even talks to the Gods….

That, people, is an evolutionary and reproductive advantage.

The latter might be straining things just a little, at least in modern societies, but the point remains. These people have different ways of seeing the world, have different insights, and can be an asset to our species.

So, what do we need?

It’s a bit difficult to answer that question generally, because everyone’s needs are different, but I have, in some ways, already done so. We need a nurturing environment. We get pathological not because we have these genes, but because we are deprived of a nurturing environment when not being able to play with the other children is pathologised. We get pathological when we are told that we aren’t good enough for the job because the other person is a “better team player”.

Depression is, in its broadest sense, a dis-ease. Asperger syndrome is not a disease. Arguably the same can be said for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder – probably vast chunks of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual should go the way of the entry on homosexuality (removed in 1973 after the neurotypicals who wrote it finally realised that it’s a natural expression of sexuality, long after those with decent executive functioning in their frontal cortex had shrugged their shoulders and accepted their gay friends).

Mind you, there must be someone on that team who is a really extreme systematiser. That’s a thousand pages of complexity. That’s no job for a neurotypical, any more than designing a microprocessor or debugging software (or working out the Theory of Gravity, or General Relativity, or Natural Selection).

So, what constitutes a “nurturing environment”. Well, I suppose an end to parents demanding a “cure” might help. When I hear that I get close to having an Eric Lensherr moment (you know, the bit about, “They wish to cure us. But I say to you we are the cure! The cure for that infirm, imperfect condition called Homo sapiens!”). Demanding a “cure” tells us that there is something wrong with us: that we’re not wanted unless we fit your expectations of who we “ought” to be.

So, let’s play nicely, shall we? You have your assets; we have ours. Lots of us are working in science and technology. Some of us are artists. We’re the creative ones, who come up with new ideas, and understand complex systems. Me, I like ecosystems; the more complex the better. I’ve temporarily abjured my birds, bees and butterflies to think about how to build a decent post-capitalist society: one that will not only respect ecosystems but function as one, and I don’t mean the constant march towards a socio-economic monoculture that we see today.

Some of us work really well in universities, or in high-tech industries. Good stuff. I wasn’t so lucky. A knowledge of high technology is not one of my obsessions. I kept applying for jobs, and kept getting rejected, and kept having the Department for Social Insecurity giving me no end of hassle, until I broke down and wound up in the local mental hospital with massive slashes down my wrists.

That is not a nurturing environment: that is institutionalised bullying.

I don’t want to be “cured”, even if I thought it were possible. Yes, there are disadvantages. On the other hand, there are definite benefits. I’ll settle for being different. Now, I despise eugenics, but I recognise that the Hate Mail, the Tories and some of the parent-led groups do not. If you want to be pragmatic about it, crushing neurodiversity is a good way for everyone to lose. If someone were to develop a cure the establishment would be able to say to the rest of us that it would not support us in any way, because it would then be our fault that we are the way we are for not accepting the cure. Such a cure might not be compulsory, but the neurotypicals could, and in my experience would, make it very hard to reject it. Conform or else is a common refrain from governments and societies. Everyone then loses our assets.

If someone develops a way of identifying mental disorders in utero, many parents would opt to abort, rather than having a child who is “different”, with similar consequences.

The way I see it I have two options. I can allow myself to be marginalised and isolated, and try to make my way in a world that really doesn’t understand me (and I don’t really understand it, but what I do think I understand is not very pleasant). Alternatively you, or rather we, as a species, can give everyone the nurturing environment we need to actually achieve something.

In today’s society that would not actually be that difficult. You put us on the basic stipend given to all those who need care and mobility attention (in the UK, that”s what the Disability Living Allowance is all about), and help us to get jobs. That’s help, not victimise if the employers keep demanding team players. We’re crap in teams, and would last a fast three seconds in sales. Deal with it! At present we get negative psychological and life outcomes because we are dumped in your stressful, even hostile, environment.

At the same time, if we come up with a project, however bonkers, you set a fund aside to pay for it. I’m talking about a few hundred quid for any given project (that’s all I need for the one I want to work on after I fix your broken society!). For years people wondered what the point of all this work on electricity was all about. I can see Ugghh and his pals trying to suss out what that stick with the spear is for: it’ll never work (now even my friend’s dog has a throwing stick). Even if one in ten of these bonkers ideas comes up with a useful result, that’s still a much better investment than making us go and stack shelves in a supermarket for benefits, which is what the Hate Mail readers want, or sit rotting in our rooms, which is what nobody wants.

In the UK the National Autistic Society have made important advances in the development of a strategy, even managing to get legislation passed that might even help, but the fact remains that the Benefits Agency retains a culture of penny pinching, bullying and victimisation of anyone who does not fit into one of their boxes. The recent changes to the benefits system, with processes designed to find anyone with a mental health problem to be “fit for work” simply because they have no physical problem are also a long way from creating a nurturing environment. These policies have been implicated in several suicides already.

Funding this kind of thing in a post-capitalist society might actually be harder, but it might be hoped that such a society might be more nurturing. Perhaps it could be done through funds from the profits of the local building society or credit union: a micro-loan that might be paid back if the idea turns out to have an economic value.

My view is that this is something that the Occupy movement needs to address along with everything else. If what we are about is building a fairer society, then that fairness needs to include everyone, with particular attention paid to the more vulnerable in society.

All I’m asking for is a bit of compassion, to be met half way, and not to be expected to jam myself into your world. I tried that. Most of you turned me away. In return, I’ll help you build a more compassionate society.



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  1. Elinor permalink

    Yes, yes, so much yes. Especially this:

    We get pathological not because we have these genes, but because we are deprived of a nurturing environment when not being able to play with the other children is pathologised.

  2. It is very interesting how many medical developments are really about eugenics, and are a disgrace. I believe that humans are capable of compassion, but much of what is dressed up as compassion is truly about self interest and very far removed from any genuine compassion. As to “Occupy”, we stick it to the man here

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