2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Director, MIT Media Lab; Coauthor (with Jeff Howe), Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future
Neurodiversity

Humans have diversity in neurological conditions. While some, such as autism are considered disabilities, many argue that they are the result of normal variations in the human genome. The neurodiversity movement is an international civil rights movement that argues that autism shouldn’t be “cured” and that it is an authentic form of human diversity that should be protected. 

In the early 1900s eugenics and the sterilization of people considered genetically inferior were scientifically sanctioned ideas, with outspoken advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill and US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The horror of the Holocaust, inspired by the eugenics movement, demonstrated the danger and devastation these programs can exact when put into practice.  

Temple Grandin, an outspoken spokesperson for autism and neurodiversity argues that Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the “autistic spectrum” if they had been alive today. She also believes that autism has long contributed to human development and that “without autism traits we might still be living in caves.” Today, non-neurotypical children often suffer through a remedial programs in the traditional educational system only to be discovered to be geniuses later. Many of these kids end up at MIT and other research institutes.  

With the invention of CRISPR the possibility of editing the human genome at scale has suddenly become feasible. The initial applications that are being developed involve the “fixing” of genetic mutations that cause debilitating diseases, but they are also taking us down a path with the potential to eliminate not only autism but much of the diversity that makes human society flourish. Our understanding of the human genome is rudimentary enough that it will be some time before we are able to enact complex changes that involve things like intelligence or personality, but it’s a slippery slope. I saw a business plan a few years ago that argued that autism was just “errors” in the genome that could be identified and “corrected” in the manner of “de-noising” a grainy photograph or audio recording. 

Clearly some children born with autism are in states that require intervention and have debilitating issues. However, our attempts to “cure” autism, either through remediation or eventually through genetic engineering, could result in the eradication of a neurological diversity that drives scholarship, innovation, arts and many of the essential elements of a healthy society. 

We know that diversity is essential for healthy ecosystems. We see how agricultural monocultures have created fragile and unsustainable systems. 

My concern is that even if we figure out and understand that neurological diversity is essential for our society, I worry that we will develop the tools for designing away any risky traits that deviate from the norm, and that given a choice, people will tend to opt for a neuro-typical child. 

As we march down the path of genetic engineering to eliminate disabilities and disease, it’s important to be aware that this path, while more scientifically sophisticated, has been followed before with unintended and possibly irreversible consequences and side-effects.