Beautiful minds — the egalitarian side of autism

The movie “A Beautiful Mind” is among my favourite movies, featuring one of my favourite scientists, John Nash, who received the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to Game Theory. The movie focuses on his paranoid schizophrenia, but it’s hard not to notice how he was also on the spectrum and even though it’s impossible to give a diagnosis posthumously, many have convincingly argued that Nash had Asperger’s.

The beauty of Nash’s theories are beyond doubt, however the movie has also been criticized for beautifying his personality. People on the spectrum aren’t exactly known for being the “nicest” people, on the contrary, they are often perceived as extremely rude, due to their “ruthless” and “blunt” honesty. How can honesty be a bad thing? I have argued for a hunter-gatherer (vs farmer) origin of neurodiverse minds. Hunter-gatherers usually do not have all the politeness and etiquette we know from our societies, which grew out of farmer societies.

Expressions like hello, goodbye, how are you?, I’m sorry, you’re welcome, and thank you don’t express or elicit new information about the world so much as they maintain goodwill and mutual respect. The Pirahã culture does not require this kind of communication. Pirahã sentences are either requests for information (questions), assertions of new information (declarations), or commands, by and large. There are no words for thanks, I’m sorry, and so on. I have become used to this over the years and forget most of the time how surprising this can be to outsiders. Daniel Everett: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

In my most recent book I argue that people with ASD have ancient egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds, that aren’t in need of many social rules and conventions. A lot of politeness phenomena most likely grew out of showing deference or obedience to authority — something that does not exist in hunter-gatherer societies as they are completely void of hierarchy. In fact, many autsitc people tend to be averse to or defiant of authority, unless based on competence. The only way a hunter-gatherer can (temporarily) lead is by competence.

The beautiful side of neurodiverse is therefore not only in their pattern-seeking mathematical, musical and engineering talents, but there is also a social beauty to them. Here is the beautiful side of autism that comes with egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds:

  • High degree of honesty (find it hard to lie)
  • Less nepotistic (in-group social) and more willing to help outsiders, like refugees
  • Value competence more objectively regardless of personal relationship
  • Stand up for the bullied and underdogs
  • Very accepting of diversity (also races, sexual orientation, etc.)
  • Less materialistic and interested in status symbols
  • Lower herd mentality and lower level of conformism
  • Tend to be modest and often suffer from Imposter Syndrome when achieving success

All these social traits are a consequence of more than average egalitarian minds. Hunter-gatherers don’t show off with their kill, on the contrary they “shame the meat” showing they don’t consider themselves above the others. The very best hunters, however, are held in high esteem due to their competence and may even be able to have two wives, thus increasing their reproductive potential.

My model of human evolution in the past 10.000 years:

Not all hunter-gatherer type people (about 20–25%) are on the spectrum. Many of them may compensate for their lack of social learning with their pattern-seeking abilities. However, they will have most of the above social traits mentioned, ranging from higher honesty to low interest in material possessions, in particular when these possessions represent status symbols.

This model would also explain why so many people on the spectrum get bullied and abused, they are often too honest and trusting. Unfortunately this is particularly hard for hunter-gatherer type girls who often trust a potential mate, just to find out that she was being abused when the relationship is over. It also explains the assortative mating found among neurodiverse people. Even if hunter-gatherer type people learn to navigate channel 2 well, they are naturally more attuned to channel 1 people. This is why many people on the spectrum find partners who are considered neurotypical, while still hunter-gatherer types.

Originally published at on January 24, 2021.