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September 19, 2011

What atheism and autism may have in common

Filed under: atheism,Autism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:02 pm

My post below on atheism and autism caused some confusion. I want to quickly clear up some issues in regards to the model which I had in mind implicitly. In short I’m convinced by the work of cognitive scientists of religion (see Religion Explained and In Gods We Trust) that belief in gods and spirits is intuitively plausible to most people. It does not follow from this that when you have an intuitive belief that that belief is unshakable. This explains the variation in levels of atheism across societies as well as shifts of views across one’s lifetime. But, it also explains why in pre-modern societies acceptance of supernatural entities is the null or default position, if not necessarily universal.

But what’s the basis for the idea that belief in gods is intuitive? To reduce a lot of results down to a few sentences, humans live in a universe of other actors, agents, which we preoccupy over greatly. Additionally, we can conceive of agents which aren’t present before us. In other words, the plausibility of supernatural narratives derives from our orientation toward populating the universe with social beings and agency. There’s a lot of evolutionary psychological models for why this phenotype is adaptive, but that’s not relevant to us here. The point is that religious beliefs and systems use these intuitions and impulses as atoms with which they can build up more complex cultural ideas.


This is why autistic individuals are of particular interest. They either lack, or are highly deficient in, a great deal of naive social intelligence. If the root source of religiosity is a minimum level of social awareness of other agents, then one might suppose that autistic people may have difficulty finding supernatural agents, gods, plausible. Above I stated that I personally found the work of cognitive scientists of religion about the root causes of this phenomenon plausible. The reason I stated it in this way is that I’m one of the minority of human beings who has never found supernatural agents or spirits plausible. I had to read in a book why other people found gods so compelling as a concept. Reflectively I understood the gist, and I was indoctrinated in their existence as a small child, but these entities were never “real” to me. I suspect that this is due to a more global deficit in modeling other agents.

This is why the empirical results on the correlation between atheism and high functioning autism are important. High functioning autistic individuals are a “boundary condition” of normal human psychological function, and if conventional religiosity is strongly dependent on normal human psychology you would expect it to be generally lacking among high functioning autistic individuals. When I say conventional religiosity, I’m leaving an opening for unconventional religiosity. There are stories of autistic children when told of the concept of the afterlife who formulate a plan to kill themselves, because they accept at face value the promise of a utopian afterlife. This is not the normal human reaction, and it goes to the complexity of cognition, where multiple inconsistent views can be hold together simultaneously. But, I do think that a subset of religious fundamentalists are in fact the inversions of the atheists who find religion implausible on the face of it. To be plain about it, the beliefs of most religious systems imply a lot of crazy things if you work out the logic. But most people don’t behave in a crazy manner.

Also, as I noted below the psychological profile of atheism is going to vary by society, because the proportions of atheists varies. In a culture where religion is strongly normative, such as Palestine, atheism will be espoused by a particular personality profile willing to go against a very strong grain. In contrast, in a nation like Estonia there will be little difference between atheists and theists.

Finally, some people were angry that I seemed to suggest that atheists were antisocial weirdos. Well, there is some data to back that up. This doesn’t mean that more atheist societies are worse than more theist societies (e.g., Estonia vs. Romania). But when it comes to individual differences this seems robust in many societies, though probably not all. I’m curious if people who are aghast at my generalization have a lot of experience in person with atheist organizations? (I do)

February 8, 2010

Delayed childbearing & autism

Filed under: Autism — Razib @ 11:22 am

Independent and dependent contributions of advanced maternal and paternal ages to autism risk:

Reports on autism and parental age have yielded conflicting results on whether mothers, fathers, or both, contribute to increased risk. We analyzed restricted strata of parental age in a 10-year California birth cohort to determine the independent or dependent effect from each parent. Autism cases from California Department of Developmental Services records were linked to State birth files (1990-1999). Only singleton births with complete data on parental age and education were included (n=4,947,935, cases=12,159). In multivariate logistic regression models, advancing maternal age increased risk for autism monotonically regardless of the paternal age. Compared with mothers 25-29 years of age, the adjusted odds ratio (aOR) for mothers 40+ years was 1.51 (95% CI: 1.35-1.70), or compared with mothers <25 years of age, aOR=1.77 (95% CI, 1.56-2.00). In contrast, autism risk was associated with advancing paternal age primarily among mothers <30: aOR=1.59 (95% CI, 1.37-1.85) comparing fathers 40+ vs. 25-29 years of age. However, among mothers >30, the aOR was 1.13 (95% CI, 1.01-1.27) for fathers 40+ vs. 25-29 years of age, almost identical to the aOR for fathers <25 years. Based on the first examination of heterogeneity in parental age effects, it appears that women’s risk for delivering a child who develops autism increases throughout their reproductive years whereas father’s age confers increased risk for autism when mothers are <30, but has little effect when mothers are past age 30. We also calculated that the recent trend towards delayed childbearing contributed approximately a 4.6% increase in autism diagnoses in California over the decade.

See ScienceDaily for more detail.

January 6, 2010

The geographical distribution of autism in California

Filed under: Autism — Razib @ 11:19 am

Geographic distribution of autism in California: a retrospective birth cohort analysis:

Prenatal environmental exposures are among the risk factors being explored for associations with autism. We applied a new procedure combining multiple scan cluster detection tests to identify geographically defined areas of increased autism incidence. This procedure can serve as a first hypothesis-generating step aimed at localized environmental exposures, but would not be useful for assessing widely distributed exposures, such as household products, nor for exposures from nonpoint sources, such as traffic.

Geocoded mothers’ residences on 2,453,717 California birth records, 1996-2000, were analyzed including 9,900 autism cases recorded in the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) database through February 2006 which were matched to their corresponding birth records. We analyzed each of the 21 DDS Regional Center (RC) catchment areas separately because of the wide variation in diagnostic practices. Ten clusters of increased autism risk were identified in eight RC regions, and one Potential Cluster in each of two other RC regions.

After determination of clusters, multiple mixed Poisson regression models were fit to assess differences in known demographic autism risk factors between the births within and outside areas of elevated autism incidence, independent of case status.

Adjusted for other covariates, the majority of areas of autism clustering were characterized by high parental education, e.g. relative risks >4 for college-graduate vs. nonhigh-school graduate parents. This geographic association possibly occurs because RCs do not actively conduct case finding and parents with lower education are, for various reasons, less likely to successfully seek services.

More from ScienceDaily:

However, the researchers said that in this investigation the clusters probably are not correlated with specific environmental pollutants or other “exposures.” Rather, they correlate to areas where residents are more educated.
“What we found with these clusters was that they correlated with neighborhoods of high education or neighborhoods that were near a major treatment center for autism,” said senior author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of public health sciences and a researcher with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

“In the U.S., the children of older, white and highly educated parents are more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism or autism spectrum disorder. For this reason, the clusters we found are probably not a result of a common environmental exposure. Instead, the differences in education, age and ethnicity of parents comparing births in the cluster versus those outside the cluster were striking enough to explain the clusters of autism cases,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

Van Meter said that the increased risk of autism in these areas is roughly a doubling of the incidence of autism over the incidence in the surrounding zone. For example, for the cluster area located in the service zone of the San Diego Regional Center, the autism incidence was 61.2 per 10,000 births and, in the rest of the Regional Center service zone, 27.1 per 10,000 births. For the Harbor Regional Center the incidence was 103.4 and 57.8, respectively. Van Meter added that it is important to remember that most of the children with autism were not born in the cluster areas.

In Southern California, the areas of increased incidence were located within these Regional Center service zones:

1. The Westside Regional Center, headquartered in Culver City, Calif., which serves the communities of western Los Angeles County, including the cities of Culver City, Inglewood and Santa Monica;

2. The Harbor Regional Center, headquartered in Torrance, Calif., which serves southern Los Angeles County, including the cities of Bellflower, Harbor, Long Beach and Torrance;

3. The North Los Angeles County Regional Center, headquartered in Van Nuys, Calif., which serves the San Fernando and Antelope valleys — two clusters were located in this regional center’s service zone.

4. The South Central Los Angeles Regional Center, headquartered in Los Angeles, which serves the communities of Compton and Gardena;

5. The Regional Center of Orange County, headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif., which serves the residents of Orange County; and

6. The Regional Center of San Diego County, headquartered in San Diego, which serves people living in Imperial and San Diego counties.

In Northern California, the areas of increased incidence were located within these regional centers’ service zones:

7. The Golden Gate Regional Center, headquartered in San Francisco, which serves Marin and San Mateo counties and the City and County of San Francisco. Two clusters were located within the Golden Gate Regional Center’s service zone; and

8. The San Andreas Regional Center, headquartered in Campbell, Calif., which serves Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.

Two areas of increased incidence were located in Central California regional centers’ service zones:

9. The Central Valley Regional Center, headquartered in Fresno, Calif., which serves Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare counties; and

10. The Valley Mountain Regional Center, headquartered in Stockton, Calif., which serves Amador, Calaveras, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties.

Might want to revisit an old Wired piece, The Greek Syndrome, from the early aughts.

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