Systematic Breakthrough

How Autism Led Me from Darwin's Brilliance to Cosmic Truth

Autistic people systemize nearly everything. On top of many of the other features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that the general public is more familiar with—such as difficulties with social interactions; focused, narrow interests; speech delays; repetitive behaviors—are those less familiar traits of systemizing everything and paying extreme attention to details. In recent years, considerable attention has been given by the press to the notion that many scientists of the past were probably on the spectrum. Some commentators have remarked that the features inherent in a highly functioning autistic mind are conducive to the study of science and engineering, precisely because these fields are driven by explanatory models, theories, laws, and systems. Hence, it is reasonable to attribute many advancements in those fields to autistic people.1

Leading autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of Cambridge University's Autism Research Center, characterizes systemizing as the drive to identify the rules that govern a given system, in order to predict how that system will behave. Such systemizing helps to generate laws of the form, "If p, then q," as in, "If we turn the right handle, then cold water will come from the faucet." Baron-Cohen clarifies that the systems of intense interest to autistic people can be of various kinds, such as systems of collectibles, mechanical systems, numerical systems, motor systems, or even natural systems.2

Happy in Darwinism

Given this understanding of systems and those who are skilled in their analyses, it is not surprising that a leading psychiatrist from Dublin's Trinity College, Professor Michael Fitzgerald, has suggested that Charles Darwin shared many of the traits of ASD. According to Fitzgerald, not only was Darwin reported to be solitary and avoid socializing—readily recognizable traits of ASD—but he also had the capacity to hyper-focus, to observe with enduring fascination the world around him, and to note intricate details that would slip the attention of most others. Fitzgerald notes that other researchers have posited that the very same genes giving rise to autism are similarly responsible for tremendous creativity and ingenuity.3 One could argue that a work as impressive and comprehensive as Darwin's 1859 magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, could not have been completed without the unique cognitive and neurological traits that are found only in an autistic brain.

As a fellow traveler on this spectrum, I could appreciate the brilliance of Darwin, since I, like him, sought a universal theory—an explanation for the origins of life and for life's diversity. My own drive to systemize, along with a sustained passion for science, made me the perfect candidate to embrace Darwinism enthusiastically. By the time I was nearing completion of an undergraduate program in molecular biology, I had amassed an evolution library that was quite impressive—as these evolutionary biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and biochemists became my "best friends" during countless hours of joyous reading solitude. Since we autistic people love to systemize, I felt I had found my worldview home and was content, knowing I was in the intellectual company of those who seemed to have an answer for everything that interested me—namely, where life had its origins and what the adaptive purpose was for every structural, psychological, or sociological trait one could imagine.

Disenchantment Grows

As already mentioned, highly functional autistic people both systemize excessively and have a penchant for detail. These two traits, having sparked my initial love for Darwinism, ultimately became the causal agents of disenchantment. On the one hand, I was being captivated in my leisure reading by arguments from the likes of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, who posited an evolutionary basis for sexual coercion,4 but on the other, I was being confounded by my coursework in molecular genetics, immunology, and developmental biology. These were the courses that should have elucidated the very materialistic processes by which behaviors such as sexual coercion would occur. Yet as I examined the details of cellular mechanisms, such as neurogenesis, protein synthesis, respiration, photosynthesis, blood-clotting, and the complement pathway, my perplexity grew: how could random mutations acting on DNA sequences give rise to so many complex, functional pathways?

The complement pathway, a highly sophisticated immune system response, was particularly problematic. My systemizing and detail-oriented brain asked, How could all the protein players involved in this pathway have emerged all at once? The rules informing my internal "If p, then q" logic were challenged. Disenchantment grew.

Break-ups are hard, especially break-ups with the imaginary friends (authors) one makes when living with ASD. Yet another feature folks on the spectrum possess is that of getting into a bit of a funk whenever the systems we embrace undergo disruptions. Thus, hesitant to cast away a system I had grown to love, I gave Darwinism the benefit of the doubt for nearly two decades, hoping for one of two things to occur: (1) an explanation that could account for the statistical improbability of random mutations generating all manner of functional cellular pathways and homologs, or (2) a better explanation for the origins and diversity of life.

A New Model to Embrace

One day, while looking for animations of cellular processes for a class, I fortuitously came across a video featuring Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. In the video, Behe expressed his own disenchantment with Darwinism, and related how he had been led down an errant path as an undergraduate and graduate student in biochemistry. My initial skepticism towards Behe turned into riveted attention as he actually gave words to my irreconcilable concerns regarding Darwinism.

Hopeful that I had found an answer to the issues that disquieted my systematic soul, I purchased his book, Darwin's Black Box,5 and with enthusiastic vigor consumed its contents. Within its pages I read of multiple cellular systems and pathways that further challenged Darwin's materialistic notions—along with a hypothesis I was reluctant to consider: that intelligent agency was responsible for life's origins and biodiversity.

Shaken, yet not quite persuaded after reading Behe's book, I needed still more information and details supporting intelligent design before I would be willing to cut ties with the familiar friends who existed in a system I had for so long journeyed through. To Behe's irreducible complexity argument was added the inconsistency of the Darwinian process of gradualism with what the Cambrian fossil record revealed6—an inconsistency of which I had never been informed as a biology undergraduate.

The information enigma7—the idea that engineered systems always emerge from intellectual agency—presented another insuperable hurdle for Darwinism. As one who built and flew model airplanes for many years, I could see how dependent mechanical systems were on well-crafted plans or blueprints. Without exception, those plans and blueprints are the result of anything but a "blind watchmaker";8 rather, they materialize on the drafting tables of very skilled designing intelligences.

My inquiry into the necessity of a transcendent inventor eventually changed focus; I turned from looking into microscopic molecular systems to examining gigantic, galaxy-sized ones. Intellectual forays into big bang cosmogony and the galactic habitable zones9 resulted in my discovery of a new model for origins, a model that reflected a coherent, comprehensive, and rational system—a model that even a highly functioning autistic person could embrace.

Undergoing a worldview change is stressful for many people, but it is especially so for people on the autism spectrum, as we are known for resisting change due to our need for "sameness." Because we live and breathe by the law of "If p, then q," change is painstakingly slow. One has to wonder: If Darwin himself had known then what we know today about the workings of countless natural systems, from the quantum to the cosmic, would the particulars of his own "If p, then q" dictum have been different? As it is, this particular autistic person has found a new group of "friends" to have fellowship with, in a new system that not only possesses greater explanatory power, but also imparts more meaning to life and what it is to be human.

1. Simon Baron-Cohen, "Autism: An Evolutionary Perspective"(Oct. 16, 2016):
2. Akio Wakabayashi et al., "Empathizing and systemizing in adults with and without autism spectrum conditions: Cross-cultural stability," Journal of Autism and Developmental disorders, 37 (2007), 1823–1832.
3. Rebecca Smith, "Charles Darwin had autism, leading psychiatrist claims," The Telegraph (Feb. 18, 2009):
4. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (MIT, 2000).
5. Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Simon and Schuster, 1996).
6. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins, 2013).
7. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009).
8. From Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).
9. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004).

graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno, with a BS in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics - having published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and projects in scanning tunneling microscopy. Having recently completed an M.Ed. from University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Emily is currently an instructional designer/content developer for Moody Bible Institute and teaches organic chemistry and physics. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily now regards the intelligent design arguments more credible than those proffered by Darwinists for explaining the origin of life.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #52, Spring 2020 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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