We humans tend to be near-sighted. We are born in a time and place; we experience youth in a time and place. Until we are adults we don’t really make many observations and consider at length the wide and diverse world around us. Then when we do we do it without history, without perspective. We filter what we see through prisms already formed. We see only what we want to see. We are greatly influenced by what the statisticians call “peak experience”: that singular event, the one time out of 50 or 100 or 2000 that the slot machine paid out a thousand dollars. We are drawn to magic; we love the concept of luck; and we are lazy. I am disappointed to learn that the fitbit bracelet I put on my wrist every morning merely measures my activity. It does not contribute to it.
How wonderful it would be if taking a harmless pill each day could be a substitute for a good diet and exercise.
Until very recently most of us did not live long enough to experience, as adults, any more than 30 years of human change and development.
Hence the anti-wheat craze, the condemnation of wheat that is “not the wheat your grandparents ate.”
We have been selectively breeding our plants and animals since pre-history, and more vigorously and scientifically since the 18th century. Naturally we have tried to make them more bountiful and more resistant to drought and disease. And we have largely succeeded. Perhaps at the cost of variety of shapes, sizes, and tastes, but our ability to do this is the main reason we now have over 7 billion people on this planet rather than the 2 billion in my grandparents’ time. Our improved wheat may be killing us, but it is killing us because it is allowing us to feed four times as many people on this planet who now clear the land, build cities, eat all the fish, eat all the time, and burn fossil fuels.
The anti-vaxers are similarly near-sighted and ahistoric. They are too young to have memories of polio in the schools, of deaths from measles, mumps, diphtheria, and whooping cough. They are an educated lot, the press tells us, but apparently they have not read any biographies from the 19th and 18th century which invariably tell us of our subject having had 7 siblings, with two surviving into adulthood, the others dying as infants, children, and teenagers of the prevalent communicable diseases of the time.
Yes, there does seem to be an increase in autism. But the very concept of autism is new. Child psychiatry, as a sub-specialty of psychiatry, emerged alongside the concept, the studies, the definitions of this particular disorder of childhood, in the mid 1930’s. The war rather preoccupied us until the late 40’s, so any widespread awareness of Autism as a particular disease of childhood, differentiated from other forms of mental disability, could not occur until the 1950’s and 1960’s. And until quite recently those afflicted with a moderate or severe form of this dysfunction would be sent to an undifferentiated institution for retarded or handicapped children. Out of sight and out of mind. Those with mild forms of this dysfunction might be considered simply eccentric, odd, problematic. And those with mild forms of this dysfunction accompanied by exceptional abilities in other forms of cognition, were simply eccentric geniuses, mad scientists, isolated inventors, obsessive hermits. (Alan Turing)
Not that we shouldn’t study it, do the research, but the apparent increase in numbers of those diagnosed with autism can be explained by expanded criteria (autism spectrum disorder), dramatically increased school testing, de-institutionalization, an abundance of psychologists, and a renewed interest in the problem now that we have means of looking at brain function, examining genomes, and videotaping behaviour. And don’t forget, until recently, half these kids would have died from those diseases mentioned above if they (and 90 percent of their peers) had not been vaccinated against them.