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Homo aspergerus Interview
In 2006, German writer Ingo Niermann e-mailed me a series of questions about my Locus Online article "Homo aspergerus: Evolution Stumbles Forward." in connection with a forthcoming magazine article. I have never seen it, so I don't know how much use was made of it, but I present here all of his questions and  my answers, which came in three parts.

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May 4, 2006

Where are you answering my questions? What does your surrounding look like? Is there anything of specific importance for your ability to concentrate or to feel comfortable?

I'm sitting at my desk in office at the University of California, Riverside, surrounded by a number of books and papers sloppily piled on my desk and several bookshelves mostly filled with textbooks related to my classes. As a lifelong writer who learned how to type at the age of twelve, I've always felt comfortable sitting in front of any keyboard and rapidly typing away. I currently prefer my office at home because, while in some ways similar to my office at work, I am there surrounded by my collection of science fiction books, the form of literature I have read and written about for the last few decades.

Recently I have been reading about Novalis' idea of the "asthenic"as a next step of living: less orientated to the sensory stimulus and the needs of the body but with a higher consciousness. How is the idea of a Homo Aspergerus as a next evolutionary step related to older ideas of idealism and body-mind dualism?

First, I must confess that I know very little about Novalis and his ideas. On the basis of your question, however, I see little relationship between Asperger's Syndrome and aspirations to rise above bodily concerns and the material world. People with Asperger's Syndrome may prefer to be disconnected from human society, but that does not mean that they prefer to be disconnected from the world. So, while I do spend a lot of time thinking and writing, I also enjoy being with my pet cats, playing my piano, eating a good meal, and going on long walks to experience nature. Wishing to avoid people, for heaven's sake, does not necessarily mean that a person wishes to escape from the material world.

You are arguing that the internet is the perfect medium for people with Asperger's Syndrome as it enables to communicate without any direct contact. Is "nerd" just another word for people suffering from Asperger's Syndrome?

First, it must be acknowledged that a sense of what it means to have Asperger's Syndrome, and a sense of what it means to be a "nerd," may differ from society to society or from person to person, and also may be changing over time, so that different people in different societies at different times may have different responses to this question. Personally, I would say that there is considerable overlap between people who have Asperger's Syndrome and people who are regarded as "nerds," but the groups are not identical.  "Nerds," to me, are students who spend most of their time studying, do very well in school, and are regarded as inexperienced or inept in social situations; people with Asperger's Syndrome feel fundamentally disconnected from human society. From this, I think, it follows that many "nerds" may be very bright and naturally sociable people who simply need some experience in social situations to seem more like other people, and many people with Asperger's Syndrome may lack an interest in or aptitude for studying, which would prevent them from being classified as "nerds." In American society, for example, there is a subgroup of young people known as "Goths" who are characterized by a desire to dress in black, a fondness for satanic symbols and heavy metal music, and a general attitude of alienation from mainstream society. I suspect that many of these Goths are people with Asperger's Syndrome who simply aren't interested in immersing themselves in studying and hence choose to avoid society in another way.

Why was Asperger's Syndrome discovered so late? Maybe because it actually isn't an illness?

Oh, I think that people have always been aware of the condition of Asperger's Syndrome, but they used different terminology, describing those suffering from it as "hermits" or "loners." It is a characteristic of contemporary society that people now prefer to relabel forms of extreme behavior as psychological conditions; thus, a person who once might have been called "really cruel" is now called a "sociopath."  The fact that Asperger's Syndrome is viewed as an "illness" is merely a matter of prejudice; once, being homosexual was regarded as a psychological disorder, but today, I would hope, more and more people instead recognize that it is only a different sort of personality, not a sign of mental illness. Awareness of Asperger's Syndrome is also increasing today because, with advanced technology, more and more people are free to naturally fall into the habits of Asperger's Syndrome instead of being forced by circumstances to act like "normal people." Also, as advanced technology makes it more and more likely that people with Asperger's Syndrome will be the most successful members of society, the forces of both natural selection and sexual selection will tend to favor this condition (although, as some people commenting on my article have noted, this sort of evolution works very, very slowly).

When and how were you diagnosed to be a "Homo Aspergerus"?

This is actually a matter of some controversy, since I made the diagnosis myself, after years of researching the subject and gradually recognizing that  I perfectly matched all of the standard symptoms. As a surprising reaction to my article, several people noted that I am obviously someone who can function in human society -- with a good job and a normal family life -- and hence I must be someone who cannot really suffer from something so debilitating as Asperger's Syndrome. And this is irksome nonsense. I know myself pretty well -- I spend an awful lot of time with myself -- and I know who and what I am, and I know that far better than some strangers on the Internet who think they can diagnose me after reading only one of my articles. As for my ability to hold a job and fulfill typical social expectations, well, as with any psychological condition, people have mild cases of Asperger's Syndrome while other people have severe cases. Unquestionably, my case of Asperger's Syndrome is not as severe as other people's, but that hardly means that I don't have it. All people need to do is to surf the Internet, and they will find, for example, that there are many people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome who are in situations like my own -- they work at universities, they do research, they publish articles, and yes, they have spouses and children. Still, Asperger's Syndrome is a condition that remains poorly understood in some quarters, so misunderstandings and prejudices regarding the condition should not be surprising.

As the internet enables the Homo Aspergerus to communicate easily, doesn't he/she become just as detached as your students who are sending SMS all the time?

I am not sure that I understand the premise of this question, and I am particularly not sure what "sending SMS" means (sending instant messages or text messages?). If the issue is communication, this is the key distinction: a person with Asperger's Syndrome is perfectly willing and able to communicate with other people if there is a compelling reason to do so; but she will naturally prefer to stay out of touch. The students I observe seem virtually compelled to communicate with other people; if they must spend ten minutes to walk from one class to another class, they cannot bear to do so in isolation, but absolutely must pick up their cell phones and talk to someone, anyone, from the moment they step out of their last class until the moment they step into their next class. If the issue is detachment, I believe that we are talking about two sorts of detachment: people with Asperger's Syndrome are generally detached from the rest of human society; many other people seem incessantly connected to society but they are consequently detached from themselves and their own thoughts. And others may have different opinions, but I obviously believe that the first form of detachment is desirable while the second form of detachment is undesirable.

There is a common concern that internet and computer gaming could destroy people' ability to communicate with each other in an intimate way. Could it be possible that  -- without genetic engineering -- more and more people will start to suffer from (or: enjoy) Asperger's Syndrome?

First, in this "common concern" about the ability to communicate, I think there is some confusion between communication in general and one particular form of communication. As I said, people with Asperger's Syndrome communicate only when they want to, and they also prefer certain forms of communication -- such as e-mail -- over other forms of communication -- such as personal conversation. But this hardly means that they are going to lose the ability to communicate; they may only lose the ability to communicate in one particular fashion (conversation). An analogy I sometimes use involves transportation. Once, many people rode on horses because it was the only good way to travel long distances. Today, with many other forms of transportation available, very few people ride horses -- but this hardly means that they are now unable to travel, or that some vital aspect of the human experience has been irreparably damaged because people are no longer riding on horses. Personal conversation, in the future, may become as a form of communication analogous to riding horses as a form of transportation: a few people will still prefer to communicate by talking, but most people will choose other ways to communicate, and society will be none the worse for it.  At the root of this "common concern" is the completely irrational belief that people are most sincere and intimate when they are looking each other in the eye and talking to each other, while people are necessarily less sincere and intimate when they are, say, writing an e-mail message or sending a letter. And that's nonsense. As I shouldn't need to point out, people are perfectly capable of lying through their teeth while they are looking you in the eye and whispering to you, and people are perfectly capable of expressing their deepest and innermost thoughts in an instant message.

Regarding the second part of the question, I think I have already answered most of it: I suspect that in the future, there will be more and more people who seem to have Asperger's Syndrome for two reasons: first, people born with the condition will be freer to display their true nature, and second, the advantages of having the condition in an advanced technological society will gradually lead to an evolutionary preference for that condition. As for the issue of "genetic engineering," I think it is highly unlikely, even after a complete survey of the human genome, that we will discover a gene or set of genes that lead to Asperger's Syndrome and develop the ability to artificially produce babies with that condition. And even if this were possible, I would not support such a program. Diversity is important in any species, and as much as I value Asperger's Syndrome, I would not wish to eliminate the traits of charm and sociabiity from the human genome, since there may always be circumstances in which these traits will be helpful.

What do you think of transhumanism/extropism?

I know very little about these movements; though I suppose I am generally supportive of their goals, I have had no time to learn much about their ideas or to consider putting them into practice. I have been interested in the concept of reduced caloric intake as a way to prolong the human lifespan, which is one reason why I now eat only one meal a day and will occasionally fast one day of the week. Also, while co-editing Immortal Engines, a collection of essays about immortality in science fiction and fantasy, I became interested in cryonics, and it is possible that when I die, I will choose to have my body frozen for possible revival in the distant future.

How do you handle your familiy life? How do you relate to your children?

Well, my wife and my daughter are very sociable and very talkative, and they are forever prodding me to spend more time talking with them; so, we do have some long conversations, but they also understand that I need a lot of time by myself. My son is more like his father and does not seem to care whether I talk to him or not, but we do sometimes go on long walks and discuss our common interests in math, science, and music. I've been happily married for over twenty years, and I think I enjoy good relationships with my children, and in these ways I consider myself very fortunate.

What should the society do to improve the integration of people with the Asperger syndrome? Or is it even better if the society doesn't try too hard?

As I said in my article, I think that people with Asperger's Syndrome now have an advantage in society, not a disadvantage, so there is no general need for society to make any effort to improve their condition. I do not consider myself a victim, and I do not want society to undertake any initiatives on my behalf. It would be nice if people could become better educated about people with Asperger's Syndrome so they could abandon some of their irrational prejudices: just because I do not express emotions and do not maintain eye contact, for instance, that does not mean that I am cold-hearted or untrustworthy, and people should learn to realize that right away. As I also said in my article, I additionally think that there is an issue of job discrimination to address. Clearly, if I am hiring a salesman or saleswoman, I need someone who is friendly and sociable, and it's perfectly justifiable to take those things into account when I am hiring. But suppose I am hiring someone to sit at a computer and work in a cubicle all day? Should I really have the right to hire somebody who smiles a lot and exudes charm instead of a much more qualified person who seems sullen and withdrawn? Isn't that a form of prejudice, akin to refusing to hire someone because of the color of their skin or because of their sexual preference? Since we have terms for discrimination based on race (racism), gender (sexism), and even attractiveness ("looksism"), perhaps we need a term for discrimination based on social skills ("charmism"), and perhaps this is something that society should do something about. As I noted, I do not want to file a lawsuit alleging that I lost a job or promotion due to Asperger's Syndrome, but I would be supportive of someone who filed such a lawsuit, and I would be very interested in the outcome of the case.

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May 7, 2006

Beside the space travellers in science fiction: Are there any other fictional or mythical figures who could be understood as a Homo Aspergerus? What about Nietzsche's lonesome "Uebermensch"("Superman") (as described in "Also sprach Zarathustra")?

I cannot speak knowledgeably about Nietzsche, but I believe that individuals who preferred to isolate themselves, to go off to think by themselves or to fulfill some quest, can be regularly observed in western literature and legend. It is interesting to note, for example, that virtually every figure associated with the creation of a major religion, at some point in his life, went off by himself for an extended period of time to contemplate the universe and receive divine messages—this would apply to Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and others. And the hero who cannot fit into society, who is compelled to go off by himself, reverberates throughout American literature with examples ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to Jack Kerouac.

When I'm interviewing political or economical leaders they very often don't have a computer on their desk. For them this absence of the computer is a symbol of power. They wouldn't waste their time writing e-mails but they are travelling around the world to meet other important people in person, to hold speeches or to talk in front of TV cameras. Charisma is their main power tool. How could/will this be changed?

For a long time to come, I suspect, the world's wealthiest and most powerful people will probably retain the ability to travel freely and conduct all of their business by means of personal contact, and their personal charm and charisma will continue to be an important factor in their success. But for everyone else, the ease of long-distance communication and the ever-increasing expense of travel are going to reduce, or even eliminate, personal meetings as a way to do business with people who are not in their immediate vicinity, so that for most people, charisma isn't going to matter. Companies will choose contractors based on which e-mailed proposal is best, not based on which representative exuded the greatest amount of charm in personally presenting their proposal—simply because personal presentations of this sort will no longer be practical. And, as more and more business is conducted without personal contact, it becomes likely that even people who might be able to afford to travel might prefer long-distance communication. This is precisely what E. M. Forster predicted in his classic story "The Machine Stops" (1909), and while he abhorred a posited society in which personal contact had been virtually eliminated, I do not see this as a problem.

In general women are considered to be more sociable. Is a world that is privileging the Homo Aspergerus a rather male one?  Does the technical progress imply a new discrimination of women?

Well, it should first be noted that, while the majority of people with Asperger's Syndrome are probably male, there are a large number of women who have the condition, and it would be sexist, I think, to assume that the majority of people with Asperger's Syndrome will invariably be male. Just as today, we have more and more female engineers, we may have more and more female Homo aspergeruses in the future. It is also important to note that, in a world with little personal contact, sociable people will not be discriminated against—it is just that they will no longer have any special advantage. To return to my earlier example, if I am evaluating e-mailed proposals, I am going to choose the best one. Perhaps that one came from somebody who was very antisocial, perhaps it came from somebody who was very sociable. I won't know that, and it isn't going to matter to me; I will choose the best proposal. So, naturally sociable people will be perfectly able to adjust to and to compete in a future world without personal contact; it is just that their social skills will become irrelevant and useless in achieving success. Charisma, like physical strength and height, will not be a disadvantage, but it will no longer be an advantage.

On the other hand, isn't the percentage of jobs that do effort social skills even rising as a lot of work that doesn't need any social skills  is nowadays done by machines?

Undoubtedly, there will always be some jobs that require personal contact, and in these jobs a certain amount of social skills will be important—jobs like being a personal trainer, a massage therapist, a baseball coach, and so on. But broadly speaking, an increase in jobs that fall into the category of "service" does not necessarily mean an increase of jobs that require personal contact. The person who repairs machines in the future, for example, may be able to do the necessary work by long-distance manipulation of the troubled machine or by giving the owner guidance from a distance.

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May 19, 2006

Why do you think that it is "rational" to avoid cruelty? Simply because it could be punished?

This sort of question tends to lead into philosophical territory where I do not necessarily feel comfortable. But I think it just makes sense to generally be helpful to other people in your group, because that it means they will be more likely to be helpful to you, and because it may benefit your group as a whole and thus be indirectly helpful to you. And I believe that this attitude has been more or less hardwired into the human brain since prehistoric times. Tribes in which members were nice to each other and helped each other survived; tribes in which members were cruel and indifferent to each other did not survive. Through evolution and through education, the wisdom of altruism became a part of the human characater (though, of course, many people have proven capable of defying evolution and education and being quite cruel).

There are more and more possibilities to communicate on a long distance and still be visible (webcams, video-conferences). Don't you think that the technological progress will not just weaken the power of charism, but as well strengthen it?

Well, today, we have many forms of communication, and we are likely to make many more in the future. Some of them are, or will be, somewhat analogous to personal contact or one-on-one conversations, like teleconferencing, and in such media yes, the person with charm and social skills might still be most effective. Other new forms of communication are, or will be more analogous to writing letters or making a speech, and in these media charisma will be unimportant. The point, I think, is that people are going to choose the forms of communication they are most comfortable with, and that most people will accept the forms of communication that the other people prefer. That is, as a future movie producer , you will want the best possible script, and you won't particularly care if the prospective writer chooses to pitch the script in a teleconference or to give his pitch in the form of an e-mailed cover letter.

Now, there may some stubborn executives who say, well, I want to conduct all of my business via teleconferences, so I only want to hire people who are comfortable in teleconferences, and I won't work with people who don't like teleconferences, no matter how talented they are. But ultimately, I think, such attitudes will be recognized as foolish. Executives should want to hire the best people who can do the best possible job, regardless of their communication preferences; and as I said in my article, I believe that people with Asperger's Syndrome will be more likely than others to be the best people who can do the best possible job.

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