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February 2012



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Sunday February 5, 2012


Diversity in the world encompasses all forms of life, and even includes the diverse ways our brains are ‘wired’.

THE sixth mass extinction is upon us. At least 30% of all extant plant and animal species will be lost by the next century.

And worse is expected after that. The five mass extinctions of the past were the result of giant asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, mega tsunamis, earthquakes and the recurring ice ages.

This current mass extinction is undoubtedly the result of man’s farming and industrial activities trying to keep pace with our greed and our unsustainable consumption of goods and services.

We mourn the living forms that have gone extinct and we fight hard to prevent the currently endangered species from suffering the same fate.

A biodiverse world is a treasure trove of raw materials for scientists to invent and innovate. Food crops, medicines and bioindustrial products and processes are some of the beneficiaries of biodiversity.

The Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts’ recent decision to stop serving sharksfin, bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass because all three species are critically endangered is very welcome. Every bit helps. For many of us, there is little doubt where we will choose to stay or dine.

A biodiverse world is a thing of beauty. To see millions and millions of species of plants and animals in the wild is an incomparable experience and thrill. The greater the repository of diverse living things, the more raw material there is for natural selection to work on to produce more diverse forms.

It is a happy upward spiral.

Apart from biodiversity, most mindful people also celebrate racial and cultural diversity. The past 200,000 years of human biological and cultural evolution has produced different races and cultures, making our world diverse, interesting and rich.

We have diverse political opinions and we have different world views. An acceptance and appreciation of diversity, whether it is biodiversity, racial diversity, cultural diversity or political diversity, is a statement of tolerance and understanding.

It is an affirmation of civil, human and animal rights.

Genes, environment and stochastic events determine what and who we are. They give us slim or fat bodies, tall or short statures, blue eyes or brown, blond hair or black.

Even when genes and the environment are very similar, the random interactions of genes and environment, i.e. stochasticity, will produce very different biological outcomes.

We, barring some bigots, are usually accepting of diverse physical appearance in humans.

The brain is equally a result of genes, environment and stochastic events, and all behaviour, mood and personality stem from how our brain is configured. Yet we are quick to be dismissive of the socially inept, the autistic, the homosexual or the transgender.

Those who are at the margins are not there by choice, but because of biological and environmental factors, both of which are not under their control.

There is another diversity I wish to celebrate, and that is neurodiversity. We are neurodiverse in that our brains are wired differently.

It is not a matter of good or bad, right or wrong, but different. It is a new and vibrant concept started by members of the autistic rights movement to oppose those who seek to pathologise autism.

The earliest published use of the word neurodiversity appears in an article in New York Times by Harvey Blume on Sept 30, 1998. “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favour a somewhat autistic state of mind.”

The autism spectrum disorders includes autism, Asperger Syndrome and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Maybe these are not disorders at all. We are quick to use the word “disorder” when we see a behaviour different from ours.

A person with Asperger Syndrome may find the typical social environment of gossip, mindless chatter and one-up-manship frightening and disorientating. Is he “disordered” or are we?

Many individuals with the so-called autism spectrum disorders are not able or willing to give up their way of life.

Parents continually try to “fix” their autistic children and search for that pill to cure them, and that’s sad. It is more important that we help them grow and develop in the context of their mental make-up.

Let us hear the words of a wise autistic child. “My autism is not a problem. It creates problems, but it is not going to go away. I want help with my problem, not with who I am. I want you to offer support, but do not try to change me into someone else.”

The concept of neurodiversity has been extended to conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, developmental speech disorder (think The King’s Speech) and Tourette’s syndrome.

I wish to extend the concept of neurodiversity to encompass as many psychological and mental configurations as possible. There is no need to be happy all the time, to be optimistic and positive, and to be sociable.

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