Autism and the American Dream
Responding to Chris Mooney in the LAT

Catching Fire: Culture, Chemistry And De-Evolution

GangstaChimp23 Culture, Chemistry and De-evolution:  a new book argues that the gut/brain connection may be intrinsic to human development

By Adriana Gamondes

"There has never been and never will be a connection between neurological development and digestion...basic biology principles" – anonymous comment on Age of Autism

“Monkey men all in business suit…God made man but a monkey supplied the glue. Are we not men? We are D-E-V-O” –Jocko Homo by Devo

The two words that came to mind after reading about Alan Emond’s study (HERE) which supposedly found no connection between bowel movement patterns and autism, besides “bite me”, were “Richard Wrangham”.  The same two words came to mind when Times Executive Editor Bill Keller (as Dan Olmsted pointed out HERE) remarked to Time magazine, “I don't think fairness means that you give equal time to every point of view no matter how marginal…We don't treat creationism as science. Likewise in the autism-vaccine debate, our reporting shows pretty clearly which side the science is on.” But what if evolutionary science theory ended up supporting at least part of the underpinnings of the environmental autism/vaccine-autism argument, namely the gut/brain connection?  Would the Times finally have a “come to Jesus” moment?

As John Stone and Ginger Taylor pointed out (HERE), Emond must have been figuratively constipated with a load of undisclosed conflicts of interest because he declared none to the British Medical Journal. “Better out than in” as we parents like to say: Emond is apparently a member of the Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunizations, the nongovernmental body (or, in across-the-pond-speak, quango?) which decides vaccination practices in the UK. Emond’s study was also supported by the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome Pharmaceuticals was purchased by Glaxo Smith Kline, the maker of the British MMR vaccine.  On top of this, Emond weighed against vaccine cause in the death inquest of Georgie Fisher, the British toddler who died after vaccination with the MMR.

Ah, now don’t you feel better Dr. Emond, despite the mess and horrifying stench? And don’t you find yourself able to think more clearly? Because all that back-up—if it were more than figurative— might not be so great for brain function according to a new book by fellow Brit, Harvard Primatologist and former Gombe student of Jane Goodall, Dr. Richard Wrangham:  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (HERE).

I can’t juxtapose Emond’s study directly against Wrangham’s hypothesis—even aside from the confusion caused by flaws in Edmond’s use of controls (this was not a vaccinated/unvaccinated study for one: children don’t need to have autism to develop IBD from their shots) and massaging of data— because Emond’s study carefully avoids discussing whether GI function and brain function are interrelated; the research simply attempts to argue that there is no GI dysfunction in autism. But the conclusions drawn from Emond’s research and crowed by many news and blog commentators— who tend to serve up opinions for those who never read study texts— went that extra step, grasping onto Emond’s study as further “proof” that there’s no connection between brain development and gut function at all. That’s the presumption I’ll focus on, if only because it’s the basis for accusations that treating the gut and attending to nutrient malabsorbtion in autism and other related cognitive disorders are not only “useless” but forms of clinical “abuse” and because the remedies most often credited with resuscitating the most human traits in some children are measures aimed at GI health.

According to Wrangham "...the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals"  between 1.8 to 1.9 million years ago.  Dr. Wrangham argues that we not only are what we eat but that our human brains are a direct result of the evolution of the digestive tract. The only “weakness” in Wrangham’s exhaustively researched hypothesis—which his many critics are quick to point out– is the field of anthropology’s inability to pinpoint the precise moment when fire was first used for cooking.  Wrangham can merely speculate when Homo habilis, a chimpanzee-like woodland ape with a larger brain and crude tool-making skills, may have first tamed fire, but his forensic and biological evidence that fire may have been pivotal to habilis’s evolution into Homo erectus is astounding.

Dr. Wrangham’s “expensive tissue theory” regards the advantages of cooked food from an evolutionary perspective. In order for a new, smarter species to evolve, its body had to reallocate to the brain—an expensive device in humans which consumes more than 20% of metabolic energy— some of the nutrition and energy formerly burned by the digestive tract which, in apes, was responsible for processing uncooked and, from a metabolic vantage point, often very poor quality food (roots, tough stems and leaves, raw meat). Wrangham reasons that, for this species to have evolved intellectually without losing too many other capabilities, it must have extracted more resources from food.

Cooking makes that possible by transforming food into a more easily digested form. Cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein, makes minerals and other nutritional benefits more available and softens all foods, permitting more complete digestion and energy extraction. As a result of cooking, the food processing apparatus shrank up to 40%—including mouth size,  tooth size, jaw strength, stomach, colon and intestines— freeing energy to support the most complex and energy-burning brain on earth.

In his earlier book, The Demonic Male: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (which provides an apt explanation for what could make industry mouth-pieces like Paul Offit, Emond, even Thomas Insel and the autism world’s most unmotherly mother, Alison Singer tick, though that’s another kettle of monkeys), Dr. Wrangham argues a 50-50 nature/nurture theory of human evolution,  describes humans as the most rapidly evolving mammal on earth outside of species of mole and pygmy bear and notes—as others have— that 70% of the human immune system is in the gut. These arguments coupled with his current theory bring up a shocking question—particularly as it relates to Andrew Wakefield’s studies of GI function in autism and other discussions of epigenetics in autism: what could happen to the brains of individuals if the entire evolutionary process of an infant’s GI function and brain development were reversed due to some environmental influence, and digestion and metabolism were suddenly and violently made—whether via the digestive system as a whole or  through cellular processes— more “expensive” again?  Wrangham’s theory in reverse might posit that a sort of de-evolution could result.
Of course any attempt to say that autism is merely “de-evolution” would just be a weird oversimplification. But would a blasted building ever come apart quite the way it was put together? Though it would be ridiculous to characterize a condition which leaves a majority of those affected unable to earn a living or live independently—much less survive in the wild or sometimes alone by pond— as a descent into an ape-like state, it would also be disastrously misguided to characterize the condition as a case of “genetic brain evolution”.

Mostly it’s a terrible irony to argue that our injured children have “de-evolved” when it seems to be industry-embedded medicine and science which has regressed into a state of species-destroying monkey madness and animal greed.  To refuse to review vaccine safety and to refuse a simple vaccinated/never vaccinated study is beyond ludicrous because, ultimately, isn’t it ridiculous to argue that something as relatively simple as changing the chemistry of food by the application of heat could radically alter gut and brain development in humans, but injections of live viruses and chemicals— including known neurotoxins and mutagens— into the bloodstreams of infants could not? 

Of course not all are altered by certain environmental factors.  For better or worse, could some environmentally-susceptible individuals among the most rapidly evolving mammals on earth be those who are the most “evolutionarily” mutable?  The thought of the lives and human resources lost as the numbers clear 1/100 is unthinkable.

Wrangham’s theory also includes suppositions of how humans evolved as more social beings through the process of coming together around a fire to share cooked meals.  In terms of de-evolution, the culture of industry cover-up, judicial betrayal, community alienation and the mounting public denial and conflict over vaccine-injuries has done the opposite— and quite literally and horribly the reverse for the injured children themselves. 

The environmental, cellular and biological effects which induce autism are enormously complex and I would never try to imply that Wrangham’s scientific essay directly answers these issues. Simple starvation and malnutrition alone do not cause autism, though damage to metabolism and digestion certainly could not help to heal the brain. Furthermore, the idea that digestion and metabolism may have something to do with autism only continues to be built on with each advance in resolving the issue by independent autism investigators, most recently the lipid metabolism/mitochondrial question being investigated by Patricia Kane, PhD, Annette Cartaxo, M.D., and Richard Deth, PhD. (HERE) and the gut/brain focus of the Met gene analysis by Dr. Patrick Levitt (also a 50-50 nature/nurture theorist, HERE). 

In any case, Dr. Wrangham doesn’t mention autism in his book, though he does cite material arguing that certain gradual DNA mutations in humans may be due to changes in digestion and he discusses the effects of malnutrition on physiology and the brain. In turn, Dr. Wakefield never claimed that vaccine-induced damage to the terminal ileum—the very place in the intestines where most nutrients are absorbed— was an actual “cause” of autism but that it warranted further investigation.  Dr. Wakefield has pointed out other disorders having to do with digestion and metabolism, such as untreated celiac disease, hepatic encephalopathy and D-lactic acidosis (HERE), which have neuro-behavioral manifestations.  Also interesting is the fact that one congenital condition—Cornelia de Lange syndrome— first documented in Germany the year after mutagenic mustard gas was first used in WWI and believed to result from a “de novo” (non-heritable) mutation to mitochondrial DNA, is associated with intermittent “autistic-like behaviors” which mainstream medical authorities agree generally result from pain due to various contingent physical disorders, most notably gastroesophageal reflux—the very physical cause of behavior which is being denied in regard to the “idiopathic”, regressive type of autism that makes up most of the epidemic.

As an afterthought, I find it funny that so many reviews of Dr. Wrangham’s recent book failed to get into depth over any wider ramifications of his gut/brain evolutionary theory.  Some reviews even failed to adequately describe the gut-brain connection in the theory at all.  It makes one wonder if this omission, particularly noticeable in reviews by and NPR and other vaccine-injury-denying publications, might have been an odd attempt to deny an evidence-chit to vaccine-autism proponents. 

After all, what web search term other than “gut/brain connection” would bring up autism faster? Whatever the reason for omissions, Dr. Wrangham is accustomed to censure. When he appears on Discovery Channel segments peeking out from behind jungle ferns to discuss comparisons between chimpanzee and human culture in his gentle British accent, Dr. Wrangham isn’t allowed to elaborate on theories which might ring a few activist bells.
We don’t hear about, for instance, a premise of his other evolutionary work, Demonic Males, which explains the systematic assault on and killing of infants—particularly male infants— as a typical outcome of power-driven violence in the course of lethal raids by both chimpanzee and human feudal societies alike (remember that hint about what might drive Offit, Singer and Emond?). On the Discovery Channel, we don’t hear Dr. Wrangham discuss his proposed solution for human corruption and carnage either—for which a direct parallel and model can apparently be found in the ape world: in order to save the species from self annihilation, give equal governing and societal power to moms. 

Full disclosure:  the author— who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and is the mother of twins who are currently recovering from vaccine-induced GI disorders— is a big fan of Dr. Wrangham.



I have a gut feeling that there's some truth to all of this...


Kathy Blanco--

It has its place-- you're right. But many at the town hall meetings were hirlings of Dick Armey and FreedomWorks on behalf of pharma and the insurance industry. Dick Armey had to leave his PR firm as a result of perceived conflicts arising from the town hall antics. As you probably know, Dick Armey authored the Lilly Rider and stuck it into the Homeland Security Bill in 2004. Those people shouting-- those that stay on script-- will never be shouting about our cause in other words. We'll never hear about euthanasia by denial of insurance coverage for autism or extermination by psychopharmaceuticals, etc.-- at least not from guerrilla industry marketers.

I have a funny feeling that we would suffer much different penalties than hired lobbyists for screaming threats or toting guns to political events. I don't recommend it, but that still leaves a lot of civil, creative methods of protest that the movement hasn't exhausted yet.

Jenny Webster

Beautiful piece! You are speaking my language.

I don't understand why it is so hard for people to understand what FOOD can do to our bodies... I can only guess that they are ignorant sheep.

When you look at the all the wild crazy activity that happens at the cellular level, it is easy to see how improper nutrition can throw the whole thing for a loop.

Food/nutrition is what drives our whole being.

Babies under 2 who do not get enough healthy fats in their diets suffer deficits. This is why whole milk is recommended until age two (well.. that has issues too, they should be getting healthy fats not cows milk but that is a whole other rant) -- Malnourished in utero can result in smaller brain size/weight.

To NOT draw the connection between gut and brain shows COMPLETE ignorance of the human body and it's systems... garbage in garbage out.


Garbo-- no kidding about gluten/diabetes investigations? Very interesting. I just passed that on today to someone who was looking into the issue.

Nancy-- Yes, certain parties will take exception to some of Wrangham's theory. To support his argument that Homo erectus could not have survived and propagated eating raw food (as raw foodists argue), he notes studies showing that 50% of women stop having periods during raw food diet experiments. Our guts aren't adapted to it, though by the same adaptation-token, pets get fat on dry, cooked kibble because their GI tracts are built for raw. In any case, vegans will be pleased that they don't have to necessarily eat meat to hang on to IQ points. It's a balance eh (I write as I eat a half-raw grilled chicken salad)?

Maria, thank you. I'm afraid I was a little unkind to Dr. Emond, but I never recovered from reading about Georgie Fisher's terrible death. How can someone (Emonds) receiving funds from the manufacturer of the very vaccine implicated in a child's death be allowed to decide cause of death-- much less have his study be taken up by the press as the final word on the gut-brain connection in autism? It's monkey stuff-- enough to make a stone cry.

Kathy Blanco

I kind of like the tactic at these town hall meetings, shouting till your likes that...very American...


Thanks for the summary, Adriana; you sent me rushing to find Dr. Wrangham on YouTube. And how reassuring to read more validation for cooking foods, especially after I recently was squeamishly brushing slugs off a potato I'd dug. Blecch.

For would-be dieters, Wrangham did make an interesting comment at (in yet another article there sporting a misleading headline): "People who switch to a raw diet report feeling constant hunger and lose large amounts of weight, even when they are careful to take in at least the nutritionally suggested number of calories a day for an adult."

I hope that scientists continue to delve into exposes of gastrointestinal function and interaction with brain and immunity.
Previously I'd seen references in media to Dr. Michael Gershon's 1999 book "The Second Brain," subtitled "Your gut has a mind of its own" (FWIW, some of his work has been funded by Novartis).


Another fabulous piece Adriana!

These guys are just so "constipated with their own conflicts" (I loved your little figurative phrases:)their writings have become brazen. Edmond's article cannot possibly be believed by society. I guess that will kill that gluten/casein crazy hollywood connection so they can stick kids on meds that kill instead!

Garbo is right, we need to all start acting like Apes to get heard!


Benedetta-- Well, I think probably more displays of civil protest might end up being necessary eventually-- you have a point. I do think there's a nice trap waiting for autism parents who opt for anything close to violent "monkey" insurrection: the stereotype that autism is genetic + autism equates with violent behavior = autism parents are insane. I think we might want to avoid that one!

Thanks Teresa. I feel a bit bad for dragging Wrangham's name into our controversy, but he doesn't seem to worry too much about wading into the thick of it for the most part, so I took a chance. He seems to be one of those minds with a radar for the deepest, darkest social misconceptions. Reading both books one after the other is an interesting exercise. Wrangham is such a humanist and champion for peace and ethics. The book on evolution and cooking is incredibly elegant (and vegetarians will be happy to hear that meat-eating may not have been the major key to brain development after all). "The Demonic Male" is largely a study of societal organization. It predicts that "ape rules" kick in when power becomes centered in fewer and fewer hands-- why so many men and women behave in very specific, destructive ways in those circumstances. My husband read it and felt he finally understood why people acted the way they did in the oligarchies he grew up in South America. I think it explains the outcome of pharma's industrial oligarchy to a "t". And you can't hate Wrangham's proposed solution to it all.

I think people can take or leave or make what they want of the fact that Bonobos (the species of chimp with equal male and female hierarchies that Wrangham holds up as a hopeful evolutionary direction) are sexually kinkier than regular chimps. Pretty hilarious.

With his social understanding, it seems pretty natural that Wrangham would "stumble" across one of the most raging modern scientific controversies-- the gut/brain link-- and nonchalantly smash the bogus argument without even intending to.

He's also really funny:


How about this new study linking gut/wheat allergy with type 1 diabetes? I love how there's a gut/autoimmune connection for everything BUT autism. Nothing to see here! Move along! Via Vaccination News:

"Thursday, August 20, 2009

Scientists at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa have discovered what may be an important clue to the cause of type 1 diabetes. Dr. Fraser Scott and his team tested 42 people with type 1 diabetes and found that nearly half had an abnormal immune response to wheat proteins. The study is published in the August 2009 issue of the journal Diabetes.

Early in life, the immune system is supposed to learn to attack foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria, while leaving the body's own tissues and harmless molecules in the environment alone (including food in the gut). When this process goes awry, autoimmune diseases and allergies can develop. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the pancreas, the organ that regulates blood sugar. Dr. Scott's research is the first to clearly show that immune cells called T cells from people with type 1 diabetes are also more likely to over-react to wheat. His research also shows that the over-reaction is linked to genes associated with type 1 diabetes.

"The immune system has to find the perfect balance to defend the body against foreign invaders without hurting itself or over-reacting to the environment and this can be particularly challenging in the gut, where there is an abundance of food and bacteria," said Dr. Scott, a Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. "Our research suggests that people with certain genes may be more likely to develop an over-reaction to wheat and possibly other foods in the gut and this may tip the balance with the immune system and make the body more likely to develop other immune problems, such as type 1 diabetes."

In a commentary accompanying the paper, diabetes expert Dr. Mikael Knip of Finland said "These observations add to the accumulating concept that the gut is an active player in the diabetes disease process."

Dr. Scott's previous research has shown that a wheat-free diet can reduce the risk of developing diabetes in animal models, but he notes that more research will be required to confirm the link and determine possible effects of diet changes in humans. Research is also needed to investigate links with celiac disease, another autoimmune disease that has been linked to wheat. "

Benedetta Stilwell

We parents of vaccine injuried children may have to start behaving like apes in some of these meetings if we are to get heard. It appears democracy serves those that are the maddest, loudest,clenching teethers and fisters.

Teresa  Conrick

Great article! Your points are excellent from Edmond's "load of undisclosed conflicts" to, NPR, et al deniers.

It is true science, from the simple offering of cooked food, that is showing the gut-brain connection as real. I can add Wrangham to my list of brilliant scientists shining a light on our issue.

"The Demonic Male: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" sounds like a good one and I would add "Without Conscience: the Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us" to add to that personality composite.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)