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 Salon.com 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.