Disease gets a bad rap these days, purely based on it having nearly killed off the entire species several times. But there is a silver lining in even the most murderous of dark clouds.
Ever since it got the celebrity cause endorsement by Jenny McCarthy, everyone has diagnosed their progeny with the disease. But self-diagnosing parents aside, autism is a real disease with some serious consequences. Autistic people generally fail to develop normal social skills, and can become obsessed with minor details or systems that non-autistic folks consider insignificant. While the diagnosis covers a wide spectrum of disabilities, autism robs sufferers and loved ones of social skills like empathy and engagement.
Occasionally, they will find themselves trapped in a bad movie with Bruce Willis.
It turns out that an inability to fully relate to other people or care what they're saying about you also is really, really helpful to a revolutionary thinker. So it should come as no surprise that many famous scientists have been retroactively diagnosed as autistic, including all stars Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. The unnatural ability to stay obsessively locked on a task and not get distracted by this "life" stuff let them, to quote one expert, "produce in one lifetime the work of three or four other people."
Modern technology continues to benefit from the fruit of the autism tree. Thorkill Sonne (who evidently earned his name by slaying the god of thunder) founded Specialisterne, an IT consulting firm that hires and trains autistics to do software engineering problem solving for companies like Cisco and Microsoft, after learning that his son was autistic. Customers have found the autistics hired by the firm were five to 10 times more precise than the average person.
We won't comment on the implications of these facts.
Despite how wise and noble a given king or queen may be, the further you go down most royal bloodlines the more you tend to start running into batshit craziness and terrible deformity. After countless decades of incest-tastic inbreeding, just about every single crowned head of Europe was a blood relative of the other, essentially making World War I the best episode of Family Feud ever witnessed.
Incest allows negative recessive traits to survive and accumulate down family lines, chief among them hemophilia and porphyria, which were more common than herpes among European royalty. Hemophilia is a disorder of the blood that makes clotting virtually impossible and can turn a scrape on the knee into a life-threatening condition. Hemophilia changed the course of Russian history when the son of Tsar Nicholas II was stricken with it, which led to the Tsar and his wife being so obsessed with having Rasputin cure the boy's illness, that their country fell into revolution around them and their entire family got shot to death by Bolsheviks.
"Stick with me guys, everything's going to be totally fine."
Porphyria is another rare inherited disorder that became terribly common among the hereditary leaders of the world. It causes a variety of symptoms, including depression, paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations. A whole hell of a lot of royals are suspected to have suffered from porphyria: Vlad the Impaler, Mary Queen of Scots, Nebuchadnezzar and even King George III, the British monarch best known for being the king who lost the Colonies.
He may have been crazier than a shithouse rat, but you can't deny the man had style.
His enemies called him "mad King George," and recent evidence makes it clear that they were totally right. The Royal Doctors prescribed George a healthy dose of arsenic to keep his lunacy in check, which predictably didn't work at all in any way.
Back then, having a beard was just as good as a Ph.D.
Several revolutions later and it's clear that if it weren't for certain diseases (and incest) we'd have a shitload more monarchies still in working order around the world, and the United States would likely still be a protectorate under British rule. Thanks, incest!
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition where individuals lack attentiveness and impulse control. While many parents treat it as a wonder disease that absolves them of responsibility for their brat throwing temper tantrums in public or screeching on airplanes, in real cases it can hamper childhood development.
No, I didn't want to hear the movie. Thank you.
As it turns out, ADHD might actually be beneficial to the human species. Experts have found links between ADHD and creativity. According to Professor Michael Fitzgerald, "The same genes that are involved in ADHD can also be associated with risk-taking behavior. While these urges can be problematic or even self-destructive - occasionally leading people into delinquency, addiction or crime - they can also lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs in the fields of the art, science and exploration."
Fitzgerald has found signs of ADHD in such greats as author Mark Twain, inventor Thomas Edison, explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and artist Pablo Picasso. Remember, ADHD doesn't mean they're unable to pay attention to anything, it means they're unable to focus on things that don't stimulate them--once they find something, look out.
One theory says what we're calling ADHD is simply the positive genetic traits left over from the hunter/gatherer days. These are the people who would be bored to death by the quiet, complex task of farming, but thrived when given the frantic task of tracking and stabbing a wild boar. Hyperactivity and impulsiveness may get you fired if you're trying to work quietly in a cubicle, but will save your life if you're a nomad competing with other hunters for gazelles.
Unfortunately, the modern practice of drugging the tits off of kids with ADHD symptoms could actually be stifling future geniuses simply because they're bored to death by standardized education. For example, Kurt Cobain was doped up on Ritalin as a child because he couldn't do shit with a math book, but once he had a guitar in his hands he created one of the biggest rock bands in history. So really, Ritalin was the worst thing anyone could have given him.
OK, second worst.
Epilepsy is a neurological disease that causes seizures, leading to body clenching, contortion and abnormal shouts, cries and moans, and the occasional inexplicable vision. Prophets like Ezekiel, Muhammad and Joseph Smith are believed by some experts to have had epilepsy, which they say would account for their religious visions. The same is said of Joan of Arc.
In ancient Greece, epilepsy was called the "Sacred Disease" because of the belief it was from the gods, even though Hippocrates eventually figured out that this was bullshit. But like most of the greatest insights of the Greeks, this one was lost in the Middle Ages as the Catholic Church focused on the more interesting fire and brimstone interpretations of bodily functions and abnormalities. In the witch hunting guide Malleus Maleficarum, two Dominican friars claimed epilepsy to be a sign of witchcraft and fueled persecution of epileptics.
That's right: Witch Hunting Guide.
Likewise for Joan of Arc--despite the fact that these visions led her to liberate France, the Church found the idea of a woman getting word from God unbelievable and burned her at the stake as a witch, only to make her a saint later.
Medieval medicine. If you can't set it on fire, it isn't worth curing.
Of course, these diagnoses are being made by teasing out symptoms from the historical record--it wasn't until the second half of the 19th century that John Hughlings Jackson identified epilepsy as a disorder of the nerves that can affect consciousness, sensation and behavior. By his amazing insights he brought the western world up to 2,000-year-old Greek standards and opened the way for study of treatments for epilepsy and a severe drop in the number of prophets.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness characterized by a multitude of compulsions that range from the mundane (always stepping out of the house with your left foot first) to the bizarre (stabbing the hooker exactly 300 times, and only while wearing a red hat).
Professor James Leckman of Yale University did tests on the cerebrospinal fluid of OCD sufferers and found gobs and gobs of Oxytocin, the chemical responsible for love, jealousy and parental attachment. As it turns out, OCD-sufferers produce as much of this stuff as new parents and raver kids on ecstasy. This led Leckman to think there may be a very big connection between parenthood and OCD, believing that once upon a time in our evolution, obsessive attention to detailed cleaning and hygiene rituals marked the difference between infants that survived childhood diseases and ones who didn't. Compulsive rituals don't seem so weird when they involve constantly circling the camp site to make sure there are no wolves coming to eat the children.
OCD also had a big hand in the evolution of religion, particularly a specific kind of OCD that leads people to obsessively repeat and refine religious rituals, so terrified that they're not doing it right that it becomes debilitating. Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant faith, is now thought to have suffered from it. He nit-picked the Catholic church into the Protestant Reformation, and the rest is history.
St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuit Order (basically Jedi for Jesus) was haunted by a fear of accidentally stepping on pieces of straw that formed a cross. Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford, goes a step further and says OCD sufferers played a key role in the formation of many major world religions, which would explain why so many emphasize incredibly specific rules for things like body purification, diet, food preparation, hand washing and other traditional OCD ticks (which can be found in Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity).
"And on Tuesdays, all dinner napkins are to be folded THREE TIMES."
So the compulsive rituals first had an evolutionary benefit in keeping your food and children safe, then reached a point where the people who were the most obsessive were declared to be the most pure among us.
The lesson in all this? Apparently succeeding in the human species isn't a matter of being crazy or not crazy, but having just the right amount of craziness. It's a blurry line, to say the least.
You can read more from Philip at philiprodneymoon.com.
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