Penguin

[''In [Greg Egan's science fiction novel Distress autism has been discovered to be caused by a lesion to the (fictional) Lamont's Area of the brain. It can be cured, in some cases, by stem-cell grafts. In this passage James Rourke the spokesman for the Voluntary Autists Association is being interviewed for the documentary series Junk DNA:'' ]

. . . .

"Of course, most animals will instinctively protect their young, or their mates, at a cost to themselves; altruism is an ancient behavioural strategy. But how could ''instinctive altruism be made compatible with human self-awareness? Once there was a burgeoning ego, a growing sense of self in the foreground of ever action, how was it prevented from overshadowing everything else?

"The answer is, evolution invented intimacy. Intimacy makes it possible to attach some, or all, of the compelling qualities associated with the ego - the model of the self - to models of other people. And not just possible - pleasurable. A pleasure reinforced by sex, but not restricted to the act, like orgasm. And not even restricted to sexual partners, in humans. Intimacy is just the belief - rewarded by the brain - that you know the people you love in almost the same fashion you know yourself."

. . . .

"But no one's stopping you from choosing medical intervention. The graft is legal. And the success rate is sure to improve."

"And as I said, VA don't oppose that. For some people it's the right choice."

"But how can it be the wrong choice?"

Rourke hesitated. No doubt he'd scripted and rehearsed everything he'd wanted to say - but this was the heart of it. To have any hope of winning support for his cause, he was going to have to make the audience understand why he did not want to be cured.

He say carefully, "Many autistic people suffer additional forms of brain damage, and various kinds of mental retardation. in general, we don't. Whatever damage we've suffered to Lamont's area, most of us are intelligent enough to understand our own condition. We know that non-autistic people are capable of believing that they've achieved intimacy. But in VA, we've decided we are better off without that talent."

"Why better off?"

"Because it's a talent for self-deception."

I said, if autism is a lack of understanding of others... and healing the lesion would grant you that lost understanding -"

Rourke broken in, "But how much is understanding, and how much is a delusion of understanding? Is intimacy a form of knowledge - or is it just a comforting false belief? Evolution is not interested in whether we grasp the truth, except in the most pragmatic sense. And their can be equally pragmatic falsehoods. If the brain needs to grant us exaggerated sense of our capacity for knowing each other - to make pair-bonding compatible with self-awareness - it will lie, shamelessly, as mush as it has to, in order to make the strategy succeed."

I'd fallen silent, not knowing how to respond. Now I watched Rourke waiting for me to continue. Though he appeared awkward and shy as always, there was something in his expression that chilled me.. He honestly believed that his condition had granted him an insight no ordinary person could share - and if he didn't exactly pity us our hardwired capacity for blissful self-deception, he couldn't help but perceive himself as having the broader, clearer view.

. . . .

['' 'Voluntary Autism' is just one of the ethically bewildering uses of biotechnology that Greg Egan explores in ''Distress'' [the very first scene shocked me silly!), though the book is largely about other things. One chapter is devoted to this interview.''

Greg Egan is really good value: you can find some of his short stories and animated mathematical art here: http://www.netspace.net.au/gregegan/. Go there just for the art: it's incredible.

As far as I can tell from reading Greg Egan's books, he believes himself that intimacy and mutual understanding are possible, but that it would literally take a miracle to make a sufficient number of people capable of them -- which is a little depressing. --GlynWebster]