Darwin’s Children?

Filed Under (Activism, Communication, Critical Disability Studies) by Estee on 06-04-2009

In the seventeenth century Spanish and Dutch ships came ashore to the new land and killed natives because they were perceived as “pests.” In 1828, The British Captain Robert Fitzroy arrived on a survey mission for the Royal Navy. Fitzroy took four natives as captive back to England to transform them into “civilized” people. “After nine months of religious schooling, [the natives] were summoned to appear at the court of King William IV and Queen Adelaide, where Fuegia Basket [a name ascribed to one of the native girls in England] was presented with a lace bonnet, a ring and a small dowry. To fulfill his goal of bringing Christianity to Tierra del Fuego, Fitzroy set sail on December 27th, 1831 on the 240-ton bark HMS Beagle with seventy-four crew members, and Anglican catechist who would establish a mission with his three converts, and a recent graduate of Cambridge, the young naturalist Charles Darwin.” (p. 90 Blessed Unrest).

As Paul Hawken writes, Darwin had only seen natives clad in “civilized” clothing up until the time he reached the New World. He did not expect to see, I imagine, Fuegians clad in seal blubber. He could barely accept that the Fuegians were members of the human race. He said, “I could not believe how wide was the difference between a savage and a civilized man: it is greater than between a domesticated and wild animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” (Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, New York: Modern Library, 2001. p.122).

Like most of us, Darwin’s powers of observation failed him. Darwin was, Hawken notes, surprised by the Fuegian’s ability to mimic — they could do so with language, right down to entire sentences, coughs, facial expressions. Yet, “because he could not easily distinguish words in their own native language, [Darwin] concluded that they were merely repeating a few simple phrases and thus had a very small vocabulary.” (p.91). Darwin said, “Their language does not deserve to be called articulate: Capt Cook says it is like a man clearing his throat; to which may be added another very hoarse man trying to shout & a third encouraging a horse with that peculiar noise which is made in one side of the mouth…I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.”

Because Darwin didn’t understand the Fuegian language, because they were not like him, he deemed them barbaric. Little did he know that Fuegian culture was ripe with “animated and nuanced conversation.” Thomas Bridges, an orphan adopted by a missionary family, “spent twenty-one years compiling a dictionary of 32,430 words and inflections [of the Fuegians], a number that was comparable to Japanese vocabulary, before accounting for Chinese and English influences. Because Bridges died in 1898, before the dictionary was completed, we are left to imagine the sum of the Yamana vocabulary. [Yamana is the Fuegian language].

“As you turn the pages of this remarkable document, you realize that there seems to be a precise word to describe every moment in their life. To appreciate the intelligence required to understand and use 32,430 words, consider that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, contained 42,773 words. Shakespeare is credited with having used 29,066 different text words in his complete works, but in terms of truly distinct words, and disregarding overlapping usages, there are fewer than 20,000 words but will use no more than 1,500 to 2,000 over the course of the week. Half of the conversational vocabulary of an American teenager consists of fewer than forty words.” (Hawken, p.92)

Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest is about the loss of indigenous cultures, abuse of the environment, free-market fundamentalism and social justice. He notes that with the loss of a language comes the extermination of a culture.

Autistic people and the disabled community call themselves a culture, to which there has been vitriolic response from non disabled communities, namely parents and caregivers. I have to question, then, what constitutes a culture and why the self-appropriation of “autistic culture” by autistic self-advocates has become so offensive to some care-giving groups. One automatically assumes that anger is generated by a fear of loss — services, empathy, pity, perhaps. This has been the assumption by disability rights activists, after all. Yet why the contest? I personally see no reason why thousands of people who come together and self-appropriate “culture” is not just as valid for autistic people as it is with Native people, Black people, Asian people, Jewish people and so forth.

I am herein beginning to make a case for autistic culture. I am pointing out that our autistic children, privy to the same, potentially harmful assumptions that they are of lower value because they are not understood by society-at-large, are not Darwin’s children, yet, they are treated no differently in most cases than Darwin treated and referred to the Fuegians.

This will not be my complete essay on the topic. I am only suggesting that a culture, by virtue of the following definitions we’ve used to ascribe a people as a culture are:

” – a particular society at a particular time and place; ‘early Mayan civilization’
– the tastes in art and manners that are favored by a social group
– acculturation: all the knowledge and values shared by a society
– (biology) the growing of microorganisms in a nutrient medium (such as gelatin or agar); ‘the culture of cells in a Petri dish’
– the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization; ‘the developing drug culture; “the reason that the agency is doomed to inaction has something to do with the FBI culture’
– grow in a special preparation; ‘the biologist grows microorganisms’
– the raising of plants or animals; ‘the culture of oysters’ “(Source: Wordnet)

It seems to me that autistic people, or people within the autistic culture, share these attributes. The most highly disrespected aspect to autistic culture, and perhaps the least investigated from a point of validity, is autistic language — an “agent” of autistic culture. That is, as long as we view autistic behaviour and actions as irrelevant and deviant, much like Darwin did to the Feugians, we are potentially missing a rich dynamic system and people. In a world where English is used everywhere and we are homogenizing world-wide mostly in the name of business, we will kill off indigenous cultures by the thousands. Hawken’s writes “A language dies when it is not spoken to a new generation of children. At the rate of decline we are now experiencing, half of our living cultural heritage will disappear in a single generation.” Language, many linguists state, is a distinct way of experiencing and sharing dreams, ideals, visions of life itself.

“A Western bias about belonging to a superior culture is valid only if we use selective yardsticks,” writes Hawken. “Rather than assuming people want to surrender to Western values we would be wiser to consider the loss of language as yet another indicator of worldwide collapse of ecosystems…” (Hawken, p.95).

Can we define, narrow down, or record a distinctive autistic “language?” Is autistic language and modes of expression systematized? It seems to me we have absolutely recorded many of the nuances of autistic language and behaviour — the latter which of course is a form of language. Just look at the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual). Like Darwin who put on a set of glasses with a view to calling native culture “inferior,” the DSM uses similar terms of inferiority to define what autistic people and their language are not, rather than what they are. If we can observe and categorize a group of people as “deficient,” then the opposite can be true. Autistic people, like other indigenous peoples, are in and of themselves distinct — a group with their own language, behaviours, modes of expression, art and for the most part, values.

Adam’s language contains thousands of nuances, combinations and permutations — gesture, noises, words, typing, singing, and more, which I have come to understand quite well. I have not yet sat down to describe every single utterance, but as you note on this blog, I sometimes do try to record things for the sake of suggesting that his language is just as valid as mine.

I would strongly encourage everyone to consider that autistic culture is something we should cherish, not perish. Darwin’s view was that there were “higher” and “lower” kinds of people, something that autistic people can attest still exists when others define them. We don’t have to put on rose-coloured glasses to see autistic culture, we just have to consider changing the lens.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.