Sunday Book Excerpt: ADHD - A Hunter in a Farmer's World
Two excerpts from a book that changed the worlds of education, psychiatry and psychology by suggesting that neurological differences are not necessarily mental diseases and can actually be assets
Hunters and Farmers Twenty Years Later
There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer (Life, October 10, 1949)
This book was first published in 1993 and was updated in the decade and a half thereafter. The new 2019 edition includes several new chapters, as well as a few broad updates, but by and large, my original hypothesis still stands and, if anything, has been solidified and reinforced by the passage of time and discovery of new science, particularly in the field of genetics.
In the twenty-plus years since the first publication of this book and my presentation of the Hunter/Farmer concept as a possible explanation for why we have ADHD in our gene pool, there have been many changes in the thinking of people who study the subject. There have also been many changes in the overall view of psychiatric and physiological disorders in general, particularly those with a genetic basis.
The publication of Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph Nesse, M.D., and George Williams, Ph.D., (Times Books) signaled a turning point in the minds of many. The book, thoroughly researched and brilliantly written, makes the strong and scientifically defendable case that we are creatures living out of our element, humans with bodies and brains designed to live in a primitive natural environment and still carrying around the physical and psychological tools necessary to that environment. These include things from morning sickness to cystic fibrosis to depression. Our modern lifestyle, evolved just over the past few thousand years, represents not a norm for human life, but an incredibly brief flicker of momentary history in the 300,000-year presence of Homo sapiens (people like us) on the planet.
Robert Wright’s book The Moral Animal carries the model a step further, dealing with the subject of “Darwinian psychology,” and pointing out in dramatic detail how behaviors ranging from depression to aggression to infidelity were adaptive and useful in the very recent history of the human race.
The March 25, 1996, issue of Time featured a cover story on the functions of the brain and the latest research into why our brains behave the way the way they do. Evolutionary notions of behavior played an important part in that article, including the recent discovery by researchers that those people most likely to have the gene that causes the brain to crave fatty foods and thus produce obesity are also those people whose ancestors over the past ten thousand years came from parts of the world where famines were common. What was an adaptive behavior for primitive peoples has become maladaptive in a world where most “hunting” is done at the supermarket.
The 1996 publication of the book Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning (Routledge), by psychiatrists and physicians Anthony Stevens and John Price, summarized much of this research, and has provided a deep mine of material for future researchers. For example, they tell the story of the Ik, a group of hunter-gatherer peoples in Uganda whose rates of life-threatening psychological and physical illnesses exploded when they were forcibly moved from their natural hunting grounds and forced to engage in agriculture. Other examples abound in this well-researched work. …
Hunters in Our Schools and Offices
There is a passion for hunting, something deeply implanted in the human breast.
—Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist, 1837)
The earliest theories about attention deficit disorder characterized it as a diseased state that had to do with brain damage or dysfunction. At various times it has been lumped in with fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation, various genetic mental illnesses, psychiatric disorders resulting from early trauma or childhood abuse, and the theory that parental smoking led to fetal oxygen deprivation.
Prior to the early 1970s, when ADHD was first characterized as a specific disorder, ADHD children and adults were largely treated simply as “bad people” (even though attentional deficits have been recognized in the psychological literature since 1905). They were the kids who always got into trouble, the James Deans of the world, the rootless and unsettled adults like Abraham Lincoln’s father, the Lone Ranger, or John Dillinger.
More recent research, however, has demonstrated a high incidence of ADHD among the parents of ADHD children. This discovery caused some psychologists to initially postulate that ADHD was the result of growing up in a dysfunctional family; they suggested that ADHD may follow the same pattern as child or spousal abuse, moving through generations as learned behavior. The dietary-cause advocates contended that children pattern their parent’s eating habits, and this accounts for the generational patterns of ADHD. Other studies suggest that, like Down’s syndrome or muscular dystrophy, ADHD is a genetic disease, and a specific gene, the A1 variant of the D2 dopamine receptor gene, has been identified by scientists as the leading candidate.
But if ADHD is a genetic disease or an abnormality, it’s a popular one, possibly afflicting as many as twenty-five million individuals in the United States. (Some estimates put ADHD as occurring in 20 percent of males and 5 percent of females. Other estimates are much lower, hitting a bottom of 3 percent of males and 0.5 percent of females.) With such a wide distribution among our population, is it reasonable to assume that ADHD is simply a quirk? That it’s some sort of an aberration caused by defective genes or child abuse?
When the condition is so widely distributed, inevitable questions arise: Why? Where did ADHD come from? The answer is: people with ADHD are the leftover hunters, those whose ancestors evolved and matured thousands of years in the past in hunting societies.
There is ample precedent for genetic “diseases” that, in fact, represent evolutionary survival strategies. Sickle cell anemia, for example, is now known to make its victims less susceptible to malaria. When living in the jungles of Africa where malaria is endemic, it was a powerful evolutionary tool against death by disease; in the malaria-free environment of North America, it became a liability.
The same is true of Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic condition that hits mainly Eastern European Jews, and confers on them a relative immunity to tuberculosis. And even cystic fibrosis, the deadly genetic disease common among Caucasians (one in twenty-five white Americans carries the gene), may represent a genetic adaptation—recent research indicates the cystic fibrosis gene helps protect its victims, at younger ages, from death by such diarrheal diseases as cholera, which periodically swept Europe for thousands of years.
It’s not so unusual, apparently, for humans to have, built into our genetic material, protection against local diseases and other environmental conditions. Certainly, Darwin’s theory of natural selection argues in favor of such bodily defenses. Those individuals with the immunities would survive to procreate and pass along their genetic material.
As the human race moved from its earliest ancestors, two basic types of cultures evolved.