In 1993, ADHD advocate Thom Hartmann wrote that people diagnosed with ADHD are ”hunters in a farmer’s world.” In this video, I continue his train of thought by focusing on how ADHD may best be represented as a genetic adaptation to conditions during prehistoric times. The video describes Darwin’s theory of natural selection and examines how the traits of the hunter (always on the move, responds quickly to stimuli, attends to several things at one time) now manifest as the symptoms of ADHD (hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractability). I look at the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene and how researchers have sought to track down this ”hunter’s gene” in the genomes of people in the Paleolithic Age, thus providing some support for Hartmann’s claim. Finally, I describe careers for people diagnosed with ADHD where the skills of the hunter can be incorporated into contemporary jobs (e.g. firefighter, emergency room physician, forest ranger etc.) and thus help these individuals to find satisfaction in their lives and success in the world. Please note that a complete transcript of the video is available below.
Transcript of Video
Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong. This is part 8 of my 12-part video series on The Myth of the ADHD Child. This video is entitled ‘’ADHD as an Evolutionary Advantage’’
Let me preface this presentation by saying that I DO believe that ADHD symptoms exist. But I believe after 50 years of studying this issue, that the hypothesis that there is a specific medical disorder called ADHD causing these symptoms is wrong and that there are many other points of view that can account for these symptoms. In part 1 of this video series, I explain why I call ADHD a myth. In this video, I look at how what is viewed as ADHD may instead be an evolutionary advantage.
In 1859, the British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, one of the most influential books written in the modern era. In it he proposed the theory of natural selection as the underlying principle of evolution. According to Darwin, organisms that have traits adaptive to their immediate environment tend to prosper and these traits are then passed along to subsequent generations. On the other hand, organisms that have traits that don’t adapt well to their environment die off because of their failure to adapt and their traits are lost to subsequent generations. Thus, some traits are preserved over time and other traits are lost, all because of the way they either did or did not adapt to an organism’s immediate environment. This helps explain most of the traits that we see in organisms from bacteria to human beings.
One of the clues that gave Darwin inspiration for his theory was his observation of finches on the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in South America. He noticed the differences in their beaks from those he saw on the mainland of South America and came to the realization that the differences between their beaks had something to do with their ability to find and consume food. Those finches with thicker beaks, for example, had evolved traits that were able to crack open seeds, while those with spear-like beaks were better able to penetrate, kill, and consume insects. Each bird type had developed its own way to best adapt to a seed-rich or an insect-rich environment.
Now let’s shift our focus to 1993. In that year, American radio personality, author, former psychotherapist, businessman, and progressive political commentator Thom Hartmann wrote a book called Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception [slide 18] In the book, Hartmann suggested that people with ADHD were the ‘’hunters’’ of our culture, descended from the hunters of the prehistoric era.
He asserted that so-called normal or neurotypical people are the farmers of society, descended from people of the Neolithic age when agriculture emerged as the primary pattern of cultural development. Hence his slogan ‘’Hunters in a Farmer’s World.’’ When I first came upon Hartmann’s idea, I found his theory captivating but thought of it more as a metaphor than an actual genetic phenomenon. Little did I suspect that there was more to this idea than mere metaphor.
Here [slide 8] we can see how ADHD seems related to the hunter personality. Hunters in the wild in prehistoric times had to be constantly on the move in order to find find food to bring back to their families. They also had to contend with predators, keeping away from them, whether they be animals or hostile tribes.
The farmer on the other hand, doesn’t move around a lot. He stays with his crop. Puts the seed into the ground and waits. There needs to be a lot of ability to delay gratification while waiting for the plant to germinate, grow, and then produce fruit. A lot of patience is required.
Hartmann suggests that what we regard as a symptom of ADHD, that is, hyperactivity, is a trait that was preserved from the era of the hunter during the Paleolithic Age, because it was an adaptive trait that allowed him to get food and avoid becoming food, thus prospering and passing this traits onto future generations.
Similarly, the hunter needs to pay attention to several things at the same time. A twig breaking that may mean that a predator is near, the sound of drums in the distance could signify a tribe in the area, animal tracks on the ground might suggest the presence of a potential food source. The hunter who would stop and stare for hours at an animal track might well be gobbled up, thus not passing his ‘’patience’’ genes on future generations.
The farmer on the other hand, DOES focus on things for long periods of time, especially when they relate to his raising grain crops or tending to his herd of cows, sheep, oxen, or other animals.
The ability to deploy attention for short bursts of time that the hunter uses as an advantage out in the forest or jungle, we now refer to as the ‘’distractibility’’ of the so-called ADHD person. What was an advantage in prehistoric times is now seen as a warning sign of ADHD.
Finally, the hunter needs to respond quickly to any input he receives from the environment. He hears the sound of a mountain lion and if he doesn’t react quickly, by running to safety, or by advancing on the animal, then he’s toast. That’s the end of him. The hunter who is ABLE to respond quickly, has a clear advantage, and this trait is likely then to be preserved and handed down to future generations.
The farmer on the other hand, takes his time to record data – weather patterns, precipitation amounts, growth of plants, and other information – to better help him in raising crops or tending to his herds.
The ability of the hunter to respond quickly to input from the environment during prehistoric times, which was an advantage at that time, is now considered a warning sign of ADHD. We call it impulsivity.
In part 3 of this 12-part video, I talked about the DRD4 gene [slide 17]. One particular allele or variation of the DNA sequence of the gene (where the sequence is repeated 7 times). is related to, well, you can call it ‘’risk-taking’’ or ‘’novelty-seeking’’ or even ‘’reward-seeking’’ or ‘’sensation seeking.’’ This may be a ‘’hunter’s gene’’ preserved in evolution because it conferred advantages in survival ability. And it seems to be prevalent in people diagnosed with ADHD. So now we have something definite to work with in terms of substantiating Hartmann’s claim that people identified as ADHD are descended from the hunters.
Now let’s look at a quick chronology. Hartmann’s book, initiating this idea, came out in 1993.
In 1997, the first scientific paper giving some credence to Hartmann’s outlook came out in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry [slide 19]. It referred to ADHD as a disorder of adaptation.
In 2001 a study came out [slide 20] in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggesting that this 7-repeat allele in the DRD4 gene originated as a rare mutational event that nevertheless increased to high frequency in human populations through positive selection. So, the natural selection hypothesis of the ADHD gene seems to have some support here.
In 2020, [slide 21] scientists looked at gene sequences in populations living in prehistoric times compared to modern times and found that the frequency of variants associated with this hunter gene has steadily decreased since Paleolithic times, which makes sense in terms of humanity’s shift from a primarily hunting culture to an agricultural or farmer’s culture.
Here’s a timeline [slide 22] showing the different ages of humanity over the past 800,000 years. You see that most of the timeline is given over to the paleolithic era – the age of the hunter and gatherer. Thus, for most of the time human beings have existed, they were hunters, not farmers. Agriculture is a relatively recent development extending back perhaps 12,000 years, a fraction of human beings’ time on the planet.
We evolved as human beings in environments that were natural, often unpredictable, and requiring the skills of the hunter to survive.
It bears noting here that we did NOT spend 800,000 years cultivating genetic sequences through natural selection that relate to environments like this one [slide 24]. We were simply not genetically programmed to spend 5-6 hours a day in the typical classroom environment. And yet that’s what we expect of our children and teens. In part 4 of this 12-part series on ADHD, I explore the way schools are structured and how they are brain hostile to students diagnosed with ADHD, in part because they need schooling that is novel, exciting, and fast-paced.
Some people might say, well, we don’t live in a rainforest or jungle, we live in a modern 21st century culture, and our kids need to adapt to THIS environment. The reality is that our contemporary culture consists of a variety of environments, some of which kids labeled ADHD have trouble adapting to, like this one, and other environments that capitalize on sensation-seeking, risk-taking, or novelty-seeking traits. We should use this information to help design our classrooms for kids, and then steer these students towards careers where to be successful means using those risk-taking, novelty-seeking traits.
Careers like firefighting, where there’s a lot of movement, action, and thrills and chills. Where a person needs to pay attention to many things at the same time. Where one needs to respond quickly to input from the environment.
Careers like mail delivery that involve novelty and movement. These jobs exploit some of the traits of the hunter transplanted into contemporary life.
Careers like emergency-room physician or EMT, again where conditions in the ER are survival-based just as they are out in the wild for the prehistoric individual.
Or jobs like being a roving journalist or TV reporter, that involve new assignments all the time, paying attention to lots of cues and stimuli and staying on top of it all.
Or careers like forest ranger or nature photographer, that literally get one out in the wild and mimic conditions of the prehistoric hunter. Understanding ADHD as an evolutionary adaptation isn’t just limited to studying the lives of human beings thousands of years ago. It can give us clues as to how to construct our classrooms, and how people diagnosed with ADHD can successfully adapt in today’s complex world.
For more information about ADHD as an evolutionary advantage and other themes of this video series, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion. It’s available through online stores like Amazon, national chains like Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores worldwide. It’s also available as an audio recording on Audible. And make sure to watch my other videos in this series on You Tube. Thanks so much!
This blog post was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
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