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Hunters and Farmers: The Origins of ADHD

Written by Thom Hartmann   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00

If ADHD is a genetic disease or an abnormality, it’s a popular one, possibly afflicting as many as 25 million individuals in the United States. Some estimates put ADHD as occurring in 20 percent of males and 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 a condition is so widely distributed, inevitable questions arise: Why? Where did ADHD come from? A look at our evolutionary history can give us some answers. 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” which, in fact, represent evolutionary survival strategies. Sickle cell anemia, for example, is now known to make its victims less susceptible to malaria. 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.

It’s not so unusual, apparently, for humans to have protection against local diseases and other environmental conditions built into our genetic material. As the human race moved from its earliest ancestors, two basic types of cultures evolved. In the areas which were lush with plant and animal life and had a low human population density, hunters and gatherers predominated. In other parts of the world (particularly Asia), farming or agricultural societies evolved.

So, the question: where did ADHD come from? If you compare the list of classic ADHD symptoms to a list of the characteristics of a good hunter (as seen on page 20), you’ll see that they match almost perfectly. In other words, an individual with the ADHD collection of characteristics would make an extraordinarily good hunter. A failure to have any one of those characteristics might mean death in the forest or jungle.

If ADHD is a collection of skills and predilections necessary for the success and survival of a good hunter, what about non-ADHD people? Where did their skills evolve from, and why do they represent the majority of the people in our culture? The answer lies with the second basic type of culture that primitive man produced: the agricultural society. In this sort of community, farmers were the ones who provided sustenance and survival. And the skills of a good farmer are quite different from those of a good hunter. Farmers are cautious. Farming doesn’t often demand that a person face short-term danger. Farmers learn, instead, to face the more long-term dangers. They’re often better planners than they are fighters. Farmers are patient with others. The patience that it takes to watch a plant grow for five months is easily translated into patience with a coworker who wants to explain a problem or situation.

A final postscript: Some people have objected to the words hunter and farmer. Hunter, some say, has negative connotations: a killer, a predator, a threat in the night. Farmer is seen as equally negative, in that it implies a boring, passive sort of person, although many farmers are neither. If it makes you more comfortable, perhaps an alternate set of words would be lookout and cultivator. Both are necessary for the common good: Where would the cultivator be without the lookout, and vice versa? Worse, think what a disaster it would be to put either in the other’s job. The cultivator won’t catch the little signs of the impending invasion, and the lookout can’t pay attention long enough to weed the garden. Yet that’s precisely what happens to most ADHD lookouts in today’s classrooms and offices. If they look out the window (as their instincts demand), they’re scolded for not being good, attentive farmers.

A more successful approach might be to recognize and speak to the skills inherent in the fast-moving lookout frame of mind. This may require a shift in viewpoint, but it’s not difficult once you see the difference between these two dispositions and skill sets.


Is Your Child a Hunter or a Farmer?

Adapted from Thom Hartmann’s book, ADD: A Different Perception.

As the human race moved from its earliest ancestors, two types of cultures—and therefore, people—evolved: farmers in agricultural societies, and hunters and gatherers in areas with lush plant and animal life. Author Thom Hartmann believes classic ADHD symptoms match the characteristics of a good hunter “almost perfectly”…and that observation could hold the key to the origins of ADHD.

ADHD "disorder" Symptoms Traits of a Good Hunter Traits of a Good Farmer
Short attention span. Can become intensely focused for the long periods of time. Constantly monitoring his environment. Not easily distracted from the task at hand.
Poor planner. Disorganized and impulsive, making snap decisions. Able to throw himself into the chase on a moment’s notice. Able to sustain a steady, dependable effort.
Distorted sense of time. Unaware of how long it will take to do something. Flexible. Ready to change strategy quickly. Organized, purposeful. Has a long-term strategy and sticks to it.
Impatient. Tireless. Capable of sustained drives, but only when “hot on the trail” of some goal. Conscious of time and schedules. Gets things done on time, works at a steady pace and has good staying power.
Doesn’t convert words into  concepts adeptly, and vice versa. May or may not have a reading disability. Visual or concrete thinker. Able to clearly see a tangible goal even if there are no words for it. Patient. Aware that good things take time. Willing to wait.
Has difficulty following directions. Independent. Team player.
Daydreamer. Bored by mundane tasks. Enjoys new ideas, excitement and “the hunt.” Focused. Good at follow-through, tending to details and “taking care of business.”
Acts without considering consequences. Willing and able to take risks and face danger. Careful. Looks before leaping.
Lacking in the social graces. Puts performance ahead of politeness. Nurturing. Creates and supports community values. Attuned to whether something will last.


About the Author:

Thom HartmannThom Hartmann broadcasts live daily from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on over fifty stations nationwide and on XM and Sirius Satellite radio. He is also a four-time Project Censored Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author. His national daily progressive radio talk show, now in its sixth year on the air, is also distributed to radio stations nationwide on the Jones satellite system. More people listen daily to the Thom Hartmann Program than any other progressive talk show in the nation.

Visit Thom on the web at thomhartman.com.




Pathways Issue 25 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #25.

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