I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as an adult, and came across a fascinating book by Thom Hartmann called ADD: A Different Perception in which he posits that ADD, rather than being a deficit or a disorder, is a leftover set of survival traits passed down to us from when humans lived in a hunter/gatherer society.
Hartmann’s theory is something like this: the traits that are described as ADD – short attention span coupled with hyper-focus at times, distractibility, restlessness or inability to sit still, impulsivity, aggressiveness, independence, disorganization, distorted sense of time, impatience, risk-taking and disregard of consequences, a tendency to be easily bored, desire for immediate gratification – are all qualities that a hunter would need in order to survive.
On the other hand, a farmer needed to be patient, focused, capable of long-term planning and execution, able to delay gratification, and able to sustain a steady, dependable effort. It was important to be organized and methodical. Farmers had to be time-conscious and able to pace themselves. It was necessary to be a team player and cooperate with others. It was important to be able to stick with the tried –and true, and to be able to execute instructions step –by step without leaving anything out. A capacity to tolerate boredom and repetition was a helpful trait. You needed to do things at certain times – plant in the spring, harvest in the fall. If you decided to plant in the fall instead of the spring, you (and your community) would starve. If you got distracted and forgot a step, like watering your crop, you would starve. If you got impatient, and yanked your plants out of the ground because it was taking too long for them to grow, you would starve. Once a system of farming proved successful, it was imperative to stick with that system. Caution and care, even fear, was necessary to avoid danger to the crops.
A hunter, on the other hand, required a different set of traits entirely. If a hunter was to catch an animal, he must be alert and scanning his environment at all times, ready to drop whatever he was doing and change course to catch his prey. He needed to be aggressive and fearless – even reckless – to chase and kill an animal that could be a danger to him. Adaptability was necessary for a hunter. There was no telling when and where his animal would be, and he needed to be ready at all times. Independence, innovation, and ingenuity enabled him to do whatever was necessary to catch his prey. And when a hunter goes after his prey, he turns on the turbo-jets and does not stop until his objective is achieved. He is wired to expect immediate results. Without these traits, he would starve.
However, many of the hunter traits would be useless in an agricultural society. If a farmer had to live in a hunter society, the traits that served him so well on the farm would doom him as a hunter. No one would tell him that at three this afternoon a gazelle would be coming by. The fear that protected him as a farmer would hamper him as a hunter. He might not see the necessity for immediate action, nor have the aggression or fearlessness necessary to put himself in danger in order to catch an animal. If he was expecting an animal at one place, he might not react quickly enough if the animal came from another direction.
The main purpose of Hartmann’s book, ostensibly, was to give those who had been labeled with a deficiency or disorder a way to gain some self-esteem and feel positive about themselves rather than handicapped, defiant, lazy, stupid or crazy. I wondered, though, if there was scientific validity to the hunter/farmer concept – that these groups of traits could be in fact leftover survival traits that have come down to us from two very different points in human societal development?
Most people I raised the question with asserted that heritable traits like these could not evolve that quickly, and that it was a nice way to make ADDs feel better about themselves and nothing more. However, some recent studies in the field of genetics have yielded some interesting data to support my theory. Dr. Mauricio Arcos-Burgos, a geneticist with the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, and presently at the University of Miami, has written a paper published in Current Opinion in Genetics & Development (2007) on the genetic origins of ADHD in which he finds that the traits associated with ADHD are evolutionally positive. He states that “Recent molecular and clinical evidence supports Thom Hartmann’s Hunter–Farmer theory, reaffirming that ADHD might be an anachronic behavioral trait”, meaning that those traits that make it difficult for those with ADHD to fit into our modern ‘farmer’ society are anachronic – that is, traits from another time in human social development. The label applies to those at the farthest end of the ‘hunter’ scale, but a more modest amount of these traits would be a good definition of those with a liberal outlook.