A review of the hunter and farmer theory, five years after it was first published.
Hunters and Farmers Five Years Later
by Thom Hartmann
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, quoted in Life, October 10, 1949.
The concept of hunters and farmers as “good science”
In the five years since the first publication of this book and my presentation of the Hunter/Farmer concept as a possible explanation for why we have ADD 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 MD and George Williams Ph.D. (Times Books) signaled a turning point in the minds of many. The book, thoroughly researched and brilliantly well-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 200,000 year life-span of (people like us) on the planet.
Robert Wright’s book 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 27, 1995 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 10,000 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 by psychiatrists and physicians Anthony Stevens and John Price of the book Evolutionary Psychiatry: a new beginning (Routledge) 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.
Where have all the Hunters gone?
Additionally, new advances in anthropology and paleontology have answered one of the most vexing questions about the Hunter/Farmer theory: “Why is the leftover ‘Hunter/ADD’ gene only present in a minority of our population, and where have all the hunters gone?”
In popular literature, Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasures) has explored early cultures and shows the fundamental differences between what she calls “cooperator” and “dominator” cultures. (We in western civilization are members of the latter.) Similarly, Daniel Quinn Ishmael and The Story of B) writes about “Leavers” and “Takers” to describe a similar cultural division. About five thousand years ago, these cultural schisms set the stage for a mass extermination of hunter/gatherer peoples which continues to this day in remote parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
A brilliant study published in the February, 1994 issue of Discover magazine detailed the exact answer to the question of when and how this happened, and has since been corroborated by other researchers. Using an analysis of language patterns and DNA, researchers found that 3,000 years ago Africa was almost entirely populated by thousands of different (genetically and in language) tribes of hunter/gatherer peoples. Population density was low and, apparently, strife was minimal.
Then a group of Bantu-speaking agriculturists in the northwestern part of Africa were apparently infected with what University of California professor of Native American Studies Jack Forbes calls the cultural mental illness of Wétiko (a native American term for the amoral and predatory behavior of the European invaders). Wétiko is the term that Forbes applied decades ago to describe what Eisler and Quinn today call “dominator” and “taker” cultural mass psychology.
In his penetrating and thought-provoking book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Professor Forbes points out how Wétiko, which he calls a “highly-contagious form of mental illness,” originated in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. From there, it spread across the fertile crescent and into Syria, eventually infecting northern Africa, Europe (via the Roman conquerors who carried Wétiko), Asia, and, with the arrival of Columbus, the Americas.
The Bantu-speaking farmers of northwest Africa, culturally contaminated by Wétiko beliefs in the “correctness” of genocide, systematically spread across the entire African continent over a 2,000-year period, destroying every group in their path. The result is that now fewer than one percent of the entire African continent’s population are hunter/gatherers, and the languages and cultures of thousands of tribes — developed over 200,000 years of human history — have been lost forever. Entire ethnic groups were wiped out and have now vanished from the Earth.
The reasons the Wétiko farmers were so successful in their conquest of Africa (and later, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas) is fourfold:
1. Farming is more efficient than hunting at producing food.
Because it’s about ten times more efficient at extracting calories from the soil, The population density of farming communities tend to be about ten times higher than those of hunting communities. And so their armies were ten times larger.
2. Farmers become immune to the diseases of their own animals.
Measles, chicken pox, mumps, influenza, and numerous other diseases originated in — and are still often carried by — domesticated animals. When the Farmers of Europe first came to the shores of the Americas, they killed off millions of native Americans simply by accidental infection with these diseases, to which the local hunters had not developed immunities. (This practice was later escalated with the deliberate infection of entire tribes by smallpox-infected blankets by the Wétiko-infected invaders.)
3. Farming is stable.
Farmers tend to stay in one place, and that gives rise to specialization of function. The butcher, baker, candlestick maker, and weapons maker came into being, and armies were formed. Factories were a logical extension of farming technologies, and so farming peoples became even more efficient at producing weapons and technologies of destruction.
4. The Wétiko culture taught that slaughter could be justified on religious grounds.
From its beginnings in Mesopotamia, Wétiko taught that the slaughter of other humans was not only acceptable, but could even be “a good thing” because it was ordered or sanctioned by their gods. The most bizarre instance of this can be seen during the Crusades, when Europeans slaughtered “heathens” in order to “save their souls.” A close second is “the winning of the American West,” in which Americans (whose Declaration of Independence says the Creator gave people the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) decreed that the same Creator gave America a Manifest Destiny to overtake the whole continent, and used this religious argument to justify killing the “heathen” residents.
While indigenous hunting peoples often had conflict with neighbors over borders and territories, these conflicts served to strengthen the cultural and independent identities of both tribes involved. Wétiko warfare, where every last person in the “competing” tribe is put to death, is something that no anthropologist has ever found in the history or behavior of any past or modern non-Wétiko hunting/gathering peoples. The Wétiko agriculturists, however, viewing non-Wétiko humans to be as exploitable as the land, have a history littered with genocide, slavery, and exploitation.
And so, over the past 5000 years, on every continent and among every people, hunter/gatherers have been wiped out, displaced, slaughtered, exterminated, and oppressed by Wétiko farmers/industrialists. Today, fewer than 2% of the world’s human population are genetically pure hunter/gatherer peoples, and only a remnant of them is found in our gene pool, and that only as the result of enslavement and assimilation.
Those who would disempower for their own gain
The Wétiko domination continues in our modern world.
We live in a society so psychologically sick that Mafia kingpins who sell dope and prostitution and order the murder of others live in expensive houses in “nice” neighborhoods. We honor those who have “attained success,” even if they did it by selling death-dealing substances like tobacco. “Dog eat dog” is a cliché and norm in our culture, and the idea of cooperating instead of dominating is considered quaint and “nice” but idealistic and ineffective. It’s assumed that to be successful in business one must lie and cheat, and our political leaders are trusted by such a pitiful minority of citizens (fewer than 20% in recent polls) that it’s doubtful our governments could continue to operate if they didn’t control the police, the prisons, and the tax apparatus (which is enforced by the police and prisons).
In the middle of this cultural milieu, we find those of the “helping professions”: psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and therapists of all stripes. By far the majority have gone into these fields because of an honest and sincere desire to be of service to others. Much good is done and many lives are saved, and we rightfully have afforded these people a place of honor in our society.
Yet among these professions there are also exploiters. They offer dubious or outright quack technologies that range from injecting children with radioactive substances to “scan” their brains, to selling hugely-marked-up herbs accompanied by inflated claims for efficacy, to expensive and prolonged (often for years) “therapies” with a new brand-name erupting every few years.
Essential to the success of the exploiters is the concept of sickness.
It’s well known in the business world that if you can convince people something is wrong with them, you can then make a pile of money selling them a remedy. It’s been done with facial hair, body odor, leg hair, wrinkles, varicose veins, “bad” breath, and dozens of what used to be ordinary parts of the human condition. Convince people there’s something wrong with or embarrassing about their normal functions, and you can get rich selling them mouthwash, douches, depilatory creams, wrinkle removers, suntan aids, diet pills, and a host of other products.
Similarly, exploiters in the medical arena depend on the notion of sickness or abnormality to peddle their wares: to sell, they depend on convincing you “There’s something about you that’s intolerable, something wrong, something you need to change.” And so we hear some speakers and authors talk about the “importance of taking seriously” ADD.
Their message is not “If you feel you have a problem, I have some solutions that may or may not work,” but, rather, “You are sick and I am not, and you must unquestioningly let me help you with my cure.”
Often, that’s followed with “If you don’t do so, you’re in denial.”
Or if we agree there’s a need but we question the treatment, our intentions are questioned: “Why are you questioning me when I’m only trying to help you and your child?”
I’ll be among the first to say that being a Hunter in this Farmer’s world is fraught with difficulty: nobody can deny that. The failures, evident in our prisons and schools and street people, offer loud testimony to the seriousness of being ADD in today’s society.
But to say “Everything is okay with our culture and society and everybody else, so it must be you that’s seriously screwed up and needs treatment” is totally disempowering. It robs people of their humanity and dignity. It dominates them. It is Wétiko.
I much prefer a rational middle ground, well articulated by Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry Dr. John Ratey in his foreword to my 1995 book ADD Success Stories
After Thom Hartmann’s first two books on ADD, the metaphor of the hunter began to provide many ADDers with an acceptable label for their quirkiness and a way of looking at themselves that was full of hope and permission. Just as the diagnosis of ADD itself often helps in replacing guilt with hope, so does an appealing metaphor like that of a hunter (which smacks of Robin Hood and Madame Curie) help in giving many people a sense of purpose and direction. This sort of personal mythology can provide a platform that looks to the future with promise and approval — never masking the problems of the ADD brain but instead offering role models to guide the ADDer into a more optimistic and forward-looking journey. While this new reframed version of who they are should never excuse foibles or open the door to self-indulgence, being granted permission to be who they are often drives individuals to reach previously unattempted heights. When the shackles of shame are lifted, the future can be approached with a cleaner, crisper, more energetic viewpoint.
Where do we go from here?
And so, five years after the first publication of this book, we are left with the ongoing questions: What is ADD, where did it come from, why do we have it, and where do we go from here?
While scientists do not yet know for sure what the mechanism or cause of ADD is, we do know from numerous studies that when we tell people they are a certain way, they’ll most often live up to that expectation. Tell a child he’s “bad” often enough, and he’ll most likely become bad. Tell her she’s “brilliant,” and she’ll strive to achieve brilliance.
And not only do we live up to the things others tell us out loud about ourselves, we also live up to the unspoken assumptions.
The most famous example of this is the study in which a group of elementary school students were divided into two groups, balanced as much as possible by the researchers to be identical in the average of their abilities and intelligence. Then the teachers were told that group A was the highly intelligent group, and that group B was the lower intelligence group.
By the end of a single semester, group A had significantly outperformed group B academically. This wasn’t just the grade the teacher gave them; it was their actual performance on a standardized test. Their real-life performance was substantially affected by what the teacher expected of them — even when the teacher didn’t realize it.
Children can find and achieve their best when the adults around them help them do so.
Particularly as children, we respond to other’s expectations of us. We live up to their assumptions, and we perform up to their and our belief of our ability to perform.
While there has never, ever been a study positively correlating grades in school with psychological success or adjustment in later life, there have been many which show that childhood self-esteem is a significant and generally accurate predictor of adult competence. (The book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman contains a wealth of this research.)
So when my son, at age 13 was diagnosed with ADD and was told that he had a “disease” that was “similar to diabetes, but instead of your pancreas being damaged and not producing enough insulin, your brain has been damaged and isn’t producing enough neurotransmitters,” I knew in my gut it was a lousy, disempowering story.
Not only was the message, “You’re broken and we’re the only ones who can fix you,” but there was also an implicit “You’re broken and can never be really normal.” In my opinion, that message profanes the sacred reality of human life and human diversity by putting people in neat little categories (which, it turns out, aren’t so neat) and by then telling them that their future can only be good if they follow the dictates of the person who has redefined them.
This is well illustrated by a short semi-autobiographical story written by Joe Parsons, a writer I met on the Internet. I reprint it here with his permission:
“Dad! Dad! Look at my report card!” I let the screen door slam behind me and stood in front of my father, clutching my now-wrinkled report card.
“What do you have there, Dave Jr.? Report card? Let me see it.” He glanced at my grades — two C’s, a D, and an A-minus. He looked down at me, frowning.
“Didja see the comments, Dad? Didja? I brought that F in math up to a D! I’m gonna pass it! And look at what my teachers said, Dad!” I had read my report card over and over as I ran home. Three of my teachers said I was making “good progress” and my English teacher said, “Dave Jr. has a refreshing and creative point of view.” My father kept looking at my report card, then at me. He didn’t say anything for a long time.
Finally, he said, “Son, these grades just aren’t very good, but I know you’re doing the best you can.” He sat me down on the sofa and looked at me. He seemed to be real sad. “Let me explain it to you again, son; you know those pills I have to make you take?”
“Yeah, Dad, the Ritalin so I can pay attention better in class; they’re really helping.”
He looked even sadder. “Yes, son. It’s a very strong medicine we have to give you because you have this very serious disease called ‘Attention-Deficit-Disorder.’” He said it slowly, to make sure I would understand. “You see, you’re not like the other kids. There’s something wrong with your brain that makes you different from the other...normal...kids. When the teacher says that you have...” he looked at the report card again. “'Refreshing and creative point of view,' what she’s really saying is that you can’t fit in and say things the way the other kids do.” “Is that a bad thing, Dad?”
He put his hand on my head. “I’m afraid it is, Son, but we’re just going to have to live with your being...different.”
“But my teacher said I was doing a lot better, Dad; she said I was ‘creative!’ Isn’t that a good thing, Dad?”
He smiled at me again, but he still looked sad. “Your teacher is just trying to make you feel better, son. She doesn’t realize that your disease is going to make you mess up everything you do in your life. The sooner you realize that, the easier it will be for you. I just don’t want you to be disappointed, son.”
I started to feel sad, too. I looked down at my father’s shoes. “What am I going to do, Dad?”
“Just do the best you can, son. The main thing is not to get your hopes up.” He put his arm around my shoulders. “As long as you always realize that you’re different from the normal people that aren’t sick like you are, you’ll be a lot happier.”
“Okay, Dad. I’ll try to remember.” I took the report card from him and went to my room. I sat on my bed and read the words over and over: “good progress...refreshing and creative point of view.”
Soon tears blurred the words and I tossed the card on the floor. I knew Dad was right: I would always mess up.
I was glad he reminded me.
I know this father meant well; he was doing the best he knew how, to respond to what he’d been told about his son’s situation. But I hope to open people’s minds to the possibility of another way to respond.
Unlike the father in this story, I spent the first year after my son’s diagnosis (and the sermon by his psychologist that he “isn’t normal”) trying to find a deeper understanding of what this thing called ADD was. I read everything I could find, and talked with friends and former associates in the child-care industry. I learned that the three cardinal indicators of ADD are distractibility, impulsiveness, and a love of high stimulation or risk. (If you toss in the inability to sit still — hyperactivity — you have ADD-H or ADHD.) While I’d never seen it written anywhere, I also intuitively knew that people with ADD had a different sense of time from those without ADD.
And the more I looked at it, the more it seemed that this “illness” could also be an asset under some circumstances.
After six months of hyperfocused research, I was reading myself to sleep one night with Scientific American. The article was about how the end of the ice age, 12,000 years ago, brought about a mutation of grasses leading to the first appearance on earth of what we today call wheat and rice. These early cereal grains led to the development of agriculture among humans, and that point in history is referred to as the Agricultural Revolution.
As the article went into greater detail about how the agricultural revolution transformed human society, I got a “Eureka!” that was such a jolt I sat straight up in bed. “People with ADD are the descendants of hunters!” I said to my wife Louise, who gave me a baffled look. “They’d have to be constantly scanning their environment, looking for food and for threats to them: that’s distractibility. They’d have to make instant decisions and act on them without a second’s thought when they’re chasing or being chased through the forest or jungle, which is impulsivity. And they’d have to love the high-stimulation and risk-filled environment of the hunting field.” “What are you talking about?” she said.
“ADD!” I said, waving my hands. “It’s only a flaw if you’re in a society of farmers!”
From that concept came what was originally a metaphor, a less-disempowering story that I could tell my son (for whom I originally wrote this book) and others about their “difference.” Since that time, we’ve discovered that this original “story” may, in fact, be factually accurate: science is rapidly corroborating many of my original observations and theories.
So where we go from here is forward, into a future where people with ADD are not embarrassed or ashamed to say they are Hunters, where children are helped in schools with appropriate interventions and educational environments, and where teenagers and adults recognize in advance that some jobs or careers or mates are well-suited to their temperament and others are not — and from that self-knowledge can gain a greater measure of success in life.
We go forward with proud steps, ignoring those “helpers” who would cling to our legs and scream (or say softly) “you’re sick!” while offering us quick fixes, radiation, or expensive “cures.”
We go forward as Hunters.