|Could Someone with ADD have Survived in a Primitive Hunting Society?
by Thom Hartmann
Many thoughtful people on all sides of the ADD issue have asked me this question. One of the most articulate put it quite succinctly when he said that if he’d been alive 10,000 years ago he would have been doomed because “I’d forget to take my spear with me when we left for the hunt!”
Others have taken pains to point out to me the necessity of organized
cooperative action for most primitive hunting parties. The ideal of a
hyperactive loner going through the woods looking for dinner doesn’t at all
characterize how most anthropologists describe primitive (or today’s)
At first glance, it would appear that these considerations blow a hole in
the hypothesis that modern people with ADD are carrying around a remnant of
hunter/gatherer genetic material. It lends credibility to the notion that ADD
is, in fact, a “disease” or at least “not normal,” and may not have ever
been “normal” in human history.
But that overlooks a critical issue: cultural context, the effect of what
we learn to believe about ourselves as we’re growing up.
Cultural anthropologists are quick to point out that it’s extremely
difficult for any one culture to clearly view another. We instinctively assume
when observing their behaviors that they’re motivated in the same ways we are,
that they behave the way they do for the same reasons we would if we were in
their situation, and that they share our assumptions about how the world works
and humanity’s role in the world.
This is a dangerous error, which even tripped up Margaret Mead when she
was writing Coming of Age in Samoa. Since her well-intentioned but
well-publicized error, few anthropologists would make this mistake. But it’s
easy for somebody untrained in the field.
The problem, essentially, is that most people, when thinking of
“primitive times,” imagine themselves running around in the woods wearing animal skins and
carrying a spear. In their mind’s eye, they transport a twentieth century
person back into a fantasy past. But these “Connecticut Yankees in King
Arthur’s Court” don’t represent what it was like to grow up in those
times; they arrive in a different era complete with all our acculturation,
carrying along all the damage done to them by our culture. They haul along the
preparations we’ve received for a Farmers/Industrialists life, but utterly
lacking preparation for a Hunters/Gatherers life.
The fact of the matter is that people in hunter/gatherer tribes live very
different lives than we do, and therefore grow up to be very different persons
ADDers are damaged by growing up in our society, but not in hunting
Cultural anthropologist Jay Fikes pointed this out to me when we first
discussed the idea of hunters and farmers as an explanation for many modern
psychological differences among people. His research showed that individuals
living among the historically agricultural Native Americans, such as the Hopi
and other Pueblo Indians, are relatively sedate and risk-averse. On the other
hand, Fikes said, members of the hunting tribes such as the Navajo are
“constantly scanning their environment and are more immediately sensitive to
nuances. They’re also the ultimate risk takers. They and the Apaches were
great raiders and warriors.”
Navajo children grow up in a society of Navajo hunter and warrior adults
(at least they did before we conquered them, destroyed their culture, shattered
their religions, stole their land, and murdered most of their citizens). The
Navajo raised their children as hunters and warriors. Until we arrived with
horses and guns, they were extraordinarily successful, and had survived as an
intact culture for thousands of years longer than we have.
But we today are not a society of hunters, raiders, and warriors. We are
farmers, office- and factory-workers. Therefore, we punish and discourage hunter
and warrior behavior in our children and adults.
people grow up being punished for being the way they are, they become damaged.
They think of themselves as misfits and incompetents. They lose their own
personal power, become shaken and fearful, and develop a variety of compensating
behaviors—many of which are less than useful.
What you—the parent, teacher, counselor, or physician—what you tell
the ADD child about himself can have a decisive effect. Children respond very
differently to being told “This is how you work” instead of “You just
don’t work right.”
To think that these modern ADD people—damaged, shaken, hurt, and
weakened by growing up in the wrong time and culture—could somehow solve all
their problems by simply transporting themselves back to some mythical
prehistoric hunting era is a fantasy. It wouldn’t work. They weren’t raised
and trained to survive in that environment; they weren’t taught to channel
their energies into being hunters and warriors.
Instead, they were spanked and slapped, told to shut up and given
detention, and—the ultimate insult—told that they are damaged goods and have
a brain disease worthy of the labels “deficit” and “disorder.”
Hunters are both born and made
Every type of culture puts enormous amounts of effort into educating and
inculcating cultural values into their citizens. That’s how it becomes a
In hundreds of ways, we are daily taught and reminded of what is expected
of us, what the limits and boundaries are, and what are appropriate and
inappropriate goals and behaviors. Most of this teaching is so subtle we’re
totally unaware of it — a glance from a stranger when we talk too loud in a
restaurant, for example — but our days are filled with it. It shapes us and
molds our beliefs, our assumptions, and ultimately our reality.
We come face-to-face with these differences when we encounter other
cultures. I remember my shock and dismay at discovering, the first time I was in
Japan negotiating on behalf of my company, that I had committed dozens of major
cultural blunders in my interactions. Even more shocking confrontations occur
when we meet people from far disparate tribes: I remember how odd I felt when,
deep in the jungle of central Uganda, I stood in a village of people who were
mostly naked. My jeans, shoes, shirt, and carried jacket seemed an oddity to
them, and began to seem that way to me after a few hours.
And so we train our young. We reinforce and strengthen in them those
behaviors, assumptions, and beliefs that we find useful as a society, and we
discourage or crush in them those that are not useful or even counterproductive
to the orderly flow of our culture and its work.
Farming societies teach their young how to be good farmers. Hunting
societies train their children in the ways of the hunt. Industrial societies
raise their children to be good factory workers. Warrior cultures teach warfare
to their children.
By the time a young man in the Ugandan Ik hunter/gatherer tribe is ready
to go out on a hunt with the men, he has been trained his entire life for that
moment. He’s played at it virtually from birth. He’s had a personal mentor
for half his lifetime, an adult who has taught him the lore of the jungle and
the prey. He’s practiced for thousands of hours. He may be high-energy,
impulsive, distractible, and a risk-taker, but he is also a brilliant and
proficient hunter, a master killing machine. He has been trained from his first
steps to focus and concentrate that wild energy on this one task, and to exploit
and use his scanning and quick-thinking and love of adventure to cooperate with
the other men in the jungle to bring home dinner.
In this context, you can see how naïve it is to ask if a “person with
ADD” (which is, after all, a “disorder” defined only by, and unique to our
culture) could succeed in a hunting/gathering society.
There’s little doubt that a child who’s had his ego bashed from
thirty different directions since he was little, who’s spent his life being
told “don’t be that way” and “sit down and shut up,” whose only
well-honed hunting skill is finding MTV with his remote control, would fail in
the jungle. Anyone who’s always been told they’re no good will lack
confidence and will fail to perform.
This was perfectly illustrated by a story in Newsweek
in 1994. It was an account of an ongoing study of a group of now-adults with ADD
who were diagnosed as having ADD in elementary school in the 1960s: some had
significantly lower outcomes in life than people not diagnosed with ADD.
But nowhere in the study, or the article, was it mentioned that only the
ADD subjects were told they were “disordered” and required to take drugs for
their “mind sickness” while still children.
For the study to have statistical validity, a matching population of
non-ADD children would have to have been treated the same way, and their outcome
would have to be compared against the ADD population.
Of course no ethical researcher would dare take a perfectly ordinary
child and tell him such things: too many past studies in the field of psychology
have shown how destructive the outcome could be. But that’s exactly what
we’ve been doing with our ADD children.
If that same child with the bashed ego
had been born into a hunting tribe, so that his traits were developed instead of
being beaten out of him, he may well have turned out to be the mightiest of
their warriors, the most brilliant of their hunters, the wisest of their elders.