It can be hard for someone with ADHD to pay attention in
boring lectures, stay focused on any one subject for long, or sit still when they
just want to get up and go. People with ADHD are often those who stare out the
window, daydreaming about what’s outside. It can feel at times like the
structure of civilized society is too rigid and sedentary for those with brains
that want to go, go, go.
It’s an understandable viewpoint, considering that for 8
million years since the earliest human ancestors evolved from apes, we’ve been
nomadic people, wandering the earth, chasing wild animals, and moving to
wherever food was. There was always something new to see and explore.
This sounds like an ideal environment for someone with ADHD,
and research may prove that hyperactive hunter-gatherers were indeed better equipped
than their peers.
ADHD and Hunter-Gatherers
A study conducted at Northwestern University in 2008 examined
two tribal groups in Kenya. One of the tribes was still nomadic, while the
other had settled into villages. The researchers were able to identify members
of the tribes who displayed ADHD traits. [Eisenberg,
Specifically, they examined the DRD4 7R, a genetic variant
that researches say is linked to novelty-seeking, greater food and drug
cravings, and ADHD symptoms.
Research showed that members of the nomadic tribe with ADHD—those
who still had to hunt for their food—were better nourished than those without
ADHD. Also, those with the same genetic variant in the settled village had more
difficultly in the classroom, a major indicator of ADHD in civilized society.
The researchers also noted that unpredictable behavior—a
hallmark of ADHD—might have been helpful in protecting our ancestors against
livestock raids, robberies, and more. After all, would you want to challenge someone
if you had no idea what he or she might do?
In essence, the traits associated with ADHD make for better
hunters-gatherers and worse settlers.
Up until about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of
agriculture, all human beings had to hunt and gather in order to survive.
Nowadays, most people don’t have to worry about finding food. Instead, for most
of the world, it’s a life of classrooms, jobs, and plenty of other places with
structured codes of behavior.
In evolutionary terms, hunter-gatherers were generalists, in
that they needed to know how to do a little bit of everything to survive. This
information wasn’t passed down during the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. in a
classroom. It was passed down from parent to child through play, observation,
and informal instruction.
ADHD, Evolution, and Modern Schools
Children with ADHD quickly learn that the world isn’t going
to change for them. They are often given medication to curb the unruly and
distracted behavior that can cause problems in school.
Dan Eisenberg, who headed the Northwestern study, co-wrote
in an article in San Francisco Medicine,
which said that with better understanding of our evolutionary legacy, people
with ADHD can pursue interests that are better for them and society.
“Children and adults with ADHD are often made to believe
that their ADHD is strictly a disability,” the article stated. “Instead of
understanding that their ADHD can be a strength, they are often given the
message that it is a flaw that must be solved through medication.”
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor in psychology at
Boston College, argues in an article
for Psychology Today that ADHD is,
on a basic level, a failure to adapt to the conditions of modern schooling.
“From an evolutionary perspective, school is an
Nothing like it ever existed in the long course of evolution during which we
acquired our human nature,” Gray wrote. “School is a place where children are
expected to spend most of their time sitting quietly in chairs, listening to a
teacher talk about things that don’t particularly interest them, reading what
they are told to read, writing what they are told to write, and feeding
memorized information back on tests.”
Until recently in human evolution, children took charge of their
own schooling by watching others, asking questions, learning through doing, and
so forth. The very structure of modern schools, Gray argues, is why many
children today have trouble adjusting to social expectations.
Gray argues that there’s enough anecdotal evidence to
suggest that if children are given freedom to learn the way they do
best—instead of being forced to adjust to the norms of the classroom—they no
longer need medication and can use their ADHD traits to live more healthy and
It is, after all, how we got here.