I once had a sled dog team in Northern Minnesota. It was a fairly short lived experience but the strong bond I formed with my dogs brings back powerful memories. We trained together by day exploring the Northern Wilderness, and howled at the moon by night. When the snow begins to fall very year, I miss it.
A couple of winters ago, I attended a sled dog sprint race in the Adirondack mountains of New York. I walked around and checked out all the participants dogs as usually did and I was unimpressed. The sport of sprint racing had evolved way past its roots in indigenous arctic travel and become a thing in itself. Now, as then, it is no longer a sport for rugged huskies, but rather a competition between sleek mongrel hounds running on perfectly groomed trails. They achieve impressive speeds, but the chain between these hounds and their trapline running forebears seems to have been broken forever. These hounds can run 20 mph for 30 minutes straight, but once the race is over they need to hop right into their insulated dog boxes because they shiver in the cold
While pondering these absurdities, I was surprised to stumble upon a pair of what appeared to be wolves: They were tall and muscular like their hound competitors, but had thick, wolf-grey coats, bushy tails, pointed ears and the oblique eyes of the wolf. I was impressed. I inquired about them with the musher. He said they were ‘throw backs.’ He had their mother and father with them on the team as well, but they were hounds. Surprised, I asked him how this could be. He responded that when he had originally got into dogs back in the eighties he started with dogs straight from the Alaska trapline – Native Village dogs, from Iditarod Musher Joe Runyan. Somehow in the course of his breeding program these genes had coalesced and the native village dog had been reconstituted.
A powerful feeling resonated through out my whole body: These dogs represented to me a symbol that has been with me throughout my whole life – that of the atavism.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines atavism as a “recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination; a recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity; or one that manifests atavism: a throwback”.
Are you Atavistic? Do you display neurological traits of your distant ancestors? Are you one of the 1 in 20 Americans diagnosed with ADHD? If so, you may be interested in Thomm Hartmann’s “Hunter vs. Farmer” hypothesis.
The essence of the Hunter vs. Farmer hypothesis is that behavior associated with ADHD helps people such as hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads, and others who lead a peripatetic life. Since today’s sedentary city dwellers are recently descended from such people, natural selection may not have had time to purge the genes that cause it.
Let me construct a narrative as to just how might this have happened. For much of recent human history there has been the State. Powerful Political polities, that have effected recent human evolution. In the language of French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the State “over codes” everyone, and thus People aren’t self existent human beings in their own right, but cogs in a vast utilitarian machine. Those born to eccentric shapes are soon pounded into concentric shapes. It’s an extractive process akin to sculpting: People don’t become more under the influence of civilization, they become less.
Not everyone bears the yoke gladly and there are those who resist. Historically there have been wastelands on the periphery of Civilizations. Rebellious and enterprising souls, escaped slaves, criminals, religious ascetics and other misfits have taken to these areas to make lives for themselves. The Steppe areas around the Baltic Sea and Central Asia have been such a place. Nomadic cultures, organized around pastoralism (and also piracy and brigandry) formed again and again.
The neurological traits associated with ADHD that make life difficult to sit passively all day in a chair and receiving instructions are actually traits adapted for hunting and fighting: activities that obviously have no place in the modern class room.
Hartmann’s hypothesis was constructed as a more positive, alternative “myth” to give to his son who had been diagnosed with ADHD. He felt it was disempowering to for people to tell his son that he was “disordered” simply for processing information differently than his peers.
An ADHD kid in the classroom may be in a disadvantage, but in another setting requiring “combat readiness” he would be at an advantage. Self-defense expert Jeff Cooper classifies this state of combat readiness as “Condition Yellow” in his personal defense color code system.
Yellow: Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that “I may have to shoot today”. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot.) In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”
It’s this “continuous 360 degree radar sweep” that is the problem for certain kids in the class room. Mental health experts describe it as an “attention deficit”, but in my opinion, it is simply an older, more primitive delegation of attention that isn’t based on receiving instruction in a rote manner. This is a kind of an attention based on survival that could have been evolved in response to life on the open Savannah. This is a diffused attention that takes many factors into account simultaneously. In a class room there are other kids and windows with interesting things going on outside. The least important thing to kids like this is what someone is writing on a black board.
Since the publication of Hartman’s ADHD books, these thesis has been taken up and tested by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, and has since been shown to have a basis in neurobiology.
A cult, of sorts, has recently been formed around the DRD4 7R allele (a gene associated with exploratory behavior and ADHD) with a recent article in National Geographic .
According to a study referred to in page 57 of The Neurobiology of Criminal Behavior ,“among the high-prevalence 7r allele Yanomamo, the strutting, violent, energy they display that would land a person in hot water in Western societies has excellent fitness pay offs. Males who have killed the most in inter-village warfare have an average of three times as many wives and children as those who have killed least or not at all.”
It’s important not to look at this too simplistically, such as the idea that this one gene plays a huge role in a person’s neurology. There is no doubt that human behavior is caused by a multitude of multi-genic and environmental factors, but there does seem to be a certain human archetype of the wild adventurous nomad, that crops up again and again.
I first encountered Thom Hartmann’s work as an adult, and it felt like a validation. I had been diagnosed with what is now known as ADHD the late seventies and was prescribed Ritalin. I remember the first day that I took it. I was in second grade. After taking the pill, my performance improved and I was able to sit still and pay attention and get a lot more work done, but I felt like a different person and it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t want to take it any more; I refused to take it. To her credit, my mother honored my decision even though the medication seemed to have worked for me.
When I was diagnosed with learning disabilities I had kind of a sense that it wasn’t me, but rather the world that was wrong. I have some speculations as to why I thought this way: I was a pretty good reader in elementary school even though I had problems in class, obviously. despite my “disabilities” my reading habits continued throughout school, and the feeling of being normal in a world that had gone wrong only grew. Looking back, I think that this feeling had been made stronger by reading what in retrospect was some rather subversive literature; books like The Call of the Wild by Jack London and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I read each of these books several times.
The narrator in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a Native American known as “Chief” who describes society as a machine he calls “the Combine”. This combine is embodied in the asylum and in the person of “Nurse Ratched”, a rules-bound and sadistic nurse. This metaphor was not lost on me as young pre-adolescent, but years later when I read the book as an adult, I realized that I hadn’t realized the Chief’s narration also included what appeared to be schizophrenic hallucinations. I had taken the hallucinations at face value, or maybe more as visions. What I had taken away was that this same combine that the Chief described was alive and well in the public school class room.
The Call of the Wild is about a dog that is kidnapped to be used as a sled dog during the Gold Rush in the Yukon. He goes through a series of trials where he overcomes his years of soft living in civilization and adapts to the savage life in the frozen North, which he calls “the Law of Club and Fang.” Eventually through a series of disasters and tragic events, he escapes civilization altogether and becomes a wolf.
Through these two books, and a few others, I developed a sort of philosophy of life and an identity: I was a human version of a wild animal trapped into living within modern civilization and being forced to conform. For a while, I had an idea that I somehow got all the native American blood in my family, and I nurtured this idea all through school, spending most of my free time exploring the woods and stalking animals.
When faced with the confinement of captivity, the natural urge for a wild creature, is to flee. As long as there are frontiers and wildernesses to flee into, a certain type of human being is able to exist: cowboys, mountain men, pirates, drifters, gypsies, gamblers. All of these are expressions of the same freedom-loving archetype.
The best thing to do if you find yourself in the category is to make it work for you instead of against you.
Because of genes affecting dopamine reception in the prefrontal cortex, the ADHD brain is in a chronic state of under stimulation. I find that I cope with this by day dreaming about things I find stimulating: Bigfoot, aliens, sinister government conspiracies, the apocalypse, intractable philosophical conundrums, etc. Sometimes this isn’t enough. I need to climb a mountain, cliff dive, hitchhike through the Yukon, or scale a building. I’ve got to do something exciting, because otherwise I would not be able to cope with how unbelievably boring modern life has become.
Occasionally, in the midst of all of this boredom, something really dangerous will happen, and typically my reaction is “Suddenly something interesting is happening! Finally a break in the routine!”I will discover that my house is burning down because the gas line on my stove just broke, or I will discover that my brakes have just just gone out and now I am hurtling toward cars stopped at a light with no obvious way to stop. Internal resources become immediately available as I kick into a heightened state of awareness. I wake up and start paying attention.
I once intervened when I witnessed a man being stomped by four gangsters. I just ran up and said “Hey, don’t kill that guy!” I threw my hands up in front of me in a conciliating gesture (which also protected my face from potential strikes) and got between them and their victim. I had just witnessed a drunk driver total their parked Cadillac. The four of them, standing outside a bar, had witnessed the the hit-and-run accident and had chased the car down, pulled the driver out and unleashed a savage beat down in retaliation. I reasoned with them.
“Hey, this guy is clearly in the wrong, but you don’t want to be responsible for a homicide!”, I said. It gave them pause. One of the men was well over 6 feet tall, and probably over 200 lbs. He had gold rings on every finger, forming something like brass knuckles. He stopped, and then the other men followed his lead. They then decided they were making a “citizen’s arrest” and merely held the guy. Once the situation was defused I moved on.
That’s not the type of thing you plan: You just react. I really believe that this type of neurology evolved on the Steppes. Maybe you’re a shepherd herding your sheep, and suddenly things change: a wolf appears, or maybe a group of bandits. You have to react without a moment’s notice. Or maybe you are the Bandit: burst of sudden violent activity, interspersed with long stretches of slack time. Agriculture, and by extension, industrial occupations, involve an entirely different skill set.
Pastoralists often have the same distinct qualities of personality regardless of the region of the world in which they live. Specifically, men in a local group tend to be cooperative with each other and aggressive towards outsiders. They usually can make important economic decisions quickly and act on them independently. They have a profound emotional attachment to their animals. A pastoralist leader needs to be a man who can direct the movements of his herds and decide on an optimum strategy for using scarce resources without having to first consult others. He needs to make decisions easily and to act on them without hesitation. He needs to be able to take the initiative and to be a leader in aggressively defending his herd by expanding territory at the expense of others. He must always be realistic in his appraisal of the world. To do these things, he needs to have an attitude of self-containment, personal control, and bravery. These typical pastoralist personality traits are related to subsistence success. As a consequence, boys are encouraged to emulate them as they grow up. link:
In modern life what does this translate into? It sounds a lot like owning your own business and being your own boss. If this is who you are, then this is what you need to do.
In closing, let me reflect once again on these sleek selectively-bred sled dogs. They are extremely well adapted to an activity that is basically absurd: competing against other teams and running around in circles. That is the sine qua non of their existence. In modern sledding, the healthy biological traits necessary for arctic survival are culled: thick warm coats, heavy frames designed for pulling, and aggressive instincts related to dominance and territoriality. This culling continues until a docile, short-coated hound is produced.
Like the modern world of competitive dog sledding, modern life is an anomaly: It requires conformity to a way of life that quickly becomes absurd for those of us who are neurological throwbacks. Adaptive traits that were once of great survival value must be culled through behavior modification and medication, and for what purpose? To be ground down enough by Chief’s combine until you sit quietly at a desk and hope that you earn enough money to buy plastic trinkets to quickly discard and place in land fills?