How neurodiverse people are like hunter-gatherers: part II social behaviour

For two years I have been researching how neurodiverse (ASD, ADHD, gifted, etc.) people are like ancient hunter-gatherers. It hasn’t been an easy enterprise, as the only work that has ever pointed to an origin of neurodiverse minds in ancient hunter-gatherer minds has been Thom Hartmann’s “Hunter-Hypothesis” of ADHD. Personally, I am somewhat in between neurotypical and neurodiverse, testing around 50% on online autism tests and 75% on ADHD tests. Like most neurodiverse people I have always had a hard time fitting in and I have a gifted son who learned to read by age two (hyperlexia) and who gets similar test results as I do. I generally do include the gifted label in my use of the word “neurodiverse”, to make it clear that not only people who are considered “having disabilities” belong to this group.

Here is a preliminary list of potential hunter-gatherer traits:

  • Less politeness/socially awkward (learn few social rules)
  • Egalitarian
  • Distrust of authoritarian behaviour
  • High sense of justice
  • Support the underdog
  • Exceptional honesty
  • No-ingroupism/nepotism
  • Less gender dimorphism

Physiological:

  • Chronotype (tendo to be night owls)
  • Hypersensitive to physical stimuli (sound, touch, etc.)

Anatomical:

For simplicity I’ll stick here with only two types: hunter-gatherer types and farmer types. I usually include a third type (pastoralist types), but people are often mixed and of course, reality is much more complex.

Here is a comparison between hunter-gatherer vs farmer types when it comes to social behaviour:

One thing almost all neurodiverse people have in common is that they are somewhat socially awkward . This is most obvious in austistic people who struggle with cognitive empathy, but less obviously so also in other types of neurodiversity, such as ADHD (e.g. blurting out seemingly irrelevant statements). As discussed in my previous post, social learning and blindly following socially transmitted knowledge were much less important in hunter-gatherer societies than farmer societies for who tradition and adherence to social rules were highly important. There is a well-known correlation between historical irrigation agriculture and tightness of culture (i.e emphasising rules and conformity). Put these two together

and you get pretty much what we know from neurodiverse children with their seemingly rude behaviour when all they do is really just being honest!

Hunter-gatherers do not have a lot of social rules, least of all anything nearly resembling etiquette. Words like “please” or “thank you” or even “sorry” are frequently absent. Politeness and even more so etiquette is very puzzling to people with ASD and is often perceived as “brown-nosing” even by those hunter-gatherer types who do get it. They are very straightforward and don’t understand why normies have such strange rituals when meeting. What comes seemingly naturally to NTs is often highly confusing to apsies. They would feel instantly at ease with the Pirahã hunter-gatherers of the Amazonian jungle. Daniel Everett writes about them:

Expressions like hello, goodbye, how are you?, I’m sorry, you’re welcome, and thank you don’t express or elicit new information about the world so much as they maintain goodwill and mutual respect. The Pirahã culture does not require this kind of communication. Pirahã sentences are either requests for information (questions), assertions of new information (declarations), or commands, by and large. There are no words for thanks, I’m sorry, and so on. I have become used to this over the years and forget most of the time how surprising this can be to outsiders. from: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Now let’s add the most important ingredient of instinctive hunter-gatherer behaviour: egalitarianism. This comes with a lot of other traits, like a distrust for anybody who wants to assume authority (particularly when not being especially competent). Another aspect of egalitarianism is not forming alliances against other people and taking sides with people who are unfairly treated. Hunter-gatherer children are therefore often averse to joining groups (that often have some “alpha” type people in them) and are therefore much more likely to become the victims of bullying: they are considered weird (not conforming) and they often have no network of “allies”, which makes them easy prey. On the flip side, neurodiverse people are quick to help a bullied person themselves. For a long time I believed this to be an effect of the feeling of being an underdog, but it’s really an instinct that is part of the egalitarianism bundle. For all teachers who are annoyed by ADHD kids: watch and marvel how they will fight for a kid who is treated unfairly! If they are aggressive towards a kid they are most likely the bully’s bully.

Last, but not least, what makes neurodiverse outcasts are their special interests (e.g. trains, birdwatching, evolutionary psychology — for me). Often not even other neurodiverse children are interested in endless talk about trains or insects, or whatever the current interest. There are several reasons why the interests of hunter-gatherer type children are so different from their peers’:

Hunter-gatherer people are more intrinsically motivated, i.e. money, status, grades, etc. mean very little to them. Being field-independent learners they are also not attuned to what is socially “cool”, i.e. they couldn’t be any cooler when it comes to “cool”. And finally, once hunter-gatherer types find something they are interested in (in an otherwise boring farmer world) they experience flow much more frequently than other people. Farmer-types seem to have an in-built clock (always knowing what time it is) and experience time evenly. Hunter-gatherer types experience time very differently when in flow we forget about time completely. It’s not rare that a neurodiverse person stops being occupied with his special interest only to find out it’s already sunrise — a farmer type would have felt the need to sleep 9 hours ago (and wouldn’t have missed the time).

So, to summarize, it should be pretty clear by now why for so many neurodiverse children school is a nightmarish experience: getting bullied, feeling overwhelmed by WORK loads, feeling like outsiders or even aliens, and having to face angry and occasionally authoritarian teachers. Authoritarian teachers are particularly likely to have difficulties with neurodiverse children, as being stricter often only worsens the situation, which can easily spiral out of control. My hunch is that most kids with oppositional defiant disorder are hunter-gatherer type children. When dealing with neurodiverse children, the first maxim every teacher has to keep in mind is: “Be kind! “. These children are not proactively aggressive, their aggression is reactive, even if it may not seem so, but the neurodiverse child may subjectively feel that he or she is being treated unfairly. School is a recipe for social anxiety for hunter-gatherer children, and social anxiety is indeed not rare for neurodiverse people to suffer from social anxiety and depression. Have you ever heard of Hikikomori? They are hunter-gatherer type teens, bet you?