The hunter and the scientist

A few years ago when investigating the connection between giftedness and ASD I came to the conclusion that what they have in common are hunter-minds (vs farmer minds). Gifted children and children on the spectrum have in common that they often clash with authority due to a higher than average egalitarian mind, their sensitivity to physical stimuli is higher (which makes more sense for foragers than farmers) and they have a tendency to hyperfocus on their special interests. They also often have problems understanding politeness and are often considered rude by teachers and peers.

I also discovered that these children tended to belong to a temperament/personality group called “rationals” or “analysts” in the Myers-Briggs inventory.

The majority of notable scientists belong to this group (e.g. Einstein INTP, Tesla INTJ, Feynman ENTP, Gell-Mann ENTJ). I sent emails about my findings to lots of imminent scientists, but most of them didn’t them seriously, after all MBTI have been proven to be scientifically not valid. I suppose most of the scientists I wrote to most have thought I was a complete nutcase implying they were “hunter-gatherers”

And yet, children with this temperament are born scientists. They are the kinds who will ask “why?” questions incessantly, take their toys apart to find out how they work, push toy cars endlessly to see how they move, take an early interest in trains and the solar system, get passionate about scientific experiments and want to build a bomb by the time they are in first grade (it’s not a joke, I was merely describing my INTJ son).

These analysts have an investigative mind that is high in openness (Big 5) and they are frequently drawn to science, technology, and journalism. In the enneagram, they are most frequently a type 5: the investigative thinker. They are often nerdy, socially awkward, shy and neurotic with phobias and social anxiety. It seems kind of ridiculous to suggest that these are the same kind of people as “savage hunters”.

And yet, I am not the only one who has suggested this ridiculous idea. Enter Louis Liebenberg who wrote two great books on the origin of science and hunter-tracking (in good hunter-gatherer tradition he shares them for free online ). Liebenberg was a science student

In the early 1980s I studied physics, mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town. While doing a course in history and philosophy of science, I became fascinated by this paradox in human evolution. I had an intuitive gut feeling that the art of tracking may have been the origin of science. I dropped out of university to do my own independent research and in 1990 published my first book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. To do this research I had to become a tracker and spent long periods tracking with the Kalahari Bushmen. ()

Liebenberg researches deep into the cognitive skill required for tracking and concludes that tracking is a science that fundamentally requires the same intellectual abilities as a modern science like physics:

For hunters, the evidence alone is not enough. They hypothesise, interpolate and extrapolate to aim for maximum predictability. They need to see multiple possibilities, get into the mind of the animal, create a mental map and update it on the basis of new evidence. Seeing multiple possibilities and making new connections with new evidence is what is called “extraverted intuition” in Jung’s terminology.

For early farmers these tracking skills were less crucial as the work they did was mostly routine work. Taking the most obvious version of reality and practising and packaging it into skills was the best way to learn. The drawback for these “packers” is that it becomes hard to update their mental models on the fly when they are faced with conflicting evidence. So they just ignore the conflicting evidence as long as possible. For example, farmer types are much more likely to believe in the literal truth of the Bible than hunter types when they are familiar with modern science.

Apart from tracking, there is another important reason why hunter types are more likely to be rational than farmer types: social organization. Forager types are highly egalitarian whereas farmer types have:

hierarchy: hierarchy entails the risk of losing status, how likely are you to contradict your boss/king/president?

conformity: early farming (especially irrigation farming) required high levels of conformity, the danger of group-think due to the desire to fit in (“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Japanese saying)

in-groupism: farmers had a higher sense of in-group conforming members vs outgroup (potential enemies) than foragers who are more universalist (joining different bands frequently)

So, what gets into the way of rational reasoning is politics: conforming for the sake of fitting in (herd mentality), accepting truths from higher authority without too much questioning, and being satisfied when personal and group interests are satisfied. Sedentism would also result in lower levels of curiosity (openness in Big 5) and higher levels of conscientiousness (hard work, avoiding pathogens, etc.)

Here are some distinctions that would apply to farmer vs foragers mindsets by different authors:

Of course, these distinctions aren’t absolute, but only tendencies. However, they would explain why so many “rationals” end up as investigative thinkers. That and the fact that hunter minds aren’t really adapted to a farmer world. So, you live your life, always with a feeling of “WTF is going on?” and you want to find out why.

Originally published at on October 7, 2021.



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