The hunter-gatherer neurotribe — the story so far

In his book ADHD: A Hunter in a Farmer’s World Thom Hartman made a connection between ADHD and a “hunter-(gatherer)” psychology. His hypothesis has received a lot of interest, however, has been little pursued further by evolutionary psychologists, who traditionally have viewed all humans as programmed for the “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle. However, it has become clear that the past 10.000 years have also brought considerable changes to our genome in the form of genetic sweeps.

I have argued that the biggest evolutionary changes have been due to our ancestral mode of subsistence: hunting/gathering, farming, and herding, with “hunter-gatherer minds” preserving a lot of traits, like egalitarianism, vigilant cognition perhaps even anatomical features, such as lightweight ectomorph body type due to assortative mating. Farmers would be characterized by love of routine, sustained focus on routine work, adherence to tradition and authority as well as being more status-oriented (hierarchical).

Another thing that is becoming increasingly clear, the neurodiverse are kind of a family. There are high levels of comorbidity between different types of neurodiversity, including gifted, ASD, and ADHD children, as well as many similar non-pathological traits:

  • Egalitarian (distrust of authority), often resulting in tantrums or ODD, liberal ideology as adults
  • Supposedly asynchronous development (cognitive, emotional, motor)
  • Hyperfocus on special interests
  • Harder to motivate through reward/punishment; motivated more by intrinsic motivation
  • High degree of personality trait “openness” (in gifted/ADHD, less so in ASD — might be masked by anxiety)
  • Often look younger (neotenous features)
  • Late onset of puberty
  • Cautiousness and fearfulness
  • Social anxiety and social awkwardness
  • Highly sensitive to physical stimuli (noise, light, touch, etc.)
  • Highly sensitive to social criticism
  • Picky eating
  • High stress-reactivity (hyperreactive amygdala)
  • Insomnia (often perceived as needing less sleep in gifted people)
  • Mood disorders and suicidal ideation

While few individuals will display all traits, the are very common in gifted children (often twice-exceptional) as well as what is considered neurodiverse proper (ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, etc.). As Thom Hartmann correctly identified: we do live very much in a farmer world and our schools, 9–5 routine jobs, etc. work best for farmer types who represent the majority of people. It is not surprising to learn, therefore that a lot of gifted children underperform in a traditional school system.

I have argued before that many of the hunter-gatherer traits mentioned above are due to slow life-history strategy (r/K selection). Out of all ancestral populations, hunter-gatherers probably had the longest lifespan and herder the shortest. Hunter-gatherer types would, therefore, have the lowest risk-taking behavior (cautiousness, higher levels of neuroticism), whereas herder types would have the highest levels of risk-taking and extraversion.

As is well-known, personality trait neuroticism is the one that is mostly associated with psychopathology. What may seem surprising is that there is assortative mating for mental disorders. However, if you consider that mental disorders will predominantly affect hunter-gatherer types, it becomes clear that the assortative mating is not for mental disorders, but for personality types. Female “hunter-gatherers”, for example, will find traditional gender-roles with a dominant male oppressive and suffocating. Most women who decide to remain single are of this type.

Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia all affect hunter-gatherer types much more often than “farmer types”. There are some gender differences, however, e.g. autism will affect more males, whereas schizophrenia and suicide are more often associated with the creative-caregiving profile. The latter doesn’t have to be females. In fact, suicide is higher in men, but they are most likely to have a creative-caregiving “gatherer” (think Vincent van Gogh or Kurt Cobain) rather than a providing “hunter” profile.

Read more in my ebook:

Originally published at on May 25, 2020.

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