Why Hunters in a Farmer's World?
Why do we need a “Hunter/Farmer” model when the “disease” model of modern medicine works just fine?
The Men That Don’t Fit In
by Robert Service (1907)
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t sit still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far,
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.
There’s Power in How We Look At Things
Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.
—Schopenhauer, Further Psychological Observations, 1951
In the months since Louise and I started this website, Hunter in a Farmer’s World, we’ve gotten a number of inquiries about my perspective on ADHD. Am I opposed to medication? Do I think people should seek therapy? Is ADHD a fad? Why do we need a “Hunter/Farmer” model when the “disease” model of modern medicine works just fine?
This article is an attempt to give you a broad overview. If you’re interested in how I first developed the Hunter/Farmer hypothesis, you can find that laid out in detail my article What is ADHD? Are You a Hunter in a Farmer’s World?.
As I travel around the country (and the world: since the 1990s, I’ve lectured on this from Argentina to Israel to India to Taiwan and across Europe) and share the Hunter/Farmer model* of ADHD, I’m struck by how many people find it a liberating point of view.
Although even the Merck Manual recognizes that no one knows exactly what ADHD is or where it comes from, “Hunters & Farmers” gives people a useful paradigm to describe ADHD that helps them see new ways to view career choices, organizational strategies, and even the value of therapy and/or medication.
And that, after all, is the point: to find something useful, something with practical value we can use to improve our situation.
However, I also encounter a small minority of individuals who tenaciously want to embrace a label of “ill” when describing themselves, while other people with ADHD — and with symptoms just as problematic — are successful in business, school, or the professions. They no longer lose their keys, they have learned to improve their memory, they’ve figured ways around their impulse to interrupt — in short, they’ve learned to deal with it.
So, let’s establish a clear overview:
The Hunter/Farmer concept is a model.
My story/metaphor/idea not hard science, and was never intended to be (although more and more scientists are embracing it as a possible working hypothesis).
There are dozens of theories about the cause or origin of ADHD. They range from prenatal fetal injury to neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain (caused by environmental toxins or genetics), to developmental “hiccups” where a person failed, for whatever reason, to learn organizational and focusing strategies at some particularly critical point in childhood.
As more proof accumulates that ADHD has a genetic basis, it gives increased credibility to the Hunter/Farmer model and the possibility that ADHD was once a useful adaptation that’s maladaptive in modern society (much like sickle cell anemia, which protects against malaria in Africa but is a liability in malaria-free America).
Recent studies done at the University of Chicago have all but proven that ADHD is a genetic condition, and has little or nothing to do with parenting or environment (although the impact of it can badly warp how people experience childhood). It’s all nature, and no nurture, at least in its baseline state, although the specifics of it are still elusive.
The Merck Manual, the official book of the medical profession for defining diseases, states: “The etiology (cause) is unknown. Several theories advocating biochemical, sensory and motor, physiologic, and behavioral correlates and manifestations have been proposed.” The Merck Manual further states: “Diagnosis is often difficult. No particular organic signs or set of neurologic indicators are specific.”
In other words, nobody knows what ADHD is or where it comes from, and anyone who says differently is not speaking on behalf of the scientific community.
I developed the Hunter/Farmer model of ADHD first as a way to explain ADHD to my own son, after a psychologist told him he had a “brain disease.” I felt that was a pretty poor way to describe any sort of challenge to a person, and wanted to give him a paradigm for understanding that the challenges he faced would not be crippling to his self-esteem.
(I also saw in myself the exact same characteristics the psychologist had identified in him — and, while I knew how they’d challenged me in life, I also knew that I owed much of my success in life to those same “disabilities” and “challenges” he told my son would doom him to a life of failure without aggressive intervention.)
Hunters/Farmers explained his problems in terms he could understand, and allowed him to discuss his ADHD with teachers and friends without hanging his head. Instead of denying the value of therapy or medication, it made him more enthusiastic about considering those options. Asking, “How can we look at this usefully?” always validates approaches that are already proven effective.
The Hunter/Farmer model approaches head-on the difficulties people with ADHD face in modern society.
It brings those difficulties more clearly into focus. It also provides a rational explanation for some of the many techniques that psychologists suggest for working around, overcoming, or working through the ways that ADHD can challenge a person’s life.
Using the Hunter/Farmer model, I’ve pointed out the differences between Hunters and Farmers, and recommended that people do what works best for them. In modern society, there are positive and negative sides to both Hunter and Farmer types of people.
ADHD represents a spectrum of severities.
Some people with ADHD are so dysfunctional they require medication or even institutionalization. The high number of people in our jails with ADHD is sobering testimony to this. On the other hand, many people with ADHD find it less than disabling, and some even celebrate their “Hunterness.”
An increasing number of recent books and contemporary scientists point out that rarely in nature do things happen by accident. The science of Evolutionary Medicine proposes, for example, that even genetically-transmitted conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, obesity, sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, and morning sickness have evolutionary roots. All were, at various times in human pre-history, useful adaptations (and some still are).
For example, when medical researchers graphed the nine-month sensitivity of a fetus to birth defects caused by its mother eating toxic foods during pregnancy, they made a startling discovery. The graph overlaid perfectly with a charting of the average reported severity of morning sickness among contemporary pregnant women.
Among our hunter/gatherer ancestors, morning sickness encouraged pregnant women to eat only those meals they already knew to be safe, and to avoid experimenting with foods which may contain toxins dangerous to the fetus. While morning sickness has little usefulness now, as we hunt and gather our food at Kroger’s, it’s still firmly anchored in our genetic material.
Similarly, Time magazine ran a cover story in the August 15, 1995 international issue about Robert Wright’s book The Moral Animal, which looks at human behavior in the context of Darwinian Psychology. The Time cover headlined: Infidelity: It may be in our genes. Even the roots of our behaviors are being analyzed now in the context of evolution and adaptation. Wright and other scientists and science writers point out that behaviors which may not be useful in a highly ordered and organized modern society or classroom may have been vital during earlier times, to ensure the survival and propagation of our species.
Just as some pregnant women barely notice their morning sickness while others are bedridden for months at a time, any characteristic passed down to us through the echoing distances of spiraled DNA and ancient human history will manifest in ways that reflect the variety of human individuality. So it is with ADHD. It is a complex condition, with many facets and most likely many etiologies. It certainly represents a broad spectrum of manifestations and severities.
This website, being about success with ADHD instead of pathology, focuses largely on those individuals whose ADHD severity has not rendered them incapable of functioning in society.
Certainly they face difficulties, pain, and trials; to deny that would trivialize a dialogue which is critical to our society, and produced the need for this site.
Helping individuals overcome the challenges of ADHD, however, and set the course of their lives for success is the mission of this work. I will leave it to other authors to write about the spectral ends of severely pathological ADHD, which push some humans off the edge of social or intellectual function.
I’m absolutely supportive of special education, medication, the psychiatric and psychological community, and the legal classification of ADHD as a disability.
In summary, my goal is to re-empower people to take charge of their own lives. This may mean that they seek professional help or medication, or change their life situations or careers. It certainly means that people with ADHD should seek out the positive, as well as acknowledge the negative, aspects of their Hunter-ness.
For people with ADHD in today’s world, life has handed them a lemon in some ways. A few will choose to drag that lemon around with them, showing it to any poor soul who gets close enough to hear their tale of woe, analyzing how sour and bitter it is. They’ll squeeze it, drip lemon juice behind them wherever they go, then say, “See?? I told you I’m stuck with a lemon! Look at all this damn juice. Everywhere I go, this happens.”
The readers of this site, however, are more likely instead to look for ways to make lemonade: to look for useful ways of viewing the situation, develop interventions that work, and get on with their lives — and live them even more successfully than ever before.
And that is something worth putting energy into.