Adistressing trend is emerging among a group I refer to as "neo-Darwinists," who imply or state flat-out that people with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are genetically dysfunctional, perhaps less evolved than "the rest of us," and thus have nothing to contribute to our culture whatsoever. Some have even called for ADHD adults to not have children, for fear that this "defect" will continue to spread. Others use the straw man scare tactic of threatening in professional publications that any discussion of ADHD that isn't purely "it's a genetic sickness" could lead to loss of funding for special education for ADHD children, or loss of profits to pharmaceutical manufacturers and practitioners who make their living working with ADHD children. This trend is one that I believe is destructive to our children and dangerous to our society. Because many of these neo-Darwinists begin their work by either citing or condemning my work, I must respond on behalf of our children.
In the Seventies, when I was executive director of a residential treatment facility for disturbed children, I developed a metaphor to explain ADHD to children, a metaphor which I subsequently published in 1991. The metaphor was that hyperactive kids were actually "good hunters," whereas the very steady, stable, classroom-capable kids were "good farmers." The hunters, I suggested, would do great in the forest or battlefield: their constant scanning ("distractibility") would ensure they wouldn't miss anything; their ability to make instant decisions and to act on them ("impulsivity") would guarantee they'd be able to react to high-stress and response-demanding situations; and their love of stimulation ("need for high levels of stimulation") would cause them to enjoy the hunting world in the first place. (At its core, ADHD is diagnosed by evaluating the intensity and persistence of these three behaviors.) I told these kids, however, that they needed to learn the basic "farmer skills," because the world has been taken over by the farmers. Even our schools were organized by the farmers: schools let kids out in the summer so they can help bring in the crops. And factories and cubicles, of course, are just an industrial/technological age extension of the skill-set useful in agriculture.
The evidence that ADHD may be genetic, and my own experiences over the years visiting with indigenous agricultural and hunter/gatherer people on five continents, caused me to even think it possible that my metaphor might also prove to be "good science," although I have little certainty about whether it's genetics, culture, or both which so often causes indigenous people to fail when put into Europeanstyle classrooms. (I suspect both.)
Since the publication of this metaphor, I've presented it to tens of thousands of people at conferences on ADHD, neurology, and psychology from Australia to Israel to England to virtually every major city in the United States. During these lectures I suggested that perhaps in ancient times there was some sort of a "natural selection" process involved, to borrow a phrase from Darwin. I suggested that in hunting societies, those very risk-averse, super-methodical, check-itfive-times-before-doing-it people would not be particularly successful as hunters, and so would die off and not pass along their "farmer" genes. On the other hand, in the careful, stable farming societies (such as Japan over the past three thousand years), those wild and crazy hunter-types would be weeded out, executed, or expelled, and the culture would be left with a lot of very compliant followers and worker bees but few inventors, innovators, leaders, or-well-hunters.
I now realize that I should never, ever, have used a phrase invented by Darwin.
The banner of natural selection has now been picked up and twisted sideways to justify the worldview of some in the ADHD field that people with ADHD are suffering from a genetic defect. …