The Edison gene may end up saving the human race.
“The genetic form of this disorder is not really a disorder at all.”
Dr. James Swanson – University of California, Irvine
The Edison Gene
In his book, The Edison Gene – ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child, Thom Hartmann offers a fascinating account of why ADHD is so prevalent in our culture today. Just as interesting is his proposal that the Edison gene may turn out to be the key to humanity’s survival.
What is the Edison Gene?
“There is no such thing as a specific gene for alcoholism, obesity, or a particular type of personality. However, it would be naive to assert the opposite, that these aspects of behavior are not associated with any particular genes. Rather, the issue at hand is to understand how certain genes and behavioral traits are connected.”
Dr. Kenneth Blum
The Edison gene is not simply one gene, but rather refers to many genes that work together to produce “Edison-like traits.” As of 2003 (the year this book was published), there were 49 genes linked to ADHD. Thom names them after Thomas Edison who almost certainly would have been diagnosed with ADHD in today’s world.
Mostly these are Dopamine related genes like DRD4, DRD5, and SLC6A3 (genes that make dopamine receptors and transporters), but there are also genes related to norepinephrine and serotonin functioning too. Variants of these genes have been correlated to different traits.
Here is Thom Hartmanns list:
- Non-linear thinker
- Attracted to new stimuli
- Hyper-focused when interested
- Easily bored
These character traits make repetitive, wrote memorization, and auditory-based learning difficult for children like this. But in the right environment, these children excel.
Is the Edison Gene Beneficial?
Hartmann does an amazing job laying out a plausible case that the Edison gene may have benefitted humanity in our recent evolution, and may do so again real soon.
He starts out by showing us that it seems that at least some of these genetic mutations are relatively recent, showing up about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. He reminds us that evolution seems to occur mostly in bursts (“punctuated equilibrium”) where the environment changes rapidly and new genetic “winners” are picked in the species. He then points to three ways that we humans may have faced severe conditions in the last 40,000 years:
- Multiple ice ages
This last 10,000 years is a rare period of temperature stability, with the norm being the rapid emergence of an ice age (over 3-12 years) about every 750-1500 years.
- Volcanic eruptions
Measurements of sulfuric acid concentration tell us that major volcanic eruptions coincide with massive genetic shifts as huge percentages of the population die off.
- Microbial devastation
Human populations have intermittently been decimated by various viral and bacterial outbreaks.
He suggests that each of these environmental pressures may have favored Edison gene carriers as they tend to
- Seek novelty
- Follow their curiosity
- Be willing to take risks
- Be inventive and try new approaches
All of these would be incredibly important if the way you have been living for hundreds of years suddenly was not a viable option any more. Who would be the ones to keep trying the same approach? The steady farmers and bean-counters. Who would strike out to new lands and find innovative ways to survive? The Edison gene carriers. This may be exactly what happened.
Hartmann then goes on to cite 2 important pieces of research:
Edison gene people tend to migrate
- Cultures have different Edison gene prevalences
Rates of gene variation in Native Americans is much higher than in their “source” population back in Asia.
- There appears to be both negative and positive selection at work
In China, you curse a person by saying, “May you live in interesting times.” Their culture seems to select against Edison traits. In places like The USA and Australia, rates of the Edison gene (here specifically DRD4) are much higher than other places. Geneticists say that this is clear evidence of positive selection at work.
Hartmann goes on to quote science that shows other advantages of children with ADHD:
- Better at divergent thinking (coming up with multiple possibilities as opposed to convergent thinking where we use linear logic to get to the “one answer”)
- Quicker reaction times
- Better at spatial tasks
- Notice more in the environment
Will the Edison gene-ers rule the future?
Maybe; maybe not.
Thom Hartmann’s points are these:
- The genetic form of ADHD is currently being seen in pathological terms only, and that is not helpful (nor accurate).
- If the proverbial “shit hits the fan” again — and it almost surely will — it may be the Edison gene-ers that help humanity come up with creative solutions and boldly implement them and preserve the survival of our species. We may all need our “hunters” and “pioneers” once again.
I want to be clear that Hartmann doesn’t think that all kids with ADHD are caused by the Edison gene. He recognizes that there are multiple factors that can cause a brain to have difficulty with attention, self-regulation, and executive function.
He also doesn’t believe that these traits always lead one to become an amazing inventor, or an astronaut, or a successful entrepreneur. He recognizes that certain supports are needed in order to develop necessary skills to succeed. In the second half of his book, he explores a range of ways to support Edison gene children in reaching their full potential. I have incorporated many of these into my holistic approach to ADHD.
Take Away: We all have genetic tendencies that bring us both gifts and challenges. Our job as parents is to recognize the essential nature of our children and put them in environments where they can become fully themselves. As a culture, we should take a step back and ask ourselves: “Is the problem in the genes? Or are we failing to nourish one of the bright faces of our humanity?”