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DESPAIR AND HOPE IN THE AGE OF DYSPHORIA (Added Nov. 2017, last updated November 2018)


Human hunter-gatherers experienced a sudden transformation into fully modern man when they entered civilizations. Their cognitive (short term memory and concentration) performance improved and physical robustness declined, as exemplified by written language, mathematics and architecture, and need for clothing, shelter and bedding, respectively. Such abrupt multifaceted change suggests environmental (phenotypic) as opposed to genetic causality. I propose that these differences are accounted for by the effect of attenuated mobility inherent to nomadic foragers transitioning to civilizations on endorphins. Nutritional needs of hunter-gatherers required an adaptation that promoted near constant mobility for optimal foraging. Intense mobility yielded high endorphin levels, and in turn, ideal pain sensitivity, temperature tolerance, and mild euphoria typical of ample opioids. Amplified mobility was learned following the conditioning model whereby ideal and intolerable levels of pain, temperature tolerance, mood and anxiety were positive and negative reinforcers, respectively. Constraints on nomadic foraging by excessive population density necessitated transition to civilizations so recently that adaptation through natural selection was likely impossible. I propose that civilizations became dominant because in addition to allowing population concentration, lowered endorphins removed cognitive impairment typical of opioids thereby allowing technological innovation for the first time in human history. But with lowered endorphins came despair which arose from inexplicable and unmanageable pain, temperature intolerance, and excessive anxiety and depression, which in aggregate I call dysphoria.Dysphoria is an environment-genetic lag disease (EGLD), which I define as disease caused by a mismatch between rapid environmental change and relatively slow genetic adaptation. Dysphoria extinguished inherent social cohesion of hunter-gatherers. Unadapted to civilizations and bitter from dysphoria, early civilizations typically consisted of a weaponized elite minority dominating an enslaved majority composed of conquered groups. Later, burgeoning intellectual performance from even lower endorphins through improved transportation technology further amplified this EGLD which lead to extreme nationalism and tribalism rather than common good. Loss of hope from continually increasing dysphoria made humans susceptible to simplistic arguments from demagogues and authoritarians. We can not return to optimal endorphin levels because advanced civilization requires better cognition, however far greater use of antidepressants and safe analgesics can instill hope through moderating the most distressing effects of insufficient endorphins without causing cognitive dysfunction. Attenuated dysphoria will instill hope which will attenuate dependence on addictive pain medication and destructive euphoria producing substances. Greater optimism will advance social cohesion, thereby diminishing support for divisive demagogic populists that lead countries to war.


The term human hunter-gatherers (hunter-gatherers) is used here to indicate only nomadic foragers who first appeared perhaps 250,000 years ago and existed before the age of civilizations commenced approximately 10,000 years ago, because nomadic foragers sometimes considered hunter-gatherers existing after civilizations commenced were influenced by civilization created technology. With this distinction, hunter-gatherers were not capable of formulating written language nor relied on the technology of clothing, shelter or bedding. Considering the extensive time humans lived as hunter-gatherers, they probably are well adapted to this type of existence through natural selection.

The term civilization is used here to indicate a relatively large grouping of humans that live in a fixed location that supply their nutrition through growing crops and breeding animals, and use a written language. Some of the earliest records from civilizations indicate sophistication in technology and cognition, therefore humans transitioned suddenly from hunter-gatherers into fully modern man with civilizations. Despite these considerable dissimilarities between hunter-gatherers and modern man, no data are available to indicate that hunter-gatherers, humans living in early civilizations or even modern man differ genetically. The recent and rapid transformation in evolutionary terms of hunter-gatherers into modern man suggests that the cause of this transformation was environmental (phenotypic) rather than genetic since genetic adaptation to a new form of existence would probably be gradual. No external factor has been proposed that could account for their differences between hunter-gatherers and modern humans. The objective of this report is to identify this environmental factor and with it gain a clearer understanding of contemporary health and disease.


It is estimated that Homo sapiens became distinct hominids living as hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa, expanded their territory beyond this region, and civilizations first appeared in Asia and soon thereafter in Asia Minor, about 250,000, 70,000, and less than 10,000 years ago, respectively. It is not certain what caused the transition to civilizations but most think that a long period of environmental stability allowed a high level of genetic adaptation resulting in improved rates of survival. The resulting population increased survival pressure in satisfying their nutritional needs through nomadic foraging.

For the first 5,000 years of civilizations there is no evidence of growth in the overall number of humans in aggregate living both as hunter-gatherers and in civilizations probably due to high mortality rates from an intense form of natural selection for those living in civilizations probably due lack of adaptation to this new environment. Examples include developing modest degree of resistance to syphilis, tuberculosis and smallpox, and ethanol addiction which followed grain production. Only partial resistance to these conditions allowed massive growth in numbers of humans living in civilizations at a relatively constant 5 fold increase every 2000 years until the late 20thcentury when the number of humans inhabiting the world rose spectacularly following the discovery of antibiotics.

Humans living in civilizations instantly displayed burgeoning intellectual capacity to the extent that whereas hunter-gatherers never formulated written language, having a written language is used in defining civilizations. Their cognitive capacity resembled modern man considering they authored written reports with reasoning that is admired by contemporary scholars. Systematic enquiry lead to systems of mathematics and architecture. Intellectual curiosity never before apparent in hunter-gatherers resulted in experimentation in practical know-how in areas such as cloth making, shelter building, transport and perhaps most importantly, satisfying nutritional needs through agronomy and animal domestication. But there was an equally impressive decline in human robustness, with humans suddenly needing clothing, shelter and bedding to protect them from what was previously tolerable environmental variations in terms of ambient temperature, and somatosensory pain when laying on rigid and irregular surfaces. The suddenness and completeness of both rise in cognitive performance and decline in robustness indicate that they were phenotypic in nature - an environmental factor causing a different expression of the same genome. No plausible environmental cause of this transformation has ever been offered.

Considerable information is available regarding change in human food gathering and nutrition with the transformation. Radioisotope data suggest that the diet of hunter-gatherers was almost totally animal based until civilizations appeared. With agronomy civilizations introduced a substantial amount of carbohydrates and cellulose to the human diet.

Absorption of nutrients is inversely related to rate of gastric emptying rate and small intestinal motility, with the speed of gastric emptying positively related to small intestinal motility. When comparing these factors in nutrients absorption in relation to food groups, these mechanics of absorption aid absorption most (slow gastric emptying and small intestinal motility) with essential fats of animal origin the slowest, followed by essential fats of plant origin, protein, carbohydrates, and finally cellulose resulting in the most rapid gastric emptying and small intestinal motility of any food group. Furthermore, since mosts primates (the exception being apes) lack intestinal structures to digest cellulose well, vast undigested products of cellulose digestion appearing in the colon of primates. 

Comparative anatomy of intestines of primates provides evidence that the transition to civilizations was so recent that humans are physically poorly adapted to them. The chimpanzee is an example of a primate of similar size to humans, that continues to inhabit the same regions where humans evolved, but has always eaten mainly cellulose rich foods. They share with humans a limited capacity to digest cellulose. Their colon anatomy reveals a substantially greater storage capacity and far more robust wall structure in terms of thickness and muscle and connective tissue elements. The relative delicateness of the human colon suggests that humans were well adapted for a fat rich - cellulose poor diet.

Isotope data supports the notion that civilizations signaled a sudden increase in cellulose ingestion by humans despite poor intestinal adaptation to store the associated voluminous waste associated with it. Civilizations therefore signaled disorders of distal colon caused by poor adaptation of humans to dietary cellulose in the form of irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular formation and diverticulitis. Further, the recent increase incidence of all of these conditions in contemporary humans can be attributed to the current fashion of ingesting greater amounts of cellulose by humans, which unfortunately has been based on inadequate understanding of human and comparative anatomy, digestive physiology and evolutionary biology.

Settlements of hunter-gatherer sometimes reveal large piles of smashed bones from large grazing animals along with tools used to crack them. These bones were selected based on having ample marrow and a cortex so thick that no animal could extract it without tools, therefore available exclusively to hunter-gatherers. This suggests that hunter-gatherers were largely scavengers that lived off animal remains and possessed an adaptation that drives them to seek animal based fats.

Mobilityis used here to signify all forms displacement of the human center of mass when weight-bearing, such as occurs when walking, running, and even maintaining stable equilibrium which involves constant postural adjustments therefore considerable work. Human foraging required. It consisted of finding abandoned animal carcasses, separating target bones from them probably with the aid of tools, transporting bones to a central location, cracking them and extraction of marrow. All steps were energy intensive and two required prolonged mobility. When nutrients were in abundance, the life of hunter-gatherers involved near constant mobility. 

Human mobility declined sharply with civilizations as scavenging for animal remains by hunter-gatherers was replaced with nutrition from animals in captivity and agriculture in civilizations. Mobility further declined when domesticated animals were used for hauling heavy loads and for human transportation. Grain was capable of being stored therefore its consumption was associated with decline in periodic starvation which characterized life of hunter-gatherers. Contemporary humans and other primates subject to seasonal starvation retain the adaptation that prevents starvation from periodic food shortages. The ability to become obese when nutrients are plentiful helps other primates to survive periodic scarcity. Survival during periods of nutrient scarcity was further aided by another adaptation consisting of intense endorphin secretion when starving which preserves of calories when catabolic by encouraging inactivity. Periodic starvation must have entailed costs other than death. Periodic nutritional inadequacy during developmental years accounts for the short stature of hunter-gatherers implied by early human skeletal remains, and probably greater intellectual impairment compared to those living in civilization, although it poorly explains the burst in cognitive performance with civilizations.

Hunter-gatherer group size has been estimated to consist of approximately 50 individuals presumably because groups of this size must have been associated with optimal nomadic foraging, fertility and group protective behavior. Presumably maintaining group size was accomplished through social cohesive behaviors whereby variation from this numbers elicited either behavior to exclude potential members of accept new ones. The mechanism used to maintain group size is poorly understood but probably involves endorphin secretion as is most social behaviors in primates.

High infant and maternal mortality, predators, periodic starvation and no health care, made it essential that hunter gatherers maintained near optimal reproductive rates whereby every ovulating female soon became pregnant. Their fertility rate must have far exceeded the current rate in economically advanced countries. Since high anxiety and depressed mood are known to suppress fertility in humans, hunter-gatherers may have been far less anxious and depressed than contemporary humans. It is not clear what mechanism humans possess that allows control of fertility rates, but it likely involves endorphins because they have pronounced effects on anxiety and mood. This suggests that humans may have relied on amplified endogenous opioids to maintain amplified fertility required for survival of the species. 


An addictive substance is considered here an exogenous or endogenous psychoactive chemical which is associated with tolerance with prolonged use, and an abstinence syndrome upon abrupt termination of chronic exposure. Cognition indicates here short term memory and concentration, both of which are required for complex reasoning and problem solving. Endorphin is a neologism formed from combining endogenous and morphine. It refers to a heterogenous group of psychoactive peptides (endorphins, encephalins, dynorphins, nociceptin/orphanin) produced by humans and many other animals that resemble morphine in that they increase tolerance of core temperature variation, impair cognition, lessen anxiety, elevate mood to mild euphoria, and are addictive.

Learning is defined here as acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught. The operant conditioning model continues to be essential to understanding human learning. This model proposes that behavior is modified (shaped) by immediate consequences of the behavior (reinforcers). A pleasant consequence (positive reinforcer) increases probably of behavior persisting, whereas a unpleasant consequence (negative reinforcer) extinguishes the behavior.

Endorphin responses are associated with so many behaviors, external stimuli and disease states, that their purpose in humans has never been fully characterized other than they presumably they advanced survival of hunter-gatherers. I propose that they may be best understood from the perspective of hunter-gatherers rather than modern man because humans lived as hunter-gatherers for almost all of their existence, therefore likely adapted well through natural selection this form of life, whereas civilizations appeared so recently from an evolutionary perspective that adaptation was likely impossible.

It is perhaps most widely known that endorphins are secreted continuously in relation to duration and intensity of muscular work performed by large muscles groups. These muscles are involved with human mobility, hence voluntary mobility is rewarded with ambient temperature tolerance, analgesia and lessening of anxiety and elevated mood, all typical of opioid use. What is less discussed is that rise in endorphins from mobility causes decline in cognition as does opioids. Mobility is humans is probably the result of positive reinforcement endorphins provide. Endorphin levels sufficient to produce temperature tolerance and analgesia probably required near constant mobility when awake.

Endorphin responses in humans vary in relation to duration of sensory stimuli. Initial response to pain often involves endorphin decline which presumably serves to avoiding damaging stimuli. But when pain persists, as with severe trauma, carcinoma invading bone, gut obstruction and childbirth, endorphins rise and remain elevated presumably improving survival through toleration of pain when avoidance becomes impossible. Similarly, endorphins decline with brief fasts which presumably amplifies foraging, but sharply rises after several days resulting in low anxiety and positive mood during starvation. This presumably advances survival through reducing energy consumption until food is available as would have occurred with hunter-gatherers living in sub-Saharan Africa. Endorphins decline in response to relatively brief hot and cold thermal stress, but rise when thermal stress is prolonged. Since hunter-gatherers were able to exist without clothing and substantive shelter under environmental conditions that necessitated clothing and shelter in civilization, hunter-gatherers probably maintained far higher levels of endorphins than humans that lived in civilizations.

Brief rises in endorphins follow many social encounters where they probably act as a positive reinforcer of behavior that promotes survival through collective behavior via the operant conditioning model. Examples include endorphin rise with altruistic behavior and group protective behavior.

There is such a strong positive relation between fertility and positive mood and low anxiety that fertility rates can be used as a surrogate measure of emotions of a population and vice-versa. Hunter-gatherers must have maintained a near optimal fertility rate for species survival considering the high infant and maternal mortality rate associated with existing as a hunter-gatherer, as well as starvation risk. High endorphins are associated with low anxiety and positive mood required for high fertility. Hunter-gatherers likely maintained optimal fertility through high endorphins, and the low fertility rate seen with civilizations may be accounted for by sub-optimal endorphins levels in terms of fertility advancing behaviors.

Lower endorphin levels with civilizations may account for improved cognition in humans living in civilizations. High levels of opioids such as endorphins cause pronounced negative effects of human memory and concentration. Also, high endorphin levels in hunter-gatherers explains their poor cognition which includes inability to formulate a written language. The only behavior under human control that in hunter-gatherers could account for endorphin levels persistently high enough to produce a profound rise in pain tolerance, temperature tolerance and fertility, and decline in cognition in healthy humans is extensive mobility. The only behavior under human control in humans that live in civilizations that can account for endorphin levels low enough for improved cognition, temperature and pain intolerance and sub-optimal fertility is relatively low levels of mobility.


The definition of “social cohesion” varies in relation to the branch of science that uses the term. It is used here to signify the sense that one's survival and prosperity requires advancement of other members of the collective. Low social cohesion is suggested by a high degree of mass subjugation within societies (eg, slavery, serfdom, class distinctions, large income inequality), through a high number of sporadic homicides within collectivities, and organized homicide typically within nation states such as genocides, and between nation states such as war.

No information is available about social cohesion of hunter-gatherers because they had no written language, however since hunter-gatherers were impaired cognitively compared to modern humans, and they lived in groups of similar size (approximately 50) and location as many extant primates, perhaps their social cohesion resembled that of existing large arboreal (eg, chimpanzee) and terrestrial (eg, gorilla) primates.

Violence causing death within and between groups of these primates is limited only to infant mortality related to alpha male succession, and even this is thought to have eugenic value by improving group hardiness through limiting inbreeding. There is no apparent social hierarchy except for alpha males. All members show “altruism” in the form of food sharing, grooming to reduce parasites and mutual protective behavior. Group integrity is encouraged when encountering other groups through intimidating behavior rather than violence. Occasionally there is cooperation between groups when several females are peacefully exported and instantly fully integrated into neighboring groups. This practice prevents excessive inbreeding and probably maintains ideal group size with the donor and receiving groups being excessively large and small, respectively. Maintaining group size as with most social behaviors requires learning through operant conditioning. Group numbers are assessed by visually identifying perhaps the number of adults, followed by a positive endorphin reinforcement when group size is near target, and perhaps and endorphin decline when the number is considerably below the ideal number.

The high level of social cohesion exhibited by these primates and probably hunter-gatherers was never apparent with humans living in civilizations. Early civilizations were majority slave states whereby a weaponized elite minority typically dominated an enslaved majority composed of conquered groups. Advances in mathematics and architecture largely went to construction that celebrated tyrants. Burgeoning intellectual performance from even lower endorphins through improved transportation technology probably further amplified dysphoria. Advanced technology was mainly applied to hegemony rather than common good.

Perhaps 2000 years ago, majority slave states declined only to be replaced by serfdom, essentially indentured servitude. The Doomsday Book circa 1086 is the only record that systematically quantified the structure of a population until the Renaissance. It estimates the serf percentage of the population to be at least 70 percent. Serfdom ended in Europe with the Renaissance which in Europe was followed by a reduction of class distinctions and an increase in democratic practices within the nation states. Social cohesion seemed to be limited to within nation states in Europe because the following centuries were characterized by essentially uninterrupted wars between nations with human destruction constantly increasing in scale. The above supports the notion that hunter-gatherers displayed high social cohesion, and it suddenly declined with early civilizations and declined further with increase in dysphoria caused by progressive lowering of endorphins. There is support for the notion that humans are well adapted through natural selection to life as hunter-gatherers, and civilizations were so recent in evolutionary terms that humans are likely poorly adapted to them particularly in terms of social cohesion.

Hunter-gatherers lived in groups estimated to consist of 50 individuals for almost all of their existence. The number of adult group members probably was near 35, based on the assumption that the age distribution of hunter-gatherers under 50 years of age was similar to modern humans living in industrially advanced societies, with higher fertility rates of hunter-gatherers reduced equally by greater infant and child mortality. Presumably, small groups of this size was an adaptation that advanced survival perhaps through facilitating a nomadic existence, thereby preventing disease from fecal contamination of drinking water.

Despite the intense dysphoria of modern life from extremely low levels of endorphins from minimal mobility, there is evidence that humans retain the adaptation of hunter-gatherers where ideal group size amplifies social cohesion. There is a distinct tendency to form subcultural collectives of the size of groups of hunter-gatherers when facing extremely low social cohesion externally in the form of war, poverty and family dislocation, and internally when coping with certain forms of mental illness. For example, essentially all contemporary armies are based on a combat unit consisting of between 30 and 40 adults (“platoon” in English speaking countries) because this size empirically fosters extremely high social cohesion as measured by bravery and self-sacrifice in support of its members.

Furthermore, unlike pharmacotherapy of mental disorders, no convincing data are available that support the effectiveness in reducing the duration of mental disorders by therapies consisting of talking between one therapist and one patient (“individual psychotherapy” and the like) and therapies using talking involving one therapist and small groups (“group psychotherapy” and the like). However, even lacking a therapist (“peer groups”) approximating the number of adults in hunter-gatherer groups, have been spectacularly effective in dealing with addictions of many types through regularly meeting and talking. The content of meetings apparently does not account for their effectiveness because this can vary considerably with similar positive results. The best available explanation of success is positive reinforcement in the form of endorphins associated with this social behavior which exceeds the reinforcement provided by specific addictions.

Further, similar arguments could be made about the uncanny similarity of estimates of “ideal classroom size” between nation states in industrially advanced countries, where 30 typically delimits ideal size from either too large from unnecessarily small. This social cohesion model also explains the power of subculture “gangs” and “cults” on members.


Hunter-gatherers share a near identical genome with modern man. Hunter-gatherers and modern humans remain well adapted to high endorphins produced by the mobility of nomadic foraging. Hunter-gatherers were driven to maintain amplified mobility which amplified endorphin levels through behavioral reinforcers such as euphoric mood, tolerance of core temperature variability and pain tolerance, and perhaps abstinence syndrome from addiction to these endogenous opioids.

Civilization marked the end of mobility intense nomadic foraging. This occurred so recently in evolutionary terms that humans have not adapted to it. This marked the beginning of the age of dysphoria which is characterized by the consequences of sub-optimal endorphins levels. Humans living in civilizations experienced improvement in cognition, but also amplified anxiety, depression, temperature and pain intolerance due to lower endorphins. This in addition to larger group size typical of civilizations resulted in collapse in social cohesion inherent to hunter-gatherers.

The sub-optimal level of endorphins in modern man accounts for the desire for opioids and euphoria producing drugs, the high prevalence of excessive anxiety and depression, and incessant examples of even the most extreme losses of social cohesion in the form of wars with massive human casualties.

Raising endorphins levels through vastly increasing mobility or through administration of opioids would be inappropriate now because cognition declines as endorphin level rises, and humans are now technologically advanced therefore require improved cognition.


The “Law of Parsimony” (“Ockham's Razor”), is relied upon for inferring strength to hypotheses because it reliably predicts valid hypotheses once methods became available to test them directly. According to the Law of Parsimony, hypotheses with the fewest assumptions or steps are probably correct. The hypothesis advanced here has likely valid because of its vast “explainability” with merely two steps. 

The essential concept on which this report is based is that transition from hunter-gatherers to modern humans was so recent and complete that it suggests an environmental cause. Also, humans lived as hunter-gatherers for such an extensive period that they are well adapted to this existence, whereas the transition to modern humans with civilizations was so recent that humans are poorly adapted to this condition through natural selection.

The Age of Dysphoria commenced with civilizations as a consequence of sudden sharply lower endorphin levels as a consequence of attenuated mobility with civilizations, and the dysphoria increased further through technological innovation that has progressively lowered mobility, hence endorphins. Core temperature variation intolerance was easily dealt with through clothing and shelter technology. Humans have dealt less well with near constant pains that do not signal incipient harm that are accounted for by sub-optimal endorphin levels. The solution would presumably require universal use of at least mild analgesics. Even the safest analgesics are harmful when used continuously in ample doses. All potent analgesics are addictive.

Perhaps the greatest cause of dysphoria in modern humans is not so much the loss of the mild euphoria of hunter-gatherers resulting from ample opioids, but the persistent anxiety and depression caused by extremely low endorphin levels. The solution to this problem does not consist of augmenting endorphins substantially because this impairs cognition required by modern man. This is better addressed through more use of anti-depressant medications which has been shown to safely relieve excessive anxiety and depression without causing cognitive impairment. Persistent pain likely further worsens anxiety and depression and anxiety and depression has been shown to amplify the sense of pain. This report suggests that all those suffering from intractable pains have amplified anxiety and depression. They all should be treated with antidepressant medication prior to consideration of more potent analgesics.

Humans face danger when they attempt to significantly raise endorphins through behavioral means. Persistent aerobic exercise appears to raise endorphins sufficiently to overcome considerable dysphoria. This means of dealing with dysphoria must come at a cognitive cost. Furthermore, unlike hunter-gatherers who likely spent all wakeful time mobile, modern humans tend raise their endorphins through intense activity over a brief period of time so that can continue to be productive in the modern world. Not only does this level of exercise cognitively impair them, but the high intensity of exercise may account for premature damage to musculoskeletal structures.

Perhaps the most important implications of this report is the influence of dysphoria on social behaviors, and more specifically social cohesion. The dysphoria following entry into the age of civilizations was probably responsible for the breakdown in social cohesion which remains apparent today with hoarding of resources by individuals and small groups, wars, genocides, demagogues, populism and murders. Dysphoria encourages frustration and despair that leads to illogically simplistically blaming someone outside of your collectivity for your persistent unexplained anxiety, depression and persistent pain that characterizes dysphoria. This suggests that better management depression, anxiety and pain would strongly blunt the intensity of dysphoria and result in far better social cohesion.