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DESPAIR AND HOPE IN THE AGE OF DYSPHORIA (Added Nov. 2017, Updated Mar. 2018, July 2018)


Human hunter-gatherers experienced a sudden transformation in evolutionary terms into fully modern man when they entered civilizations (“the transformation”). 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. Foraging required near constant mobility which 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 (“dysphoria”). 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 dysphoria which lead to extreme nationalism rather than common good. Loss of hope made citizens susceptible to simplistic arguments from demagogues and authoritarians. It is now inappropriate to return to optimal endorphin levels because advanced civilization requires better cognition. As a remedy, 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 portends less dependence on addictive pain medication and destructive euphoria producing substances. Greater optimism will advance social cohesion, thereby diminishing interest in populists, demagogues and war.


The term “human hunter-gatherer” (hunter-gatherer) signifies here only human nomadic foragers who probably first appeared perhaps 250,000 years ago and existed before the age of civilizations commenced 10,000 years ago, because after civilizations commenced groups considered hunter-gatherers were influenced by civilization created technology. The term "civilizations" is used to indicate relatively large groupings of humans that inhabit a fixed territory, use written language, grow crops and domesticate animals.

Skeletal remains of hunter-gatherers indicate a close resemblance to modern humans. Their greatest difference was their shorter stature which could be accounted for nutritional stress during early development. Their relatively limited technological advancement over an extended period suggests poorer cognitive performance than humans that lived in civilizations. "Cognition" is used here to indicate short term memory and concentration, both of which are fundamental to complex ideation. Dysphoria is used here to mean extreme emotional discomfort consisting of intrinsic (no obvious external cause) excessive depression and anxiety combined with excessive pain and temperature sensitivity. Euphoria is intrinsic intense pleasure and happiness.Hunter-gatherers undoubtedly had to maintain near optimal fertility rates for survival of the specie, well above those seen in contemporary humans. Since there is a strong relation between mood and fertility, this suggests that hunter gatherers were euphoric compared to modern man. Lack of evidence of clothing, shelter and bedding suggests that hunter-gatherers were far more tolerant to core temperature variations and had higher pain thresholds at least to tactile stimulation.

In contrast, humans in early civilizations closely resemble contemporary humans in requiring clothing, shelter and bedding. Most scientists consider their cognitive performance approximately equals that of modern man considering that without significant accumulated knowledge now available, they developed written language, and systems of mathematics and architecture. Furthermore, and written achieves indicate intellectual enquiry which is sophisticated by modern standards.

Despite these considerable dissimilarities between hunter-gatherers and modern man, no data are available to indicate that hunter-gatherers, humans living in civilizations or even modern man differ genetically. The sudden transformation from hunter-gatherer to fully modern man with civilizations (“the transformation”) strongly supports the notion that they share a near identical genome, and their differences are environmental (phenotypic) in nature, although no external factor has been proposed that could account for their difference.

Knowledge of the environmental cause of the transformation has considerable health significance, For example, contemporary humans suffer from excessive pain, anxiety and depression and hunter-gatherers probably were less troubled these problems. Identifying the environmental cause of this difference portends improved management of these problems.

This report starts from the notion that hunter-gatherers and modern humans are genetically homologous. It searches verified published anthropology and physiology reports for a single external factor that could account for the transformation.


Perhaps 250,000 years ago Homo sapiens first were identified as distinct hominids living exclusively as hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa. They expanded their territory beyond this region about 70,000 years ago. Group size has been estimated to have been uniformly approximately 50 individuals in aggregate of which perhaps only 35 were adults due high infant and early childhood mortality. This number of adults must have been an adaptation for survival of hunter-gatherers probably because groups of this size optimized nomadic foraging, fertility and group protective behavior. The diet of hunter-gatherers was animal based. Large piles of smashed bones from large grazing animals have been found along with tools used to crack them. These bones were selected based on having ample marrow and cortex so thick that no animal could access it without tools. This suggests that hunter-gatherers were largely scavengers that lived off animal remains which only they could exploit.The high fat content of bone marrow provided humans with abundant calories for muscular work, but also animal based essential fatty acids which are now thought to be the most crucial to human existence because of their role in cognitive development. This explains why humans retain an adaptation whereby compared to other nutrients (even plant based essential fatty acids) animal based essential fatty acids most strongly delay gastric emptying thereby are more throughly absorbed in the ilium.

Food was plentiful when animals herds were present, but seasonal herd migration left humans unable to maintain nutritional homeostasis in terms of energy and essential fatty acids. Starvation was dealt with an adaptation consisting of low satiation and intense foraging intensity when food was available which lead to temporary adipose deposition the catabolization of which sustained them when nutrients were scarce.This adaptation is also present in a minority of extant primates all of which live under conditions of periodic (typically seasonal) nutritional scarcity.But periodic starvation must have had costs. It probably accounts for the short stature implied by early human skeletal remains, and probably prevalent sub-optimal intellectual capacity in most hunter-gatherers. However, this only partly explains their poorer cognitive performance of hunter-gatherers as a whole because many must have been optimally intellectually and yet seemed incapable of inventing language. This suggests an external factor other than redarded development that accounts for poorer intellectual performance of hunter-gatherers.

Human foraging 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. "Mobility" is used here to signify all forms displacement of the human center of mass when weight-bearing, which occurs when walking, running, and even maintaining stable equilibrium which involves constant postural adjustments therefore considerable work. When nutrients were in abundance the life of hunter-gatherers involved near constant mobility. Hunger alone inadequately explains sustained mobility because obese contemporary humans tend to alarmingly sedentary. 

Hunter-gatherers thrived while living essentially unclothed, minimally sheltered and probably without bedding. Since they likely share on identical genome with modern man, humans are currently far more sensitive to somatosensory pain than is required for their survival, and this commenced with civilizations since recorded history since has consistently indicated the wearing of clothes. No external factor that can account for differences in tolerance to pain of somatosensory origin has been proposed.

High infant mortality, substantial maternal mortality, predators, periodic starvation and no health care as we know it, 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 must have been mildly far less anxious and depressed than contemporary humans, perhaps best characterized as mildly euphoric. No external factor has ever been proposed that is capable of considerably rise mood and lowering anxiety. An external factor causing euphoria also explain how hunter-gatherers could maintain tolerate life with the inability to predict most future events, while living with what now would be considered extreme physical hardship.

Civilizations first appeared less than 10,000 years ago probably first in Asia, and soon thereafter in Asia Minor, therefore the transition from exclusively a hunter-gatherers to civilizations being dominant was recent and sudden in evolutionary terms. It is not certain what caused the transition to civilizations, but most think that the success of hunter-gatherers in mastering life in sub-Saharan Africa lead to a higher population density than ideal for nomadic foraging. This forced hunter-gatherers to territories with limited grazing animal populations, thereby necessitating experimentation with growing of crops and maintaining animals in captivity to satisfy their nutritional needs. Success at these practices is generally thought to be a precondition to civilization. Managing nutritional needs in civilizations involved considerably less mobility than nomadic foraging.

Cognition is used here to refer to short term memory and concentration. Humans were probably only moderately more advanced in terms of cognition than other advanced primates considering that there is no convincing evidence of a single example of written language and spoken language was probably primitive by modern standards. Yet advanced written and therefore spoken language is so associated with civilizations that typically it is used in defining them. There is general agreement that the cognitive capacity of even those living in early civilizations resembled contemporary humans based on their ease in developing written language, mathematics and architecture. Further, ancient archives have been discovered that are considered sophisticated even by current standards. Reports from early civilizations suggest similarity with current societies in that there is mention of health problems associated with sedentary behavior, persistent obesity and significant dysphoria among at least a portion some of the population. When compared to hunter-gatherers civilizations resulted in not only lowered mobility, but also loss of the drive to be mobile.

The success of civilizations can be measured in terms of overall numbers of humans or population density. It is estimated that overall population growth was modest for the first 5,000 years of civilizations, but after that it increased at a relatively constant rate of a 5 fold every 2000 years until the late 20thcentury when the rate of increase rapidly rose mainly due to the control of infections following the discovery of antibiotics. The initial population growth rate mainly represented an increase in size of inhabited territory of humans made possible by technological advancement in clothing and shelter. Population density was limited by dense living conditions leading to high mortality through airborne human to human aerosols, fecal-oral transmission through contact and contaminated water and insect vectors. Population density was further by changes in terms of social organization associated with even the earliest civilizations and maintained continually to modern times. Whereas hunter-gatherers are thought to have maximized survival of everyone within their modest sized collectivity, life even the earliest humans civilizations was characterized by hegemony. They all adopted a class structure whereby the majority were subjugated by an armed minority. Also, near constant wars between groups within civilizations caused massive human destruction.


An “addictive” substance is considered here exogenous or endogenous psychoactive chemicals which are associated with tolerance with prolonged use, and an abstinence syndrome abrupt termination of exposure which encouraging continued use. “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. According to it 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 is associated with so many behaviors, external stimuli and disease states, that their purpose in humans has never been fully characterized. 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 have adapted through natural selection this form of existence, and civilizations appeared so recently from an evolutionary perspective that full adaptation was likely impossible. From this perspective, responses vary in relation to duration of stimuli. Initial response to pain often involves endorphin decline but when pain persists as with severe trauma, carcinoma invading bone, gut obstruction and childbirth, endorphins rise and remain elevated. Similarly, endorphins may decline with brief fasts, but sharply rise after several days which accounts for low anxiety and positive mood during starvation. Endorphins decline in response to relatively brief hot and cold thermal stress, but rise when thermal stress is prolonged. These examples suggest that endorphins improve tolerance of prolonged conditions that cause distress that are beyond an individuals control.

Brief rises in endorphins act follow many social encounters where they appear to act as a positive reinforcer of behavior via the operant conditioning model. Examples include endorphin rise with behaviors associated with altruism, group protection, pair bonding, and reproduction, care of offspring and, tough never examined objectively, group size, which will be discussed later.

Baseline endorphins levels of healthy hunter-gatherers were undoubtedly substantially higher than those found in those that lived even in the earliest civilizations. Evidence for this is written language which is intrinsic to the definition of civilizations could only be accounted for by improved cognition from substantially lower endorphin levels. Also, written records indicate that humans that lived in civilization required clothing, shelter and bedding to maintain core temperature in a narrow range and to prevent tactile pain when sleeping whereas anthropologists seem certain that hunter-gatherers lived essentially unclothed and with minimal shelter and bedding. This difference can only be accounted for by far greater endorphin levels in hunter-gatherers than in humans living in civilizations. The only behavior that could account for persistently high endorphin levels of this level in healthy humans when when food is available is extensive mobility. This is consistent with our understanding of the life of hunter-gatherers living in sub-Saharan Africa where high levels of mobility when nutrients were available was essential to adiposity which in turn was required for survival of periodic starvation. Mobility would be the only behavior under control of hunter-gatherers that could produce an addictive state with decline in mobility producing an abstinence syndrome.

The “Age of Dysphoria” referred to here begins with the first civilizations and continues today. It is characterized by the loss of the mild euphoria associated with high endorphins. It is replaced by anxiety and depression typical of low endorphin states. Additional contributors to dysphoria were lower pain thresholds and intolerance to core temperature variation, both of which did not advance health therefore were inexplicable and poorly managed even by current medical science. This accounts for distress and frustration in humans living in civilizations. Dysphoria presumably increased with advances in transportation technology, therefore dysphoria is likely currently at its highest with mobility, hence endorphins, lower than ever in human history. 

Hunter-gatherers existed with poorer cognition compared to modern man due to high endorphin levels while possessing the potential for equivalent performance. This suggests that from the perspective of natural selection high endorphin levels served other valuable functions. 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. Perhaps high fertility which entailed mild euphoria from amplified endorphins was more important for human survival as hunter-gatherers than benefits of improved cognition. Another possibility is that with mild euphoria group behaviors improved specie survival and low endorphins related dysphoria adversely affected collective bonding, thereby impaired survival despite advantages of superior cognition. 


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.