Addiction – A False Sense Of Darwinian Fitness?

-By A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling

People who are religious may initially be uncomfortable at the idea of evolution and terms like “Darwinian fitness.” But to really understand the role addiction has from a scientific perspective these terms should be understood. Understanding addiction from the eyes of neuroscientists, biologists, geologists and even paleontologists can be of great help.

I believe a large mistake in addiction treatment is to make the assumption that addiction is only one-dimensional. It has been understood in the past as only a matter of the will or a moral choice. This misconception makes us believe that “only if I could muster up enough will-power, I could get rid of it once and for all.”

This common belief may be why many common recovery methods are often pursued and why they produce dismally low success.1,2,3

Charles Darwin postulated two main concepts: that species on earth were once descendants of earlier species and that the process of natural selection drives evolution. Natural selection pushes evolution by a species’ adaptations to environmental challenges. The organism that develops a beneficial adaptation to the environment will increase the likelihood it survives and increases the likelihood it’s gene will pass to it’s offspring. Conversely, the organism that fails to adapt contributes fewer genes and decreases the likelihood of survival.

Scientists view evolution as the physical changes that are seen in species, but they also realize that there are behavioral processes in species as well. The behavioral processes help to explain addiction.

Scientists claim that humans (Homo) appeared around 1.8 million years ago during the pleistocene period. And from this perspective, psychological human mechanisms increased Darwinian fitness during the Pleistocene environment.

Addictions, which directly stimulate the limbic “reward” center of the brain doesn’t just spike chemicals, but may in fact be a way of compensating a lack of Darwinian fitness.

"There is an expected gain that is associated with mind-altering substances which is deeply rooted in the conservation of human life and the prosperity of species because addiction activates the archaic reward center and it’s neural circuity that enabled species to survive over millions of years (Hall, 2002)."4

This same limbic “reward” system was found in lower forms of life millions of years ago.5 The limbic “reward” center reinforces the species to engage in important behaviors such as eating, drinking and sex that improves Darwinian fitness. By this limbic “reward” system, the organism survived because it was rewarded for participating in the survival process. However, today these rewards have been corrupted and overrides the very purpose that it was developed for.6

Pornography does not create offspring and has no survival value. Pharmaceutical drugs mimic the naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the brain. But, in Darwinian terms, we feel more fit after ingesting it.7

Addictionologists have noted that humans may in fact use drugs and other mind-altering substances that directly stimulate the reward center in the brain because it has been a part of our ancient evolutionary process as a way of survival through defense and safety (escaping pain either physical or psychological).8

Simply put, drugs make us feel better and give us a false sense of Darwinian fitness.

-A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling


1. R. G. Smart, Spontaneous Recovery in Alcoholics: A Review and Analysis of the Available Research, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol 1, 1975-1976, p. 284.
2. Thomas Prugh, Recovery Without Treatment, Alcohol Health and Research World, Fall 1986, pp. 24, 71 and 72.
3. Sehnert, 1992; Larson, 1992 “Seven Weeks to sobriety”4. Panksepp, J. 2006. “Emotional Endophenotypes in Evolutionary Psychiatry. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 30:774–784.
4. Hall, W. 2002. “Taking Darwin Seriously: More Than Telling Just So Stories.” Addiction 97:472.
5. MacLean, P. 1990. The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. Plenum.
Jain, S., S. L. Shapiro, S. Swanick, S. C. Roesch, P. M. Mills, I. Bell, and G. E. R. Schwartz. 2007. “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation Versus Relaxation Training: Effects on Distress, Positive States of Mind, Rumination, and Distraction.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 33:11–21.
6. Hall, W. 2002. “Taking Darwin Seriously: More Than Telling Just So Stories.” Addiction 97:472.
7. Cooper, M. L., M. R. Frone, M. Russell, and P. Mudar. 1995. “Drinking to Regulate Positive and Negative Emotions: A Motivational Model of Alcohol Use.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69:990–1005.
19. Nesse, R. M. 2002. “Evolution and Addiction.” Addiction 97:470–471.
Nesse, R. M., and K. C. Berridge. 1997. “Psychoactive Drug Use in Evolutionary Perspective.”