Drug Addiction and Its Evolutionary History


Evolution  by Taymaz Valley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Drug addiction is growing steadily as well as the deaths associated with it. Below you’ll find the annual overdose death report for the United States by the National Institue on Drug Abuse. It’s alarming to see the number of deaths double within a mere ten years. This is a huge ongoing epidemic. It’s argued that this is due to the rapid increase in production and consumption of drugs worldwide.


Posted on National Institue on Drug Abuse, created by CDC Wonder

Our evolutionary history can help explain some of these patterns in drug addiction. First, we need to understand the root causes of addiction. Most professionals will agree that addiction comes from many different factors, not one specific cause. These factors include mental health issues, genetic predisposition, and the environment. Drugs are used for many reasons; they fix short-term health issues, mask internal pain. Some people enjoy drugs for the sheer pleasure, others will use due to social norm demands. Plain and simple, people use drugs for many reasons. Now that we have a general overview of addiction, let’s take a step back and explore drug use in ancient environments.

It’s safe to say that ancestral use of drugs was greatly limited due to the lack of resources we carry today. Tammy Saah shares in the Harm Reduction Journal, “Archaeological records indicate the presence of psychotropic plants and drug use as far back as early hominid species” (NCBI) which is dated millions of years back. It’s said that many ancient civilizations were using psychotropic plants as sources of food. That means that ancestral usage of drugs revolved around increasing fitness. The psychotropic plants were originally used as nutritional supplements throughout cultures. These plants helped to increase energy, limit fatigue, and stimulate hunger which overall increases chances of survival. In ancient time it’s perceived that positive emotions increased fitness. For example, successful mating would cause a euphoric high due to the needs of survival. This is a result in increased fitness, not happiness. In modern day, drugs can be and are used to increase happiness. Positive emotions that used to be related to increasing fitness from drug intake now has transformed around improving happiness.


Liquors by Jeff Golden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today, drug addiction indicates a false improvement in fitness. As we move forward into the modern day we see technology improving and resources growing. This inevitably allows for mankind to create more potent drugs. Alcohol was the first real drug to increase in potency with the finding of the distillation process. It’s said that the first real distillation of alcohol was discovered in Southern Italy back in the 12th century. China was right behind them in this evolution. In modern day we have a desire to create new drugs and increase the potency of existing ones. Abuse can be caused by internal and external events. Tammy Saah also said, “although a person may be predisposed to addiction, environmental and emotional stimuli may act as a catalyst towards the state of actual substance addiction” (NCBI). The motivation behind drug use today relates to our evolved dopaminergic and serotonergic systems. These systems control our emotions, which directly affects our human behavior. They act as a reward system in a way. After the initial intake and liking of a substance, we find ourselves craving it more and more even when we know the negative outcomes. Happiness in today’s world isn’t revolved around who’s the best fit for survival. For some, it’s who has the nicest car or the biggest house. Drugs are used to alter these states for us however, it’s only short-term alterations.

As we move forward into the future drug abuse has not slowed down one bit. In fact, this epidemic is growing quite rapidly. Take a look at this chart below provided by the United Nations back in 2010.


Posted on Humanity Plus, created by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Yes, you’re reading correctly. Global oxycodone consumption has grown from a few tons in 1991 to 95 tons in 2010. No wonder why Oxycodone is the most popular addictive drug worldwide.  These drug companies are bringing in a killing, literally… It’s scary to see what the future holds. If our evolutionary history of ancestral drug use to increase fitness is true, are we possibly moving towards a future of immortality?