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?


5 thoughts on “Drug Addiction and Its Evolutionary History

  1. This is excellent work! The rate of Oxycodone consumption is alarming! Sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind that factors that influence evolutionary fitness (offspring production) is not something we are necessarily conscious of (and usually aren’t). The affinity for drugs is a modern day evolutionary ‘mismatch’. We have many evolved traits, (like a taste for alcohol, or sugar, or fats) that served us well in the past, and due to time lags and environmental shifts they are no longer advantageous, but we are ‘stuck’ with these traits today. Do you think that this knowledge can help us address a problem like drug addiction?


    • I believe the knowledge we have for evolved traits can help us address drug addiction to an extent. However, I’m not sure that it’s enough to really fix the epidemic. The pharmaceutical industry has grown very quickly and has no real intention to slow down. It’s making a massive gain from public use. The war on illegal drugs is also a problem that isn’t helping addiction. The war on drugs has been seen as a large money pit locking addicts up and in the end not getting them help. Take Portugal for example, in 2001 they decriminalized all drugs from heroin to cocaine. Although this didn’t stop drug use, it hasn’t made matters
      worse. Statistics show that the decriminalization decreased drug use throughout the country. Mic shared a great article on the issue that you can read at:
      Ultimately, I think there’s a lot to do before drug addiction slows down. To understand our evolved traits and history of addiction is just one step of the process.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely looking at our evolved traits is only one piece to help contribute to our understanding. I agree there is so much more to be done, from many angles, to address this complex problem. What, if anything, does an evolutionary approach add?


  2. I think the evolutionary approach helps us understand that originally substances were taken for survival or in other terms to increase fitness. This evolutionary approach can help us understand why we originally began to take substances. If we can mediate to others this historical evolutionary approach of substance intake we can hopefully start to reel back to our ancestral roots.


  3. Wow the stats on drug use and consumption are just staggering. It is sad to see in today’s society that the pressures and stress of people trying to be happy have taken such a wrong turn to substance abuse. Hopefully with the new programs and centers some help can be provided to turn these numbers around for some. Great article!


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