Addiction Awareness Scholarship Campaign 2020 – Addiction, Evolution, and Society

Name: Matthew William Byrne

Addiction, Evolution, and Society

I was released from prison 9 days ago – on May
5th, 2020 – after serving 20 months in Idaho for a DUI. That drunk
driving charge was the end result of 20 years spent as a slave to
addiction. Like countless others I’d carried around a strange
compulsion in my mind; a demonic hunger that drove me to destroy
myself, put me at odds with society, and left me with nothing but an
abyssal need gnawing at my psyche. Though that haunting spectre of
addiction looks and feels like madness, it is in fact an issue that
was borne out of basic evolutionary needs gone awry, and is
perpetuated by social alienation. It pits the person against our
societal structure, and can only be treated with a combination of
neurobiological intervention and cognitive reprogramming.

As an addict, why we use is simple: To feel
better. We are never fully satedi
and have an endless desire to feel better that perpetually requires
more stimulation to ease the addictive want. This ache to feel
forever better makes alcoholics and addicts adept at survival thanks
to being at the peak of our Darwinian fitness. We want more of
everything: more food, more booze, more love, more sex, more drugs,
and more of the sweet dopamine dump that our brain gets from each of
these items. In the savage wild, this uniquely suits us to pass on
our genetics. The creature best at acquiring resources is most likely
to thrive and most likely to breed and produce offspring. It is there
that an addict is crafted. Forged in the fires of natural selection.

The issue with addiction is that in a polite
society, where intense selfishness and the desire to gratify the lone
individual are abhorrent, addicts become a destructive influence. The
addict is an unlovely creature when social contracts must be upheld
because the addict forever needs more to feel better, suffers
unbelievably when they cannot, and will do anything – anything
to assuage that need. This is where the power of evolution
breaks against the bulwark of an interconnected world. Fitness for
survival is not as much about the individual gaining supremacy, but
about social cohesion. Now the narcissism of wanting more creates
disharmony and the addiction must be curbed lest chaos reign supreme.

Growth of the addiction epidemic in recent years
is the by-product of greater social acceptance of self-involved
behavior. It runs congruent with increased individualism and social
isolation. The proliferation of the internet and slackening of social
interdependence, along with promotion of the unique person and
culture of celebrity has created an environment wherein addicts are
told their inflated desire for more is right and proper. Western
cultures which prize individuality over collectivity also see
enhanced levelsii
of addiction and alcoholism, because those who engage in individual
gratification are prized and therefore more appealing breeding
partners, creating rich fields where addiction can flourish. In
collectivist eastern nations the incidents of addiction are reducediii
as social pressures reduce the allure of addictive traits also reduce
the breeding capability and proliferation of the genetic

Combating this plague is therefore intensely
complex, as it requires both alteration at a biological level – to
assuage the evolutionary needv
of addicts to attain their desires – and at a social level – to
integrate addicts into the socially consonant structure beyond

The first step in this solution is a simple,
pro-social one: to understand there is nothing immoral or amoral
about addictive behavior. It is the result of basic biology. It is
the drive of the reptile brain, created through millions of years of
evolutionary training, to get more resources. It’s natural. Thus, it
must also be combated at the natural level. This simple knowledge
erases the stigma, allowing everyone with normal desires to
comprehend the plight of the addict. Addiction is naught but nature
writ large.

The second step is to alter the biological urge.
Already there has been success with drugs such as Naltrexone and
Acamprosate, gabapentin, and topiramatevi
to ease alcoholism. These block the pleasure centers to help
reprogram the biology of the brain so that the desire for
gratification is hindered. These methods are in their infancy and
must be developed as neurological science advances. Research is the
only path to this facet of the addiction solution.

The third step is a social and psychological one.
Addicts must be successfully integrated into supportive social
structures where empathy, understanding, and support are prized. Here
is where 12-step programsvii,
group support, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapyviii
have found success. They are, at their core, alterations in the
thinking methodology of the addict, coupled with social groups that
facilitate better action through reconfigured operations of thought.
They help to manage the troublesome emotions that come with addiction
and help avoid the alienation that causes increased suffering, thus
leading to increased desire to use.

While this three-tiered solution is simple, the
implementation requires a lifetime of work. For myself, it has only
been through exhaustive work that I can say I am truly sober. It
takes daily maintenance of my condition to achieve any measure of
equilibrium. It also requires the assistance of everyone in my life,
as well as medical management of my bodily needs. Body and mind,
thoughts, feelings, and interactions all factor into the treatment in
order to keep an addict in compliance with society, and safe from his
or her own deeper nature.