“Each person is a dynamic system” – interview with psychologist Darcia Narvaez

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Darcia Narvaez is professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and the Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education. She specializes in ethical development and moral education. She also blogs for Psychology Today at “Moral Landscapes” and this summer, will be one of the faculty for the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life’s collaborative Summer Seminar, “Virtue & Happiness”. Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications, interviewed Professor Narvaez in early March 2016.


Valerie Wallace: What is evolutionary parenting?

Darcia Narvaez: Evolutionary or primal parenting refers to providing the nest that humans evolved to for their children. Every animal has a nest for its young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the offspring. Humans do too. Moreover, humans are especially influenced by their post-natal experiences because we are born 18 months early compared to other animals, and more epigenetic effects (gene expression influenced by experience) occur postnatally for humans than for any other animal. Each person is a dynamic system whose early experiences influence the trajectory of who and what he or she becomes.


Adults in “civilized” societies have degraded the nest for the young for some time (10,000 years?), meaning that a species-atypical developmental system is now “normal” for the young. This, of course, necessarily results in species-atypical individuals, communities and cultures. But this has happened gradually over time so that we don’t realize it, except to know sense that something is terribly wrong with humanity.


How do we know what is species typical? The anthropologists have noted that all over the world the same nest is provided by small-band hunter-gatherers (SBHG), the type of society in which the human genus spent 99% of its history. The members of studied SBHG societies have similar personalities: pleasant, calm, fiercely egalitarian, generous, content, and generally peaceful. Of course we do not want to and could not return to living like these societies, but we can learn about how a species-typical nest shapes personality and morality. What is the nest that brings about these outcomes?


The human evolved nest or niche, very similar to that of social mammals generally (who emerged over 30 million years ago), includes soothing perinatal experiences, extensive breastfeeding (2-5 years); nearly constant touch or physical presence; responsiveness to needs (in baby hood it means keeping the baby from getting distressed); play from birth, which later includes self-directed free play in the natural world with multi-aged mates; positive social support for mom and child (which includes a sense of belonging); and multiple responsive adult caregivers. There is converging evidence from neuroscience, clinical studies, anthropology and developmental sciences on the importance of all these components for optimal mental, physiological, social, emotional and moral development. In other words, every move away from these components creates toxic stress for the growing brain and undermines optimal development.



Valerie: Tell me about your interest and research exploring torture and moral development. 

Darcia: What happens when adults don’t provide the species typical nest is that children’s functioning in hundreds of systems and subsystems is undermined. They turn into people who are stress-reactive, easily perceiving threats from anything unfamiliar and feeling like they live in a dangerous world. When the stress response is activated, blood flow shifts away from higher order capacities including reasoning, open-mindedness and compassion. A stressed baby grows in the wrong direction—developing dispositions towards self-protectionism instead of relational attunement and communal imagination, which normally develop with the right hemisphere’s more rapid development in early life.


Undercare, the lack of the evolved nest (evolved developmental niche), leads to adults who have diminished human capacities. Species-atypical development leads to the atypical outcomes we see all around us, especially in the USA: adults with insecure social relations who want to dominate or withdraw from relational attunement. They don’t realize that they are socially unskilled and imaginatively impaired. They think the one-up/one-down orientation to relationships that forms from an overreactive stress response is just the way the world works. They have a deep distrust, established in babyhood, that people are not to be trusted, the world is not to be trusted, nor are their own spirit’s impulses (that’s what you learn when the adults around you disregard your needs for the evolved nest). With “empty selves” they end up latching onto ideologies of various kinds (religious, business, economic)–rigid scripts, to feel safe. They did not learn to be morally agile and flexibly attuned to others so “difference” is scary, “otherness” is turned into evil. One gets susceptible to rhetoric of dominance and power (much like Donald Trump is presenting in the presidential campaign), including that torture works (it doesn’t) because one also has lesser empathy for others.


You seem to have such a dynamic relationship with research and writing. That is, within the huge field of moral development and education you allow yourself to ask many questions, and go after them. How do you decide what’s next? 

Darcia: I follow my muse. I’ve learned that when you have a creative spirit, if you don’t follow it, you become unhappy or unwell. So I follow the muse, always surprised where it leads because it usually is not in the direction I deliberately planned (e.g., becoming a professional musician, seminarian, business owner, classroom teacher). This was also true for my recent book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom, which ended up where I did not anticipate.


Valerie: On what journey did this book take you?

Darcia: Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom led me to more greatly appreciate the societies who live wisely and sustainably and, as part of their worldview, function as members of a biocracy– treating other-than-human entities as members of the community to be respected and honored as partners or even teachers. If we are to save our species and many others, we must readopt this indigenous perspective. First Nation peoples do not compartmentalize life; they have deep knowledge of their local landscapes that allows them to foster biodiverse flourishing.


I am chairing a conference September 11-15, 2016 called “Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing”. We have many indigenous speakers coming from multiple disciplines to discuss how to figure out a new way of being human in cooperation with the earth.


Valerie: Why did you say “yes” to teaching with us for our summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness”?

Darcia: In our ancestral environment (small band hunter gatherers), virtue went hand in hand with survival but also contentment. “Civilization” has blown apart human relations to the earth, which undermines a sense of place and belonging (as a creature of the earth in a biodiverse community of creatures), and deracinates the possibility of normal virtue development because children in species-atypical nests are typically forced to divorce themselves from their own feelings, from intimacy and from the landscape (e.g., when they are discouraged to play freely outside in a natural environment). We have disordered ourselves on so many levels in so many ways that we have to figure out how find our way back to flourishing for All. Every opportunity to think or share about how to revamp ourselves for virtue or happiness is one I try to take.


Valerie: Thank you!

Darcia: Thanks for inviting me.

To read more about Darcia Narvaez and her work, visit

Her website: http://www3.nd.edu/~dnarvaez/

Darcia’s blog at Psychology Today: Moral Landscapes

Editor, Journal of Moral Education


Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (Norton; discount code: NARVAEZ)

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing (Oxford University Press)


Self, Motivation & Virtue Project


Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing – Sept 11-15, 2016, University of Notre Dame

Designing Moral Technologies – Theoretical, Practical and Ethical Issues – July 10-15, Switzerland