Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology Emerita at the University of Notre Dame. She is the founder of the public and professional educational outreach project The Evolved Nest Initiative whose nonprofit mission is to share her science research into developing appropriate baselines for lifelong human wellness by meeting the biological needs of infants. This wellbeing baseline is imperative at this time as the United States ranks 41st out of 41 developed countries in public policies that support families.
Darcia is the current president of the award-winning, venerable nonprofit Kindred World, who has been "serving the re-generation since 1996." The Evolved Nest is an initiative of Kindred World. See all of Kindred World's strategies and initiatives for advancing a Wisdom-based, Wellness-Informed Society here.
In 2022, Narvaez was elected a fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest international body of professional scientists in the world and publisher of the prestigious journal Science. Narvaez was honored for her distinguished contributions illuminating typical and atypical development in terms of well-being, morality and sustainable wisdom.
For the first portion of her career, Narvaez investigated moral psychology and moral development in typical ways — through studying reason, cognition, and education. But several years ago, she grew deeply interested in cross-disciplinary insights into evolutionary issues. As she read deeper into neuro- and clinical sciences, she began to see all sorts of connections that sparked further research.
“I realized that all these fields bore on moral development. I was awakened to the fact that human beings are a particular species with particular needs that, especially in early life, need to be fulfilled in order to construct an individual’s sociality and compassionate morality,” she said. “The key insight was realizing that our species’ evolved nest is vital for fostering our cooperative human nature. When the evolved nest is degraded, as it is in industrialized countries, it can impair capacities for cooperation and compassion because early stress is toxic to species-typical neurobiological function.”
Her empirical, theoretical, and applied research now focuses on the kinds of characteristics notable in communities that provide the evolved nest to children from conception, societies that demonstrate wellbeing, heart-minded morality, and communal imagination.
In a 2020 analysis of top scientists, Narvaez emerged in the top 2% of scientists worldwide. Of the eight million scientists in the world, the analysis concerned those who had at least five articles published in scientific journals between 1996 and 2017-- over six million scientists. Individuals were ranked according to various criteria, including number of citations of their work.
Narvaez’s book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom, was chosen for the 2017 Expanded Reason Award from among more than 360 total entries from 170 universities and 30 countries. Narvaez received the prize, including a substantial monetary award, at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City on September 27, 2017. The book also received the William James Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015. She is former executive editor of the Journal of Moral Education.
Narvaez hosted interdisciplinary conferences at the University of Notre Dame regarding early experience and human development in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In 2016 she organized a conference on Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous KnowHow for Global Flourishing. (Click on the links to see the full conferences in video on the Evolved Nest's YouTube Channel.)
She is the author or editor of numerous books and articles, see The Science page for listings.
She is the president of the venerable American nonprofit, Kindred World, a contributing editor to Kindred, the first global eco-parenting magazine, a board of directors member of Attachment Parenting International, and an advisory board member of the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health, APPPAH.
Darcia Narvaez, Phd
The award was given by University Francisco de Vitoria and the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation to recognize innovation in scientific research and academic programs based on Benedict XVI’s proposal to broaden the horizons of reason. The university and foundation sought academic works that question and explicitly incorporate reflections on the anthropology, epistemology, ethics and meaning that exist within the specific science.
Every animal has a nest for its young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the offspring (Gottlieb, 1997). Humans too! The Evolved Nest (or Evolved Developmental Niche; EDN) refers to the nest for young children that humans inherit from their ancestors. It's one of our adaptations, meaning that it helped our ancestors survive. Most characteristics of the evolved nest emerged with social mammals more than 30 million years ago. Humans are distinctive in that babies are born highly immature (only 25% of adult-sized brain at full-term birth) and should be in the womb another 18 months to even resemble newborns of other species! As a result, the brain/body of a child is highly influenced by early life experience. Multiple epigenetic effects occur in the first months and years based on the timing and type of early experience. Humanity's evolved nest was first identified by Melvin Konner (2005) as the "hunter-gatherer childhood model" and includes breastfeeding 2-5 years, nearly constant touch, responsiveness to baby's needs, multiple responsive adult caregivers, free play with multiple-aged playmates, positive social support for mom and baby. Calling these components the Evolved Developmental Niche, Narvaez and colleagues add to the list soothing perinatal experience (before, during, after birth) and a positive, welcoming social climate. All these are characteristic of the type of environment in which the human genus lived for 99% of its existence. Below are publications and a powerpoint about the evolved nest.
Why does the evolved nest matter? Early years are when virtually all neurobiological systems are completing their development. They form the foundation for the rest of life, including getting along with others: sociality and morality. The papers below have reviews describing specific nest components and their effects, as well as empirical papers on the effects of the nest on child and adult development.
Visit the Evolved Nest's website for more science, resources, and educational materials.
Moral development has traditionally been considered a matter of reasoning―of learning and acting in accordance with abstract rules. On this model, largely taken for granted in modern societies, acts of selfishness, aggression, and ecological mindlessness are failures of will, moral problems that can be solved by acting in accordance with a higher rationality. But both ancient philosophy and recent scientific scholarship emphasize implicit systems, such as action schemas and perceptual filters that guide behavior and shape human development. In this integrative book, Darcia Narvaez argues that morality goes “all the way down” into our neurobiological and emotional development, and that a person’s moral architecture is largely established early on in life. Moral rationality and virtue emerge “bottom up” from lived experience, so it matters what that experience is. Bringing together deep anthropological history, ethical philosophy, and contemporary neurobiological science, she demonstrates where modern industrialized societies have fallen away from the cultural practices that made us human in the first place.
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality advances the field of developmental moral psychology in three key ways. First, it provides an evolutionary framework for early childhood experience grounded in developmental systems theory, encompassing not only genes but a wide array of environmental and epigenetic factors. Second, it proposes a neurobiological basis for the development of moral sensibilities and cognition, describing ethical functioning at multiple levels of complexity and context before turning to a theory of the emergence of wisdom. Finally, it embraces the sociocultural orientations of our ancestors and cousins in small-band hunter-gatherer societies―the norm for 99% of human history―for a re-envisioning of moral life, from the way we value and organize child raising to how we might frame a response to human-made global ecological collapse.
Integrating the latest scholarship in clinical sciences and positive psychology, Narvaez proposes a developmentally informed ecological and ethical sensibility as a way to self-author and revise the ways we think about parenting and sociality. The techniques she describes point towards an alternative vision of moral development and flourishing, one that synthesizes traditional models of executive, top-down wisdom with “primal” wisdom built by multiple systems of biological and cultural influence from the ground up.
*Winner of the 2016 book award from the Moral Development and Education SIG at the American Educational Research Association
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