How Modern Societies Violate Human Development

Violating what humans need and changing human nature.

The modern world has been making itself into a pathological place by establishing as ‘normal’ various practices that violate basic human needs. This leads to the development of suboptimal creatures who willy-nilly destroy their habitat (yes, us!). I present a short list of violations (there are many more). (Note: I use our 99 percent of human genus history as my baseline; see more about assumptions below.)

1. Early Trauma

Dominant cultures of the last centuries tend to induce early pain and trauma on their young, shaping the brain away from trust, compassion and receptivity, which are otherwise our human heritage for getting along with the natural world.

Early trauma leads to emotional numbness and dense reptilian “me-ism” which emphasizes “doing it my way” ruthlessly, with an incapacity or resistance to acting with others in mind, including those in the natural world (see Narvaez, 2014). Indigenous peoples of the Americas frequently commented on the deadness of heart in the European settlers who took over and ravaged the land. Many of us are their descendants.

2. Isolation starting early and ongoing

We have known scientifically for more than 60 years that forced physical isolation (no touch) has significant negative longterm effects on mammals (that includes humans too) (Harlow,1958;  Spitz, 1945). Even separation from mom right after birth can have long term effects. Yet, physical isolation is routinely coerced on babies (with playpens, cribs, plastic seats) and young children (time out; sleeping alone), during the early critical years for social development.

Isolation also refers to emotional isolation. Parents who were mistreated themselves may not know how to be emotionally present to their children (Perry). Children will feel deeply lonely if they don’t connect and communicate feelings and thoughts with another human being. The child will grow up to be as dead inside as the parent.

In our evolved context, isolation/expulsion from the group was a last resort for a dangerous individual who became impervious to restorative justice, reason and behavior change (Fry, 2006). Expulsion/isolation could mean certain death. When it happens psychologically or emotionally, isolation kills spirit.

Isolation includes mother-child isolation. Children and mothers are not meant to spend life apart from others. They are meant to be surrounded by community members who assist in raising the child and supporting the mother. Mothers who are not supported are less responsive to their children (Hrdy, 2009). Parenting in conditions of community support is a pleasurable activity, a far cry from the experience of many parents today. Isolating mother-child pairs is a potential source for depression in both mother and child.

Same-age groupings is form of isolation. Mixed-age grouping is normal in the small-band hunter-gatherer context in which we evolved. Mixed-age grouping supports cooperative interactions. The younger children love to learn from the older ones and the older love to teach the younger. This is a “natural pedagogy” (Gray, 2013; Barry Hewlett comment at symposium). The lack of wide-range, mixed-aged group experience impairs the development of cooperation skills that humans otherwise learn in community groups.

When we isolate children into same-age groups, they don’t have much to learn from one another and so they learn to compete. Same-age grouping also increases risk taking in adolescents who hang out only with other adolescents. Adolescents are still developing self-control systems and need older, wiser folks around to calm down and direct their eager energy rather than rev it up (just like male adolescent elephants do! Bradshaw & Schore, 2007; see here).

Sex-based isolation. In complex hunter gatherer contexts (not the 99%), separating the sexes might be used short term for building up testosterone in males for a raiding party (emphasis on party—touching but not harming the enemy was a sign of courage). (See here for information about how holding babies lowers testosterone—a normal everyday activity in our 99%).

Isolation can also empower women during childbirth or menstruation. But long term isolation can throw social life out of whack. Think of what happens in fraternity houses. That is not “normal” in an evolutionary sense, where older males would be around to guide young male energy so it does not become destructive.

Schooling as a form of isolation. Children, and humans generally, are designed to learn easily (without effort) from their experiences in the real world. Schooling is an artificial world that rewards those who can put up with it and those who excel at detaching themselves from real life to memorize mostly inert knowledge. Schooling is largely about training the explicit mind in inert knowledge (facts) and training the implicit mind to be obedient to an system of reward (hidden curriculum).This is not really “intelligence” except that moderns in the 20th century decided it is (Flynn, 2007). Instead, such capacities may be a form of insanity because they don’t have much to do with living well or flourishing (speaking as a professor who has learned to do these things). This type of detached thinking (without heart) is the source of much environmental destruction as those who create products and innovations usually don’t do a full-cost accounting of their effects.

Indoorism is a form of isolation. Adults in the USA typically keep children inside walls these days, unlike previous generations who allowed their children to spend hours unsupervised outside. Every animal learns its neighborhood and integrates with it, except modern humans who typically spend less than 24 hours a year outside. (See more here.)

We are so used to isolation that we think nothing of sitting in rooms or cars alone for hours. Of course, we have media to keep us company. In fact, television and other media may fool us into thinking we are not socially alone. And, over generations, as we get less socially skilled from our experiences of extensive isolation, electronic media and social media allow us the illusion of socializing without the need for the skills to function in a real social world. To function in a real social world, you need lots of subtle perceptual, expressive and receptive skills. But the way we treat babies, children and adolescents undermines the development of these skills. And we all suffer from an abundance of loneliness as a result (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

NOTE: Isolation does not refer to a person going off at will, away from other humans—this used to be a normal part of human autonomy, a built-in need. But actually, a human who is away from humans is really not alone—we all always surrounded by other life forms.

3. Coercion 

Small-band hunter-gatherers spend most of their lives in enjoyable social leisure and they even make hunting and gathering situations ones of social joy (Ingold, 1999; Liedloff, 1983). Relationships are fiercely egalitarian and even children are not bossed around.

Instead of enjoying life through social leisure and community feeling, in the USA we have come to believe that work is the only truly worthwhile activity. And so children are raised around the work schedules of parents. Some moms don’t even feel relaxed enough to breastfeed their newborns because they are anticipating going back to work within weeks. Work-distracted parents who live alone with a baby will not be able to meet its full needs, and a baby that doesn’t get what it evolved to need becomes an insecure adult.

When child rearing is forced into the frame of an ideology like work and achievement, it often requires ‘breaking the spirit’ of the child. Children won’t be subservient to an ideology unless they are broken, early. This happens in many subtle ways including ignoring a baby’s emotions, letting babies cry, pushing children away from joy-in-social-being towards being alone, achievement and book learning. The lack of ongoing immersion in a supportive social life leads children to use a primitive self-survival morality instead of the compassionate morality that otherwise develops within a supportive group life.

Autonomy and sense of belonging are built-in human needs (Deci & Ryan, 1985). But trauma, isolation and punishment are good ways to undermine them and create insecure people who need an ideology or authority to feel safe (perpetuating the system they are in). Corporal punishment seems particularly useful in teaching a child to expect a hierarchical, unjust world and thereby to latch onto a nearby ideology for psychological self-protection.

The Outcome: De-natured selves, derailed intelligence

Traumatized and isolated, our minds don’t work as well as they should and this has been happening for some time (Narvaez, 2013). Westerners for centuries have ascribed personhood only to humans (and perhaps some pets). This is unlike perhaps all other societies in the history of the world who treat animals and even plants and mountains as agents with interests of their own.

Indigenous societies recognize that the world is full of non-human beings. And these beings communicate. Other animals and even plants are considered teachers to the easily-self-absorbed human beings.

In indigenous cultures, children learn to listen to the entities of the natural world. This is best started in early life when receptive intelligence can grow into one’s way of being.

Over the last centuries, dominant Western culture has decidedly cut off non-humans from lines of communication. Nature has been “de-person-ated” into dead objects instead of living beings (Martin, 1992, 1999). (Ancient traditions and modern physics agree that all things are filled with energy).

All the prior steps above push us into human ingroupism. That means valuing humans over everything else. We humans chop down, cut into, eat up, and carelessly waste everything else for our own ends. A sense of human superiority is costing the rest of life on the planet (save microorganisms who love having lots of us around as hosts). Of course, those who perceive things deeply note that we are in effect destroying our habitat which ultimately results in destroying ourselves. Is this really what we want to do? 

One remedy

Although we can learn about our earth by watching shows like Cosmos, it is not enough to know a place intellectually. One must feel connected to a land or place (Berry, 2013). Otherwise, “placelessness” leads to endless environmental destruction by those who don’t care for any particular place (Sanders, 2012).

To save ourselves, we could adopt the mindset of most peoples through history—that we are one among many creatures that share the life-giving earth (Kimmerer, 2013). We would save more than ourselves.

To save ourselves and future generations of humans and non-humans, we could learn to reconnect to the entities of the earth. We could learn to listen to the other lives around us.

We can practice listening to the voices outside our windows. Better yet we can step out and feel the breeze, touch the earth with our skin. We can say hello. We can learn more about our neighbors, whether tree, mountain or squirrel. We can conscientiously support their lives and interests.

Although this sounds crazy to a Western-raised mind, it is our 99% heritage to be one among many, to be brothers and sisters in a bio-diverse community. Maybe this is the crazy that isn’t crazy.

References and Suggested Readings

Readings on early trauma

Harlow, H. (1958).The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673–685.

Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Miller, A. (1998). Thou shalt not be aware: Society’s betrayal of the child. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A.N. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of developmental psychopathology. Developmental Psychopathology, 8, 59–87.

Spitz, R. A. (1945). Hospitalism: An inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhoodPsychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1, 53–74.

Wagner, M. (2006). Born in the USA: How a broken maternity system must be fixed to put women and children first. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Readings on European exploration and settlement

Turner, F. (1994). Beyond geography: The Western spirit against the wilderness, 5th printing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sale, K. (1990). The conquest of paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. New York, NY: Penguin Plume.

On Indigenous worldviews

Kimmerer, R.W. (2013a). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Liedloff, J. (1986). The Continuum concept. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Martin, C.L. (1992). In the spirit of the earth: Rethinking history and time. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Martin, C. L. (1999). The way of the human being. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Small-band hunter gatherers

Fry, D. P. (2006). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ingold, T. (1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R. B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers(pp. 399–410). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, T. (2011). The perception of the environment: Essay on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London, UK: Routledge.

Lee, R. B., & Daly, R. (Eds.). (1999). The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become  “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

On a sustainable land ethic

Sanders, S.R. (2012). Earth works: Selected essays. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Berry, W. (2013). It all turns on affection (2012 Jefferson lecture). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Humanities.

Other references mentioned

Bradshaw, G. A., & Schore, A.N. (2007). How elephants are opening doors: Developmental neuroethology, attachment and social context. Ethology113(5), 426–436.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Cacioppo, J.T. & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Easterly, W. (2007). The white man’s burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good. London, UK: Penguin.

Flynn, J. R. (2007). What is intelligence? New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

My forthcoming book on all these topics:

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton.


When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline (see the work of Tim Ingold and Douglas Fry). That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become  “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All these characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

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