Love for a Killer: “A Very Evil Kid”

Killer? Look for abuse, neglect, trauma, or undercare

Another mass shooting has occurred. Why does it happen? When Adam Lanza massacred school children, people asked about his genes. But that was the wrong question. Genes are inert without experience. Families of victims of Dylann Roof’s gun rampage forgave him. It’s a show of love that he probably needed to experience much earlier in his life.

Ashley Montagu, one of the most insightful public intellectuals of the 20th century, wrote frequently about human development. He pointed out the neediness of young human beings:

“The young one of human kind is born as: the most dependent, the most educable, and the most cooperative of all the creatures on the face of the earth.”

  • To be dependent means to rely upon others for the satisfaction of one’s needs.
  • To be educable means to be able to grow and develop in one’s capacities for being a healthy human being.
  • To be cooperative means that one is endowed with potentialities which given the opportunity for growth and development will enable the individual to realize them in the form in which they have been selected in the evolutionary process, namely, as striving with rather than against others to achieve desired goals (Montagu, 1963, p. 24).

Indeed, human babies are highly immature at birth (and compared to other animals should be in the womb another 18 months!) and therefore much develops after birth. After millions of years of experimentation, evolution designed a set of intensive parenting practices so that young human offspring grow well. We can understand these parenting practices as “love in action”:

  • Soothing perinatal (before, during, after birth) experiences: no separation from mother, no pain or drugs. Trauma can imprint the brain for life (e.g., gastric suction of a newborn can lead to cognitive hypervigilance, a type of paranoia; Anand, Runeson & Jacobson, 2004). Even isolating infants for regular brief periods can lead to social anxiety(serotonin signaling disorder) in adolescence and adulthood, as found across animal studies (e.g., with mice, who are much less social than humans: Franklin, Linder, Russig, Thöny & Mansuy, 2011).
  • Responsiveness to the needs of the child so the child does not become distressed. Extensive bouts of separation anxiety in childhood are linked to panic disorders in adults (Preter & Klein, 2008). Patterns of leaving babies to cry prevents or dissolves synapses related to the self-control and socioemotional intelligence that is supposed to be growing in the first months and years of life (Schore, 1994-2015). Responsiveness includes allowing for autonomy when the time comes (18-30 months) instead of punishing or corralling children who are further building self-control and self-confidence.
  • Nearly constant affectionate touch in the first year and much after that, with no negative touch. Children who are not affectionately touched as much do not develop as well in all sorts of areas (e.g., self-control).
  • Breastfeeding on request from the first hours after birth and for several years, building the immune system and brain/body systems properly.
  • Free play in nature with multi-aged playmates, building social and ecological self-confidence.
  • Multiple adult responsive caregivers over the long term who really know and love the child. Three adults to one baby seems to be ideal.

An increasing amount of neurobiological studies show that these components of early experience shape a child’s neurobiology and social capacities for a lifetime (unless strong intervention, like extensive therapy, occurs later) (see Narvaez references below). These parenting practices provide a nest of love for the baby and young child, whose absence I call undercare. They were commonplace and enjoyable until recent centuries when parents were overwhelmed with too much work, lack of support, and stress.

Montagu identified the need for love in the first six years of life as necessary to become fully human:

“Children are even less capable than adults of living by bread alone. We have learned that the most important of all their needs is the need for love. We have learned that if children are not adequately loved during any period of their first half dozen years they are likely to suffer more or less severely, depending upon the severity of the privation of love which they have undergone, the duration, the age, and the constitution of the child.

What we have learned from the study of the young of human kind is that they are born with every expectation of having their needs for love satisfied, and that when those needs are satisfied they develop in optimal health in every respect; but that when those needs are not adequately satisfied they develop, if they develop at all, in an unhealthy manner. Furthermore, that one of the primary defects of development which they exhibit is in their own ability to love.” (Montagu, 1963, p. 25)

The key to human development is experience in early life—was it loving?

When I see an aggressive young person, I assume that something went wrong in early life (although later trauma can have effects, it may require a deficient foundation in early life to bring about deadly violence). Parents and responsive caregivers were not lovingly present to the child during sensitive and critical periods of growth—when the neurobiology of personality and sociality were developing.

(When I see an aggressive older person who is successful in ways that harm society or the planet, I think the same thing. The difference is that the successful person developed enough self-control to guide their aggression into more acceptable routes, like business or politics. The new biography of Richard Nixon is a great illustration of the latter.)

Now, one might one to point the finger at the parents, but the circle of responsibility is much wider.

  • Did the aggressor’s parents receive what they needed as young children?

Probably not. Parents often perpetuate the deprivation they experienced. And in animals studies, undercaring for offspring worsens by generation (Meaney, 2001).

But importantly, parents can become inattentive to the needs of their young children if the community is not supportive of their parenting (Hrdy, 2009).

  • Were the parents of the aggressor supported and not too stressed to give the child the loving attention and care needed in the critical first years of life?

Probably not because, unfortunately in the USA, there is not much tangible support of parents with babies and young children (in contrast, in Sweden, parents have 480 paid days to share between mother and father for each child). Families are super stressed, not boding well for the future of the nation.

Undercare extends through adolescence as children do not mature until nearly age 30. They are in need of mentoring and advising from wiser elders throughout those early decades. The brain’s executive systems, in a normally developing individual, are not fully developed until around age 30, meaning that capacities for empathy, anticipating consequences and control of actions are not ready for prime time.

It’s only in recent decades that we put same-aged children and adolescents together for hours on end. This promotes competition instead of cooperative learning, and without wise elders, increases risk-taking to boot.

So we should not be surprised that unloved individuals become violent or dangerous to the wellbeing of others—they are searching for a sense of safety that they missed early on (Narvaez, 2014). Because of misdevelopment, their brains more easily downshift to primitive urges for power over others. Ideologies of superiority become very attractive. Those who are unloved and unmentored by wise elders are more likely to take up dangerous ideologies and behaviors.

To understand these things is not to excuse the acts of violence. But social institutions and each community member needs to do all we can to make sure children receive what they evolved to need to grow into caring human beings.

Note: I have focused on the issue of undercare of children. Children are also damaged by neglect, abuse, or trauma throughout childhood (e.g., infant circumcision, bullying).


NEW BOOK: To read more about the importance of early experience for avoiding self-protective orienations, see the book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (link is external): Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.

Anand, K.J.S, Runeson, B., & Jacobson, B. (2004). Gastric suction at birth associated with long-term risk for functional intestinal disorders in later life. The Journal of Pediatrics, 144 (4), 449-454.

Franklin, T., Linder, N., Russig, H., Thöny, B. and Mansuy, I.M. (2011). Influence of early stress on social abilities and serotonergic function across generations in mice. PLoS One, 6(7), e21842.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Meaney, M. J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 1161–1192.

Montagu, A. (1957/1963). Anthropology and human nature. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J., & Gray, P. (2014). Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Preter, M., & Klein, D.F. (2008). Panic, suffocation false alarms, separation anxiety and endogenous opioids. Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 32, 603-612.

Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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

Schore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.

Schore, A.N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment & Human Development, 2, 23-47.

Schore, A.N. (2001a). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 201-269.

Schore, A.N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36, 9-30.

Schore, A.N. (2003a). Affect regulation and the origin of the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A. N. (2003b).  Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2005). Attachment, affect regulation, and the developing right brain: Linking developmental neuroscience to pediatrics. Pediatrics In Review, 26, 204-211.

Schore, A.N. (2011). Bowlby’s “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. In, D. Narvaez,  J. Panksepp, A.N. Shore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schore, A.N. (2015). Plenary address, Australian Childhood Foundation Conference Childhood Trauma: Understanding the basis of change and recovery, Early right brain regulation and the relational origins of emotional wellbeing. Children Australia. Available on CJO 2015 doi: 10.1017/cha.2015.13


WHEN I WRITE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. 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 EDN 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 and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works (see my website to download papers):
Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (W.W. Norton)

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