Morality: Seeds Must Be Planted Rightly In Early Life

Moral Dispositions Are Influenced By Neurobiological Foundations In Childhood

It’s easy for us to believe that reasoning about moral issues is the most important aspect of morality. We spend many years in schools that typically foster an intellectual view of life, encourage us to suppress our emotions and disregard our relational and spiritual connections, keeping us focused on explicit knowledge or facts about the world. And it is true that some of our behavior is guided by the explicit decisions we make—which sweater to wear, whether to start a diet, how best to apply for a new job.

But in day-to-day living, most of our behavior is guided by implicit systems—tacit knowledge built up from lived (immersed) experience. These include our impulsive reactions to others, the worldview we bring to a situation, the habits of perception and sensitivity that shape our behavioral choices. These sensibilities, as pointed out so long ago by Aristotle, form part of our character—our dispositions to act. Although it used to be assumed that individuals have dispositions that are carried across situations, in reality individuals shift behavior by situation, in patterns that interact with dispositions (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2004). So, for example, Maria may be regularly outgoing in her family gatherings but shy at peer parties. She may be regularly agreeable with her parents but disagreeable with her peers. Particular contexts call forth particular dispositions and not others.

How do moral dispositions come about? A view that many hold is that children learn from the explicit teaching of their caregivers—the rationalizations given by parents for the rewards and punishments they distribute. Jean Piaget (1932/1965) mapped the learning of rules over childhood from immersion in games with peers.  But these two examples are directed by and towards explicit systems—how you understand rules. As noted, most of who we are is directed by implicit systems. When children mimic their parents and imitate older siblings, we can see implicit systems at work. But learning moral dispositions starts earlier.

We would all agree that babies do not yet have moral character. But implicit systems—those that guide social perception, undergird worldview, and guide behavior throughout life—are initiated from the first days of life. How do we know this? Because neurobiological studies are demonstrating the impact of early experience on the brain structures that form our dispositions.  For example, during early life the function of the stress response system is established. With stress-inducing care the system will form in an overreactive, underreactive or erratic manner (Lupien, McEwan, Gunnar & Heim, 2009). When the stress response is triggered, physiology changes (Sapolsky, 2004). Blood flow shifts away from higher order brain systems in order to mobilize flight or fight. The individual becomes sensitive to threat cues. The individual cannot relax or be open to others or to new ideas.

Winner of the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015

As a second example, the vagus nerve (10th cranial nerve) runs through all systems of the body, influencing health in general but also our capacities for social interaction. However, its function is largely shaped in early life by mother and allomother care. Care that keeps baby calm ensures that the nerve becomes myelinated. Unresponsive care (i.e., distressing the baby routinely) undermines the proper shaping of the nerve (“vagal tone”), leading to health problems of various kinds but also to difficulty with intimacy (Porges, 2011). Part of the shaping occurring in early life reflects epigenetics—the shaping of gene expression during sensitive periods. Michael Meaney and colleagues have shown that there is a window for the epigenetic effects of positive touch in rat pups (Meaney, 2001; 2010). Hundreds of genes are affected by how much a rat mother licks the pup in the first 10 days of life (in humans, this would be the equivalent of physical touch in the first 6 months). Meaney and colleagues have focused extensively on one set of genes related to controlling anxiety. Pups with low nurturing mother care during that period never properly “turn on” the genes to control anxiety, leaving them anxious in new situations for the rest of life. Similar genetic effects (methylation on glucocorticoid receptor proteins in the hippocampus) have been found in human beings.

 These are examples of the neurobiological underpinnings of dispositions that follow one throughout life (unless extensive therapy is undertaken later).

An overly stressful early life is common for babies in civilized nations. How do we know this? We can compare it to the evolutionary “standards” for early care that humans evolved.

Humans inherit a host of things through evolution, including genes, but also a nest for the young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the young (as for all animals) (Oyama, Griffiths & Gray, 2001). The nest matches the characteristics for social mammals generally, representing over 30 million years of evolution (what helped our ancestors survive was passed on to subsequent generations). Humans infants are particularly immature, compared to other hominids (and should be in the womb another 18 months compared to other neonates; Trevathan, 2011), which makes their early postnatal experience particularly influential.

Humanity’s evolved nest for young children includes soothing perinatal experience (no separation of mom and baby; no imposed distress); responsiveness to needs to maintain calm; several years of on-request breastfeeding; extensive carrying, rocking, and positive touch; self-directed social play with multi-aged mates; allomothers near the mother to help out (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). Perhaps more importantly and nearly unique for humans are multiple responsive adult caregivers that support the mother-baby dyad, which is never isolated (Hrdy, 2009).  All these nest components are linked to health and wellbeing (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014).

A childhood spent in the human nest can be termed species-typical; a childhood spent outside the nest can be termed species atypical. We know what a species-atypical upbringing does to baby monkeys. It is toxic. Harry Harlow (1958) studied maternal deprivation in young monkeys, particularly the lack of maternal touch. What happened? They became dysregulated—asocial, autistic and violent.

In reading the list of human nest characteristics, no doubt the reader has realized that civilized nations typically do not support the evolved nest. In effect, civilized nations are raising species-atypical human beings.

We can use the USA as a prime example. Hospital births are typically traumatic, undermining normal neurobiological processes of reward and bonding (Buckley, 2015; Wagner, 2006). Responsiveness to babies’ needs is often derided in USA culture as contributing to “spoiling the baby;” families who believe this message will be more likely to leave baby isolated and distressed. Breastfeeding rates in the USA are limited, rarely exclusively going beyond 3 months, let alone for several years. Play is increasingly limited in schools, including preschools and parents are afraid to let their children play freely outdoors (Louv, 2005). Mothers receive minimal support and often return to work shortly after birth, as the USA is one of the only nations in the world without paid maternal leave. Although caregivers other than mothers often take care of infants, this occurs away from mother, which is stressful to baby, and often occurs with caregivers that hardly know the baby and are overwhelmed with other children.

If we return to moral character construction, we can see that a child whose early life provides the full nest will form a different set of implicit schemas for interacting in the social world from a child who experiences repeated and extensive stressors in early life. With a species-typical childhood, the child will develop flexible, relationally attuned skills that allow agility in social life. With a species-atypical childhood, the child will display self-dysregulation and have various degrees of stress reactivity and underdeveloped sociality. Individuals undercared for in early life will display a varying set of problems depending on when the stress occurred—what systems were developing—and how intense or enduring they were in early life.

Stress-reactive individuals become threat-reactive, perceiving threat routinely, and seek to reestablish a sense of security through any means possible. Over time, to manage the missing social self-regulation, micro-social skills and social agility, the individual will latch onto a set of mental and social routines that provide a sense of safety and self-comfort. The social world will likely feel threatening. Routines for self-soothing that were fostered in childhood may be employed—scapegoating a particular group, obeying an authoritarian voice, self-punishing in ways that reflect corporal punishment received, self-medicating with food or drugs. Such protectionism becomes habitual to protect the unagile, unconfident, fragile self.

A stress-reactive individual is controlled by her conditioned past, undermining her free will. But she may not realize this because the original source of dysregulation is unperceived (needs not met in early life when the brain was under construction). Instead, the blame gets shifted to a “bad” self (“internalizing,” i.e., depression, anxiety) or “bad” others (“externalizing,” i.e., social aggression and territoriality). In this way, social self-protectionism can become a predominant ethic for the individual and one that the individual learns to rationalize with cultural narratives. The neurobiological effects of early experience on moral orientations are described by Triune Ethics Meta-Theory (Narvaez, 2008; 2014; 2016b).
Unfortunately, because they are so widespread in civilized nations, the outcomes of species-atypical upbringings are assumed to be normal. That is, humans are perceived to be naturally intemperant, selfish and aggressive. The result is that sanctions become necessary to keep people in line. And then it looks like morality is about rules and sanctions rather than about the development of virtue which naturally occurs in contexts that provide an extended nest into adulthood (Narvaez, 2016a).

Children grow well under good nest provision, when adults are savvy. But a lot of adults have lost the wisdom of the nest. When a baby is undercared for, it is like stomping on a tree as a shoot—if the tree stays alive it will be crooked. True “spoiling” of babies happens when the caregiver denies baby’s needs and, for example, makes them scream for attention. Then babies get used to using drama to get needs met and become unpleasant people. There are lots of causes for problematic outcomes. But it starts with ignorant adults and mistreatment of babies.

In the larger view of human history, species-atypical nests, outcomes and accompanying worldview are rare and unusual, having become widespread only in the last 1% of human genus existence (8,000 years or so) and in only a small (though dominant) set of societies (Sahlins, 2008). Today’s dominant culture supports species-atypical nests and worldviews. The underdevelopment of many persons today extends to missing capacities for relational attunement with the natural world, leading to the anthropocentric way of living on the earth common in the USA. Stress-reactive individuals have difficulty with cooperation and social fittedness, and live as if among enemies, which typically extends to earth systems and other-than-humans.

Among communities that provide the evolved nest, moral characters are peaceable rather than self-protective, receptively intelligent rather than narrow minded, communally imaginative instead of detached or vicious (for review, see Narvaez, 2013). One hopes that with the restoration of the evolved nest and the support of mothering, human moral character will return to being shaped for deep cooperation and inclusive communal concern, including living respectfully with the earth.

More on the Evolved Nest

More on Triune Ethics Meta-Theory

More on the state humanity is in and what to do about it.

“The Biology and Social Ecology of Nurturing, Mothering, Loving,” an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Notre Dame, August 24-29, 2018

Featured Photo Shutterstock/Tomsickova Tatyana


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

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

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

Lapsley, D. & Narvaez, D. (2004). A social-cognitive view of moral character. In D. Lapsley & D. Narvaez (Eds.), Moral development: Self and identity (pp. 189-212). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York: Workman.

Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445. doi:10.1038/nrn2639

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.

Meaney, M. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene x environmentinteractions. Child Development, 81(1), 41-79.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.  New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119.

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.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2016a). Baselines for virtue. In J. Annas, D. Narvaez, & N. Snow  (Eds.), Developing the virtues: Integrating perspectives (pp. 14-33). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2016b). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Kohlberg Memorial Lecture 2015: Revitalizing human virtue by restoring organic morality. Journal of Moral Education, 45(3), 223-238.

Narvaez, D. (2016). Reply: Returning to humanity’s moral heritages. Journal of Moral Education, 45(3), 256-260.

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. (Eds.) (2014). Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Oyama, S., Griffiths, P.E., & Gray, R.D. (2001). Cycles of contingency: Developmental systems and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Piaget, J. (1932/1965).  The moral judgment of the child (M. Gabain, Trans.). New York: Free Press.

Porges, S. W. (2011) The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: Norton.

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Holt.

Trevathan, W.R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd ed.. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.