The Wellness-Promoting Pathway Starts With Humanity’s Evolved Nest

To not receive the EDN in early life can be perceived as an injustice to a child, with serious ramifications for the child’s future. If brain and body system thresholds are established suboptimally in early years—not by trauma, but simply by not providing care that children evolved to need, then children may not reach their full potential but remain cognitively and socially underdeveloped. 

– Darcia Narvaez, PhD

State of USA Today. Child mental and physical well being have been on the decline for over 50 years in the USA, the wealthiest nation on earth. People under the age of 65 (today) score at or near the bottom on multiple health indicators compared to citizens in 16 other advanced nations (National Research Council, 2013). The USA has heightening epidemics of depression, anxiety, psychosocial and health problems at all ages (UNICEF, 2007; OECD, 2009). Because humans are holistic creatures, attachment, sociality and moral capacities have also been declining (e.g., empathy, moral reasoning) (Konrath et al. 2011, 2014). Avoidant attachment has been increasing along with narcissism, both of which undermine social and citizenship capacities (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Sociopathy has become a cultural phenomenon (Derber, 2013). 

Visit the Breaking the Cycle website to view the Evolved Nest’s short film and discover resources and a film guide. Resources include a Spanish version of the film and 14 language subtitles on the YouTube version. JOIN DARCIA NARVAEZ EVERY MONTH for LIVE discussions. Register for the discussion groups on the website:

Early Life Stress. Although there are likely multiple causes, we can surely point to one basic cause with converging evidence from across the human sciences. Early life toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012; Lanius et al., 2010; van der Kolk, 2014). Recent research is tempering views that deficits from poor early care can be easily outgrown (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 2012; Lupien et al., 2009; Schore, 2019; van der Kolk, 2014). In fact, an increasing amount of converging evidence across animal, human psychological, neurobiological and anthropological research demonstrates the later vulnerability of brain and body systems among those with poor early care (Felitti & Anda, 2005). 

Human Flourishing. We don’t have to guess or conduct extensive studies of what leads to human flourishing. Evolution, in effect, has ‘done the experiments’ over millions of years, providing the baselines for child raising and human flourishing. Evolution has provided a wellness-informed pathway (Narvaez, 2014). See Figure 1.  In contrast, we can conclude that the USA follows a trauma-inducing pathway. See Figure 2. 

Evidence for Wellness in Our Ancestral Context. The genus homo has spent 99% of its existence—around six million years—in foraging bands (Fry, 2006). This indicates that our bodies and brains evolved and adapted to this ancestral context, called the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (Bowlby, 1969). Some human societies have been in existence for over 150,000 years, such as the San Bushmen (Suzman, 2017), whose germ line is shared with all existing humans (Henn et al., 2011). Like the Bushmen, most people who ever existed lived in hunter-gatherer communities. Anthropological studies often focus on societies that still live with many of the principles of nomadic foragers, providing insight into the 200,000 years of our existence as a species, homo sapiens sapiens (Lee & Daly, 2005). 

Basic Needs. Comparative socioecology and ethology, through the tools of neuroscience, give us insights into millions of years of our genus’ existence as part of the mammalian line in existence for tens of millions of years (e.g., (McDonald, 1998; Suzuki & Hirata, 2012).  We are animals, specifically social mammals, a line that emerged 20-40 million years ago, retaining many brain characteristics and basic needs of social mammals generally (Franklin & Mansuy, 2010; Panksepp, 1998; Spinka, Newberry & Bekoff, 2001). Our animal needs include nourishment and warmth but our social mammalian needs also include affectionate touch, play, extensive bonding, and community support (Carter & Porges, 2013; Champagne, 2014; Narvaez, Panksepp et al., 2013). Anthropological studies show us that humans grow best when we share intersubjectivity (“limbic resonance;” Lewis Amini & Lannon, 2001) with multiple adults, are immersed in communal rituals and stories, and when children apprentice in adult activities (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Hrdy, 2009; Sorenson, 1998; Weissner, 2014).

Basic needs are particularly important to meet in early life when the brain and body are under construction, including a fuller set of needs than those Maslow (1970) identified. Moreover, self-actualization is the primary foundation for growth, guiding the ongoing self-organization of each child as basic needs are or are not met (Tarsha & Narvaez, in press).

Healthy Child Development. Humans evolved to have the most helpless newborns and the longest maturational schedule of any animal. Although all social mammals are vulnerable to poor outcomes from poor nurturing, human children are particularly vulnerable. Children at full-term birth are born with only 25% of adult brain volume; the brain triples its size in the first couple of years with nurturing care, whereas brain size and function does not grow in size or complexity with neglect (Perry et al., 1995). Children resemble fetuses of other animals till around 18 months of postnatal age, meaning that they have much to grow and self-organize based on physio-social experience (Montagu, 1968).

Converging research demonstrates that we are biosocial: healthy bodies, brains and sociality are formed from early social experience provided by family and community (Garner et al., 2021; Sandi & Haller, 2015). Brain systems are influenced by early experience with caregivers, so the effects of early experience have longterm neurobiological consequences (Schore, 2019). For example, the right brain hemisphere is scheduled to develop rapidly in the first years of life with nurturing care. Undercare underdevelops the right hemisphere potentially causing later mental health problems.

Human child raising practices, rooted in social mammalian parenting over 30 million years old, evolved to accommodate the immaturity and lengthy maturational schedule of the young, community practices characteristic of over 99% of human genus existence and still apparent in Indigenous cultures resistant to globalization (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005).

The Evolved Nest.  Every animal has an evolved nest for its young that forms part of an extra-genetic inheritance corresponding to the needs and maturational pace of offspring (Gottlieb, 1991; Oyama, Griffiths & Gray, 2001). Humanity’s evolved nest (aka, evolved developmental niche; EDN) in early life includes soothing perinatal experiences, extensive breastfeeding and positive touch, free play with multi-aged peers, nature immersion and connection, and routine healing practices. Human variations observed among hunter-gatherer societies also include positive social support for the mother-child dyad and multiple responsive adult caregivers (Hrdy, 2009). All these caregiving practices are correlated with health outcomes, but also with social and moral development (Narvaez, 2013, 2014, 2016; Narvaez, Gleason et al., 2013; Narvaez, Wang & Cheng, 2016; Narvaez, Wang et al., 2013; Narvaez, Wang et al., 2019; Narvaez, Woodbury et al., 2019).

Justice for Children, Societal Wellbeing. Our concern for young children and their caregivers is rooted in our concern for justice. To not receive the EDN in early life can be perceived as an injustice to a child, with serious ramifications for the child’s future. If brain and body system thresholds are established suboptimally in early years—not by trauma, but simply by not providing care that children evolved to need, then children may not reach their full potential but remain cognitively and socially underdeveloped. For example, children who do not receive supportive parenting early are less likely to behave prosocially (Kochanska, 2002). They are more likely to be self-centered and troublesome (Sroufe et al., 2005). While such children may sometimes function well enough as adults, holding down jobs and raising families, we are interested in caregiving environments that foster optimal development, our full human nature. This includes development of proactive concern for others—an orientation that includes a sense of social responsibility, global citizenship and prioritizing care for others, including the natural world.

Conclusion. Although being trauma-informed is helpful and we are appreciative of the increasing attention to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and their prevention, it’s not enough in an era of massive ecological destruction. In view of our species history, trauma prevention is not enough to raise a flourishing human being. We need the supportive structures of the EDN, our species developmental system, to grow children’s full capacities and to build thriving societies. 


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Visit Kindred’s New Story Glossary to find new language to Share the New Story of the Human Family. Look for highlighted words in posts on Kindred that will take you to their definitions and resources in the New Story Glossary.

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Additional Papers Relevant to the Evolved Nest

Gleason, T., Tarsha, M.S., Narvaez, D., & Kurth, A. (2021). Opportunities for free play and young children’s autonomic regulation. Developmental Psychobiology, 63 (6), e22134.

Narvaez, D., & Duckett, L.  (2020). Ethics in early life care and lactation practice. Journal of Human Lactation. 36, 1-10.

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Tarsha, M., Woodbury, R., Cheng, A., Wang, L. (2021). Sociomoral temperament: A mediator between wellbeing and social outcomes in young children.Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 5111. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.742199

Narvaez, D., Moore, D.S., Witherington, D.C., Vandiver, T.I., & Lickliter, R. (2022). Evolving evolutionary psychologyAmerican Psychologist77(3), 424–438.

Narvaez, D., & Witherington, D. (2018). Getting to baselines for human nature, development and wellbeingArchives of Scientific Psychology, 6 (1), 205-213. DOI: 10.1037/arc0000053

Tarsha, M., & Narvaez, D. (2019). The Evolved Nest: A partnership system that fosters child wellbeing. International Journal of Partnership Studies, 6(3). Open access:

Tarsha, M. S., & Narvaez, D. (2021). Effects of adverse childhood experience on physiological regulation are moderated by evolved developmental niche historyAnxiety, Stress & Coping. DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2021.1989419

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