The Maternal Gift Economy: Sharing, Morality and Human Nature

The following presentation is from Darcia Narvaez’s presentation at the Maternal Gift Economy Conference on November 25, 2022. The conference video is below. Darcia’s presentation begins at the 1:19 mark.

Hello from the traditional lands of the Miami, Peoria, and all of the Potawatomi Peoples. 

Stories influence our conceptualizations about how the world works. Art and story create consciousness and make the world. Stories shape our beliefs, feelings and affect our actions. They guide our moral imaginations, our ideas about what can and should be (Gregory, 2009).

I’m going to talk about two stories, the dominant story and the ancient story. The dominant story is that humans are unique, separate and superior to the rest of Nature. For centuries, Eurocentric Western scholars have been telling us that they are the best. They conquered the world, so isn’t that proof? They forget that plagues conquer the world too. They created technologies that entrance and govern the world. Isn’t that proof they are the best? Actually, if you look around, the promised wonderland is instead producing a vast wasteland. But, their ways have had a large hand in a burgeoning human population. There are 8 billion human beings on the planet. Isn’t that proof of success? They forget that weed species act like this and are eradicated once a more ecologically cooperative species comes along (Naess & Rothenberg, 1989). The reality is that the dominant story is ruining us, extinguishing Animal nations, Plant nations, waterways, disrupting every aspect of life on the planet. The question we must ask is how does the dominant story maintain itself?

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The ancient story is one of a living planet, largely cooperative and sustainable that supports life in all its forms. It is a kinship or partnership orientation to living with others, including the nonhuman. The challenge is, how do we bring back the ancient story?

Let’s start with the ancient story, where the maternal gift economy plays a starring role.

The maternal gift economy follow’s Nature’s gift economy, an ecological system that keeps individuals and communities flourishing (Worster, 1999). One Animal’s waste is another Animal’s residence or food source. Through photosynthesis, Plants make food for every living being. Plants produce oxygen which our cells need. Our bodies are filled with trillions of microorganisms keeping us alive and healthy in different microbiomes around the body. We live on a symbiotic planet (Margulis, 1998). Our lives are shared with others. 

Sharing is a special part of human evolution, distinguishing us from other primates (Widlok, 2017). Other primates share little if at all: 69 species; 30 don’t share; 39 share only with offspring. Humans evolved to share with everyone.

In egalitarian societies, very little is not shared. In sharing cultures, those in most need receive the most time, attention, materials, not those with more status or power. Sharing actually prevents the consolidation of wealth and power.

Sharing infuses life in egalitarian communities and includes sharing access to knowledge, skills, positions. Thomas Widlok (2017), a German anthropologist who has studied sharing societies, suggests that sharing is a skill learned throughout life. You practice “giving up space for others, ultimately by giving up one’s own life and by making room for others.” Sharing, then, follows the cycle of life.

In terms of need, young children are often the neediest. This brings us to morality.

Feminist theorist Virginia Held (1993) suggested that child raising is best considered the center of moral activity because by facilitating the right kind of development it fosters the best kind of new persons. My work focuses on what species-normal child raising looks like. When we nurture children in species-normal ways, meeting their basic needs through sharing, we foster their humanity and set up the trajectory for a flourishing community (Narvaez, 2014). 

What is species-normal child raising? What have our ancestors practiced for millions of years that civilization has largely forgotten? It’s only the last 1% of human existence that civilizations came about and disrupted species normal child raising. What is species normal child raising?

The evolved nest. Common characteristics of the nest have been identified in egalitarian, nomadic foraging societies around the world (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005): 

  • Soothing perinatal experiences, with mother-dyad support from conception through post birth, with no painful procedures or separation of baby and mother
  • Breastfeeding (and non-nutritive suckling) on request, baby in charge, for several years 
  • Affectionate touch most of the time in babyhood, and no negative touch
  • Multiple alloparents (attachment is spread among multiple relationships)
  • Social embeddedness and social support
  • Nature immersion (builds receptive intelligence, ecological attachment and knowhow)
  • Self-directed free play (builds egalitarian flexibility and executive functions)

All of these components build a health functioning brain and body (Narvaez publications). 

Let me note that during development, which takes 30 years or so in human beings, males need much more nurturing support for longer because they have less built-in resilience and develop more slowly than females (Schore, 2017).  This means that most males are especially underdeveloped in civilized societies, leaving them vulnerable to big egos as defenses and narratives that justify their underdevelopment (more below).

The evolved nest, which my lab studies, represents love in action, forming a biology of love for childraising. We are biosocial creatures, our biology is shaped by our social experience. With the evolved nest provided throughout life, individuals and communities thrive. (Later, if people are interested, I can go through the 30 or so characteristics of thriving individuals that we can observe in communities that live nested.)

It’s important to underscore that the EDN is community provisioned, not the responsibility of one mother or the parents alone. Mothers need help feeding the big social brains of their children, which helps explains the existence of postmenopausal females, unusual for most mammalian species except whales, who assist in provisioning children’s calorie-intensive needs (the “grandmother hypothesis;” Hawkes & Coxworth, 2013). 

In fact, as a result of culture and brain co-evolution, the cooperative caregiving of the evolved nest fosters characteristics only human have (Burkart et al., 2009): 

  • capacities for intentional teaching, 
  • systematic targeted helping, 
  • aversion to inequity (preference for egalitarianism), 
  • declarative language and communication, and 
  • cumulative cultural evolution. 

Children learn to relate to multiple others (not just mother), leading to wider attachment, greater social flexibility, and capacities for shared intentionality, something that experiments show that chimpanzees, in comparison to young human children, do not demonstrate (Tomasello, 2019). The evolved nest also fosters the ability to de-differentiate, to take multiple perspectives, including with Animals, and cultivates awareness of the unmanifest—what cannot be seen or measured (Narvaez, 2014). 

If all this is our heritage, how did we get stuck in the dominant story? At first it was accidental but then became on purpose. The way to break a community is to break bonds with the children (McPherson & Rabb, 2011). Disrupt mothering. This is what was imposed on Native communities by settlers and governments in the USA, Canada, Australia even until a few decades ago. What you do is you separate the children from the elders. Under normal healthy conditions, the very old and the very young are enchanted with one another. They are in the same mind space—more aware of the unmanifest, the universe, connected to spiritual realms. You break the heart of a community with their separation. Governments used residential schools, kidnapping and having children adopted by White families. 

But you know, the breaking of bonds is what Europeans did with their own children and with Nature. Mothering was undermined over thousands of years with patriarchy, domestication of Animals, mono agriculture, city-state civilization, invasions and slavery. In the last 1000 years the robbing of the common lands by the wealthy created homelessness, starvation, refugees (Polanyi, 2001). And capitalism put the icing on the cake.

To undermine our instincts for sharing, you must use punishments and impose trauma. Disconnection and trauma became the norm all around. Disconnection from the land, from place, from community. Trauma is passed on from generation to generation (Menakem, 2017). 

It is not surprising then that some argue that we are more like chimpanzees than our own sharing, egalitarian ancestors and cousins (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). That’s the dominant story. But the dominators themselves have created these outcomes. It is my contention that the move away from cooperative child raising and the provision of the evolved nest has underdeveloped our species’ evolved nature, shifting brain functioning back to our primate mind, to our survival systems, to an emphasis on ape-like dominance hierarchies and hoarding. 

What does unnestedness do specifically to children’s brains? When what is supposed to grow after birth is not cultivated through nestedness, our human nature, is underdeveloped, giving the primate mind more power. One’s developmental trajectory is shifted, making us more disconnected and self-centered. Individualism, competition and hoarding seem right. The person’s disposition becomes oriented to dominance-submission hierarchies. They can develop a sense of inferiority or superiority, the latter a very dangerous mindset. The brain becomes threat reactive, easily triggered. Stress makes us stupid and selfish. The blood flow shifts for fight or flight, impairing thinking, making openmindedness or openheartedness unlikely (Sapolsky, 2004). The right brain is underdeveloped, impairing empathy, self control and higher consciousness (Schore, 2019). The Wetiko virus, of cannibalistic greed, can take root more easily (Forbes, 2008).

I mentioned that males are more impaired than females from unnestedness. The individual and community makes up reasons for their dysregulation, accepting what is as what should be. For example, narratives justify the underdevelopment of males, such as the Oedipus complex, and male aggressiveness, anger and dominance are described as species normal. Moral orientation becomes rooted in primitive survival systems. Morality and values are about scripted power relations, in part from a lack of knowhow, rather than about egalitarian relational attunement and mutual enhancement. 

Good stories teach us how to maintain contact with our hearts. The heart and sense of connection to all are suppressed and ridiculed by the dominant culture’s focus on left brain functioning and control of the masses with triggered fear. We are saturated by an anti-love story, a story of competition over cooperation, scarcity over abundance, aggression over love. A story of destruction.

How does the dominant story maintain itself? By undermining the raising of children and creating unnestedness for all. Unnested people are easily made afraid and controlled by authoritarianism. They are attracted to stories of their superiority.

How do we return to the ancient story and the cycle of cooperative companionship?

We reinstitute our heritage– the maternal gift economy of sharing and meeting basic needs. This entails putting children first since they are the most needy. When child and adult wellbeing are the focus of communities and societies, providing the evolved nest to everyone, we can grow and maintain our humanity in a species-normal manner. We join the wellness-informed pathway that evolution, in effect, created. We then live lives life of compassionate connection, as partners with one another and with the Earth.


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