Gabor Maté On The Evolved Nest: Foreword To The New Book

Update (August 2023): “The Evolved Nest” book is now available for purchase.

Editor’s Note: Below is the Foreword by Gabor Maté, MD, to the forthcoming book, The Evolved Nest by Darcia Narvaez, PhD, and G. A. Bradshaw, PhD. Dr. Maté is the author of the bestseller, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing In A Toxic Culture, and is featured in the film series The Wisdom of Trauma. Join Kindred’s newsletter and Kindred Community Mighty Networks platform to keep up to date with all of the celebrations, launches, new films, and live discussions with the authors. Learn more about the Evolved Nest on Kindred, and visit the Evolved Nest’s website here. Darcia Narvaez is a contributing editor to Kindred and president of Kindred World, our parent nonprofit.

The Evolved Nest: Nature’s Way of Raising Children and Creating Connected Communities


By Gabor Maté, MD

The Evolved Nest book release date is August 8, 2023.

In the arrogance of what we like to call our civilized culture, we tend to see ourselves as superior in intelligence and accomplishment to our evolutionary cousins, the other Animals with whom we share the Earth. We even look down with pride on brother and sister humans whom we are pleased to dismiss as “primitive,” such as Indigenous people and, more especially, the few, small remaining hunter-gatherer groupings that still cling to a tenuous existence in the face of the relentless march of “progress.” This is what the anthropologist and author Wade Davis calls “cultural myopia,” the sense that “other peoples are failed versions of ourselves. Or that they are ancient, vestigial creatures, destined to fade away, quaint and colorful humans who wear feathers. These are living, dynamic people who have something to say.”[1][i]

This gem of a book, modest in length but vast in eruditon and insight and rich in mind-boggling scientific observation, will leave the reader both humbled and grateful. Subverting our egoic self-satisfaction, it illuminates how humanity has forgotten its own nature, even as it has abandoned and turned against the Nature that formed and sustained us over millions of years. In doing so, our authors, psychologists Darcia Narvaez and G. A. Bradshaw, also point the way to redemption. No fanciful social utopianism here; only a profound understanding of what our core needs are, right from conception, and what we have to learn from the ancestral human and Animal ways of being as they were formed in the crucible of Nature.

The salutary subversiveness of The Evolved Nest is that it shows our commonality, in the deepest emotional sense, with fellow creatures such as Parrots, Elephants, Whales, Wolves, Penguins, and even Octopuses. The capitalizations are the authors’ device for reminding us of the essential personhood and psychological complexity of these other beings whom we assume to be so different from our own genus, Homo.

Unlike humans still connected to Nature, most of us don’t think of ourselves as sharing emotional dynamics with other Animals. Yet from the point of view of modern neuroscience, when, say, Indigenous peoples ranging from Alaska to the Amazon refer to Animals as relatives to be honored, they are accurate. Neuroscientists have pointed out that we share evolutionarily bestowed primary emotional processes with a wide variety of species. The brain circuits humans share with other creatures—as this book elegantly illustrates with examples that more than once left this reader in a state of wonder—include caring love, joy, play, panic, and grief. Witness, for example, the heartrending story of a young Elephant who twice in his short existence suffered the loss of a mother figure. As the authors reveal, we share with Animals the capacity for consciousness, feelings, thoughts, and dreams. An Octopus with a neural substrate for cognition, self-awareness, and consciousness? Yes.

The emotional dynamics generated by these cerebral circuits serve well-being, compassion, self-regulation, confidence, and other healthy qualities, as they are meant to; but only if they are evoked by the proper circumstances—that is, only if their development is supported by the evolved nest. “Evolved nests,” Drs. Narvaez and Bradshaw tell us in their introduction, “are developmental systems tailored to nurture psychological, social, physical, and neurobiological needs in a species-unique manner.” For humans, they later elucidate, the evolved nest is the set of processes and structures that provide children with the social and ecological microenvironment perfectly tailored for optimal growth and health. To put it bluntly, we have lost the plot in the pursuit of economic and technological advancement. This has been a traumatic development in the history of our species, one whose ramifications we are experiencing all too keenly in the epidemic of ill health, mental disturbances, aggression, social divisions, and other plagues that beset present-day societies. It is no slur on human ingenuity nor a denigration of modernity’s truly miraculous inventions and achievements to argue, as our authors do, that we have much to learn from our hominin forebears and from the animals whose evolved nesting practices they document so eloquently.

Did you know that an Elephant newborn is greeted by the gentle stroking of a posse of other mothers? That Emperor Penguins share gestational duties between male and female and that the safekeeping of their offspring, as of young Whales, is a communal task? That Wolves, even if childless, will lactate to feed the young ones when the clan’s needs call for that? In case after case, this book teaches us how Nature has inculcated collaboration, empathy, a communal ethic, and mutual support as the necessary legacy of each species for the optimal development of their fledglings. This is true for humans as well—though one would hardly know that from observing how we gestate, birth, and raise our infants and young children today. With the loss of the evolved nest, we have become alienated from the benign child-nurturing instincts with which Nature has imbued us over eons. For example, we are the only species who, by design and according to the prescriptions of “experts,” allow infants to cry without responding to their distress in order to “teach” them to sleep—thereby impairing their brain development and jeopardizing their future mental health, as Darcia Narvaez has shown elsewhere. Nor, in Nature-based human cultures, are the young hit, harshly punished, or isolated from caregivers as a way of bringing them to heel. On the contrary, the authors note later in this volume that “any aggressive actions in the toddler years are greeted with playful response, as everyone knows that young children are not yet fully empathic or aware of their actions’ effects.”

Having lost its evolutionary niche, our species is inflicting its distress upon our fellow creatures, as Dr. Gay Bradshaw already documented in her remarkable work on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Elephants. This book, too, abounds in lamentable examples of Animal cultures—such as Wolves in Yellowstone National Park or even in the Alaskan Denali wilderness—being traumatized at the hands of humans who, unlike Indigenous people, have no concept of being part of Nature, having become severed from their own nature by the traumatic demise of the evolved nest.

As a result, there is almost as much sadness as beauty in this exquisitely crafted book. Yet our authors leave us on a positive note: they have written here not a dirge, after all, but a paean to Existence, to the possibilities inherent in us, despite our losses, and a call for a future informed and reinvigorated by what the past and everlasting Nature can teach us.


[1] Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009), 13.



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