Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Social Development

  • Darcia NarvaezEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2394-1



Children develop their sociality according to propensities for cooperation and from their family and community experiences. In precivilized societies, social development occurs naturally as children learn the ways of the community through informal apprenticeship. In civilized societies, social development often involves “socialization,” as adults coercively teach children how to behave.


We can contrast two basic forms of societies: civilized and pre- or un-civilized. Civilization has been around for about 10,000 years (about 1% of human genus history). Civilized societies are those that domesticate and control the lives of animals and plants to their own benefit, hoarding resources and constructing hierarchies to keep the social system of controlling resources in place. Civilized nations have been successful technologically but destructive of earth life and biocultural systems as they expand to eliminate and cultivate more and more wilderness areas and land governed by others. They must also ensure their populations conform to the system. Thus, socialization and social development has this as a primary aim.

On the other hand, humanity spent about 95% of its history outside of civilization (Fry 2006). “Uncivilized” societies have continued alongside the civilized to the present day (Lee and Devore 1968). “Uncivilized” groups will be termed “primal” groups here because the social structure is ancient, and they are more in tune with ecological systems, upon whom they traditionally directly rely. The data accessed are mostly from small-band hunter-gatherer bands or nomadic foragers who are immediate-return societies (migratory, with few possessions, no cultivation of plants, no domestication of animals; Woodburn 1982). Because they migrate in particular landscapes according to the availability of food sources like other migratory animals do, primal societies are careful not to over harvest plants or animals so that these will be available on their next visit to the locale. Social development takes a natural course in these societies, unfolding as the maturational schedule of the child dictates in relation to the pressures of living in the local landscape. The goal is to become a full human being who lives well and responsibly under the local conditions.

In this entry, distinctions are made between the societies that socialize for civilization and those that do not. The two approaches to social development are contrasted in the sections below.

Humanity’s Inheritances

Although genes are often the focus of human inheritances, humanity inherits much more, including for example, landscape ecology, cultural practices, maternal microecology, and capacities for self-organization (Kauffman 1993; Oyama et al. 2001). Humans also inherit greater epigenetic plasticity, especially in early life, than other apes (Gómez-Robles et al. 2015).

As all animals do, humans have a nest that evolved to optimize the development of the young. The nest represents “the reliable and repeatable features of stimulation and experience occurring in an organism’s developmental context” (Lickliter and Harshaw 2010, p. 497), a species-typical developmental system that leads to a species-typical outcome. For humans, who are part of the social mammalian line, the early life nest is provided by the mother and her community and includes soothing perinatal experience; nearly constant touch in the first year and extensive affectionate touch thereafter; on request breastfeeding for several years; warm responsiveness to needs from mother and then by a small community of caregivers; self-directed play in the natural world with multi-aged playmates; and positive social support with no physical punishment (Hewlett and Lamb 2005).

Why does the nest matter? At full-term birth (40–42 weeks of gestation), a human baby emerges with only 25% of adult brain volume, which grows especially rapidly in the first year with 90% in place by age five (Trevathan 2011). In fact, newborns look and act like fetuses of other animals till about 18 months of age. Thus, many physiological and social systems are shaping themselves during the sensitive prenatal and postnatal periods, including the stress response, endocrine systems, neurotransmitters, immune system, and capacities for social engagement (Narvaez et al. 2013b). How well these develop is influenced by the quality of the nest.

In primal societies, the evolved nest is provided without resistance or question – adults cooperate with the needs of the child. A community of responsive caregivers provide what babies and young children need, even sharing breastfeeding (Hrdy 2009). Primal societies display a deep trust in natural processes (Ingold 2005). By providing the evolved nest, they ensure human propensities for cooperation are developed, a leading source for successful evolution (Weiss and Buchanan 2009), especially human evolution (Tomasello et al. 2012).

Civilized societies do not provide the evolved nest, and if a component is provided it is usually partial or degraded. For example, breastfeeding might occur but only for a short duration (less than a year) rather than for an average age weaning of 4 years as found among small-band hunter-gatherers (Hewlett and Lamb 2005). Instead of providing what babies evolved to need, civilized societies display a deep distrust in natural processes related to nest components and child raising. Civilized nations tend to work against natural processes instead of with them. The costs to social development are deep and wide, from poor health to poor sociality and the reliance on evolutionarily more primitive brain systems to survive (Narvaez 2014).

Social Development in Primal Societies

How does a child learn to be a human being? Primal societies know it takes some time. In primal societies, children are assumed to be autonomous agents who are learning to be fully human within the community and can take charge of their own learning (for review, see Narvaez 2013). Children follow evolved innate programs that guide them in learning to live within their society, mimicking models, and practicing what they are motivated to practice at the particular age – as babies, apart from feeding and sleeping, primarily social feeling and social routines for how to start and carry on conversations, share eye gaze and play. Initially, self-regulation and sociality are guided by foundational interactions with adults and other caregivers, shaping physiological systems. For example, responsive care (meeting the needs of the baby in a timely, warm manner) fosters a well-functioning stress response (one that is not easily triggered nor mute from excessive distress) and a well-functioning social engagement system of the vagus nerve (Lupien et al. 2009; Porges 2011, 2017).

Adults provide support without interfering in the unfolding development of the young child. Primal societies avoid coercion at any age, understanding that it can undermine the normal trajectory of development, undermining self-confidence and increasing dependence on others for self-direction. Coercion or punishments are avoided as they can do damage to the developing spirit of a child. Throughout childhood, children learn without schooling, a “natural pedagogy” where younger imitate older and older guide younger and the skilled guide the unskilled through apprenticeship (Rogoff 1990).

Becoming a good human being is the goal among primal societies (Narvaez 2013). What does that look like? Adults are expected to cooperate in all sorts of ways (Hill et al. 2011). For example, they share food and resources without resistance, act with others in mind, enjoy socializing virtually all the time, not coerce others but be highly autonomous; in fact, SBHG adults around the world, no matter their culture, are typically described as independent but also communal, calm, and content but also generous (Ingold 2005). The evolved nest may provide a “cultural commons” for the development of these shared personality characteristics, and sociomoral capacities for relational attunement and communal imagination (Narvaez 2014, 2018). Other social practices are common in these societies. For example, when an individual starts to get a big head (e.g., a successful hunter), the group teases him relentlessly (e.g., “it’s such a tiny animal, we should go find a rabbit instead”) until he bursts into laughter and the puffed-up ego is deflated (Lee 1979).

Optimal social development is expected for individuals in primal societies and their survival may have depended upon it. But fitting well into the human society is not enough to be a good human being. It is expected that grown individuals will act with the biocommunity in mind, the place on the earth in which one’s lifecourse is embedded, and include respect for the wellbeing of entities in the natural world. One must maintain proper relations with all entities (e.g., animals, plants, rivers) in an ongoing dynamic manner, that is, being present and responsive to what is unfolding in the human and other-than-human lifeworlds (Ingold 2005, 2011). Interestingly, the capacity to receptively attend to the living world – its sentience, communications, and relationships – is initially governed by right-brain hemisphere capacities, which develop rapidly in early life, when the evolved nest is especially influential.

Primal societies, including native American tribes, display a companionship orientation to raising children and living on the earth (Narvaez 2014), a place considered sacred and moral (Redfield 1953). Because an individual’s actions are impactful on the wellbeing of the whole biocommunity, they must be taken with respect and awareness. Elders typically display social engagement, wisdom, and communal morality and guide social development of the community through story and ritual (Deloria 2006).

In summary, primal societies provide a species-typical developmental system for raising the young. Even beyond the evolved nest for early childhood, they provide a continuum of support throughout life, including the transition to adulthood and maintaining connection to the cosmos through ritual and trance. It is rare for a child not to develop into full humanity.

Social Development in Civilized Societies

In civilized nations, socialization is often discussed as “the processes whereby naïve individuals are taught the skills, behavior patterns, values, and motivations needed for competent functioning in the culture” (Maccoby 2015, p. 3). Notice the focus on adults “teaching” and controlling children. It is assumed that children must be pressured into fitting in. This typically involves coercion of some kind (corporal or psychological punishment). Punishment may be needed to overcome the natural egalitarianism and expectation for companionship and respect young children display (Fehr et al. 2008; Trevarthen 2005), making them feel more insecure and more prone to comply with adult directives.

Child raising advice for centuries has advocated harsh treatment in early life, treatment that breaks the spirit of children in order to control them for life (because the early years of experience won’t be consciously remembered later; Miller 1983). Civilization has a long history of harsh treatment. Lloyd deMause (1974) described six historical phases reflecting changing parent attitudes towards children, moving from infanticide (antiquity to fourth century AD) to emotional or physical abandonment (fourth to thirteenth century) to ambivalence (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) where children were beaten into shape, followed by intrusive parenting (nineteenth century), when empathy emerged, but there was still a focus on controlling the child in every way, socialization (nineteenth to twentieth centuries) to channel impulses – as proposed by psychodynamic theorists who emphasized the control of innate aggressive and sexual impulses, later morphing to a focus on self-regulation – indeed, radical behaviorism emphasized the conditioning of good habits from an early age, like baby independence, because as young adults it would be required (Watson 1928). Finally, deMause identified a helping orientation (mid-twentieth century till present) where parents became involved in empathizing with and fulfilling child needs.

Still today, parental control and obedience are dominant goals for young child raising in civilized societies. Note the popular theory of parenting styles proposed by Diana Baumrind (1967), who favors parental control. She distinguished four basic styles: authoritarian (high demandingness, low responsiveness), authoritative (high demandingness, high responsiveness), permissive (low demandingness, high responsiveness), and uninvolved (low demandingness, low responsiveness). Among individualistic societies like the USA, the authoritative style leads to greater child success as measured by the middle-class values of society (i.e., school achievement, work success) (Baumrind 1971a). However, a subset of families did not fit Baumrind’s model (Baumrind 1971b). She called them “harmonious” parents. They were only moderately demanding, highly responsive but also highly tolerant. She noted that preschool girls thrived but that preschool boys seemed feminized in those families (i.e., submissive rather than rebellious). This mode and outcomes are more aligned with primal society.

What does social development look like in a civilized society? There is a great deal of variability in specifics, but gender roles tend to be more rigid than in primal societies; there are often class and racial differences, made explicit, or enforced implicitly; and if a person does not stay within the correct pathway, the individual can be ridiculed or even ostracized and killed (Turiel 2002). So, obedience to prescribed ways of being is a primary aim, wanting for self what society wants for the self and learning to avoid stepping out of bounds. In individualistic, consumerist societies like the USA, the goal for a middle-class child is success in school where entrepreneurial, rebellious, and creative skills (within the confines of the worldview) are encouraged. These lead to a good-paying, high-status job within the system. In contrast, often lower-class children are socialized through the hidden curriculum to follow rules and authority, skills for low-grade factory or service work (Freire 1970; Kozol 1991; Jackson 1968).

Traditional pedagogy holds the view that reasoning and explicit conscious knowledge guide behavior and so adults directly teaching rules of moral behavior is considered an effective way to socialize a child (Dewey 1908). This view of learning has led to all sorts of difficulties, such as incongruence between explicit knowledge about the right way to behave and actual behavior. If the child disobeys the rules, it is considered the child’s fault. In reality, children learn from immersed experience – they initially construct their patterns of behavior from the sensorimotor routines that work in their family contexts, using these implicit notions to guide their lives (Varela 1999). Children especially learn from how they are treated, imitating what adults do, not so much what adults might say otherwise to do.

In the late twentieth century, rather than focusing on the development of moral reasoning (Kohlberg 1969), psychology researchers began to focus on the development of prosocial emotions (e.g., empathy) and helping behavior as central to social development (Eisenberg 2000). The social capacities needed include not only self-control (not aggressing against others, not withdrawing) and complying with rules, but sufficient empathy with and sympathy for others and skilled cooperation (flexible getting along). But the trends for the USA as a whole on these characteristics have been going in a downward direction for perhaps 50 years. Many children and adults have difficulty with self-regulation, display low empathy, and lack responsive social skills (Narvaez 2017). Early life stress fosters self-disorganization and physiological systems that are threat reactive, leading to habitual externalizing (aggression toward others) and/or internalizing (depression and withdrawal) (Shonkoff et al. 2012). Children raised outside the evolved nest necessarily represent species atypical development. Many do not reach their potential but are dominated in their sociality by more primitive survival systems.

As a result, psychological science has been examining possible sources of failure and success to socialize children to be cooperative and contributing adult members of civilized society. Interestingly, components of the evolved nest are factors that foster success. The most widely studied is caregiver responsiveness (Maccoby and Martin 1983). Neuroscientific studies are supporting the emphasis on early life relational attunement with caregivers and the development of secure bonding and attachment (Schore 2000). A child treated with reciprocal mutual respect, empathy, and cooperation develops those same characteristics over the long term, including identifying as a moral self (Kochanska 2002; Thompson 2012). When the social ecological contexts coordinate relational support for a child, resilience (avoiding risky behaviors) and thriving are more likely (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Lerner et al. 2003; Scales and Leffert 1999). Other components of the evolved nest also appear to shape empathy, conscience, and cooperation (Narvaez et al. 2013a, c).

It should be noted that basic aspects of social development like self-control and social interest are impaired by nonsocial factors that occur in developmental contexts, like pollutants (e.g., lead, mercury, plastic), which are released into mother’s bodies and children’s environments by civilization’s practices (e.g., Liu and Lewis 2014).

Optimal social development in civilized societies is contested. Some societies value autonomy, whereas others emphasize community values or respect for a divine order (Jensen 2011). Moreover, as societies have undermined provision of the evolved nest and pathologies have multiplied, there is no agreement on baselines for raising children. If there is interest in the question of baselines for raising young children in advanced societies, there is little agreement on what optimal development looks like. Part of the reason is that science has taken over knowledge systems to such an extent that people feel they cannot “know” something without an experiment to show it. At the same time, science typically prides itself on being value-neutral and does not wish to weigh in on value questions like parenting. Nevertheless, advanced nations are often under the thumb of science-wedded-with-technology which values detachment and machine-treatment of human beings and control of human life by technology (Mumford 1967; Postman 1993), despite the fact that scientific theories have moved to dynamic interactionism (Kauffman 2016). Civilization’s system of controls requires conformist human natures and not the free spirits of normal, species-typical human beings (Fromm 1964). As a result of confusion about raising children and the nature of human nature, Westernized societies are looked at askance by traditional societies (Sahlins 2008).

Differences Between Civilized and Primal Societies

There are several key differences between primal and civilized nations that play a role in social development. In civilized societies where childhood experiences vary widely, there is frequent discussion of “nature” versus “nurture” in determining child outcomes. Of course, this is a false dichotomy for a dynamic system that is a human being, whose self is biosocially constructed (biology is co-constructed by social experience, and social capacities are shaped by that biology; Ingold 2013). In contrast, in primal societies the evolved nest is provided universally to young children. The focus of development is on empowering the child’s unique spirit. The basic assumption is that, with proper support, every child will be a cooperative member of society.

Whereas in primal societies, the village raises the children, in civilized nations the initial task and responsibilities reside most often with parents alone (and even with a single parent), at least until schooling. Parents are often isolated, highly stressed and even depressed in individualistic societies, unless government programs build in different types of support (e.g., parental leave after birth, nurse visits, government-subsidized daycare) (Lally 2012). Because parental responsiveness is fundamental to good child outcomes, the lack of support means that children are unlikely to develop their full human potential.

As a result of early life stress, the Westernized world has undermined the development of the right hemisphere, which is scheduled to develop rapidly in the first years (Schore 1994). Lack of appropriate care leads to the underdevelopment of right-hemisphere-directed self-regulatory, social and receptive capacities, which are difficult to repair later. The undermining of right hemisphere development may be cause and consequence of the Western world’s capture by left-hemisphere thinking, shaping society to be the detached-from-nature culture it has become (McGilchrist 2009), guided by a worldview that life and the cosmos generally are amoral, disenchanted, and fragmented (rather than moral, sacred, and unified (Four Arrows 2016; Redfield 1953).

In primal societies traditionally, the group focuses on living well in that place on the earth, and it is the elders who have lived experience to guide the community in living well and sustainably in the particular landscape. In civilized nations, rapid technological change means that parents and children are often focused on adopting and managing the latest technologies, and the children do that better, reversing the roles of who learns from whom. Perhaps as a result of missing elder wisdom, civilization has shifted to values of technological efficiency over human values (Postman 1993). Civilization spends a great deal of energy focusing on preventing immediate bad outcomes for privileged humans, using coercion to enforce norms of hierarchy and obedience to the system, at the expense of biocultural diversity (Christen et al. 2017).

Most research on child social development is done in civilized societies or at least with their constructs about what is important. Baseline assumptions about human nature and about children guide research paradigms and interpretations. Cultures that believe humans are basically evil will think it is necessary to use coercive techniques in parenting and socialization. If you assume humans are naturally selfish and aggressive, then parental control will be considered vital for social development properly carried out, necessary for self control over natural impulses. In contrast, if you think humans are basically good, then you would be more likely to let development occur without too much interference, as in primal societies (Rousseau 1979.) Assuming that humans naturally grow into cooperative community members, you expect cooperation to emerge over the course of development given proper support. When social development goes awry, the explanation will be different depending on the baseline assumptions one has about human propensities. In the first case, not enough force (reinforcement, punishment) was used by adults to shape the child. In the second case, not enough support was provided to allow the natural course of development to take place or trauma was experienced that led the child’s development astray.

As noted, over the course of civilization, adult treatment of children has shifted (deMause 1974). Researchers too have shifted in their assumptions, moving increasingly toward the view that children are naturally cooperative with proper support, and that lack of support or trauma can undermine normal social development. The sciences generally are moving to the view that humans, like all living things, self organize around experience (Kauffman 2016). If early experience guides the shaping of physiological systems and social capacities, social support including the evolved nest, may be necessary for social development as a human being.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina – BeaufortBlufftonUSA