Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper’s (1991; Belsky 2012) theory of the development of reproductive strategies – also known as “psychosocial acceleration theory” – stipulates that the degree to which children experience supportive vs. unsupportive care in their first 5–7 years of life influences their orientation toward others, the timing of their pubertal development (distinguishing fast vs. slow developers), their sexual behavior, the stability of their male-female relationships, the quality of their parenting, and the number of children they bear (i.e., their reproductive strategy), all in the service of dispersing their genes in future generations (i.e., reproductive fitness).
Most theory and research concerned with how developmental experiences and environmental exposures influence human development, especially in the early years of life, are guided by a mental-health framework. This presumes that certain environmental influences and outcomes are good (e.g., sensitive parenting/secure attachment) and others bad (e.g., harsh parenting/aggression). According to Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper’s (1991) evolutionary inspired psychosocial acceleration theory, however, what many conceptualize as manifestations of “nonoptimal” development (e.g., insecure attachment, aggression, risk-taking, early sexual debut) represent instead alternative tactics for dispersing genes across generations – the ultimate goal of all living things – and thereby enhancing reproductive fitness under the ecological conditions that give rise to them.
In the Beginning
Psychosocial acceleration theory built on anthropologists’ Draper and Harpending’s (1982) proposal that girls growing up in father-absent families develop psychologies and behavior consistent with an expectation that paternal involvement in child-rearing (i.e., parental investment) will not be forthcoming and that male-female relationships (i.e., pair-bonds) will not be enduring, behaving as a result in sexually promiscuous ways – because such a “reproductive strategy” would increase the dispersion of genes in future generations given the future that would likely accrue to father-absent children. Thus, Draper and Harpending (1982) recast traditional thinking about developmental effects of experience in the family in evolutionary terms, emphasizing effects on sexual behavior, parental investment, pair-bonds, and, fundamentally, the dispersion of genes in future generations (i.e., not mental health). But two things were missing from their analysis. First, no developmental process was offered to explain how father absence shapes adolescent and adult functioning. Second, no original predictions were advanced, raising issues of whether reproductive-strategy thinking represented anything more than “old wine (about how early-life experience affects later development) in a new (reproductive-strategy) bottle.”
Considered reflection on these limitations led Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper (1991) to advance an evolutionary theory of socialization linking childhood experience, interpersonal orientation, and reproductive strategy. It has come to be known as “psychosocial acceleration theory,” although it is expressly about the regulation – not just acceleration – of development. Central to the theory was the thesis that stressful and supportive extrafamilial environments influence family dynamics, most especially parent-child and marital relations. These then shape or regulate children’s early emotional and behavioral development, including attachment security, and, thereby, subsequent social development, including sexual/mating behavior, pair-bonding, and parenting. Following Draper and Harpending (1982), Belsky et al. (1991) argued that this complex and environmentally sensitive developmental system – and thus suite of interrelated phenotypes – evolved as a means of fitting the organism to its anticipated future environment in order to enhance the dispersion of genes in future generations, and thus not mental health, or at least did so in the ancestral environments in which human development evolved.
Of central importance to psychosocial acceleration theory was the view that parent-child processes and, in particular, attachment security/insecurity mediated the influence of stressors and supports external to the parent-child relationship on (a) the child’s general trustful-mistrustful outlook on the world, (b) his/her opportunistic-exploitative vs. mutually beneficial orientation toward others, and (c) his/her behavior. But what fundamentally distinguished this theory from all traditional psychological and developmental theories addressing family and other influences on human development was the rate-of-development prediction regarding processes instantiating faster vs. slower development. Specifically, developmental experiences and psychological orientations regulate reproductive development by affecting the timing of puberty and, thereby, a cascade of processes involving sexual behavior, pair-bonding, and parenting.
Thus, accelerated development eventuating in a fast, quantity-oriented reproductive strategy was most likely to emerge in the context of a variety of stressors, including inadequate financial resources and marital discord (i.e., not just father absence), which would undermine parental well-being, thereby giving rise to harsh, rejecting, insensitive, and/or inconsistent parenting; these would then foster in the child insecure attachment, a mistrustful internal working model, and an opportunistic, advantage-taking interpersonal orientation. Such developments would themselves stimulate earlier pubertal maturation and initiation of sexual activity, short-term and unstable pair-bonds, and limited parental investment as individuals sought to bear more children but not care for them intensively. The alternative, slower, quality-oriented developmental trajectory would be induced by exposure to a supportive rearing environment, characterized by spousal harmony and adequate financial resources. Such intrafamilial conditions, shaped as they would be by extrafamilial ones, would give rise to sensitive, supportive, responsive, and positively affectionate styles of mothering and fathering and, thereby, secure attachments, a trusting internal working model, and a reciprocally rewarding interpersonal orientation. Collectively, these developments would delay pubertal maturation and defer the onset of sexual activity, eventually fostering enduring pair-bonds and greater parental investment in fewer offspring.
Testing the Puberty Prediction
Although there is now theoretical reason to conclude that the puberty hypothesis does not apply to males (James et al. 2012), research over the past quarter century has generated much evidence – in the case of females – linking adverse family rearing environments (e.g., sexual abuse, harsh parenting, marital conflict) with accelerated pubertal development (for review see Belsky 2012). For example, Costello and associates (2007) discovered that maltreated girls reached pubertal maturity 8 months earlier than non-maltreated girls. Belsky and associates (2007, 2010) extended such longitudinal work, showing that not only did harsh parenting at age 4.5 years predict earlier menarche but, via this effect, it indirectly fostered greater sexual risk-taking in adolescence.
There is also evidence that such contextual regulation of pubertal development applies to some females more than others as a result their genetic and physiological makeup (Ellis et al. 2011; Hartman et al. 2015; Manuck et al. 2011). What still remains uncertain, however, is the extent to which true environmental causation is operative, as it remains possible that some environmental effects on female pubertal development discerned in longitudinal research is at least partly a function of genes shared by parents and offspring (Mendle et al. 2006). In fact, it is unlikely that family experiences are entirely responsible for female pubertal timing.
The process of evolution by natural selection did not shape humans to develop in one way rather than another; and thus developing in ways that middle-class Westerners’ value is not the inherently “optimal” or natural way that humans should develop. Rather, as Darwinian natural selection crafts all living things in ways that increase the likelihood of passing on their genes to descendants, the best way in which to develop – and do so – will not be the same for all humans under all ecological conditions. Sometimes the most effective way to realize nature’s ambition involves developing and behaving in ways that modern societies do not favor. This means that such developments and behavior do not reflect inherently “bad” or “dysfunctional” ways of developing, just ones that are not liked and thus not encouraged.
- Belsky, J., Steinberg, L., Houts, R. M., Halpern-Felsher, B. L., & The NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2010). The development of reproductive strategy in females: Early maternal harshness→earlier menarche→increased sexual risk taking. Developmental Psychology, 46, 120–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar