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How Modern Societies Violate Human Development

Author // Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Withholding Human Needs Changes Human Nature

The modern world has been making itself into a pathological place by establishing as “normal” various practices that violate basic human needs. This leads to the development of suboptimal creatures who willy-nilly destroy their habitat (yes, us!). I present a short list of violations; there are many more.


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1. Early Trauma

Dominant cultures of the last centuries tend to induce early pain and trauma on their young, shaping the brain away from trust, compassion and receptivity, which are otherwise our human heritage for getting along with the natural world.

Early trauma leads to emotional numbness and dense reptilian “me-ism,” which emphasizes “doing it my way” ruthlessly, with an incapacity or resistance to acting with others in mind, including those in the natural world. Indigenous peoples of the Americas frequently commented on the deadness of heart in the European settlers who took over and ravaged the land. Many of us are their descendants.


2. Continual Isolation

We have known scientifically for more than 60 years that forced physical isolation (no touch) has significant negative long-term effects on mammals, including humans. Even separation from their mothers right after birth can have long-term effects. Yet, physical isolation is routinely coerced on babies (with playpens, cribs, plastic seats) and young children (time out, sleeping alone), during the critical early years for social development.

Isolation also refers to emotional isolation. Parents who were mistreated themselves may not know how to be emotionally present to their children. Children will feel deeply lonely if they don’t connect and communicate feelings and thoughts with another human being. The child will grow up to be as dead inside as the parent.

In our evolved context, isolation and expulsion from the group was a last resort for a dangerous individual who became impervious to restorative justice, reason and behavior change. Expulsion and isolation could mean certain death. When it happens psychologically or emotionally, isolation kills spirit.

Isolation also includes mother-child isolation. Children and mothers are not meant to spend life apart from others. They are meant to be surrounded by community members who assist in raising the child and supporting the mother. Mothers who are not supported are less responsive to their children. Parenting in conditions of community support is a pleasurable activity, a far cry from the experience of many parents today. Isolating mother-child pairs is a potential source for depression in both mother and child.

Same-age groupings are a form of isolation. Mixedage grouping is normal in the small-band hunter-gatherer context in which we evolved. Mixed-age grouping supports cooperative interactions. The younger children love to learn from the older ones and the older love to teach the younger. This is a “natural pedagogy.” The lack of wide-range, mixed-age-group experience impairs the development of cooperation skills that humans otherwise learn in community groups.

When we isolate children into same-age groups, they don’t have much to learn from one another and so they learn to compete. Same-age grouping also increases risk-taking in adolescents who hang out only with other adolescents. Adolescents are still developing self-control systems and need older, wiser folks around to calm down and direct their eager energy rather than rev it up (just like male adolescent elephants do!).

Gender-based isolation. In complex hunter-gatherer contexts, separating the sexes might be used short-term for building up testosterone in males for a raiding party (emphasis on party—touching but not harming the enemy was a sign of courage).

Isolation can also empower women during childbirth or menstruation. But long-term isolation can throw social life out of whack. Think of what happens in fraternity houses. That is not “normal” in an evolutionary sense, where older males would be around to guide young male energy so it does not become destructive.

Schooling can be a form of isolation. Children, and humans generally, are designed to learn easily (without effort) from their experiences in the real world. Schooling is an artificial world that rewards those who can put up with it and those who excel at detaching themselves from real life to memorize mostly inert knowledge. Schooling is largely about training the explicit mind in inert knowledge (facts) and training the implicit mind to be obedient to a system of reward (hidden curriculum).This is not really “intelligence,” except that moderns in the 20th century decided it was. Instead, such capacities may be a form of insanity, because they don’t have much to do with living well or flourishing (speaking as a professor who has learned to do these things). This type of detached thinking (without heart) is the source of much environmental destruction, since those who create products and innovations usually don’t do a full-cost accounting of their effects.

Indoorism is a form of isolation. Adults in the United States typically keep children inside walls these days, unlike previous generations who allowed their children to spend hours unsupervised outside. Every animal learns its neighborhood and integrates with it—except modern humans, who typically spend less than 24 hours a year outside.

We are so used to isolation that we think nothing of sitting in rooms or cars alone for hours. Of course, we have media to keep us company. In fact, television and other media may fool us into thinking we are not socially alone. And, over generations, as we get less socially skilled from our experiences of extensive isolation, electronic media and social media allow us the illusion of socializing without the need for the skills to function in a real social world. To function in a real social world, you need lots of subtle perceptual, expressive and receptive skills. But the way we treat babies, children and adolescents undermines the development of these skills. And we all suffer from an abundance of loneliness as a result.

NOTE: Isolation does not refer to a person going off at will, away from other humans—this used to be a normal part of human autonomy, a built-in need. Actually, a human who is away from humans is really not alone—we all are always surrounded by other life forms.


3. Coercion

Small-band hunter-gatherers spend most of their lives in enjoyable social leisure and they even make hunting and gathering situations ones of social joy. Relationships are fiercely egalitarian, and even children are not bossed around.

Instead of enjoying life through social leisure and community feeling, in the U.S. we have come to believe that work is the only truly worthwhile activity. And so children are raised around the work schedules of parents. Some moms don’t even feel relaxed enough to breastfeed their newborns because they are anticipating going back to work within weeks. Work-distracted parents who live alone with a baby will not be able to meet its full needs, and a baby that doesn’t get what it evolved to need becomes an insecure adult.

When child-rearing is forced into the frame of an ideology like work and achievement, it often requires “breaking the spirit” of the child. Children won’t be subservient to an ideology unless they are broken early. This happens in many subtle ways, including ignoring a baby’s emotions, letting babies cry, pushing children away from joy in being social and toward being alone, achievement and book learning. The lack of ongoing immersion in a supportive social life leads children to use a primitive self-survival morality instead of the compassionate morality that otherwise develops within a supportive group life.

Autonomy and sense of belonging are built-in human needs. But trauma, isolation and punishment are good ways to undermine them and create insecure people who need an ideology or authority to feel safe (perpetuating the system they are in). Corporal punishment seems particularly useful in teaching a child to expect a hierarchical, unjust world and thereby to latch onto a nearby ideology for psychological self-protection.


The Outcome: Denatured Selves, Derailed Intelligence

Traumatized and isolated, our minds don’t work as well as they should. This has been happening for some time. Westerners for centuries have ascribed personhood only to humans (and perhaps some pets). This is unlike perhaps all other societies in the history of the world, who treat animals and even plants and mountains as agents with interests of their own.

Indigenous societies recognize that the world is full of non-human beings. And these beings communicate. Other animals and even plants are considered teachers to the easily-self-absorbed human beings.

In indigenous cultures, children learn to listen to the entities of the natural world. This is best started in early life when receptive intelligence can grow into one’s way of being.

Over the last centuries, dominant Western culture has decidedly cut off non-humans from lines of communication. Nature has been “de-person-ated” into dead objects instead of living beings. (Ancient traditions and modern physics agree that all things are filled with energy.)

All the prior steps above push us into human “ingroupism,” valuing humans over everything else. We humans chop down, cut into, eat up, and carelessly waste everything else for our own ends. A sense of human superiority is costing the rest of life on the planet (save microorganisms, who love having lots of us around as hosts). Of course, those who perceive things deeply note that we are in effect destroying our habitat, which will ultimately result in destroying ourselves. Is this really what we want to do?


One Remedy

Although we can learn about our earth by watching shows like Cosmos, it is not enough to know a place intellectually. One must feel connected to a land or place. Otherwise, placelessness leads to endless environmental destruction by those who don’t care for any particular place.

To save ourselves, we could adopt the mindset of most peoples through history—that we are one among many creatures that share the life-giving earth. We would save more than ourselves.

To save ourselves and future generations of humans and non-humans, we could learn to reconnect to the entities of the earth. We could learn to listen to the other lives around us.

We can practice listening to the voices outside our windows. Better yet, we can step out and feel the breeze, touch the earth with our skin. We can say hello. We can learn more about our neighbors, whether they are tree, mountain or squirrel. We can conscientiously support their lives and interests.

Although this sounds crazy to a Western-raised mind, it is our heritage to be one among many, to be brothers and sisters in a biodiverse community. Maybe this is the crazy that isn’t crazy.


Pathways Issue 48 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #48.

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