Wisdom in the News

Investigating wisdom (pt 3):

Darcia Narvaez on species-typical phronesis for a Living Planet

This is Part Three of our Investigating Wisdom series, where we delve into Practical Wisdom: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives and its authors to get a better understanding of both the volume and different interpretations of practical wisdom. This installment features Darcia Narvaez.

Dr. Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, and recently contributed to the volume Practical Wisdom, edited by Mario De Caro and Maria Silvia Vaccarezza. She authored the final chapter titled Species-Typical Phronesis for a Living Planet.

Her involvement with the volume began a few years ago when she was invited to speak at a conference on practical wisdom which the two editors hosted in Rome.

Prior to this, Narvaez already had her own interest in practical wisdom’s historical meaning and development. She has contributed to a large number of works on indigenous wisdom and human flourishing, including presentations like Neurobiology and Morality: Attending to Evolution, Development and Culture, books such as Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing, and journal publications such as Getting to Baselines for Human Nature, Development and Wellbeing.

“I am very interested in moral and practical wisdom and their development. My orientation is to the sustainable practical wisdom of our ancestors who are represented in Indigenous/First Nation communities around the world,” said Narvaez.

Citing the fact that humans have lived in nomadic foraging communities for 99% of their history, she proposes that virtue and practical wisdom were necessary for their survival.

“Practical wisdom in these communities includes enhancing the wellbeing of the community, including the bio-community (animals, plants, waterways and other entities of the earth). Wisdom traditions in the west typically are not oriented to including all our relations in their moral concerns,” said Narvaez.

Her current work involves studying how these ancestral communities raise human nature, specifically how child raising practices influence human capacities, personality, and culture. They provided the human species developmental system, which Narvaez’s team calls the “Evolved Nest.” The Evolved Nest features many characteristics other social mammals have provided their young for over 75 million years. She proposes that “the nest components support the development of virtue from the bottom up” in the shaping of neurobiology through plasticity and epigenetics. Her empirical studies examine the effects of the Evolved Nest on child and adult capacities including The evolved developmental niche in childhood: Relation to adult psychopathology and morality, Evolved Developmental Niche Provision Report: Moral Socialization, Social Thriving, and Social Maladaptation in Three Countries, The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development, and Opportunities for free play and young children’s autonomic regulation, among others.

Narvaez fears that current western culture has strayed away from humanity’s Evolved Nest, and has become more dysregulated, narrowminded, and uncooperative (with others and with the natural world). She asserts this is one of the reasons why the dominant culture that has been globalized around the world has increasingly destroyed biodiversity, cultural diversity, and planetary ecologies. Due to her concern, Narvaez utilized the chapter opportunity to warn readers of the path western civilization is taking, using examples of sustainable wise peoples to achieve her goal.

“Western traditions slipped in their baseline understandings for how best to raise a thriving human being, degrading the Evolved Nest and how human nature turns out,” said Narvaez. “My chapter attempts to help people realize that a critical source of the recent destructive dominant culture is the forgotten pathway to wellbeing practiced by our ancestors (and uncontacted nomadic foragers around the world).”

In her chapter, Narvaez argues that while most cite the ancient Chinese or Greek when discussing the origins of wisdom, the human race must have been practically and morally wise for millions of years prior to our recorded history. She notes the wise ways the San Bushmen of southern Africa have been living sustainably for 150,000 years, using Michael Thompson’s findings based on the work of late philosopher Phillipa Foot to evaluate whether or not an individual is a good member of the human species. Based on her criteria, modern humans in industrialized societies tend to not be good specimens due to dysregulation and multiple lost capacities. As a result, their potential capacity for wisdom is low, and they fight against nature rather than live wisely within it.

Narvaez notes that the western world emphasizes individual thinking and reasoning as central to morality, a left-brain ego orientation, where the body and environment are largely inconsequential. Virtually all other societies through time are rooted in an integrated brain (right and left hemispheres) orientation. This integrated view emphasizes the development of heart-mindedness and communal capacities, and includes the rest of the natural world as community members. Narvaez’s work focuses on the converging evidence across the sciences showing that early life experience matters for how a person’s social and moral capacities develop (or not). The west has been undermining this more comprehensive morality through early life undercare (lack of our species’ Evolved Nest) and left-brain-focused schooling.

As a result of these trends, the orientation in most western minds is to consider morality to be only about human persons and human communities. However, according to the Indigenous worldview of First Nation peoples and our ancestors who display the integrated orientation inclusive of all earth entities, the western view not only reflects impaired human morality, but it has also contributed to the general degradation of other-than-human life and has brought about the planetary apocalypse we are facing today.

The breadth of Narvaez’s work is vast and condensing her thoughts into one chapter proved to be most difficult. As a result, she chose to consolidate her findings around two main points.

She states, “My chapter focused on two missing aspects in traditional writings on practical wisdom: (1) the beginning of human life, best embedded in our Evolved Nest, which establishes the grounding or biosocial ecology of the life trajectory; and (2) a key endpoint capacity, transpersonal transrationality, the expansive imagination or worldview. Both are apparent in traditional First Nation societies that have been around for tens of thousands of years.”

Narvaez’s recently released short film Breaking the Cycle further discusses what she terms the “Cycle of Cooperative Companionship.” She stresses that for our species to survive, we must end the relatively recent “Cycle of Competitive Detachment,” and raise children more like our ancestors, as well as live nested lifelong. Her evolutionary framework for early childhood development is presented in her book Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom.

Narvaez states that Practical Wisdom: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives provides a valuable snapshot for how various scholars think about practical wisdom. Through her work, it is evident that Narvaez believes that society must remember its basic needs and satisfy them for optimal human nature development, which nestedness does. Only then would humanity be better able to end its destructive patterns and learn instead to enhance life on the planet.

About Darcia Narvaez

Dr. Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, and has worked on various topics regarding morality, including nonconscious moral rationality and moral character education in schools. She is currently studying the neurobiology of moral development, ancestral hunter-gatherer societies, and evolved parenting practices. Some of her numerous contributions to moral development include Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom, Embodied Morality: Protectionism, Engagement and Imagination, and Self, Motivation and Virtue: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. She also has a book in press with Four Arrows on the Indigenous worldview titled Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Quotes and Reflections for Healing Our World.

References

  • De Caro, M., & Vaccarezza, M. S. (Eds.). (2021). Practical wisdom: Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Routledge.
  • Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture, and wisdom (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.

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