Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) Illustrated Edition
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- The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter
"[F]ascinating and compelling . . . . [A] must for any college or institutional library and a highly recommended read for practitioners interested in neuroscience and the wider implications of human behavior in society today."
- Contemporary Psychotherapy
"It will be an extremely useful textbook in philosophy, psychology, and interdisciplinary studies, as well as a good read for anyone interested in morality and its genesis."
- Metapsychology Online Reviews
"Acknowledging advances in the intricate neuroscience of emotions and human communication, Darcia Narvaez illuminates the sympathy and moral sentiments upon which all our achievements depend. She shares her wealth of knowledge of how we must balance moral being and practical becoming in the cultivation of arts and sciences and, especially in education of youth, we should welcome playful enthusiasm for the discovery of meaningful skills. This book will guide researchers, teachers, and therapists to appreciate the foundations of their work."
- Colwyn Trevarthen, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh
"A masterfully written book with insights, fresh ideas, and important questions worthy of wide readership and influence. With a background taken from evolutionary biology and virtue ethics, the author integrates knowledge from a sweeping array of disciplines within biology, anthropology, and the developmental sciences to advance her compelling narrative about the human condition and what is needed today for healthy development and flourishing. Concluding appeals for more of an ‘engagement ethic,’ becoming in balance with nature, and appreciating values from our indigenous cultures are graced with her personal experiences and poetically-toned positive advice."
- Robert N. Emde, MD, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Centers for American Indian Alaska Native Health, Colorado School of Public Health
About the Author
Darcia Narvaez, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame specializing in ethical development and moral education, and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. She integrates a bicultural and interdisciplinary background into her scholarship, and writes a blog for Psychology Today called “Moral Landscapes.”
Allan N. Schore, PhD, is on the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, and at the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development. He is the recipient of the American Psychological Association Division 56: Trauma Psychology "Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology" and APA's Division 39: Psychoanalysis "Scientific Award in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Research, Theory and Practice of Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis."He is also an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is author of three seminal volumes, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self and Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self, as well as numerous articles and chapters. His Regulation Theory, grounded in developmental neuroscience and developmental psychoanalysis, focuses on the origin, psychopathogenesis, and psychotherapeutic treatment of the early forming subjective implicit self. His contributions appear in multiple disciplines, including developmental neuroscience, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, attachment theory, trauma studies, behavioral biology, clinical psychology, and clinical social work. His groundbreaking integration of neuroscience with attachment theory has lead to his description as "the American Bowlby" and with psychoanalysis as "the world's leading expert in neuropsychoanalysis." His books have been translated into several languages, including Italian, French, German, and Turkish.
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition (October 20, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 456 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0393706559
- ISBN-13 : 978-0393706550
- Item Weight : 1.97 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #433,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Why does humanity carry a persistent sub-text of violence and aggression? And how might that be countered? Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality by psychology professor Darcia Narvaez gives a research-based and well-supported modern insight into what accounts for the widespread and seemingly endless tale of unprovoked human violence against others, with suggestions for optimizing human outcomes. Such violence is a story as old as people-kind. In one account, Cain started it, slaying his brother Abel for the flimsiest of reasons. The question gets raised repeatedly in historical contexts from ancient times into the present, along with the broader yet necessarily implicated question of why some people lead exemplary lives while others live as predators, parasites, and enemies of civilized society.
Various inquiries springing from a scientific foundation have been launched in the past century and a quarter. Max Nordau approached this question in his magnum opus, Degeneration, circa 1895, originally written in German. We note that Nordau became a physician and psychiatrist in the final bloom of that school of medical thought which credited physiology, physiognomy and even phrenology with causal effects on aberrant behavior, a view now as discredited as phlogiston theory. Even so, however, Nordau brought to bear a sharp insight into human behavior, while quite a few of his conclusions seem valid today, even though valid on other grounds than those on which he relied.
Overloading of the senses was one of the factors Nordau suspected of contributing to mental degradation. He supported this by citing the exponential proliferation of information and of knowledge as compared with prior centuries, versus that of the late 19th century, when he wrote. He contended that the human brain had been evolved or built, as the case may be, over endless generations to deal with a simpler world with fewer sources of information, conflicting views, less propaganda and passion, etc. Nordau held that nervous excitement fatigued the human organism. Under this view, the increasing volume of social and economic interactions and the complications of social life in the years following the Industrial Revolution surpassed the average person’s ability to adapt, adjust, and maintain equilibrium. He suspected that modern people in civilized societies had exceeded the integrative capacities of their nervous systems, with attendant ill results. He also cited a general cultural decline in manners and morality from the end of the 19th Century into the early 20th Century as a co-contributing factor. But seen in the light of the early 21st Century, Nordau may have underestimated human neurological adaptability.
Nordau contended “That which nearly all degenerates lack is the sense of morality and of right and wrong. For them there exists no law, no decency, no modesty. In order to satisfy any momentary impulse, or inclination, or caprice, they commit crimes and trespasses with the greatest calmness and self-complacency, and do not comprehend that others take offence thereat.” This view can be reconciled with empirical experience by many who have been wronged by others, whether civil, criminal, moral or spiritual wrong. But how the sense of morality of an individual becomes so attenuated was a subject Nordau did not explore to a conclusion, though it is critical to answering questions of human misconduct.
In 1932, American medical scientist Trigant Burrow undertook to apply large-perspective analysis in search of solutions to the problems of endemic human dysfunction in his concise volume, The Structure of Insanity -- A Study in Phylopathology Trigant Burrow, M.D., Ph.D., London, published by Keagan Paul, et al., 1932. Burrow showed great concern over the warlike, wasteful and counter-productive, combative behavior shown en masse by world populations in the early 20th Century up through the time of writing this book.
Burrow wrote amidst the world-wide effects of The Great Depression, which he could not recognize from any perspective as either a fluke or a natural event. Burrow believed our species has a mis-wiring, serious but correctable, in our perceptual apparatus, hence the coinage and use of the term “phylopathology,” and its attendant “phyloanalytic technique.” He meant to expose the problem and offer a solution by looking at the phylogenetic situation as he understood it.
In the common mill run of life, perceiving something and naming it typically occur coevally, i.e., at the same time. However, herein lies a ground of error per Burrow, for, “The act of articulation is an intrinsic part of the perceptive mechanism. But in the more exact procedure of scientific analysis, in the process of apperception, an object or process is always first looked at or examined, while the name which is socially agreed to symbolize this object or process is only later attached to it. We do not name things and then observe them, but we observe them and later on give a name to them. This is the unvarying law of scientific observation -- the law which gives precedence to the act of attention or observation as it directly relates the observer to the process observed, and then subsequently affixes a name, sign, or social designation to this object or process.
There is first, then, the sheer reaction of perception and there is secondly the directive reaction of apperception. Perception is reflex, immediate, and is a response to a mere outer sign or appearance. Apperception is reflective, sustained, and is a response rather to intrinsic substance or process. While the one is subordinated to the caprice of the symbol, the other subordinates itself to the discipline of observable organization and meaning.” Pp. 18-19. Here we begin to find our way into what later will become known as neurolinguistic analysis.
“The problem of human relations is a problem in attention. [which sounds suspiciously and enormously like Max Nordau, who said strong minds pay attention very closely while shallow or weak minds vacillate and wander.] The process of attention is a physiological process that relates the organism to the objects about it. Words, opinions, ideas, are but the outer signs and symptoms of a specialized and selective part of this physiological process -- the part which serves us merely in naming or identifying the objects or processes about us. On the other hand, the impetus to attention subjectively experienced as interest or feeling, as it relates the organism to the total object or condition about it, is a socio-physiological reaction involving the functional activity of the organism as a whole. Such a social process cannot be mediated through a merely partitive, selective, symbolic reaction, with its symbol, word, or idea, but can only be effected through the integration of the partitive, cerebral mechanism with the integral organism’s total process of attention. Through this directive union of the partitive mechanism with the integral organism’s total process of attention man is brought into a relationship with the objects of the outer environment which give to them the apperceptive significance of scientific organization and meaning.” P. 75. This analysis suggests that too-hasty naming can lead to a mis-perception which will itself lead to conduct not appropriate to the situation. A section found in Professor Narvaez’s book will link back to this.
Following closely on Burrow’s heels, and in fact referring back to him, came Alfred Korzybski, a Polish Count, multilingual in six languages and trained as an engineer, fighting as a Russian General against Germany in WWI, and one of the founders of General Semantics. In his slim Manhood of Humanity (1921) and his voluminous magnum opus Science and Sanity An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (708 pages), in 1933, Korzybski revealed himself as a pioneer, visionary, polymath, and multi-disciplinary writer with singular ideas about how to prompt people-kind to stir out of what he fancied their adolescence into a mature state where wars and civil conflicts would abate, along with forced scarcity and general ill-feeling between peoples and nations. He believed that our species had a glorious future which it was falling short of meeting by reason of irrational conflicts. As may often be seen among people grappling with large ideas, he fell short of reaching his goals in a number of respects, yet left a legacy of analytical tools and linguistic insights which can still serve those who would avail themselves of them.
Omitting much of what Korzybski espoused, he reasoned that a great deal of human error came from Aristotelian thinking with its central IS of Identity and logical errors which flowed from that, when multi-dimensionality was ignored. He argued vigorously that all who used language should be made aware of Consciousness of Abstracting, devising a form of Abstraction Ladder to illustrate the jumps between levels from the Objective Event to the Perception to the Name to the further removed levels of abstraction. This Ladder was later improved by his colleague and eventual rival, S.I. Hayakawa. Korzybski contended that identification lumped together unlike things, which led to maladaptive results. He also argued very strongly for delay in evaluation, letting a perception occur in full before labeling it. This supported Burrow’s insight that observing should come first and naming second.
Korzybski also contended that the subject/object relationship found in language imposes a splitting or artificial fracturing of what is real, for the organism-as-a-whole-in-environment-as-a-whole is what counts. For 1933, that was a prescient view remarkably similar to things being thought now in terms of global ecology and sustainability.
Partly because he had some blind spots (e.g., economics and the operation of markets, for example; an unquestioned assumption that Statism is a given in human life; and an unfortunate propensity to think in Utopian terms), and partly because his work was so hard for people to shoe-horn into a definitional box, most of Korzybski’s efforts had little effect. However, some of his insights and some of his techniques have validity and use-value even today. In his day, he suspected colloid chemistry might offer an explanation into certain facets of human behavior. But science has now moved into a realm where the understanding of neural pathways with hormones and other biochemical activators is well understood, leading to clearer perceptions of cause and effect.
Korzybski sought large answers to large questions about the sub-optimality of human behavior on social and global scales, but came away mostly empty, alas. Still, one contribution he made deserves to be preserved, though few know of it. That is the matter of delay in evaluation in everyday (not scientific) life. Korzybski repeatedly stated that evaluating a situation before it had completely unfolded ran the great risk of mis-perceiving it, mis-labeling it, and having a semantic reaction which was thus inappropriate to what actually happened. This relates back to Burrow and also points forward to more recent research.
Susan Fiske, Princeton professor of psychology, contributed an essay to the 2004 imprint, The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, Guilford Press, New York. The essay is “What’s in a Category? Responsibility, Intent, and the Avoidability of Bias against Outgroups.” After examining the psychology of racism and touching on different kinds of bias, she observed that “We have seen that people categorize each other automatically and unintentionally on the basis of race, gender, age, and other protected group memberships and, further that stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination tend to follow.” P. 132. In her conclusion, she notes, “In each case, overriding the default response is key,” which means that cognitive delay to avoid falling into unconditional reactions serves to avoid default responses. This was just what Korzybski prescribed, and it forms one bulwark against animalistic, non-reflective response to varied human conditions. This is not a panacea but it has great value nevertheless.
Following on the heels of all this, in the same spirit of critical inquiry and research, comes Darcia Narvaez, researcher, author, social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame University, with her 2014 imprint Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom W.W. Norton, NY-London, 2014. She also serves as Editor of the Journal of Moral Education and is a past Secretary of the Executive of the Association for Moral Education. Science has advanced very far in the decades since Korzybski wrote, and Professor Narvaez reaps the benefit of voluminous research.
In this deep and compendious book, she explores the complex web of nurturing and support relationships which optimize early and continuing growth and development of people all through the developmental process. She observes that over pan-historical time, nearly all of human growth and development has taken place in the social context of small-band hunter-gatherers (SBHG). Her study of folkways and child-rearing in SBHG societies reveals that infants in those societies receive the most solicitous care, are regarded and treated as vital parts of an extended family, and enjoy secure support as they develop.
This book is an exceptionally broad-scale study, with 68 pages of References. “This book is about how implicit processes rely on neurobiological capacities and govern our moral behavior.” P xxiv. In its 12 chapters, the author explores developmental systems theory, along with a proposed neurobiological developmental theory of moral motivation, then seeks to revise the sense of moral possibilities using primal wisdom from SBHG cousins. The questions that troubled Nordau, Burrow and Korzybski are refined to this: “Why were humans, unlike other organisms, so consistently pathological, so destructive as a matter of course?” P xxiv.
The first three chapters touch, concern, and explain cellular and systemic neurological processes in considerable depth and with technical language which may frustrate or bewilder generalists. This reviewer took it all at face value without feeling a need to understand well enough to answer written exam questions or defend the items in a classroom setting. The abundance of references suggests the writer is on solid ground. Chapters 4 and 5 delve into Moral Heritage, while Chapters 6 and 7 approach how things can go astray when early nurture fails to provide the support necessary to optimal human development. The final five chapters deal with improving the understanding and mindsets of people through wholesome engagement with one another and the environments in which they live, so that moral wisdom will prevail and a high proportion of people will flourish in harmony with their life environments.
“In short, whom a person becomes is a coconstruction of genes, gene expression from environmental effects, developmental plasticity, the ecological and cultural surroundings, the gifts of evolution, and the nature of the care received.” 15. Though all of these factors matter, “Socially-transmitted symbolic inheritance – shared understandings and beliefs that influence behavior, or culture, may be one of the most influential inheritances that can be more or less adaptive in all senses of the word. . . . For moral development, it may be the primary influence.” Pg. 34. Korzybski, with his understanding of the importance of symbolism in driving attitudes and behavior, would concur wholeheartedly with this.
When one is caught up in what one perceives as survival issues, sociability either takes the back burner or is jettisoned promptly. “The less one is preoccupied with personal issues, the more one can manifest presence with others [cites omitted]. … moral behavior is dependent on free attention, the capacity to be close to someone else in an objective but caring manner, where obstacles such as judgments and projections are minimized. Moral space is created by the amount of free attention in both persons at the moment of encounter.” 98. Nordau and Burrow would likely concur with this view of attention, as noted here and elsewhere in the book.
After spending several chapters outlining how the optimal development of the person unfolds as seen in the base-line SBHG scenario, the author touches on some of the breakdowns. “In a poorly-operating brain, the processing can get stuck at too abstract a level (e.g. leading to depression) or too specific a level (leading to obsession). Or it can rely too much on controlled processes (rules) or too much on automatic processes (stereotypes). The moral expert traverses the moral landscape with the ease of an expert whitewater rafter, moving from particulars to abstractions (principles) in ways appropriate for the situation. He employs communal imagination with empathic effectivity roots that set up deeply-felt boundaries for action.” 109.
The author spends considerable time exploring the generalized functions of the prefrontal cortex and its role in moral reasoning. This includes considerable attention paid to the right hemisphere and its importance in moral processes.
The possibilities of corruption of imagination are explored in some depth. Stress Ethics, that perspective felt by those under duress, attack, or disapprobation, leads the party having the experience to defensive tactics and attitudes. Some of those consequences include the development of Vicious Imagination. This Vicious Imagination can be manifested in such symptoms as Superiority, Distrust, Sense of Injustice and Resentment, Vulnerability, Narratives (fostering dominance over or violence against Others), and Ideology. Here, Ideology is “a belief system which can encompass identity, that is not based on direct experience). Ideology represents a backing away from the present and an attempt to control and manage life with a specific set of rules or dogma. . . . Thus, structures external to the self – laws, theories, authority mandates, religious directives – are needed to feel at ease.” 175.
Even altruism, boon to some and bane to others along more or less ideological lines, comes in for tough scrutiny. “Pathological altruism (PA) is a type of impositional altruism; both are subtypes of vicious imagination. PA is a recent construct that refers to behaviors and personal tendencies ‘in which the stated aim or the implied motivation is to promote the welfare of another’ but where the consequences are substantially negative and irrational to the Other or to the self from the viewpoint of an outside observer [cites omitted]. It refers to a compulsive, maladaptive, or habitual focus on the welfare of others [cites omitted]. It inflicts harm on others and on the self. . . . Impositional altruism is an everyday type of ‘doing good for the other’ that may not be as pathological but is still coercive.” 177. Vicious imagination is a form of the self-protective imagination. Another is dissociated imagination, remote from relational attunement. “Detached imagination intellectualizes experience and dissociates from social emotion. If vicious imagination is passion-fueled control of others, detached imagination is passionless control.”
The author cites to J. McMurray’s Reason and Emotion Amherst, NY 1992, for the proposition that “’Intellectual knowledge tells us about the world. It gives us knowledge about things, not knowledge of them. It does not reveal the world as it is. Only emotional knowledge can do that.’” Quoted at p. 178. She plainly states the negatives of corrupt imagination. “Detached imagination is fueled by a desire for power and a deficiency in loving attachment. Detached imagination might be the greatest source of evil today as we have undermined emotion development in early life, denigrated emotion generally, and promoted detached imagination in nearly every realm of life.” 179.
Even science and economic theory undergo strict scrutiny, which reveals them as complicit in exploitative attitudes. “Empiricism – learning which actions are effective and which are not – is part of being alive. Although Western science considers itself unique, science has been part of human endeavors from the beginning. Traditional ecological knowledge, found among indigenous peoples, derives from ‘millennia of lived experience . . . rich in models for the philosophy and practice of reciprocal, mutualistic relationships with the earth’ [cites omitted] A key difference between Western and indigenous science is that the former treats the natural world as an object (the known) and the scientist as the subject (the knower). This orientation breaks relational attunement, often blinding one to relations and interrelations, which are not always measurable by scientific methods yet are vital for sustainability. The scientist, like anyone with a left-hemisphere-directed orientation, is ignorant of his own biases. Contemporary scientists typically assume the rationality of their starting point, which divides knower from known and treats the known as less worth than the knower.” 180.
“But views of science today often include a sense that it is superior to other forms of knowing or understanding the world. Recall that a sense of superiority is what can lead to destructive uses of the imagination.” 180. “Just because scientists say that they and science are not governed by values does not mean that this is true.” 181. In fiction, Dr. Robert Stadler in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Professor Frost in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength both play out the macabre and lethal role of the Superior Scientist, to ugly ends.
Narrowly-based economic theory also takes a ding under scrutiny in this book. “The dominance of detached imagination is apparent when economists reduce human relationships to goods and services and minimize anything that appears to represent society or the worldscape. Economics, since the Enlightenment and especially since the world wars, intentionally disacknowledges relationships to others. . . . It has become an anti-attachment ideology. Safety-rooted individuals use imagination to maximize their own good and cause crisis after crisis, degrading the worldscape for everyone else.” 182.
If, as she says, “Ultimately, we need to be guided by an ecological macro-economics that moves away from ‘debt-ridden materialistic consumption’ that wastes natural resources and toward policy and framing that value ecological investment,” 182, then the hour is growing late with a far distance to go. The morality of self-protective ethics which is so often a reaction to stress leads to a zero-sum or net-loss game when played out very long.
In the prescriptive chapter on changing moral mindsets, a triune ethical theory emerges. Safety ethics comes first, as anyone who had looked closely at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lately would likely agree. Safety ethics includes both combative safety (engage in the struggle to win or at least survive) and vacant safety (the security of enduring and “laying low”). Next in the sequence is Engagement Ethics, postulated on a dual universe rather than the solo universe of the Safety Ethics. If the engagement is not calmly entered, it can venture into entanglement or empathic distress, both sub-optimal states. “Although foundational for higher moral capacities, an engagement orientation is insufficient for the moral life of an adult.” 193.
The preferable mindset is Communal Imagination Ethics, where “Imagination comprises executive functions that include metacognition about morality. When affiliative emotions activate an engagement ethic along with imagination, the individual envisions prosocial ways to act, employing a communal imagination. A person with capacities for a communal imagination ethic has a well-functioning frontal lobe that has strong connections to and control of subcortical emotion systems. These capacities allow one to plan for the future, imagining alternatives, and carry out action within a solid empathic core and communal autonomy space.” 193-194.
In the closing chapters, she highlights the pervasive and often perverse role cultures play in perception and interaction with others. These chapters also contain tips and pointers to let readers and students escape the confines of safety thinking and become more fully dimensioned and engaged in the world around them. She compares and contrasts the Abrahamic wisdom tradition with the Primal wisdom tradition, noting that the older system has more to offer. Changing scripts, becoming mindful, and expanding the social self are foremost among the prescriptions which would ease a person into the more highly engaged and flourishing category.
Though this book is anything but light reading, it will engage, challenge, inform, and probably uplift the astute and dedicated reader. Patience and determination are required to get through the hard science foundation of the early chapters. But the payout in information, knowledge, and wisdom at the end is well worth the effort.
[The reviewer has a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Southwestern Law School and a Certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a member of the Association for Moral Education]
However, she does not happen to mention the 2003 book Archetype Revisited: An Updated Natural History of the Self (orig. ed., 1982) by Anthony Stevens, M.D. (born in 1932), in which he discusses archetypes in connection with attachment theory. But Narvaez also discusses attachment theory.
In the book The Two Million-Year-Old Self (1993), Stevens says that archetypal wounding requires archetypal healing. What he means as archetypal healing involves what Narvaez and others refer to as brain plasticity.
Narvaez includes numerous figures and table throughout her book. But they are not listed in the contents in the front matter of her book, as I think they should have been – and should be if Norton brings her book out in a paperback edition.
At the end of each chapter, Narvaez provides a list of Summary Points. I’d suggest reading them first as a way to get a preview of the chapter -- and then read the text of the chapter.
Narvaez’s book deserves to be widely read.
Moreover, the style in which the interdisciplinary concepts are presented initially appear as teachable, which they are, but nonetheless, provoke deep reflection from the onset. I appreciate the recursive building of multilayered complexity in the interconnection of ideas. Of particular importance is Narvaez’s insistence on the holistic notion of the vital importance of early experience grounded in developmental system theory based on moral motivation “as a shifting landscape”. Indeed this process model provokes continual testing of the contradictions in our deep sense of ethical behavior and how we determine future paths to reshape the world and ourselves now, and in the future. Narvaez’s multiple ethics theory proposes a revisioning of moral responsibility which may forge new visions to live by in shaping a more sustainably and strikingly cooperative social world. A world in which we will better survive and learn to restore the human essence in our acute awareness of the ethics of care for the natural world.