Written by Darcia Narvaez with foreword by Allan N Schore

Time to Rethink Morality
Review by Gunnel Minett

Throughout human history morality has been something that has had to be taught, ideally by people with knowledge or wisdom of what morality means, such as priests or elders in society. Morality comes out of rational thinking and knowledge of how to tell right from wrong. This thinking has been the backbone of most developed societies for centuries. In particular the view has been that children need to be taught morality or they will grow up to become immoral and cause problems for the rest of society. Religions such as Christianity have described this in terms of original sin; children are born with it and it needs to be remedied by baptism and bible studies. The church has played an essential role as the number one custodian of Morality.

For many, the view that morality needs to be taught is regularly confirmed in today’s society. The perceived lack of moral values among the younger generation is blamed on lack of ‘proper’ education, in particular as regards the teaching of religious values in schools and society as a whole. It is because of the shrinking role of religion in our lives that crime and immorality has been spreading. This is a message put out by media on a daily basis.

This book challenges this conception and presents the argument that it is not the lack of religious or moral teaching that leads to a lack of morality but rather the way we treat our children in the beginning of their lives.

The author points to the importance of giving children a good start in life and refers to the latest discoveries in Neurobiology and Epigenetics to prove this point. A good start does not necessarily mean paying for the best schools but rather understanding a child’s basic needs so as to develop a healthy mind and brain. To understand what this means we need to turn to the latest research in Neurobiology and Epigenetics.
Epigenetics is confirming the importance of the environment for a growing human being. In particular during the first years, a child needs to ‘calibrate’ and set levels for the genes to be able to express themselves correctly. Because each of us lives in symbiosis with our environment, the evolutionary process equips each new foetus with a set of ‘assumptions’ as to what life will be like. To reach the optimal ‘settings’ for the gene expression this process can only take place after birth. Unlike many other mammals, human beings are extremely versatile and have a brain that needs to be calibrated for a range of different situations.

One example of such a calibration is that a newborn child can’t process normal food for the first six month and needs to rely on breastfeeding (or substitutes) given in a certain position in the carer’s arms at a certain distance from the carer’s head. This is the period of time which the eyes need to calibrate and coordinate eye movements to give us the varied vision we need later on in life. This is done by using the carer’s face as a constant in the ideal learning situation, involving both security (in the carer’s arms) and rewards (in the form of food).

The newborn child needs to be cared for in an intense way for several years before it can survive on its own. In order to achieve the necessary skills the child needs the external brain power and examples that the carers can provide. Therefore it is vital for the newborn to feel noticed (in particular in a tactile way), in order to feel reassured it will be cared for and secure enough to develop properly. These are features that we have in common with other primates and are as old as the human race itself. Although in human beings they are more important than for animals with less versatile behaviour.

What Epigenetics and Neurobiology have revealed is that meeting these basic needs is extremely important for the child to develop properly. Not just physically
but also to develop a healthy mind. And, as Narvaez argues, in order to provide the child with a healthy morality! To illustrate this bottom-up development she refers, among others, to Jaak Panksepp’s theory of ‘emotional systems’, which he argues we have in common with other mammals. Panksepp has charted seven networks of emotion in the brain: SEEKING (interest in learning and progressing), RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. By giving the child the right support and opportunity to develop these systems, we allow them to be expressed in a way that will have a positive effect for the rest of the person’s life.

Narvaez also identifies what she calls Primal Wisdom. This deals with issues which today we would refer to as morality. Primal Wisdom is as old as the human race itself and is built by multiple systems of biological and cultural influence from the ground up. Today it can be found in Small-Band-Hunter-Gatherer Societies. The morality displayed in these groups is much more like the altruism displayed among other social mammals. It involves being concerned about the wellbeing of the whole group rather than selfishness, a sense of collective responsibility for children, care for environment and a sense of being part of the environment, willingness to share and to focus on equality rather than hierarchy, etc.

Her conclusion is that with the right start in life, a child will develop a morality that ‘goes all the way down’ and is based on a neurobiological and emotional development in line with nature’s ‘intention’ for the human race. This will mean a holistic morality that takes care of environment and harmony with nature into the picture. Given that we can provide such a positive environment for a child to grow up in, the idea that morality has to be based on rational thinking, which has to be taught, will, at some point, fall apart. Instead we will develop a sense of morality based on a much more embracing and positive outlook on life.

There is no doubt that change is needed for humans to cope better with faster and faster changes and a constantly growing population on our shared planet. The question is just how we can bring about such a change. For many turning to religion seems to be the obvious choice. But as we can see in far too many instances, religion can be a disaster if it sets people up for an ‘us and them’ scenario. A return to more authoritarian upbringing for future generations is equally questionable.

Neurobiology and Neuropsychology can provide much better solutions!

Narvaez suggests building on data from clinical sciences and positive psychology to achieve a developmentally informed ecological and ethical sensibility. She suggests ways to self-author and revise how we think about parenting and sociality. She recommends techniques such as; joining like-minded groups, spending more time outdoors in positive environments and spreading an alternative vision of morality development and well-being.

For groups such as the Breathworkers her suggestions should be a signal to focus resources on becoming mentors for society. Many Breathwork therapists display enormous knowledge and insights into the benefits of a positive, environmentally friendly approach to life. As such, it could take on the role that elders had in tribal society. Breathworkers could also try to influence society as a whole to devote more resources to giving children a good start. The growing evidence that children with a positive start grow up healthier is not necessarily a demand for extra resources, but rather a redirection of resources. After all, prevention is better than cure! Helping children toward a happy life early on is a much better scenario than massive spending trying to solve problems later in life.

ISBN 978-0-393-70655-0 London, 2014, http://www.wwnorton.com