BookREVIEW: Neurobiology and Morality

Darcia Narvaez
W.W. Norton & Co
pp 456

Reviewer Karin Parkinson

neurobiologyI started reading this book on 7th January 2015, the day young people attacked the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 17 people. So I was primed for the question Narvaez asks in her introduction: Why, when aggression and killing are costly to the aggressor and victim and therefore rare among other animals, are humans so different? Not that it has always been so. Narvaez quotes from anthropological studies on small-band-hunter-gatherer societies (SBHG) describing culture and values such as generosity, sharing and egalitarianism, to be similar to that of the early Christians. Anthropologists assume that SBHG society represents 99 percent of human genus history. So the view that humans are naturally selfish and violent does not appear to fit anthropological accounts.

While struggling with the question of why, in more recent history, humans accept violence and selfishness as normal parts of their behaviour, Narvaez began studying neuroscience. She read Allan Schore’s work demonstrating that early life experience and the quality of infant care, has neurobiological effects on right hemisphere and executive functioning which can last a lifetime. Her conclusion is that ‘like everything human, morality emerges from biology and embodiment – the lived experience’. This lived experience shapes how the brain and body work and how we function socially, intellectually, emotionally and morally.

This book presents and explores in some depth Narvaez’s Trine Ethics Theory (TET) (2008). She takes as a starting point Maclean’s (1973) description of the brain as consisting of three strata; the proto reptilian strata, location of the basic survival systems; the paleomammalian strata, housing the limbic system and structures involved in the human ability to engage with the Other and the neo-mammalian strata, including the frontal lobes where experience is symbolised in language and then shared with others. She proposes multiple moral mindsets which are rooted in these three strata: the ‘survival ethic’, the ‘engagement ethic’ and the ‘communal imagination ethic’.

Narvaez describes how the baby is born with the survival response present and the genetic and neurobiological potential to develop engagement and subsequently the ability to think about and share the world beyond the present moment ‘together with the Other’. How this potential develops is crucially dependent on the kind of care and the degree of attunement the baby experiences from carers at particular optimal periods of time, especially during the first two years of life; that is the ‘evolved developmental niche’ (EDN). It will determine the development of neurobiological structures in the brain and affect the future adult’s ability to self regulate when stress triggers his survival system, creating evolved emotions of rage, fear or panic.

The neurobiological system is driven to re-establish homeostasis and a child/adult, who has learned to calm himself so that this is achieved, will not be functioning from a survival ethic but will have developed the neurobiological structures needed to function from an ethic of engagement and communal imagination beyond his own basic needs. A child who can not self regulate will develop different ways of managing stress which will impact on his engagement and thinking together with another. For example, functioning from the safety ethic he may be either aggressive or compliant; from the engagement ethic he may be either over or under involved and communal imaginings may be ‘vicious’ fuelled by anger or ‘icily detached’.

Much of this material will be familiar to the psychotherapist interested in recent neuro-scientific research and Narvaez clearly describes the neurobiological processes, resulting from different kinds of care and attunement, which drive the attachment styles described by Bowlby (1982). Like Trevarthen (2005), she contends that a secure attachment is insufficient for the child’s optimal development. Trevathen proposes ‘companionship attachment’ ‘emphasizing the parent-child interactions of sharing intentions, interests and affective appraisals’ as being essential in developing the engagement ethic and more especially the ability to consider others beyond oneself in the communal imagination ethic.

But for Narvaez, thinking beyond self to the Other and the community is not enough. In the last few chapters of the book, she refers to SBHG societies, past and present, where ‘engagement and communal imagination mindsets dominate’ and describes their connection, not only with other living entities such as animals and plants, but with Nature as a whole. She compares different worldviews, notably one where a focus on ‘competition’ is paramount with one where the focus is on ‘co-operation’, describing the kind of communal imaginings and moral mindsets which result. Comparing primal wisdom of SBHG communities with the present day western worldview she says, ‘Primal wisdom is about love, communion and commonality. Western worldview tends towards fear, safety and control.’ It seems that, for Narvaez, the current western mindset is driven by a survival ethic which is destructive to us and the planet and not sustainable in the long-term.

However, Narvaez is hopeful; the brain has plasticity and change is possible. She proposes a Developmental Ethical Ecological Practice (DEEP): “I propose that we extend attachment theory beyond companionship attachment to include ecological attachment – a deep bond to the natural world and a deep sense that Nature will take care of us.”

Beyond concern for ourselves and the Other which is what most psychotherapy focuses on, Narvaez encourages us to bring that same attention and co-operation to our relationships with the ecosystems of our planet. She encourages us to ditch competing with Nature, for as we and the world are one in dynamic relationship, we would only be competing with ourselves.

She proposes ways in which we might develop this re-alignment with our world which are not dissimilar to some spiritual practices such as meditation and practicing compassion. I am reminded of recent articles in Therapy Today (Totton 2011; Prentice 2014; Cooper 2015) which also encourage us to think beyond the therapy room and go into the wider community, the political and natural world. Is there a movement afoot?

Certainly the world is full of examples of behaviour and policies driven by a safety ethic; not only among extremist groups but also among ordinary people as well as mainstream politics. If atrocities such as the Charlie Hebdo event really do have their roots, at least in part, in the child’s relational experiences in infancy, I fear we are on a precarious path and shudder every time I see a child reaching out in vain to a carer attuned to their mobile.

This book is an academic work detailed in its reference to research from the fields of biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology and spirituality. This broad spectrum makes it fascinating and compelling reading while proposing a useful framework with which to view the neurobiological development and functioning of human morality. It is a must for any college or institutional library and a highly recommended read for practitioners interested in neuroscience and the wider implications of human behaviour in society today.


Karin Parkinson is a counsellor, clinical supervisor and a skills trainer at the Minster Centre, London


Bowlby, J. (1982) Attachmnet and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Cooper, M. (2015) Social change from the counselling room. Therapy Today Vol 26, Issue 1.
MacLean. P. D. (1973) A triune concept of brain and behaviour. Toronto, Ontario, Canado ; University of Toronto Press.
Narvaez, D. (2008) Triune ethics: the neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology, 26,95-119
Prentice, H. Floods, climate change and denial. (2014) Therapy Today, Vol 25, Issue 2.
Totton, N. (2011) Wild Therapy. Therapy Today, Vol 22, Issue 2.
Trevarthen, C. (2005) Stepping away from the mirror: Pride and shame in adventures of companionship – Reflections on the nature and emotional needs of infant intersubjectivity. In C.S. Carter, L Ahnert, K.E. Grossman, S,B. Hrdy, M.E. Lamb, S.W. Porges, & N.Sachser (Eds), Attachment and bonding: A new synthesis (pp54-84), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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