Darcia Narvaez and her paleofantasy of infancy


Darcia Narvaez is at it again.

You may remember her as the author of the “Sanctimommy Manifesto,” a wholesale substitution of her personal preferences for actual science. The Notre Dame psychology professor is blithering yet more nonsense about what babies need and in the process falling victim to a paleofantasy of infancy.

Her latest screed, Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Babies, is filled with nonsense from beginning to end.

Narvaez starts with this “insight”:

Have you noticed all the stressed babies? Maybe one in 30 I see has glowing eyes, which I take as a sign of thriving.

Dr. Narvaez, you really need to get out more or get new friends and acquaintances. It is horrifying that you live in a dystopian world where 29 out of 30 babies are stressed out. The rest of us, however, live in the real world with healthy, happy babies who grow into healthy, happy, well adjusted adults.

And what’s with the glowing eyes? Perhaps you have babies confused with kittens and puppies whose retinas do indeed reflect light and appearing to be glowing.

Narvaez is a big fan of paleofantasy. According to Professor Marlene Zuk, author of the book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live explains:

It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist … that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”

Indeed, according to Narvaez:

Babies are social mammals with social mammalian needs. Social mammals emerged more than 30 million years ago with intensive parenting (a developmental nest or niche). This is one of the many (extra-genetic) things that evolved other than genes. This developmental nest is required for an individual to develop properly. Intensive parenting practices for babies include years of breastfeeding to develop brain and body systems, nearly constant touch and physical presence of caregivers, responsiveness to needs preventing distress, free play with multi-aged playmates, and soothing perinatal experiences. Each of these has significant effects on physical health.

What a bunch of baloney! Are we supposed to believe that all mammalian offspring have the same needs? Are we supposed to believe that the needs of mammals have not changed from those of prehistoric marsupials? Are we supposed to believe that human babies need the same things as rat pups?

Moreover, adults are also mammals with social mammalian needs and, as far as I know, those needs do not include advice from psychology professors since neither professors nor psychology existed 30 million years ago. Should we therefore conclude that we would be much better off in the absence of professors and psychology?

Just in case you missed the evidence that Narvaez is making it up as she goes along, she helpfully offers this ludicrous observation on our hunter-gatherer ancestors:

They are much wiser, perceptive and virtuous than we humans in the USA today.

The myth of the noble savage!

Narvaez expounds:

Of course, every human community is not perfect but when you provide young children with their basic needs, they are less aggressive and self-centered.

How do we know that? Because ancient peoples were peace loving environmentalists and war did not occur until the 20th Century, right? Wrong! Primates, including humans, can be violent and vicious, engaging in everything from domestic abuse of females with roving eyes, to bloody territorial battles, to actually EATING other primates. Sounds really virtuous, doesn’t it?

Not surprisingly nearly everything that Narvaez writes is the product of her fevered imagination and has no basis in science.

My personal favorite is this bit of nonsense:

Culture does not erase the evolved needs babies have. Babies cannot retract their mammalian needs.

Actually, culture modifies nearly everything. Culture includes houses, central heating, birth balls, baby slings and nursing bras.

Moreover, evolution did not stop 30 million years ago, or even 30 thousand years ago. To claim that contemporary infants are exactly the same as infants 30 million years ago or even 30 thousand years ago is bizarre. Adults are different in many ways than they were 30,000 years ago: they can digest lactose, carry genetic resistance to malaria, and behave quite differently. There’s no reason to imagine that while adults evolved, infants stayed exactly the same.

In fact, infants are not terribly different from Dr. Narvaez herself. Does she live like our ancestors from 30 million years ago? Is she walking on all four limbs, swinging naked in the trees and reproducing endlessly? No, Narvaez walks on two feet, does not climb trees on a regular basis and is childless. Clearly she hasn’t met her own mammalian needs. Should we conclude, therefore, that by wearing clothes, going to college and writing for Psychology Today that Dr. Narvaez is one of those:

… whose health and sociality are compromised (which we can see all over the USA today with epidemics of depression, anxiety, high suicide and drug use rates). Such mis-raised creatures might do all right on achievement tests or IQ measures but they may also be dangerous reptiles whose world revolves around themselves…[?]

Possibly. Fortunately it should be easy to determine:

All we need to know is whether her eyes glow!