Skip to main content

Nature’s Way of Raising Children and Creating Connected Communities

This gem of a book, vast in erudition and insight and rich in mind-boggling scientific observation, will leave the reader both humbled and grateful. —From the foreword by Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal

An invitation to turn to Nature and our nonhuman Animal relatives to learn the ways of ‘mothering’—of care for the earth, all her beings, and future generations. Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecofeminist, and food sovereignty activist

Enjoy learning how Gray Wolves, Emperor Penguins, Elephants and other wild kin weave lives and love together to create the expanse of Nature’s glorious fabric of life. Each of the book’s 10 chapters explores a different Animal’s way of raising their children and fostering harmony and wellness in the communities in which they live. You’ll learn:

  • How Wolves build an internal moral compass
  • How Beavers infuse joy and play in everyday life
  • How Octopuses embody profound emotional and social intelligence
  • How, when, and whether (or not) Brown Bears decide to have children …. And more

By delving into the interleaved implicit and explicit worlds where the Animals live, Gay brings the lens of Nature-based consciousness to co-author Darcia Narvaez’ seminal work on early childhood development. Together, the authors illustrate how each evolved nest – ways of raising families shared across species – offers inspiration for humans to model their relationships and patterns of nurturing, understanding, and caring. Alongside stunning scientific facts, and lessons in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, we learn how our species can return to Nature’s ways and an ecology of love.

Listen to a sample of the audio book, narrated by Cindy Kay.

Foreword, by Gabor Maté, MD

Narration by Cindy Kay

In the arrogance of what we like to call our civilized culture, we tend to see ourselves as superior in intelligence and accomplishment to our evolutionary cousins, the other Animals with whom we share the Earth. We even look down with pride on brother and sister humans whom we are pleased to dismiss as “primitive,” such as Indigenous people and, more especially, the few, small remaining hunter-gatherer groupings that still cling to a tenuous existence in the face of the relentless march of “progress.” This is what the anthropologist and author Wade Davis calls “cultural myopia,” the sense that “other peoples are failed versions of ourselves. Or that they are ancient, vestigial creatures, destined to fade away, quaint and colorful humans who wear feathers. These are living, dynamic people who have something to say.”[1]

This gem of a book, modest in length but vast in erudition and insight and rich in mind-boggling scientific observation, will leave the reader both humbled and grateful. Subverting our egoic self-satisfaction, it illuminates how humanity has forgotten its own nature, even as it has abandoned and turned against the Nature that formed and sustained us over millions of years. In doing so, our authors, psychologists Darcia Narvaez and G. A. Bradshaw, also point the way to redemption. No fanciful social utopianism here; only a profound understanding of what our core needs are, right from conception, and what we have to learn from the ancestral human and Animal ways of being as they were formed in the crucible of Nature.

The salutary subversiveness of The Evolved Nest is that it shows our commonality, in the deepest emotional sense, with fellow creatures such as Parrots, Elephants, Whales, Wolves, Penguins, and even Octopuses. The capitalizations are the authors’ device for reminding us of the essential personhood and psychological complexity of these other beings whom we assume to be so different from our own genus, Homo.

Unlike humans still connected to Nature, most of us don’t think of ourselves as sharing emotional dynamics with other Animals. Yet from the point of view of modern neuroscience, when, say, Indigenous peoples ranging from Alaska to the Amazon refer to Animals as relatives to be honored, they are accurate. Neuroscientists have pointed out that we share evolutionarily bestowed primary emotional processes with a wide variety of species. The brain circuits humans share with other creatures—as this book elegantly illustrates with examples that more than once left this reader in a state of wonder—include caring love, joy, play, panic, and grief. Witness, for example, the heartrending story of a young Elephant who twice in his short existence suffered the loss of a mother figure. As the authors reveal, we share with Animals the capacity for consciousness, feelings, thoughts, and dreams. An Octopus with a neural substrate for cognition, self-awareness, and consciousness? Yes.

The emotional dynamics generated by these cerebral circuits serve well-being, compassion, self-regulation, confidence, and other healthy qualities, as they are meant to; but only if they are evoked by the proper circumstances—that is, only if their development is supported by the evolved nest. “Evolved nests,” Drs. Narvaez and Bradshaw tell us in their introduction, “are developmental systems tailored to nurture psychological, social, physical, and neurobiological needs in a species-unique manner.” For humans, they later elucidate, the evolved nest is the set of processes and structures that provide children with the social and ecological microenvironment perfectly tailored for optimal growth and health. To put it bluntly, we have lost the plot in the pursuit of economic and technological advancement. This has been a traumatic development in the history of our species, one whose ramifications we are experiencing all too keenly in the epidemic of ill health, mental disturbances, aggression, social divisions, and other plagues that beset present-day societies. It is no slur on human ingenuity nor a denigration of modernity’s truly miraculous inventions and achievements to argue, as our authors do, that we have much to learn from our hominin forebears and from the animals whose evolved nesting practices they document so eloquently.

Did you know that an Elephant newborn is greeted by the gentle stroking of a posse of other mothers? That Emperor Penguins share gestational duties between male and female and that the safekeeping of their offspring, as of young Whales, is a communal task? That Wolves, even if childless, will lactate to feed the young ones when the clan’s needs call for that? In case after case, this book teaches us how Nature has inculcated collaboration, empathy, a communal ethic, and mutual support as the necessary legacy of each species for the optimal development of their fledglings. This is true for humans as well—though one would hardly know that from observing how we gestate, birth, and raise our infants and young children today. With the loss of the evolved nest, we have become alienated from the benign child-nurturing instincts with which Nature has imbued us over eons. For example, we are the only species who, by design and according to the prescriptions of “experts,” allow infants to cry without responding to their distress in order to “teach” them to sleep—thereby impairing their brain development and jeopardizing their future mental health, as Darcia Narvaez has shown elsewhere. Nor, in Nature-based human cultures, are the young hit, harshly punished, or isolated from caregivers as a way of bringing them to heel. On the contrary, the authors note later in this volume that “any aggressive actions in the toddler years are greeted with playful response, as everyone knows that young children are not yet fully empathic or aware of their actions’ effects.”

Having lost its evolutionary niche, our species is inflicting its distress upon our fellow creatures, as Dr. Gay Bradshaw already documented in her remarkable work on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Elephants. This book, too, abounds in lamentable examples of Animal cultures—such as Wolves in Yellowstone National Park or even in the Alaskan Denali wilderness—being traumatized at the hands of humans who, unlike Indigenous people, have no concept of being part of Nature, having become severed from their own nature by the traumatic demise of the evolved nest.

As a result, there is almost as much sadness as beauty in this exquisitely crafted book. Yet our authors leave us on a positive note: they have written here not a dirge, after all, but a paean to Existence, to the possibilities inherent in us, despite our losses, and a call for a future informed and reinvigorated by what the past and everlasting Nature can teach us.

[1] Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009), 13.

Here's What People are Saying

“This gem of a book, vast in erudition and insight and rich in mind-boggling scientific observation, will leave the reader both humbled and grateful.” —From the foreword by Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal

“An invitation to turn to Nature and our nonhuman Animal relatives to learn the ways of ‘mothering’—of care for the earth, all her beings, and future generations.” —Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecofeminist, and food sovereignty activist

“The most thought-provoking, fascinating, challenging, beautiful book I’ve read in years.” —Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University

“…an absolute pleasure to read…it provocatively challenges us to rethink our relationship with and moral responsibilities to the other species with whom we share the planet.” —Allan N. Schore, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine

“…timely and vital…a crucial documentation of how our ancestral history is [more] one of collaborating as a larger identity than the lessons modern culture portrays of solo-self in isolation.” —Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of IntraConnected

“…our refusal to accept and cherish the commonality we have with other beings is undermining our ability to raise children to be happy and socially functional adults. If only we paid attention to how other Animals do it.” —Dr. Reed Noss, past president of the Society for Conservation Biology

“…breathtakingly comprehensive, insightful, and singularly creative…” —Richard M. Lerner, director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, Tufts University

“In this masterpiece of reconceptualization, [the authors] reveal the deep commonalities in the developmental systems of both humans and our nonhuman Relatives.” —Jeremy Lent, author of The Web of Meaning

“Profound, wonder-filled, and deeply reasoned.” —Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab

“The future of our fragile, magnificent, and interconnected planet depends on the goodwill and love of everyone living everywhere…. And there is no better cohort on which to focus than youngsters, because they are the future.” —Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts

“…simultaneously brilliant and breathtaking.” —Douglas P. Fry, PhD, author of War, Peace, and Human Nature

“[The authors] compassionately remind us of our evolutionary and contemporary connection with the diverse social systems of nonhuman species that populate the Earth.” —Stephen W. Porges, PhD, author of Polyvagal Safety

“[The book] has much to teach academics, society, and parents about how to support the rearing of a healthy child.” —C. Sue Carter, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Virginia

“…highly original and thought-provoking…” —Robert Lickliter, professor at Florida International University

“A rare and respectful engagement with the kinship worldview in a manner that acknowledges and invites us to learn from the guidance provided by our Plant and Animal relatives. —Amba J. Sepie, multidisciplinary author, teacher, and Whitinga Fellow, Massey University, Aotearoa New Zealand

“The book we all need to be reading right now.” —Nakia S. Gordon, associate professor of psychology, Marquette University

“[The authors] provide teachings that stem from observing our nonhuman relations, showing how they exemplify a life-sustaining kinship worldview that guided us for most of human history.” —Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows), aka Don Trent Jacobs, PhD, EdD, coauthor of Restoring the Kinship Worldview

“…lessons for how we as parents of our own species can better understand what it means to raise a child to be healthy in body and mind.” —Carl Safina, author of Becoming Wild

“…beautifully traces the natural science and living process available within, between, and all around us to grow the caring, lasting, deep connections essential for children, families, and communities to thrive.” —Christina Bethell, PhD, MBA, MPH, professor of child health, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University

“Revelations for a hopeful future are visible within our natural world and revealed from Indigenous and ancestral wisdom.” —David W. Willis, MD, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy

“[The authors] offer insights into the costly tradeoffs we have made to live in the crowded, hierarchical societies we call civilization, and how to find our way back to the living world.” —David Johns, retired professor of political science, School of Government, Portland State University

“…fascinating, important, and accessible…a brilliant addition to the developmental literature on prosocial behaviour.” —Paul Gilbert OBE, The Compassionate Mind Foundation

“…highlights the importance of taking both an evolutionary and animal-comparative perspective for understanding the nature and development of any animal, including humans.” —David F. Bjorklund, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and author of How Children Invented Humanity

“A fascinating and lively way to begin learning about how human childcare fits into the vast spectrum and deep evolutionary history of the caring that is central to community.” —Melvin Konner, MD, PhD, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology, Emory University

“…essential reading for those who care about children, those who care about life on this planet, and those who recognize (or need to recognize) that those topics are inextricably intertwined.” —Derrick Jensen, ecophilosopher and author of The Myth of Human Supremacy

“…a fascinating work…[and] a cautionary tale on the perils of turning against Nature.” —Riane Eisler, author of Nurturing Our Humanity

“…beautifully written [and] scientifically rich…” —Gordon M. Burghardt, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee

“Scholars and practitioners alike will be informed and inspired by the interweaving of remarkable insights drawn from across many Animal species.” —L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of child development at the University of Minnesota

“Narvaez and Bradshaw’s brilliant, soul-nourishing stories of human and Animal families are a welcome journey home.” —Lisa Reagan, editor of Kindred Media and cofounder of Kindred World

“[The authors] take up perhaps the biggest question of all: Who are we? Their answer: an evolved species deeply connected to the more-than-human world, joyously so, if we can but rediscover nature’s relational ways of being.” —Peter H. Kahn, Jr., author of Technological Nature

“By respectful dialogue between Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific insights, the authors point a way forward to creating the kind of earth-bound, caring communities which are so vitally needed.” —Celia Deane-Drummond, director of Laudato Si’ Research Institute, Campion Hall, University of Oxford

“…a compassionate, wise, and gently thought-provoking investigation of our natural capacities to care for and raise our young through benevolent human and non-human relationships.” —Tina Malti, PhD, professor, psychotherapist, and co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Prosociality

“…a powerful plea to heal our connections to the natural world and to each other.” —Sue Gerhardt, psychotherapist and author of Why Love Matters

“A good place to begin the profound process of political and scientific re-thinking we all need.” —Professor Chris Knight, Senior Honorary Research Associate, department of Anthropology, University College London

“From Whales to Wolves, the authors give touching examples of whole-child parenting that could easily pass for the human ideal.” —Tamarack Song, founder of the Healing Nature Center and author of Blossoming the Child

“[The authors] help us to look within our species’ deep history for clues to inspire a more humane and sustainable future for our children and all our Kin.” Ruth Anne Hammond, author of Respecting Babies

“…simultaneously a revelation and a return to Indigenous ways of knowing…. a call to reclaim nature-based childrearing knowledges that are caring, ethical, spiritual, and social.” —Jennifer Markides, assistant professor in the Werklund School of Education

“…a compelling case for re-embracing Nature and natural history to optimize our children’s development and our societies’ relationship to the natural world.” Eric Nelson, PhD, Principal Investigator, Abigail Wexner Research Institute, Nationwide Children’s Hospital

“…a beautiful description of the contexts for birth and development in various Animal species, with the focus always on helping us understand ourselves and our truest needs in relation to Nature.” —Peter Gray, research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College and author of Free to Learn

“Truly a wonderful book.” —Stuart Shanker, Founder of The MEHRIT Centre

The Evolved Nest enriches our imagination about how we can embrace companionship care to build a relational world of resilience, empathy, reciprocity, and respect.” —Mary Watkins, PhD, author of Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons

“This book provides the rationale we need to nurture children towards our humane species potential rather than adapting them to the cutthroat patriarchal capitalism that is now destroying the intricate web of all life.” —Genevieve Vaughan, author of The Gift in the Heart of Language

“The book is a call to come home—to a home that is multispecies, that is nurturing, and that is healing, for parents and children alike.” Margo DeMello, cultural anthropologist at Carroll College and author of Animals and Society

“In this terrifying time, we need a new animist cosmology. This book which examines the ‘evolved nest’ of a range of complex intelligent mammal and bird species, including humans, could provide the source.” —Dr Camilla Power, anthropologist

“A delightful nest of knowledge, woven from strands of scientific, Indigenous, and nature-based thought.” —Cheryl Alexander, filmmaker of Takaya: Lone Wolf

“A glorious manifesto for re-wilding humanity, our return to the ways of relationship that will bring us back to peace and ecological belonging.”—Robin Grille, psychotherapist and author of Parenting for a Peaceful World

“…a blueprint for a compassionate world.” —Barbara Nicholson, cofounder of Attachment Parenting International

…as profound as it is illuminating.” —Lysa Parker, cofounder of Attachment Parenting International

“…rich and inspiring wisdom drawn from animals, children, sages, and scientists to help us feel kinship as our Indigenous birthright and restore the nest we call earth.” —O. Fred Donaldson, author ofOriginal Play,husband, father, play specialist, aikidoist, calligrapher, cowboy, and Native American craftsman

“Dynamic and rich…. at once inspiring and a warning to how we must return to natural ways and rhythms if our species is to survive.” —Kate White, MA, BCBMT, RCST, CEIM, SEP, PPNE, PLC, founding director of education for the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health

“Let this book raise us and our children and theirs to come.” —Deena Metzger, author of La Vieja and La Negra y Blanca

“Darcia and Gay take us back to the future, revealing that our authentic nature is Nature…. Everyone who turns these pages will be struck, awakened, and hopefully transformed by the symphony of brilliant insights these two sing.” —Michael Mendizza, entrepreneur, author, and founder of Touch the Future