The field of psychology and its developmental evolution has over the years attracted the attention
of many in academic institutions. Experts in this area have tried to study and explain the way
humans function in terms of evolved and developed psychological mechanisms and processes.
Research has mainly focused on adult members of the species as they were responsible for and
controlled most organised activities such as reproduction. Provision of food and security were also
considered important activities. Inferences were obtained from these roles and helped in the
formulation of evolutionary development concepts. This paper sought to investigate the
relationship between evolutionary psychology and child development. Investigations were carried
out on previous research in the field and other closely related fields were of great assistance. The
study was able to establish the link between natural selection and evolutionary psychology. Other
factors influencing evolutionary psychology were also brought forward. These factors included,
but were not limited to, the role of the environment and parental investment. The study established
the factors that enhance learning and development in children’s minds. In addition, the quality of
parental investment availed to a child also had a great impact on a child’s development. The study
addressed assumptions in the field of evolutionary psychology. Concepts enclosed in the
development, differential influences or natural selection at different times were also explained.
An evolutionary account was also able to provide insight on aspects of ontogeny in time that
influence a child’s development. The evolution of psychological mechanisms. The specific
perspective of evolutionary development that is the influences of parental directives on the
children’s development and their adult sexual differences.
Key words: adaptation, evolutionary, developmental, species, psychology, environment
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 3
Purpose to Introduce the Theory of Evolutionary Psychology
An adult needs to survive infancy and dependency as childhood phases must be passed
through to achieve adulthood. Interest in this evolutionary psychology has indeed to the query of
how it relates to and affects child development. Some scholars have indulged deeper in this. The
most notable of them are David F Bjorklund and Anthony D. Pelligrini, who have studied this field
in great length resulting in many important revelations, theories and publications on the
development of the young mind. According to Bjorklund & Pelligrini (2000), evolutionary
developmental psychology results in the portraying of evolved epigenetic programs that were
constantly in contact with the individual’s physical and social environment. This theory is heavily
based on the assumption that different adaptive pressures experienced in different times have
resulted in varied adaptations. Their work provided a deeper and more informative perspective of
Darwin’s evolution theory.
The theory of evolution was best explained in The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It
was based on the following simple and very basic observations. In any given species, more
members were be born than those that survived. All members had different combinations of traits
portrayed in physical, behavioural and characteristic variations. These traits were capable of being
passed on from one generation to the next. Variations that promote survival were adapted and
passed on to subsequent generations as opposed to non-survival traits that got disregarded. This
process of selection of favourable traits in favour of the others resulted in adaptive changes in
species. Eventually, this process culminates in a combination of suitable traits in the long run.
Darwin’s theory is based on reproductive fitness that simply referred to the chances of an
individual bearing offspring and subsequent reproduction by the offspring. Modern and
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 4
contemporary evolution theorists have capitalised on advances made to build on the concept of
inclusive fitness. The concept includes reproductive fitness but is a lot broader. A good example is
that a lady will pass down 50% of her genes onto her offspring and 25% onto her nephew or niece.
As a result, the nephew or niece having received a wider array of genes stands a greater chance of
survival as natural selection has a wider scope of traits to operate. Psychological mechanisms were
thought to be the elusive piece in the evolution of human behaviour puzzle. The casual link
between evolution and behaviour has been made through psychological mechanisms (Brooker,
Natural selection provided solutions to practical day to day problems as a result of
analytical information processing. These processes were known to affect very specific aspects of
human behaviour when socialising and not the general intelligence of the species. Due to the
specific nature of the process, the mind did not develop into a general purpose problem solver, and
difficulty is expected in various aspects of life. This theory inferred that there were constraints on
learning, acquiring new skills and processing different forms of information (Brooker, 2008).
Constraints were perceived to be disadvantageous as the human mind was very flexible, and it is
by wits that we were able to adapt to very different environments for any living creature of the
same body size.
The Role of the Environment in Evolutionary Psychological across Ontogeny in Evolutionary
Psychological Perspective: The Developmental systems approach.
There is a great need to provide a powerful thinking environment for young developing
minds although such an environment has not been properly defined to date. Studies in these have
converged to a particular line of thought. It has been understood that four main learning
environments exist (Moyles, 2007). These are a prohibitive environment, an affording
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 5
environment, an inviting environment and a potentiating environment. A prohibitive environment
is one where circumstances make it impossible and in some instances even dangerous to exhibit a
different learning pattern than what is to be expected. An affording environment creates avenues
for the development of a varied arrangement of thought patterns. It however still curtailed the
freedom of the mind to be creative and come up with independent thought processes. An inviting
environment offers the opportunity for questions asked and emphasizes the importance of this in
learning. A potentiating environment creates the platform for varied dispositions to arise from a
particular situation and actively encourages and enhances their development (Worthington, 2009)
Robson and Hargreaves’ (2005) presented a set of suitable circumstances and conditions
that would make the environment more learning conducive for young minds. Among the
suggestions, they were able to come up with the recognition of the value of outdoor activities in
supporting children’s thinking. Introducing the children to spontaneous problem-solving activities
that provide space to explore, investigate and interact freely. The provision of a play enhanced
environment where the individuals were allowed to engage in imaginative activities. Emphasis
being directed towards the children make their choices, ample time should also be allowed ample
time to think as they engage in various activities. Effective thinking and progressive learning is
greatly fostered in the environment that takes all these points into consideration.
The following points thus summarize the conducive environment for learning in young
minds according to the various studies. It should be mentally stimulating in the sense that it should
provide materials that encourage play based exploration and investigation. It should be flexible and
not excessively structured so as to allow the children full engagement in the process. Access to
outdoor facilities with spacious teaching space and proper layout is also vital for an effective
learning process (Lam et al. 2003).
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 6
Child Development and Evolutionary Psychology
Children are in a world overpopulated by sounds, sights, objects and other people. Lack of
mental constraints would mean that these aspects would overwhelm the young minds. Constraints
here play a crucial role in ensuring learning and development of young minds. Learning is a
sequential process that involves the development of sequences; ordering, sorting, classifying,
analyzing and grouping of information. A young mind should be taught how to distinguish
between partial and absolute relationships. The learning process should enhance differentiating
facts and opinions, detecting bias and substantiating the reliability of evidence. More so,
brainstorming and creating new ideas should are skills that should be developed in the learning
process. The skills will enable the child to establish the relationship between cause and effect.
Another important highlight of learning the ability to identifying and classifying problems;
developing multiple solutions. Learning should also enable a child to evaluate the selected solution
and revise the strategy accordingly (Lam et al. 2003).
All this is impossible to learn all at once, and infants and tend to be constrained to take in
only specific information. Fundamental domains such as language and the nature of objects such as
shapes and colors are usually amongst the first things a young mind can process. These constraints
make it possible for a child to develop step by step adaptive processes. They help the learning
process from the recognition, memorizing, recalling and making connections.
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 7
Evolutionary Effects on Child-Rearing
Evolutionary influences on the survival of an infant and child naturally evoke the thoughts
of genetic factors, but there exists a set of important factors external to the children. These
contributions dictate to a great extent the survival and reproductive success. The influence they
have been able to impart have in the long history of natural selection cannot go unrecognized.
These factors have been summarized as the quality and quantity of parenting received by the child
(Bjorklund, Pelligrini 2000). The idea of parental investment is used mainly to explain the
differences that exist in relation to mating and parenting among men and women (Haselton, 2005).
Due to the different adaptive challenges encountered by men and women in terms of the
amount of time, effort and resources required to bring up offspring to adulthood, different
evolutionary mechanisms were established (Haselton, 2005). These differences were seen even
before conception where fertilization occurs within the female leading to gestation. The foetus
remains in the female until birth. Even after birth the female is still responsible for the infant’s
feeding and nutritional provisions until they can fend for themselves. The only contribution the
male has offered is the sperm but then things begin to change. The male is charged with provisions
of food, safety, security and leadership as well as parental child care to ensure the survival of the
offspring and attainment of certain status within the social setting.
The presence of parents and their investment is in no doubt very important for a child’s
survivor and social status. Scholars were able to gather and summarize historical data and previous
studies from western cultures and draw important conclusions. The information indicated that the
absence of the father is linked to higher childhood mortalities and lower social status for those that
make it to adulthood. The mortality rates increased even more for children whose mother was
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 8
absent (Buller, 2005). Are there indicators to predict under what conditions children will face
neglect, abuse and even death at the hands of a parent?
New-born human beings are incapable of anything and depend primarily on parental
investment. Consequently, this translates to a very heavy investment by the caregiver in terms of
provisions leading to an aspect of parent-child relationship that produces important consequences
for survival i.e. attachment. This attachment between mother and infant is now the subject of
debate as to whether it is an evolutionary adaptation to help in survival of the human species. More
speculation has arisen given the infant-directed speech often uttered by the mother. It suggests that
this speech regulates various aspects of the child such as emotion, behaviour, attention and is also
a means of relaying the mother’s emotions onto her child. The quality of this attachment however
varies and has been shown to cause behavioural differences depending on the strength and quality.
Securely attached infants portrayed better adjustment both in childhood and later stages of
life as opposed to those insecurely attached. Children brought up in inadequate finances, high
stress, harsh and inconsistent childcare with the father absent attained puberty early, have very
short term unstable bonds and tend to invest very little in their children. They tend to focus more
on mating as opposed to parenting and even engage in sexual activity very early. Males in this
situation were also noncompliant and aggressive (Buller, 2005).
On the contrary, children from homes with adequate resources and harmonized parenting
postpone sex, mature later and invest heavily in the fewer number of offspring they produce.
Different paths of social behaviour emerge and result in different parental investment in the next
generation of offspring. Females tend to be more sensitive to environmental factors that may affect
the rearing of offspring due to their input in the parenting process that exceeds that of the male
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 9
All aspects of human nature can be interpreted using evolutionary psychology as a
sufficient way of understanding various aspects of human functionality is to examine its ontogeny.
Evolutionary psychology has been able to provide grounds for various fields of science to examine
a wide range of topics and ages. It is also clear that much of evolutionary psychology focuses on
Darwin’s natural selection in adult species. Developmental psychology thus needs to be given as
much attention as the behaviours of the mature individuals. It is unquestionable that the survivor of
this adults is explicitly dependent on the ability of the infant and child to make it through to
Just as evolution made adults responsive to appropriate social and sexual triggers that were
essential in ensuring reproduction, it has also worked to select adaptive characteristics of infancy
and childhood that were adaptive to survival to adulthood. Although most of these were genetic
and internal to the infant, important characteristics were also obtained through the external process
of parental investment and the quality of attachment that the infant is exposed to in childhood. An
evolutionary perspective would be an important avenue in this new science of developmental
psychology and instrumental in the child development curriculum.
CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY 10
Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2000). Child development and evolutionary psychology.
Child development, 71. 1687-1708
Brooker, L. (2008). Supporting transitions in the early years. Maidenhead: Open University
Buller, D. J. (2005). Evolutionary psychology: the emperor's new paradigm: trends in cognitive
sciences, 9, 277-283.
Carruthers, E. and Worthington, M. (2009). Children’s mathematical graphics: beginnings in play.
Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.
Dowling, M. (2006). Supporting young children’s sustained shared thinking. Early education.
Spring, 48, 56.
Haselton, M.G., Ketelaar T. (2005). Irrational emotions or emotional wisdom? The evolutionary
psychology of emotions and behavior. New York: Psychology Press.
Lam Lam, M., Lim, S.E., Ma, J.C and Adams, L.D (2003). What Hong Kong teachers and parents
think about thinking: early child development and care. 173, 1, 147-158.
Moyles, J. (Ed.) (2007). Early years foundations: meeting the challenge. Maidenhead: Open
University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.
Worthington, M. (2009). Play and learning in educational settings, London. Sage Publications.