Childhood Studies Evolutionary Studies of Childhood
by
Alyssa N. Crittenden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0149

Introduction

Current research on the evolution of childhood is largely interdisciplinary, highlighting the significance of biosocial perspectives that integrate cross-cultural variation, growth and development, ecology, and adaptation. Evolutionary studies of childhood are integral to understanding how this life history stage compares to that of other mammals, in general, and to that of nonhuman primates, in particular. An understanding of how human childhood differs across primate taxa and fossil hominin species can inform our understanding of the evolution of growth and development, cognition, prosociality, and many other notable hallmarks of human evolution. Increasingly, evolutionary studies of childhood view this developmental phase as culturally diverse and biologically based. The evolution of childhood has been explored most notably within the domains of anthropology, psychology, and human development, and the readings selected here reflect those academic traditions. Much of the most relevant work in the evolutionary study of childhood focuses on the intersection between biological processes and social dynamics. For further discussions, not explicitly evolutionary in their approach, see Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies articles Archaeology of Childhood and Anthropology of Childhood.

General Overviews

The evolution of childhood has been explored most notably within the domains of anthropology, psychology, and human development. The key texts in this field offer an integration of both biological and social perspectives. Small 2001 provides an overview that is targeted to the interested general reader and reviews the relevant research in evolutionary biology, human development, and child psychology. Panter Brick 1998 is an edited volume providing biosocial and comparative socioecological perspectives, respectively. Both compilations provide multiple perspectives on growth and development, reproductive ecology, and life history. Lancy 2008 presents a comprehensive review of the corpus of literature on childhood, incorporating work in anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and evolutionary biology. Narváez, et al. 2014 is a multidisciplinary edited volume on the evolutionary foundations of attachment and child development and includes the most current data, theory, and practice in the fields of developmental and evolutionary psychology in regard to child development and attachment processes. Konner 2011 provides an ambitious and wide-ranging tome, offering a distinctly Darwinian interpretation of human development.

  • Konner, Melvin. The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A Darwinian interpretation of human development, this thorough analysis of childhood within an evolutionary framework explores the links between an extended period of dependency with brain growth, cooperation, and social behavior. Detailed discussion of play, cognition, and cultural evolution successfully link biological, psychological, neurological, and ethnographic approaches to understanding childhood. Also see Social Learning.

  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, and Changelings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This comprehensive literature review on childhood successfully integrates perspectives from anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and biology. Lancy explores the myriad ways that children are viewed cross culturally, examining family formation, constellation of caregivers, work, education, foundations of play, and the formal and informal ways in which children acquire their culture.

  • Narváez, Darcia, Kristin Valentino, Agustín Fuentes, James J. McKenna, and Peter Gray, eds. Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199964253.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    An ambitious edited volume covering a wide range of topics in the domains psychology and anthropology including attachment, cross-cultural data on child development and childrearing, evolution of family formation, hunter-gatherer childhood, and mammalian development (with a focus on nonhuman primates). Targeted to specialists, researchers, and students.

  • Panter Brick, Catherine, ed. Biosocial Perspectives on Childhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Integrating biological and social perspectives, this volume explores evolutionary dimensions of growth and development, social constructions of childhood, reproductive ecology of child health and survival, and cross-cultural perspectives on child development. Targeted to undergraduate and postgraduate students in the fields of anthropology, developmental psychology, human ecology, and human evolution.

  • Small, Meredith F. Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children. New York: Random House, 2001.

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    Written by an anthropologist who studies the evolution of human behavior, this popular science book explores child development through age six. Small successfully integrates research in human biology and evolution with research on cross-cultural variation. The topics that Small tackles include human growth, language acquisition, emotional development, and identity formation.

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