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TVOL1000 Profile: Gabrielle Principe

Gabrielle Principe is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the College of Charleston, where she studies cognitive development in young children.  Principe received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later completed a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University.  Her research has been federally funded by the National Institutes of Health and she has published her research in numerous scientific journals including “Psychological Science”, “the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology”, and “Cognition and Development”. Principe has a deep interest in the implications of evolutionary ideas on human development and works to translate the latest scientific research and theory into information that parents and teachers can use to better rear and educate children.  She blogs for Psychology Today and Huffington Post on issues of childhood, and serves as the education section editor for Evolution: This View of Life.  Her book is entitled “Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan” (Prometheus, 2011).

When I was in graduate school, a small group of us developmental psychology students made a weekly trek from UNC Chapel Hill to UNC Greensboro to take Gilbert Gottlieb’s seminar on his new book: Individual Development and Evolution.  In Chapel Hill, each of us studied something typical for a developmental psychologist, such as memory development, intellectual development, and so on.  And like the usual developmentalist, we all focused our research efforts somewhere in the lifespan of the individual – that is, between conception and death.  None of us thought very much about the influence of things that happened before fertilization, and definitely not at all about things that happened during our long evolutionary history.  A deep time scale simply was not on our radar.

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Professor Gottlieb’s class changed that.  In fact, it changed everything.  His research program and theoretical innovations coalesced on the concept of probabilistic epigenesis—the idea that development emerges from continuous interactions between all levels of biological and environmental factors, from genes and brains to parents, peers and culture, and at all times scales, from milliseconds to eons.

This idea eliminates once and for all an idea central to psychology that had bothered me since I first heard about it in college: the nature/nurture controversy.  Gottlieb’s scheme dismantles questions about whether behaviors are genetic or environmental because in it all behaviors emerge as the result of co-actions between all levels of the developmental system, including  genes and the environment.  It also pushes developmental psychologists to rethink what is inherited from generation to generation.  In Gottlieb’s words, evolution involves ‘‘selection for the entire developmental manifold.’’  In his view, humans not only inherit a species typical genome but also a species typical environment.  Changes to either of these factors can have very real developmental consequences.

Discussions around these ideas convinced us evolution-naïve development psychology students that limiting our research focus to the lifetime of an individual was shortsighted.  It was shortsighted for the simple but profound reason: all human characteristics not only have a developmental history but also an evolutionary history.  Therefore if we truly want to understand the processes that underlie development, we have to broaden our lens and consider both our individual development and our species development.

Everything about your field of study looks different the moment you switch on the idea that human development doesn’t start at the moment of conception.  It doesn’t even start with the co-mingling of genetic material of an individual’s parents.  Rather it started billions of years ago at the beginning of the life on earth.  This view moves the usual discussions of “early experiences” way back in time from a focus, for example, on how experiences in infancy and toddlerhood influence later development to consideration of how experiences common to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors affect the emergence of human attributes and tendencies in the modern world.

These ideas—first picked up in Gottlieb’s seminar—continue to inspire me to think through and write about the implications of the degree of species atypical experiences in modern children’s everyday lives.  Things like formal schooling, manufactured toys, manicured playgrounds, organized sports, and high technology are evolutionary novelties that historically have not been part of the human developmental manifold.  An extrapolation of Gottlieb’s framework suggests, I think, that parents and educators should consider the implications in these shifts in early experiences in the decisions that they make for children.  There is growing empirical work that suggests that some parts of the species atypical lifestyle of modern children are having unexpected side effects, and that children do best in environments that gel with how their brains and bodies have been designed to grow.  This perspective suggests that the solution to some common childhood problems might be to design life to work with how evolution has prepared their developing brains and bodies to grow and not to work against it.

Finally, Gottlieb’s framework assures me that developmental psychologists won’t be put out of business anytime soon.  There’s always talk in the halls of life science university departments that the social scientists will become obsolete as soon as neuroscientists figure out the biochemistry of brain and behavior.  The probabilistic epigenetic model illustrates exactly why such reductionism will never work if we truly want to understand behavior.  Thinking that behavior can be reduced to brain activity or gene functioning devalues the role of the environment (e.g., parents, peers, culture, history) and developmental processes.  There is no way to arrive at a deep understanding of behavior and development without taking into account all levels of the developmental system, which include things external to the organism and not in the realm of things that most neuroscientists are trained to study.  Examination of behavior and development does not require an evolutionary developmental perspective, but a deep understanding of human behavior will emerge only from multidisciplinary research and from thinking about behavior, brain, and body as emerging from a probabilistic epigenetic process.

For More About Gabrielle:

“Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan”  (“In this engagingly written book,… Principe has culled from the scientific literature numerous hidden gems that can guide an evolutionarily informed approach to child rearing. This book is bound to create buzz—and it is long overdue.” -Stephen Ceci, H. L. Carr Chaired Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University)

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