The origins of Developmental Psychology

The origins of Developmental Psychology

The origins of developmental psychology they can be located around the 19th century, especially thanks to the influence of Charles Darwin. Since the 18th century there was already a growing interest in understanding the human development and the life cycle of the individual. Below we present the most remote antecedents of this discipline.

The origins of developmental psychology

Next, the most distal background of the discipline.

The first systematic studies on child development

The systematic study of child development has not begun until a fairly recent time, so that child psychology can be considered to be only over a century old.


Among the first studies on childhood, those formed by biographical observations on normal subjects, which are usually daily, carried out in a more or less systematic manner on a child, usually related to the author of the newspaper, stand out.

One of the pioneers in this area was Tiedemann He published a book in 1787 on the development of his son, based on observations made in the first years of his life. This type of study was dominant during the nineteenth century, but in certain cases it has continued to this day.

The observation

A second type of pioneering studies on children is the observations on exceptional subjects. That is, children whose development presents some type of specificity or anomaly (eg, isolated, blind, gifted children).

Undoubtedly the most influential of this type of work was that carried out by Itard, a young French doctor, who wrote his first report on Victor, the "wild Aveyron boy", found in 1799 in that French region. Victor had been so abandoned that he could not speak.

Statistical works

A third type of study, which will appear later, is formed by statistical work. That is to say, data collections about some particular aspect of child behavior performed on a relatively large number of subjects.

The use of these methods is associated with interest in establishing the typical abilities of some age level, or to determine the average age of children when they begin to manifest a new behavior. These studies, which are also frequent today, are not widespread until the early twentieth century.

Darwin's theory of evolution: the origins of Developmental Psychology

An author who performed one of the biographical studies described above was Charles Darwin (1809-1882), although this has not been the main contribution by which he has gone down in history as a decisive author in the modern study of development.

As a young man he enrolled in an expedition to distant places on the planet. There he made careful observations of fossils and animal and plant life. On that trip he found, on the one hand, that there was an infinite variation between species. On the other, that within a species no two individuals are exactly alike.

From these observations he built his famous theory of evolution. This theory gives great importance to two related principles: Natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Darwin understood that nature had selected certain species to survive in specific parts of the world because they had characteristics that fit their surroundings. Other species would become extinct because they were not well adapted to their environment.

Within a species, individuals who best meet the requirements of the environment for survival come to live long enough to reproduce and transmit their most favorable characteristics to future generations.

The importance Darwin attached to adaptive value of physical characteristics and behavior It is also found in other theories that would appear in the twentieth century such as ethology or the same psychogenetic theory of Piaget.

Darwin's Thought

Darwin's books The origin of the species (1859), The descent of man (1871) and The expresions of emotions in men and animals (1872), raised questions about the origins of the human mind in the evolutionary past and also addressed the relationship between the individual development (ontogenesis) and species development (phylogenesis).

The interest in the second point arises when Darwin verifies that the Prenatal development of many species is very similar in its early stages. This suggested that all species, including humans, come from a few common ancestors.

The fetal similarity of different species impressed the scholars of the time in such a way that some, such as the embryologist Haeckel (1874), concluded that the development of the child human followed the same general plan as the evolution of the human species.

The idea of ​​evolution as the origins of Developmental Psychology

The evolutionary development process was summarized as follows:

Individual development (ontogenesis) becomes a kind of compendium of the historical development of the species (phylogenesis).

This is what is called "basic biogenetic principle"or" principle of recapitulation. "And hence the famous phrase derives:

Ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis

From this logic it has come to extrapolate, in the psychological field, for example, that children like to climb trees because monkeys recapitulate their ancestors. Although this belief later proved wrong, efforts to find parallels between ontogenetic and phylogenetic evolution stimulated careful observations of all aspects of human behavior.

Darwin, the first evolutionary psychologist

In addition to these more general contributions, Darwin addressed specific issues of developmental psychology, which has resulted in, at present, some very relevant authors consider that He was the first evolutionary psychologist.

In support of this idea it is often indicated that Darwin published in 1887 a short article describing the development of his son Doddy. Darwin was impressed by his son's playful character and his ability to express emotions.

This led him to study it with the specific objective of clarifying how the development of innate forms of human communication occurs. In this way, a basic evolutionary concept, such as the idea that development can be understood as the progressive adaptation of the child to the environment, are already outlined in that work of Darwin.

Another important contribution of Darwin to the discipline was the introduction of systematic methods to study development. With all of the above, the origins of Developmental Psychology, as a discipline, were formally settled.


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