Pam King on Stone Age Minds and Human Flourishing

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Pamela Ebstyne King is Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller Seminary and Executive Director of its Thrive Center for Human Development. She’s also the only person, to the best of our knowledge, who has been ordained at Stanford’s Memorial Church. Pam researches, teaches, and writes on thriving, spiritual and moral development, and positive youth development. She’s just co-written Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing, with Justin L. Barrett, president of Blueprint1543 (one of our science and faith partner organizations).

What is your background as a Christian and scholar of Christian theology and psychology?

I sometimes say I was born and raised in a Presbyterian pew, specifically at the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, Illinois. Initially, church was just about showing up and enduring a worship service; and then faith became an active relationship with a loving God and a savior. In 1980, when I was a middle schooler, faith became and has remained the most orienting part of my life.

I graduated from Stanford University in 1990 with a degree in psychology, then worked at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church for four years, leaving as head of its university ministries. While there, I attended Fuller Theological Seminary and graduated in 2000 with both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in marital and family studies. Two years later, I was ordained to my faculty position in the School of Psychology at Fuller.

Is your work with adolescents related to your own biography?

Most definitely. Coming to faith as teen and experiencing it as a vital resource for navigating the crazy waters of adolescence was powerful, but working in high school and university ministry was an influence as well. I became curious about what it is in the experience of lived faith that enables a young person to become their best self and not get mired down by the complexities and pressures of adolescence.

In your writing you’ve used a fascinating phrase, “the reciprocating self.’ Say more about it.

As younger scholar, I started thinking from a teleological perspective. I asked, what is the purpose of human development? What is God’s intention for us? Given that we have psychological science and many psychological tools, how might we use them from a biblical perspective?

I started championing the idea that the goal, or telos, of human development is to become reciprocating selves—not independent autonomous persons, which is a concept that most western psychological theories advance. Within psychology, relationality has been viewed as a means towards the ends of being independent. From a Christian or Trinitarian perspective, being unique but related is key to who we are as humans. This stems from my best understanding of the imago Dei, which I would argue suggests that humans are to image God and to become “conformed” to Christ. But conformity does not mean uniformity. We are each created to become more like Christ as our unique selves. So you’re going to imitate Jesus like Greg, and I’m going to do my best to be like Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit as Pam. The notion of telos became a very orienting concept in both my theological and my psychological work.

Many adolescents struggle with perfectionism, especially with the advent of social media. Are you saying that the telos of human life is to be who God has created us to be?

Our telos is a beautiful vision of being united with God in the fullness of creation—which include our own particularity. A means and end of this process is our communion with Christ, in and through which we become transformed more fully to the image of God in Christ—but always as ourselves through our ongoing relationship with the Spirit, one another, and the world. In Stone Age Minds, we acknowledge that our environments are constantly changing and ask: How do we become like Christ as ourselves, not just some cookie cutter lookalike version of Jesus? The book is focused using evolutionary psychology in a constructive manner to enable people to become who God created them to be.

The idea behind the phrase “stone age minds” is that our brains are very special—and old. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have not had to genetically adapt. We have this extraordinary mind, which is both the brain and our nervous system, that enables us to solve problems by thinking and sensing our way through things. Most species don’t have the intellect or the intuitive powers that we have and are forced to genetically adapt; so the weak die out and the stronger live. Obviously, humans have evolved somewhat, but by and large, we use our minds to change our environments in order to maintain a good “fit.” For example, say there should be a global pandemic. Before we are forced as a species to genetically adapt, which take zillions of years, we use our minds to invent a vaccine.

Are there nuances to thriving and flourishing, and what do those concepts mean in terms of humans having “stone age minds”?

Flourishing has to do with individual wellbeing and living a meaningful and satisfying life. Within psychology flourishing is often informed by eudemonic traditions and is particularly evident in the field of Positive Psychology, which is more personality and social psychology driven.

Eudemonia comes Aristotle and is often translated as “flourishing,” right?

Yes, exactly, and it is contrasted with hedonia, which is more about happiness and self-gratification. Thriving is distinct from both. Thriving emphasizes the process of growth or development towards telos or one’s purpose. Consequently, thriving requires a meaning system to determine what matters and what is purposeful, which includes relationality and a beyond-the-self orientation. Thus, the individual is not only growing and becoming a more satisfied self with well-being, but they are related to others and giving back beyond the self.

Can you summarize your discoveries about thriving from an evolutionary psychological point of view?

Justin Barrett and I identified three important features of the human species that inform how humans thrive. Although these capacities are not unique to humans, we utilize them in extensively more complex ways than other species. First, we have an extraordinary learning capacity. All species learn to some extent, but the human capacity is marvelous. Second, we are more social than other animals. We need intimacy and accountability. We need to be known and loved, and we need to know and love others. Third, we can regulate, meaning we have self-control. We can set and pursue goals. We can also regulate our emotions—controlling our anger, getting motivated, or having patience. The human ability to regulate enables us to thrive and solve problems.

Although learning, relating, and regulating are awesome for goals and growth, on their own these things leave us empty. They make us effective, but where are they headed? What is the telos or purpose in them? From a Christian perspective, our purpose is to be united with God and become conformed to Christ as ourselves, with and for others. From an evolutionary psychology perspective that involves closing the gap between our nature and the “niches,” or environments we live in. Generally, as we solve problems, we create new ones. Learning, relating, and regulating might answer how we continue to close the gap in the problems we create? But they do not inform why or towards what purpose we close the gap. A Christian perspective suggests that our efforts of learning, relating, and regulating are best being utilized to become like Christ as ourselves in relationships with others and God’s creation.

One final takeaway from the book?

The biggest takeaway is that God has created us to thrive, not just to survive. Surviving is motivated by fear from threat. Thriving is motivated by growth towards a purpose. God did not create us to merely survive, God created us to thrive, and for a purpose—to participate in his ongoing work in this world, and to do that through knowing God. This has challenged my understanding of the gospel—not to be limited to focusing on what God saved us from, but to also emphasize what God saved us for—a life of thriving and becoming more fully the unique and beloved creation that God created us to be, so that we may know God and glorify God as ourselves with and for others.


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