What is human development?

The meaning of development

What do we mean by 'development'? You might have used it about everyday things, like the development of a new product or machine, meaning something which is carefully designed to carry out specific functions and which is able to cope with all the demands made on it.
In many ways, that is what the human body is - a machine designed to carry out a series of very difficult tasks. Long before birth the engineering is designed. The process starts at conception, the beginning of a new life, and continues as the human being proceeds through the stages of pre-birth, birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. As well as an increase in body size, which is called growth, progressive changes in body structure, and in the brain, occur as we gain and use knowledge and development skills. This procedure is called development and it results in an individual person - we are all different.

Development potential

At first we are very dependent on other adults to supply our needs and are influenced by the environment, or surroundings, in which we live and grow. But as we grow, we should become less dependent, build on our childhood experiences and take advantage of the opportunities available to us to achieve full potential. Even those who are in some way disadvantaged mentally or physically can achieve their individual maximum development potential with appropriate support from others.

Each normal human beings is born with the same basic structures which allow the body to carry on its functions. If, for example, we were to look at a 1000 normal, newborn babies, we would find that all of them perform exactly the same functions. They feed, sleep, soil and cry. The differences between them are is relation to appearance, for example their weight, skin colour, hair colour and body shape. These are the characteristics that are passed on from parents by what we call heredity.
From birth we constantly interact and establish relationships with our fellow human beings. The human infant is more helpless, and matures more slowly, than infants of any other species. As they mature, children behave and develop like those closest to them, for example their family and friends. These people acts as 'role models' and influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

INTERACT: to have an effect on each other

To understand how people interact with their environment we need to know a little about how the nervous and endocrine systems function to coordinate and control our behavior. As we develop from infancy through adolescence to adulthood, our abilities, attitudes and personalities are moulded together by the situations which we face at different stages of life. This is called our Psyhosocial development.
Babies grow up to achieve different standards of physical performance, that is physical development, and different intellectual levels, that is cognitive development.

Although at birth we all seem to have the same machinery and tools to carry out the same body processes and functions, the effects of  'nature' and 'nurture' determine whether or not we achieve our life goals. Nature or heredity, is passed on to us by our parents; nurture is the effect of the environment in which we are reared.

As we gain knowledge and skills, and develop our own feelings and attitude, we are able to make conscious decisions about our own lives. Provided we are healthy and normal, we can set goals and seek out opportunities. Some of these may seem unrealistic because we do not have the resources, either from nature or nurture. However many people with determination and guidance have achieved goals which might, at one stage, have seemed unrealistic. This is what development potential means - the power to develop as far as our abilities allow.


There are three main factors which influences development at all stages:

  1. Heredity
  2. Environment
  3. Health

Heredity is a major influence on human development.

Heredity : The ability of living things to pass on their own characteristic features from parent to child in the cells of the body.

Our parents received their characteristics from their parents - heredity goes back through generations of familie. As partnerships are formed between quite different families, each with their own family trees, the possible variations are endless. The characteristics we inherit are carried in our genes.


The environment is anything inside or outside the body to which the body responds. Inside the body, for example, there are temperature changes, chemical changes and the effects of drugs, alcohol or nicotine. Outside the body is the physical environment, things of material nature that surrounds us wherever we are at a particular time.

There are different types of environment:

  • Socioeconomic environment includes the structure of the family unit, the number at work, those unemployed, the number of children, and the interrelationships existing at home, in school or at work.
  • The intellectual environment includes things around us that stimulate us to think, communicate, read, watch, explore  and experiment.
  • The psychosocial environment is the effect relationships, feelings and emotions have on our personalities, foe example, joy and pleasure from affection, anxiety surrounding going to college or the confidence which comes from doing a good job.
A human being has the ability to perceive, or make a sense of, the environment and no two individuals have exactly the same perceptions of a shared environment. This applies even to identical twins.


Even before conception the health of both parents has significant influence on whether or not the process of development starts at all. During pregnancy it is vital that the mother maintains good health; the developing embryo, later fetus, is entirely dependent on the mother for food and for getting rid of waste products. It is therefore particularly vulnerable to any substance the mother introduces into her body which has harmful effects. Once the child is born it is totally dependent on the adult to provide the appropriate food, exercise, rest, sleep, clothing and clearness essential to good health. As the process of development continues into adolescence and adulthood, having a healthy lifestyle could have a major influence on ageing.

How to achieve a healthy lifestyle is closely related to the way in which our different needs are met. In 1950s, a psychologist called Abraham Maslow proposed a theory which is still widely accepted. It suggest that human behaviour and development depend on certain needs being met. These needs can be arranged in a graded order (or hierarchy) from lowest to the highest level. If needs at the lowest level are not met, then the individual cannot easily move further up the order.



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