Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Just Babies, by Paul Bloom

Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom

This is one of many books on morality published recently, but it's not specifically written to fight the canard that religion is the foundation of morality.  Nor does it claim that morality is totally innate and the result of evolution.  Rather, Bloom presents an interesting and nuanced view of human morality.... which just happens not to rely on religion.  I plan to read some of the other new books on the topic, especially Michael Shermer's new book, The Moral Arc but I thought I'd start with Bloom's book.

Bloom cites several studies of babies in this book, hence the title.  The studies are fascinating, showing that it may be instinctual to show compassion.  It may also be instinctual to be "evil," so the answer to the question of whether people are good or evil is:  Neither.  The answer to the question of whether religion promotes morality is: Possibly.

Before we get to baby humans, there are primate studies that show instinctual behaviors previously thought to be human traits.  Bloom cites a Frans de Waal's study of capuchin monkeys.  The TED talk showing video of this became rather viral:




Elephants have the intelligence to figure out how to cooperate for a task:



Bloom does spend quite a bit of time on studies with babies and toddlers.  Lacking language, the challenge for baby studies is to find a way to ethically study their brains.  One method is to train a camera on the baby's eyes.  This shows the amount of time the baby spends on one image vs. another.   This is called eye tracking.  Studies have shown that a young baby will focus longer on an image that doesn't make sense.  They also favor pro-social images.

Babies who viewed a puppet show in which one puppet was cooperative and one was anti-social prefer the cooperative one.  Paul Bloom discussed this in the New York Times. and 60 Minutes visited the Baby Lab at Yale, where he and his wife do the studies:



Check out Paul Bloom's Video Presentation:



He expands from here to cover racism and the expanding circles of community.  Babies relate first to their mother, then their family, then their small community, etc.  Until recently we never encountered people from other communities, much less people of different races or from different continents.

The book is worth a read, but the videos above are also great.

The idea that humans are born evil, because of Adam & Eve or because of our "sinful nature," is baloney.  Babies are just babies, capable of learning how to get along in society where selfishness and cooperation are both necessary for survival of both the individual and the species.

Christian child-rearing books love to quote this passage, which they don't attribute correctly if at all (it comes from a 1958 study of delinquency that determined delinquency comes from an unloving household, not from evil)
Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother's attention, his playmate's toys, his uncle's watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He's dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.
When you google that passage you come up with dozens of articles, sermons, and books.  Well-meaning parents are hearing this message from books and pastors, and not hearing that their babies are good and even sometimes noble.

If they could be disabused of that idea they'd see that their kids don't need to be "saved."  They just need to be nurtured.




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