‘Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil’ by Paul Bloom

They live among us, posing as humans when they are in fact more like mythical creatures: mysterious and powerful, extraordinary to gaze upon, and possessing near-magical abilities to incapacitate otherwise fully functioning adults. They grow at an alarming rate, often feeding on other people. Their scent is by turns intoxicating and foul. They can be demanding, impatient, fickle and ridiculous.

They are also very, very cute.

(Random House) - ‘Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil’ by Paul Bloom

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I am writing, of course, about babies. From afar, they may seem merely adorable, if a bit high-maintenance. But up close — and I say this as a parent of a 5-month-old and an 8-year-old — babies are nothing short of amazing. They arrive without the basic ability to survive on their own; unlike other animals, humans can’t birth heads big enough to hold mature brains. And yet there is clearly a lot going on inside those tiny skulls. Even in their first few months, infants quickly develop into little scientists, driven to master the rules of physics and human behavior. This is a fundamental pleasure of parenthood: watching a child discover the world.

Because we are built to forget those early days, no one can ever report firsthand on the experience of the initial year or so of life. But the internal workings of babies’ minds are not completely hidden, developmental psychologist Paul Bloom argues in his new book, “Just Babies.” Perhaps even more surprising: Bloom believes that morality can be discerned in even the youngest children. And he and other researchers have devised some clever experiments to prove it. In the 1980s, Bloom writes, “psychologists began making use of one of the few behaviors that young babies can control: the movement of their eyes.” In “looking time” studies, scientists observed what held babies’ gaze to figure out what they were interested in and bored with, what they expected and wanted to see, and what surprised them. This allowed researchers to demonstrate that babies have an inborn knowledge of rudimentary physics and math — after being shown a series of many paired objects, for example, they will stare longer when shown a group of three, suggesting that they understand that there is a difference between two and three.

But do they also have an innate sense of right and wrong? Bloom describes one experiment in which babies watched puppet-like geometric shapes that either “helped” or “hindered” one another. For example, a red ball going up a hill might be pushed along (helped) by a yellow square, or pushed down (hindered) by a green triangle. Almost all of the 6- and 10-month-olds in the study reached for the “helper” puppet over the “hinderer” puppet, while 3-month-olds, unable to reach out intentionally, looked longer at the helper than at the hinderer. They knew the good guy when they saw him.

In related studies, Bloom and other researchers have witnessed empathy, compassion, fairness and a sense of justice in babies, toddlers and older children. (Despite the title of the book, Bloom roams about various age groups.) “I think that we are finding in babies what philosophers in the Scottish enlightenment described as a moral sense,” he writes. They have, in other words, a sense of good and bad, if not always the ability or, perhaps, inclination to act on it.

Bloom rebuts the view that infant morality is evidence of a higher power at work. “What I am proposing,” he writes, “is that certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee, or from school or church; they are instead the products of biological evolution.” He asserts that altruism, despite evidence to the contrary, is inborn, the result of evolution: “Natural selection is not clairvoyant; it responds to current contingencies, not to anticipated future environments, so maladaptive behavior in the here and now is fully consistent with evolutionary theory.”

Like the best sort of college professor, Bloom handily weaves into his argument instructive précis of the ideas of historical thinkers — Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hobbes, et al. — in addition to contemporary figures such as Peter Singer and even the comedian Louis C.K. Bloom has a talent for distilling scholarly work (his and others’) into accessible, appealing prose. Although he seems to be asking the reader to take some fairly big leaps — can an infant’s eye movements possibly mean that much? — he writes with both an authority and an openness that suggest he would enjoy a lively discussion with any skeptics.

Which is not to say that Bloom is wavering in his convictions, especially when it comes to the secularity of innate morality. In arguing against a god factor, Bloom writes that “we create the environments that can transform an only partially moral baby into a very moral adult.” He’s speaking of humanity as a whole; we are becoming a kinder species, he maintains, not because a higher power rewrote our code at some point, but because reason and intellect drive us to be better: “Our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”

But I think his point is salient for individual families, too. Our work as parents, beyond providing comfort, nourishment and safety, is to cultivate that kind and happy spirit our babies are born with. This jolly little infant who sits on my lap as I write, cooing and grunting and wiggling his newfound fingers, already has a sense of how to be good. He just needs a nudge in the right direction.

Sara Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer.

JUST BABIES

The Origins of Good and Evil

By Paul Bloom

Crown. 273 pp. $26

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