Tuesday, March 3, 2015

#Nonfiction #Psychology 'Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil' by Paul Bloom

I majored in psychology in college, and I'm still fascinated by the science of how the human mind works. For that reason, I decided to read Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

The author, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, states in the preface that some of his inspiration for this work combining developmental and evolutionary psychology with moral philosophy was a book by Adam Smith which Bloom had studied in Edinburgh. Smith is more widely known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often shortened to The Wealth of Nations), but the volume that concerned Bloom was The Theory of the Moral Sentiments

In his 1749 work, Smith claimed human beings were born with a sense of morality. Bloom also brings in Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1787, "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much part of [a hu]man as his [or her] leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree."

Bloom goes on to demonstrate, using evidence gleaned from various scientific studies, that psychologists tend to favor the view that some of what we call morality is inborn to human beings. The first chapter deals explicitly with what "morality" might mean in human beings who are less than two years old. Subsequent chapters branch out into what morality means in adults, because we have to understand what kinds of behaviors we're talking about when we try to define what moral behavior is. 

Overall, Bloom's evidence suggests the moral picture of the human species is a fairly optimistic one. Human beings do seem to be wired to be empathetic and helpful to one another, even when acts of kindness do not immediately reward us. Interestingly, Bloom also cites evidence of empathetic behavior in non-human animals. Even rats hate to see other rats suffering.

Even though the title is a bit of a misdirect, since the entire construction doesn't deal exclusively with infant morality, the research itself is fascinating. Not only that, but Bloom has organized it into chapters that are clear, intuitive, and readable. I don't think one would need to be a psychology major to understand this book. Like Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye the Science Guy, Bloom has the gift of translating scientific concepts into everyday language.  

About the Author: Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He is the author or editor of six books, including the acclaimed How Pleasure Works. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, and his scientific and popular articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Science, Slate, The Best American Science Writing, and many other publications. He lives in New Haven with his wife [Karen Wynn, also a professor of psychology at Yale] and two sons. Visit his website at paulbloomatyale.com and follow him on Twitter at @paulbloomatyale.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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