When We Learn Right and Wrong

Wayne L. Trotta

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013, ISBN Hardcover, 978-0-307-88684-2; e-book, 978-0-30788686-6) 274 pp. Hardcover, $26.00.


In the late 1980s, as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student in psychology, Paul Bloom teamed up with Steven Pinker to write a groundbreaking article on the evolution of language, “Natural Selection and Natural Language.” The idea of language as an evolved capacity had been inherent in Noam Chomsky’s hypothesized Language Acquisition Device, but where Chomsky had reservations, Pinker and Bloom dove in headfirst and, in the process, established language evolution as a valid branch of study.

Bloom went on to Yale University to study language acquisition in children, but he has also had a long-standing interest in moral psychology. His latest book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, is a compendium of recent research demonstrating that babies as young as three months of age possess capacities that appear to be the rudiments of what Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith would have called a “moral sense.” In other words, we are born with a basic understanding of right and wrong. Contrary to Genesis 8:21 (“the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”), we seem to be possessed of moral universals from the moment of birth, and while some aspects of morality such as prohibitions against slavery and sexism are clearly learned, even these are ultimately rooted in our biological moral endowment.

I first became acquainted with Bloom’s work through an essay of his titled “Is God an Accident?,” which was originally published in The Atlantic and was later selected to appear in the 2006 edition of The Best American Science Writing. In that article, Bloom floated his hypothesis that God-belief is a by-product of our natural human tendency to view ourselves as dualistic entities. Common sense, and a quick personal survey, reveals us to ourselves as physical bodies housing a nonmaterial entity that we come to refer to as the “psyche,” “spirit,” “soul,” or even the “self.” It is a short leap from this view of things to the profoundly comforting notion that the soul is not limited by the body and, indeed, may live on after the body’s demise. The alternative idea that the “psyche is what the brain does” is so counterintuitive that common sense won’t even consider it. As Bloom put it in his 2004 book, Descartes’ Baby, the belief in a physical basis for thought, despite the empirical evidence in its favor, remains “very much a minority viewpoint.” Widespread belief in God, then, may be understood as an accidental offshoot of the fact that we humans are natural-born Cartesians.

In Just Babies, Bloom reviews a number of the so-called “looking-time” studies that have shown, for example, that babies will look look longer at unexpected events and quickly become bored and look away from depictions of business as usual. For instance, in the first stage of one such experiment, babies are shown an animation of a red ball trying to climb a hill, while a yellow square helps it up the hill or a green triangle hinders its progress. In the second phase of this experiment, the animations will show the red ball approaching either the yellow square or the green triangle, and babies nine to twelve months of age will look longer when the ball unexpectedly approaches the previously hindering green triangle.

According to Bloom, these babies are making bona fide social judgments and, before the age of two, will be able to take their social acumen to a yet more-sophisticated level. For example, suppose that fifteenth-month-old babies are permitted to watch an adult as he or she views an object being placed in a particular box. The babies then continue to observe as the now-blindfolded adult is unable to see the object being moved to another box. These babies later on expect the adult to look for the object in the original box, an amazing display for fifteen-month-olds of what is called “theory of mind.” Even at this early age, babies are able to make inferences as to what another person knows and doesn’t know so as to make a prediction about how that person will subsequently behave. Knowing that other people have minds and thoughts like their own clears the way for the human infant’s development of empathy, a basic characteristic of the moral individual.

Beyond a moral sense and a capacity for empathy, evolution has also equipped our species with a rudimentary sense of fairness (that resources should be divided equally) and of justice (that the bad should be punished, the good rewarded). This sounds like the complete moral tool kit, but Bloom is quick to point out that our “innate goodness is limited.” Thomas Hobbes had it right when he argued that, left to ourselves, we human beings would quickly descend into an existence dominated by wickedness and self-interest. Indeed, Bloom reviews a sizeable literature showing that, before the age of four, kids seldom show unprompted kindness toward strangers.

So what explains our deeply held higher moral values such as freedom of conscience and sexual and racial equality and our willingness to make sacrifices for others whom we may never meet? Political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and geneticist Francis Collins view such behavior as inconsistent with natural selection because it confers no reproductive advantage and may even take one out of the gene pool altogether. As conservative Christians, the only explanation they can offer is that altruism toward strangers is evidence of God’s workings in the human soul. And, as Bloom points out, they are not waxing metaphorical here; they mean this in the most literal sense.

If D’Souza and Collins are right, then because motives depend on brains, God’s handiwork should be discoverable as a brain alteration occurring sometime after the human line split from that of other primates. The study of our altruistic motives, therefore, could lead to neurological proof of God’s existence. However, the view that higher altruism represents an evolutionary contradiction fails to take into account the fact that natural selection cares nothing about the future and is reactive only to present moment variables. It is entirely compatible with natural selection that evolved altruistic behavior could be triggered today by contingencies having no biological payoff whatsoever. Bloom gives the example here of lust, a trait that seems clearly to have evolved to promote reproductive behavior. But, as a result of lust, a fair amount of human seed gets spilled in the course of behavior that is reproductively irrelevant. Would D’Souza and Collins want to say that masturbation, for example, is an evolutionary conundrum and, as such, a proof of divine intervention?

But if neither biology nor God fully explain our most moral of moral principles, what does? Bloom’s answer: we do. “We create the environments that can transform an only partially moral baby into a very moral adult.” Perhaps the best analogy here is to language. Without the evolutionarily endowed capacity to learn language, experience and environmental influences could accomplish little. But without those effects at a critical period in individual development, the language organ would atrophy from disuse. This seems to be the case with the “wild” children who are reared without language exposure; when subsequently immersed in a language-rich environment, they are able to acquire a simple vocabulary, but they remain oblivious to the rules of grammar and syntax. So it is with morality. Without the biological moral endowment, societal and cultural influences would be hopeless, but withou
t those influences, our moral potential would remain just that—potential—realized only barely if at all.

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale Uni­versity. He is not only one of our premier psychological scientists, he is also a gifted writer and teacher. He writes in a breezy, personable style while bringing instant clarity to studies with the most convoluted methodologies and contradictory findings, and he does this with brevity and a great, often self-effacing sense of humor. When observing, for example, that people can be self-centered even while responding to another’s distress, Bloom tells the story of a lunch date with his wife and research colleague, Karen Wynn. When Karen mentioned how thirsty she was, Bloom writes, “I politely handed over my beer. She looked at me. After a moment, I figured it out. She hates beer. I like beer.” So, yes, it seems that Bloom is the kind of evolutionary psychologist that anyone, except for his wife, would want to have a beer with.

Bloom’s latest book is fascinating because it stands right at the intersection at which ethical philosophy and psychological science cross. To what extent science can guide us in determining right from wrong is a hotly debated issue, but Just Babies makes it clear that the science of moral psychology can legitimately promise a more thorough understanding of who we are as moral beings.


Wayne L. Trotta

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent  reviewer for Free Inquiry.

A review of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom.

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