[Book Review] Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom

OVERALL: Paul Bloom is a developmental psychologist, but in his exploration of human morality, Just Babies, he promises to include a broader disciplinary scope. True to his word, the text makes references to Herodotus as smoothly as Louis C.K., without straying from the point. Bloom’s thesis is clear: that morality is something all people have naturally, in varying degrees, and that it is developed and shaped just as any other human skill. He draws on classic philosophers Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, and Thomas Hobbes, but unlike those scholars, Bloom’s voice is conversational and will be easily digested by the modern reader. 

ON CONTENT: The points made in this book are easy to understand and well supported by current theories of developmental psychology. Familiarity, for example, makes us more likely to help someone; we recognize good and bad behavior in others before recognizing the same in ourselves; these points are predictable in any discussion of moral development. Some points might be surprising to readers, such as the conclusion that language differences are more influential, earlier in life, in the othering process than differences in appearance. In other words, it turns out that we’re more likely to consider someone an outsider based on our perception of their accent, than we would if they looked different from us.

In some ways, I found Bloom’s chapter on how we divide ourselves into us’s and them’s to be the most interesting chapter. Noting our tendency toward categorization and our innate biases toward the familiar, Bloom points out that what’s familiar isn’t necessarily what we look like, but rather what those around us look like – if we grow up in a diverse group, we’re more likely to be more accepting of diversity later in life, leading to more inclusive ‘us’ groups. Further, the biases we develop become self-perpetuating because we believe them to be true. The act of othering people, which we do automatically, causes us to tend to look down on ‘them,’ because our perception is that others are never as good – or as human – as us. The specific racial biases that are prevalent in the US are left out of this conversation because, as Bloom says, “The origins of these [racial or social group] generalizations are better understood through history and sociology than through psychology, neuroscience, or evolutionary biology. It would be absurd to explain the gross disparities between whites and blacks in America, for instance, without reference to the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow.” (p120)

I have few complaints about this book, and the ones I have feel nitpicky and vaguely incorrect. Overall, this was an academic work that is easy to read – fun, even – and informative. What’s not to love? I’ve already found myself recommending it to others and bringing it up in discussions.

Despite my doubts about my complaints, I’m going to voice them anyway. So here ya go:
Early on, Bloom describes the innate morality of humans as being unevenly distributed, but that statement becomes something to keep in mind, an under-explored caveat to the findings of the studies he references, rather than a defensible point. I felt as though the idea got left behind rather unceremoniously. Some other ideas, ones I felt had a bit of importance, got roughly the same treatment. Bloom’s narrative would be trundling along with an idea, I’d get all excited to hear what he thought about it, and then – poof – it was gone, just before the climax.

The mirror neurons issue was one such idea. Bloom reasons (with plenty of support) that mirror neurons cannot be sufficient to explain empathy as adaptation, but he neglects to engage whether or not they might still be necessary. Ultimately, he drops the ball by calling the role of mirror neurons uninteresting, and focuses instead on the role of empathy in moral psychology. To be fair, that might be more to the point of the book he was writing, and was probably a good call. This could be my own bias coming through – I’m interested in the neuroscience of empathy. I’d personally like to hear more about the potential role of mirror neurons in the development of empathy as it impacts how we do the othering process. If we don’t have answers for that yet (as Bloom seems to insinuate), I’d rather he just say so outright than call the idea uninteresting.

In a later chapter, Bloom gives a great explanation of the ways our biases are shaped and affected by disgust. “Empathy triggers an appreciation of another’s personhood; disgust leads you to construe the other as diminished and revolting, lacking humanity.” (p140) However, Bloom’s argument here falls short toward the end. He illustrates how most of our disgust reactions – such as those to excrement or rotten food – are easily explained as evolutionary adaptations, and he acknowledges the shortcomings of adaptation as a mechanism for the development of some of western society’s social mores regarding sexuality. Moving into the discussion of the development of sexual morality, Bloom questions why, since homosexuals do not create any risk to the gene pool, and homosexuality may actually strengthen social bonds (as we now know it does for bonobos), there is no evolutionary reason for the social bias against homosexuality. He concludes, then, that “this aspect of moral psychology is a biological accident. It just so happens that evolved systems that keep us away from parasites and poisons respond in a certain negative way to sexual acitivity. Over the course of history, this aversive reaction has been reinforced, directed, and sanctified by various cultural practices.” (p153) What Bloom is missing, when he questions why other people’s sexual activities should matter to us at all, is that they matter very much when you have a social order built on a hetero-monogamous construct which creates and contains the wealth of the participants. Just as one cannot determine the origins of racial bias without looking at the historical precedents, we cannot look at homophobia or non-monogamy biases without examining those historical precedents. Bloom is almost there; he’s so close, that I wonder if the connection was meant to be implied, and I just missed it somehow.

No matter. I’ll still be re-reading this book for my future research projects. I have no doubt.


BOOK REVIEWED: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom. 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-88685-9

I received a copy of this book for review from Random Publishing House, via bloggingforbooks.org.


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