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Descartes' Baby: How The Science Of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human Hardcover – April 13, 2004

3.8 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Erudite cognitive scientist Bloom (How Children Learn the Meaning of Words) deftly reconciles notions of human mental life—in art, religious belief and morality—with the latest in child development research. Bloom's central thesis is that what makes us uniquely human is our dualism: our understanding that there are material objects, or bodies, and people, or souls. He opens with evidence of babies' capacity to understand physical processes. What's more, he argues, children can anticipate the goals and intentions of others—an ability he calls "mindreading." In a fascinating summary of research into children's ideas about representation, Bloom highlights a fundamental human cognitive preoccupation with intention. It is this preoccupation, he suggests, that explains the value of art in human society. In a similar vein, Bloom says, morality and altruism are inborn, not learned. Further, he argues counterintuitively that empathy and rationality can be mutually reinforcing, while impartiality and reasoned argument often have emotional roots. Keenly focused on child development as a gold mine for truths about human cognition, Bloom confidently—but never aggressively—engages with the thought of Chomsky, Dennett, Gould, Pinker and Piaget. His prose abounds with lively examples from conceptual art, contemporary fiction and his own child-rearing observations. The result is a delightful and humane study that makes rewarding reading for those interested in cognitive psychology's broader implications.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Paul Bloom's premise in Descartes' Baby is that we are natural-born dualists. As infants, we instinctively divide the world into physical objects and mental states, and we reason differently about the two. Babies find it perfectly natural for a person to begin moving without coming into physical contact with anything but are surprised if an object moves under the same conditions. Out of the dichotomy between things and people grows our conviction that body and mind are distinct entities -- that physical things are driven by principles such as solidity and gravity and immaterial minds are driven by emotions and goals. Bloom does a masterly job of illustrating how we manipulate our dualism. We are able to see the same object as part of either the physical world or the mental world. We think differently about a painting by Vermeer and one that was painted to look like a Vermeer. We judge not only the physical product but also the creative act that led to the product, an act that is intimately tied to the goals of the creator. We can thus see a thing as more than a thing. But we can also see a person as less than a person. Disgust is a reaction to the physical, and when we use the term to describe our reaction to people, we are, in effect, turning those people into physical objects -- we can then scorn them, ignore them, or even kill them. In skillful prose that weaves together clinical research, literature, philosophy, neuroscience, and captivating examples from children (some of the best are from his own family), Bloom makes the case that responding differently to physical things and to immaterial minds is adaptive, an unsurprising product of evolutionary pressures. Moreover, the capacity to respond to the minds of others, which has developed during evolutionary time, has led to unexpected by-products during historical time. These by-products are some of our most interesting and distinctive traits -- the ability to construct religions, value art, and hold moral beliefs, to name just a few featured in the book. Bloom also makes a thought-provoking case for historical progress, not only in our dealings in the physical world but also in the moral world -- we are "nicer to one another than we used to be," Bloom writes. In addition to outlining change over evolutionary and historical timescales, Bloom tackles change over ontogenetic time. His examples from the world of developmental psychology are some of his best, since this is his own discipline. Bloom is careful not to claim that babies are full-blown dualists. The bias to see objects as distinct from people provides the foundation for a dualist stance, but that orientation needs to be fleshed out by children as they interact with members of their culture. Bloom stops here. He does not consider the possibility of a culture that eschews dualism -- a culture in which it does not make sense to ask whether the mind affects the body (or vice versa) because the two are one and the same. Are there nondualist cultures? Could there be? What type of historical trajectory might lead to nondualism? What type of developmental path would children born into nondualist cultures follow? Although it does not raise these questions, Bloom's far-reaching and provocative book brings novel speculations of this sort into bold relief and thus maps out the terrain for a new generation of thinkers. Susan Goldin-Meadow, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (April 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046500783X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465007837
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,229,590 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on April 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Engaging and funny cognitive scientist Paul Bloom's second book is a fascinating read. In it, he argues that we are wired to view the world as containing both bodies and souls. Bloom argues convincingly that it is for this reason, that even when the idea of psychophysical dualism clashes with our intellectual understanding of bodies and souls, we still maintain vestiges of a belief in the immaterial soul. His discussions of a huge range of fascinating issues make this book a must-read.
Descartes' Baby is incredibly fun to read, and is smattered with bits of humor and amusing anecdotes about real children and adults. Indeed, one of the most humorous moments in this lively book is Bloom's account of a neuroscientist colleague's culinarily-motivated search for animals without a certain neural structure, because, he reasoned, animals without this certain structure surely didn't have consciousness and therefore we safe to eat.
Another strength of the book is Bloom's treatment of disgust. His view is both interesting and nuanced and falls naturally from his argument that we are intuitive dualists at heart. Other high points are his discussion of art and forgery, and his quite funny discussion of humor.
It's not often that I read nonfiction. Normally I find it either too pedantic or too technical and narrow in scope to appeal to an outsider. One of the tremendous strengths of this book is that someone without training in developmental psychology or philosophy can follow it with ease, while still finding it intellectually satisfying.
This book is truly a gem -- both entertaining and important. It's a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered about human nature.
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Format: Hardcover
We have handled with equanimity the concept that the Earth is not the center of the universe, though some good fellows who championed that idea when it was new suffered mightily for doing so. Most of us, even the redoubtable Catholic Church, have accepted that evolution explains animal diversity and even the emergence of humans, although there are some who for religious (not scientific) reasons are kicking and screaming in refusal. Science cannot itself take on the existence of gods, for that is not a scientific question, nor is the existence of an afterlife. But souls; now there is something that science, and especially modern neuroscience, might go to work on. In _Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human_ (Basic Books), Paul Bloom takes an even more basic approach, hardly mentioning such technological wonders as the scanners that show brains at work. He examines a wealth of clever experiments on babies and children to answer about babies the question posed more often about disreputable politicians: "What do they know, and when do they know it?" The answers provide an entertaining and informative evaluation of what we might be able to tell about souls.

René Descartes promoted "dualism": the body exists, and it is a machine of meat which, when it is alive, is coupled with an immaterial soul. This, according to Bloom, is a natural view; evolution itself has made us into dualists. We are wired to perceive material objects and mental manifestations as separate entities, and so naturally we think of the two as separate realms. But that we evolved that way is not an argument that it is the right way to think of things. From the very beginning, experiments show, babies treat the world as dual.
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This is an amazing book. It is written with great clarity, insight, and humor while at the same time preserving scientific and conceptual rigor-a very rare combination indeed. How often is one lucky enough to pick up a book covering complex issues in science and philosophy and find that it is so riveting that one stays up all night reading it?
Bloom addresses one of the deepest and most profound issues of what makes us human, our tendencies to see others as comprised of utterly distinct bodies and minds, that is the dualism of Descartes. While modern philosophers and cognitive scientists may largely reject dualism, the rest of us , and even those philosophers and scientists in their less reflective moments, embrace dualism so completely that it colors every aspect of our interpretations of others and of their activities.
Bloom's book brilliantly shows how this dualism is not some late emerging impression made by one's culture or society, instead it is a fundamental part of how our minds are built, and can be seen in rudimentary forms even in infancy. He explains how it emerges and why it makes sense that we should all be endowed with this assumption, even if it is in many ways severely misleading. He shows how our dualism explains an extraordinary range of otherwise puzzling phenomena in domains as diverse as disgust, art forgery, humor, religion and altruism. Bloom is a leading researcher on the development of children's minds who is also an award winning writer; and this book shows how these two skills can mutually reinforce each other in ways that create fascinating, enlightening, and engaging reading. Any one interested in children, in cognitive science, or simply in human nature, will find themselves adoring this book. This book is science writing at its very best.
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