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Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human Paperback – International Edition, April 27, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Erudite cognitive scientist Bloom (How Children Learn the Meaning of Words) deftly reconciles notions of human mental lifein art, religious belief and moralitywith 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 othersan 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 confidentlybut never aggressivelyengages 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
There is, however, at least one point where Bloom goes sadly astray. It is in the very last section of the last chapter ("The Body and Soul Emotion") of the third section ("Part III - The Social Realm") and it is titled "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (pp. 182-186 in the paperback edition). It is his discussion of humor. It makes it abundantly clear that Bloom is rather dreary fellow with no real experience of the reality of children and laughter.
Bloom engages the notion that humor lies in any sort of "shift of perspective" or "incongruity between what we expect and what actually happens." As Bloom sees it, this just won't do. The problem with this, as he explains it, is:
"The missing ingredient is a certain type of wickedness. No serious student of laughter could miss its cruel nature. The psychologist Robert Provine notes that despite laughter's sometimes gentle reputation, it can be an outrageously vicious sound. Not so long ago, the elite would find it endlessly amusing to visit insane asylums and laugh at the inmates; physical and mental deformity has always been a source of amusement. There was no shortage of laughter at public executions and floggings, and the sound is often an accompaniment to raping, looting, and killing in time of war. . .
"We're getting there, but it is too simple to see humor as a shifting frame of reference with an added dash of cruelty. It needs to be the right type of cruelty . . .
"The important ingredient here is a loss of dignity; someone is knocked off his pedestal, brought down a peg. Laughter can serve as a weapon, one that can be used by a mob. It is contagious and involuntary; it has great subversive power, so much so that Plato thought it should be banned from the state. . .
"Humor can also have a particularly direct relationship to the interplay between bodies and souls. Humor involves a shift in perspective, and one of the most striking shifts is when we move from seeing someone as a sentient being, a soul, to seeing the person merely as a body. . .
"In his study of American slapstick, Alan Dale notes that every funny act falls into one of two categories - the blow and the fall . . .
"Disgust, religion, and slapstick all traffic in what Dale calls `the debasing effect of the body on the soul.' But they do so indifferent ways. Disgust focuses on the body, dismissing the soul; religion, at least some part of the time, focuses on the soul and rejects the body. And slapstick is the richest of all, as it deals with both at the same time, showing a person with feeling and goals trapped in a treacherous physical shell . . .
"If you are in a bind and need to make a two-year-old laugh, the best way to do so is to adopt a surprised expression and fall on your ass."
So, in summary, according to Bloom, no laughter originates in joy, only in cruelty, however cleverly disguised. Humor always involves the denigration of others.
Bloom is dead wrong, as anyone with real experience of a happy child, laughing at the waves of the sea, at the joy of moving, at the sun and the wind can see directly. And those who, like Bloom, object to humor and who see it as only grounded in cruelty or disrespect, say, provide prima facia evidence that they take themselves far too seriously; that they are, in fact, whatever their capacities and attainments, still under the spell of what some like to call `the commanding self'. In this respect, they are companions of the hide-bound religious literalists, not of the Deity they `piously' invoke.
Bloom thinks those experiments prove babies are Cartesian dualists because they distinguish objects from belief-holding humans. But dualism isn't simply the belief that there's a difference between people and objects. We were making that distinction before Descartes. Cartesian dualism conceives of the mental and the physical as so distinct and different that it doesn't seem the two could ever even interact. And that's not a distinction babies make. If "dualism" means that we distinguish conscious critters from inanimate things, then, yes, we're all dualists. But what have we learned except a new definition of "dualist"?
Baby dualism isn't even necessary dual. I can believe that you are different from a log because you are aware of and care about your world without thinking that you are made of two types of substance. I don't think Bloom has shown much more than that babies are aware that logs don't think and feel but people do.
This "insight" doesn't give Bloom much of a lever for understanding the Big Issues he deals with: Art, philosophy, religion, ethics... For example, he wonders how we can be moved by "anxious objects," i.e., art such as Warhol's Brillo boxes or conceptual art such as a dead horse hung from the ceiling. Most of the chapter goes through the predictable explanations of why we respond to art. At the end he acknowledges that he hasn't yet explained the appeal of "anxious" art. The big explanation: "...We enjoy displays of skill, of virtuosity, both physical and intellectual." But that's true of non-anxious art, and not true of all anxious art. Without acknowledging this, he moves on to say that we enjoy anxious art because we can see the human intention in it. But, again, that's true of all art, not just anxious art. His investigation does not come close to answering the question he raises. (Artworks are a good example of the impossibility of separating the physical and the intentional...evidence against dualism.)
Likewise, his explanation of why children tend to believe in Creationism (AKA Intelligent Design) - it is "a natural by-product of a mind evolved to think in terms of goals and intentions" - doesn't help. Animism also seems to be a "natural by-product." So what? How does this socio-biological explanation help? Likewise for his explanation of altruism, his discussion of essentialism - which waters the concept down the way the book waters down "dualism" - his consideration of the origin of religious beliefs, etc.
The book is exceptionally well written and engaging. The baby research is fascinating. But I think it fails as an attempt to make something big out of that research.
Most recent customer reviews
Paul Bloom's book of _Descartes' Baby_ offers a rich and satisfying exploration of this existential question.Read more