Is morality innate? In his new book, “Just Babies,” the psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.” Infants may be notoriously difficult to study (rats and pigeons “can at least run mazes or peck at levers”), but according to Bloom, they are, in fact, “moral creatures.”
Related to the Radio Lab post yesterday, Simon Baron-Cohen reviews a book by Paul Bloom on the innate morality displayed by human babies. I pretty much gave my opinion on this topic in yesterday’s post, they are similar to Bloom’s, but Baron-Cohen expresses some skepticism of the idea.
One of the problems in scientifically establishing innateness in humans is that it’s impossible to do it in a way to please a determined skeptic. There are ethical limits on what can be done to test instincts in humans. That means that the effects of culture can never be completely ruled out.
Behavior observed across cultures may be innate, or simply a very ancient cultural practice that is old enough to be in several different cultures today. However, I think a case can be made that universally observed behavior does imply innateness. Cultures are constantly adopting and discarding certain behaviors, and for a particular behavior to have survived in all observed cultures would seem, to me, to imply some kind of human innateness.
Of course, any theory of innateness is always subject to being falsified if cultures are found without that behavior. That’s science.
But I suspect that in many ways, how you respond to this idea largely determines your attitude toward evolutionary psychology. If you think establishing cross cultural behavior implies innateness, then you probably find evolutionary psychology to be a valid field. If you are skeptical that such evidence actually implies innateness, then you probably won’t see evolutionary psychology as very useful.
- The Poison of Force (christianmichael.org)
- Our Genetic Moral Code (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Is morality innate? A debate in the NYT book review (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Disgust is not innate (alessandroinnocenti.wordpress.com)
- [tt] NYT Book Review of Paul Bloom: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (stirling-westrup-tt.blogspot.com)
- Babies Don’t Know Jack About Morality (jasonranderson.com)
- Dogs Have Innate Ability to Predict Human Behavior (counselheal.com)
- Research shows babies have a moral compass: Children want to see wrongdoing punished at 8 months old. (aconservativeedge.wordpress.com)
- Paul Bloom on the Situational Effects of Religion (thesituationist.wordpress.com)