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Descartes' Baby: How the Science Of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human [Hardcover]

Paul Bloom
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 13 2004
"If you really want to understand human nature, you must observe people as they are before they are corrupted by language and culture, by MTV and Hebrew school. You must look at babies." So contends psychologist Paul Bloom-whom Steven Pinker calls "the wunderkind of cognitive science"-in this fascinating account of how we learn to make sense of reality. All humans see the world in two fundamentally different ways: Even babies have a rich understanding of both the physical and social worlds. They expect objects to obey principles of physics, and they're startled when things disappear or defy gravity. Yet they can also read emotions and respond with anger, sympathy, and joy.In Descartes' Baby, Bloom draws on a wealth of scientific discoveries to show how these two ways of knowing give rise to such uniquely human traits as humor, disgust, religion, art, and morality. The myriad ways that our dualist perspectives, born in infancy, undergo development throughout our lives and profoundly influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions is the subject of this richly rewarding book.

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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.
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Review

"Paul Bloom is an excellent ambassador for cognitive developmental psychology.... Descartes' Baby incorporates the most recent and provocative theoretical ideas in cognitive science." American Scientist "[Bloom's] 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." Publishers Weekly" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Non-existence of the soul Dec 21 2004
Format:Hardcover
The name of this rather fascinating book is somewhat misleading: there is not too much in this book about child's psychology and a lot about psychology in general. Mr. Bloom, who is evidently a professional psychologist himself, created a very readable fusion of psychology, evolutionary biology and great multitude of historical and scientific facts.
When reading I could not stop recollecting myself as a child and juxtaposing the facts from the book with episodes from my childhood. For example, Mr. Bloom describes kids' imagining of God. As per one of the studies, they think that God is a human like creature with a voice and a face. Many kids in my kindergarten shared their vision of God in similar terms, but I remember a debate (if you can call it that) between other kids and me when we were arguing if God was a man or a woman. For some reason, the majority of kids were absolutely convinced that God was a man even though they could not explain why. The vision of God was changing with age - when I was a student, my professor of a set theory told me that God was infinity in its most abstract version. He was absolutely serious about that.
The book is practically infested with a great deal of facts and citations, which eloquently illustrate author's points. I have to admit that the author reminds me of Borges in this regard, whom he also mentions when describing some aspects of how human memory functions. Some of such illustrations are quite unusual. For example, when discussing the art and its role in human life, Mr. Bloom mentions a weird habit of Aristotle Onassis to have his barstools upholstered with the scrota of killer whales. Many might find it unusual at least and disgusting at most but it does perfectly illustrate how different human beings are in demonstration of status and power.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Embarrassing, disgusting, and immoral May 11 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Paul Bloom explains how it is that humans come to feel embarrassment, disgust, or moral revulsion (among other things). He argues that these feeling can be traced to our earliest development, in which we learn about the properties of objects and other people. These parallel developments interact to result in special feelings towards certain objects such as great works of art or decaying meat. Although feelings of embarrassment and disgust may not be limited to humans, he argues that without even negative emotions and feelings, we would not be fully human.
The book is full of witty and fascinating anecdotes, as well as thought-provoking questions. The first chapters lay the groundwork by reviewing recent findings about the development of infants. The book steadily gains in interest as these findings form the groundwork for intriguing discussions of emotion, morality, and religion.
Although the author is apparently a professor at Yale, the book can be read by anyone who is interested in children or in how we end up the way we are. In fact, as I got further and further into it, I could not put it down.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic book! April 22 2004
By A Customer
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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