Out of the Mouth of Babes: Paul Bloom, Baby Morality, and the Origins of Racism
In a rather wonderful post urging conservatives to proactively learn about people who are transgender, Dennis says the following:
Which is why I think conservatives will come around, just like they are when it comes to homosexuality. It will happen when they encounter people who are transgender. It’s one thing to tear apart a symbol, it’s quite different when your argument is flesh and blood.
I noted there how strongly I believe this to be true. Indeed, I believe the one man most responsible for the tidal wave of acceptance to gays and lesbians that is washing through this country is none other than Karl Rove. “Everyone look at all the gay people!” spittled Rove for six years straight in an attempt to distract the nation from his team’s poor performance. And so everyone did look, and having looked discovered that there really wasn’t a boogeyman hiding under the bed.
Dennis’s comment gives me an excuse (like I really need one) to do a quick post on the studies of Paul Bloom, whose work is sadly missing from our current debates on another of society’s bugaboos: race.
Paul Bloom is a cognitive science professor at Yale whose research has given us some insight into the morality of babies, which, despite Rousseauian arguments otherwise, appears to exist (at least in a foundational sense) prior to our teachings. As Bloom noted in an interview with Scientific American,
The earliest signs are the glimmerings of empathy and compassion—pain at the pain of others, which you can see pretty soon after birth. Once they’re capable of coordinated movement, babies will often try to soothe others who are suffering, by patting and stroking.
The sort of research that I’ve been involved with personally, looking at the origins of moral judgment, is difficult to do with very young babies. But we have found that even 3-month-olds respond differently to a character who helps another than to a character who hinders another person. This finding hints that moral judgment might have very early developmental origins.
Most of Bloom’s research is both fascinating and challenging, or at least it is to a novice on such matters as myself. (For other such novices, I recommend his “pop-science” review book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, or this shorter NYT article by Bloom from 2009.) But what I find most eye-opening about Bloom’s research is what it says about the origins of racism.
Bloom’s data suggests that babies learn early on who are and are not part of their “kin.” Babies who are exposed to people of different color are less likely to see people of other races as outside of their own tribe.* What we term “racism” occurs later, stemming from social cues (e.g.: an elementary school where both black and white children attend, but where blacks sit at different tables during lunch).
When seen in the light of Bloom’s research, the full weight of consequence born from practices such as redlining is made depressingly clear. Prior to coming across Just Babies, my own assumption was that racism was a kind of tribalism that was hard-wired at birth, that it was the great gift of Western Civilization that allowed us to recognize and combat it at all. Bloom has turned this assumption on its head, and made me consider the uncomfortable notion that Western Civilization has actually taught racism to its denizens, who were in fact born without it. (As have other civilizations, it should be noted.)
When Dennis says “it’s one thing to tear apart a symbol, it’s quite different when your argument is flesh and blood,” therefore, he isn’t just speaking truth — he’s talking about reversing a perverse disease that we have chosen to infect ourselves with again and again over time.
If there is a better argument for not only desegregation but also a fostering of diversity, I have yet to see it.
* Which for me further bolsters the argument that the partition of is a man-made, not biological.