Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom

Descartes’ Baby starts off with an anecdote about, fittingly enough, Rene Descartes.  He reportedly had an automoton daughter that behaved as a real girl would, which disturbed those around him so much that one man tossed it into the sea.  It was an interesting story, and has something to do with behavior — but didn’t really have anything to do with what child development tells us about all human behavior.  The opening to the book is an indication of what the reader has ahead of him; while the book discusses human behavior and how children are the same as or different than adults, a lot of the material seems to be evidence in support of the genetic basis for behaviors that already are thought to have a genetic basis, rather than presenting new discoveries that only studying children could provide.

To be fair to Bloom, a lot of the information he gives the reader is really interesting.  I loved his explanation of studies done on normal people and people with autism to discover the differences in the behaviors and expectations of the two populations.  I also enjoyed his discussion on magical thinking.  Children of fundamentalist Christians and of atheists both have a propensity for thinking that there is some sort of God or supernatural power that shapes the universe.  This stuff is cool, because it points toward definite genetic or brain structure reasons for people’s behavior.

What was disappointing to me was how much time Bloom spent on adult behavior.  I expected a book about how children behave, then a little bit about how that ties in with how grown-up people do things.  Instead, Bloom spends a lot of time discussing how and why adults do things, how they classify words and behaviors, and how they feel.  For example, Bloom spends a good amount of time talking about how adults classify morality.  He then gives an instance where children appear to also use that definition when deciding whether actions or people are good or bad.  That’s super.  What that tells us, though, is not that the study of children exposed some hitherto unknown facet of human thinking and behavior.  It tells us that developmental psychology can provide us with support for theories we already have about how people act.

If Descartes’ Baby had been presented in this way — that it is about how developmental psychology adds to our knowledge base on what it means to be human — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Much like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which doesn’t really talk all that much about Nathaniel, I felt like I was always waiting for the second shoe to drop — I’d finally see how child development explains all!  Alas, that never happened.  This book was ruined for me by its marketing.  It oversold itself in its subtitle, and it didn’t recover from the disappointment that caused.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

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