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Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human Hardcover – 24 Mar 2004

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"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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His book How Children Learn the Meaning of Words won the Award for Excellence from the Association of American Publishers. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 19 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A fantastic book! 22 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on
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.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Dualism is for Babies 24 Oct. 2004
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
We have handled with equanimity the concept that the Earth is not the center of the universe, though some good fellows who championed that idea when it was new suffered mightily for doing so. Most of us, even the redoubtable Catholic Church, have accepted that evolution explains animal diversity and even the emergence of humans, although there are some who for religious (not scientific) reasons are kicking and screaming in refusal. Science cannot itself take on the existence of gods, for that is not a scientific question, nor is the existence of an afterlife. But souls; now there is something that science, and especially modern neuroscience, might go to work on. In _Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human_ (Basic Books), Paul Bloom takes an even more basic approach, hardly mentioning such technological wonders as the scanners that show brains at work. He examines a wealth of clever experiments on babies and children to answer about babies the question posed more often about disreputable politicians: "What do they know, and when do they know it?" The answers provide an entertaining and informative evaluation of what we might be able to tell about souls.

René Descartes promoted "dualism": the body exists, and it is a machine of meat which, when it is alive, is coupled with an immaterial soul. This, according to Bloom, is a natural view; evolution itself has made us into dualists. We are wired to perceive material objects and mental manifestations as separate entities, and so naturally we think of the two as separate realms. But that we evolved that way is not an argument that it is the right way to think of things. From the very beginning, experiments show, babies treat the world as dual. Bloom goes on to explain experiments that show that children have inborn knowledge of fairness that is at the heart of our ability to get along with others. "... Our moral feelings are no less adaptations than our taste for sweet foods and our perception of solid objects." We are from an early age able to empathize with the pain of others, which leads to compassion and to helping them; it's all commendable behavior, and no less so because we come into the world hard-wired to perform it.

We perform it because it pays to perform it, and it simply gives us a reproductive advantage. Empathetic people (and those with altruism and other laudable traits described here) are most successful at working in societies, and we are social animals. What's more, they will be more effective in understanding and raising children, and so the behavior will be passed on. Bloom is clearly a materialist, not a dualist, but wisely avoids any attempt to prove the issue. What he has done instead is not to examine if dualism is justified, but merely why belief in it is so prevalent. The belief that objects are not really solid is just as fundamentally unnatural as the belief that mind is an emergent physical property of the brain. This could be heavy stuff, and philosophers have argued heavily for centuries one way or the other. But Bloom has a diverse array of interests, and includes discussion of such subjects as slapstick humor, autism, modern art, and disgust. Those familiar with Noam Chomsky's claim that we have special "language organs" in our brains that make us linguistic creatures will find that idea mentioned here, but vastly expanded to show our "physics organ" and "social organ". Throughout Bloom has illustrated his arguments with summaries of his own or others' experiments on babies. Those who would expect a materialist also to be a pessimist will be disappointed; he declares himself to be a "morally optimistic materialist," and gives examples of moral improvement (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that would have made little sense to our forebears. Not bad for a bunch of natural-born dualists.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Superb-Written with great clarity, grace and intelligence 19 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an amazing book. It is written with great clarity, insight, and humor while at the same time preserving scientific and conceptual rigor-a very rare combination indeed. How often is one lucky enough to pick up a book covering complex issues in science and philosophy and find that it is so riveting that one stays up all night reading it?
Bloom addresses one of the deepest and most profound issues of what makes us human, our tendencies to see others as comprised of utterly distinct bodies and minds, that is the dualism of Descartes. While modern philosophers and cognitive scientists may largely reject dualism, the rest of us , and even those philosophers and scientists in their less reflective moments, embrace dualism so completely that it colors every aspect of our interpretations of others and of their activities.
Bloom's book brilliantly shows how this dualism is not some late emerging impression made by one's culture or society, instead it is a fundamental part of how our minds are built, and can be seen in rudimentary forms even in infancy. He explains how it emerges and why it makes sense that we should all be endowed with this assumption, even if it is in many ways severely misleading. He shows how our dualism explains an extraordinary range of otherwise puzzling phenomena in domains as diverse as disgust, art forgery, humor, religion and altruism. Bloom is a leading researcher on the development of children's minds who is also an award winning writer; and this book shows how these two skills can mutually reinforce each other in ways that create fascinating, enlightening, and engaging reading. Any one interested in children, in cognitive science, or simply in human nature, will find themselves adoring this book. This book is science writing at its very best.
40 of 49 people found the following review helpful
From baby steps to leaping to conclusions 6 May 2006
By David Weinberger - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In Descartes' Baby, Paul Bloom engagingly writes about research that shows babies are more sophisticated than we usually give them credit for. At a very early age, babies are aware of the constancy of objects, that appearances may be deceptive, and that other people may hold false beliefs. The problem is what Bloom makes of this.

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.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Embarrassing, disgusting, and immoral 11 May 2004
By A Customer - Published on
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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