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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars witty, entertaining, interesting
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...
Published on 25 Aug 2004

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19 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Inaccurate and imprecise
This is one of those books that packs it pages with utterly unnecessary waffle and all 240 pages could be summed up in a page or two. The book includes sentences such as: "About 1.5 million species have been identified and described so far, an impressive number, but the number of patents in the United States alone is much greater: over 7 million." I read the chapter...
Published on 6 Aug 2004 by Amazon Customer


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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars witty, entertaining, interesting, 25 Aug 2004
By A Customer
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Roots of the infantile, 6 Nov 2007
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Pipistrel (Oxford United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Descartes' Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Paperback)
This is a brilliant account of how children naturally develop a divided view of the world, with minds or souls or spirits leading a separate life from bodies. Bloom describes many fascinating experiments, some of them ingeniously showing what infants think even before they can talk. It is all presented and discussed clearly with minimal resort to technical terms. My only quarrel - a small one - is with the title. Descartes invented a very unnatural dualism, which forbids spirits from interfering in any way with physical things. Children believe all too easily in witchcraft and magic and all kinds of hocus pocus, and many of them grow up into adults who imagine that disease and disaster are God's punishment for the sins of the people.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lively, entertaining, interesting read, 24 Aug 2004
By A Customer
Engaging and funny cognitive scientist Paul Bloom's second book is fascinating. 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 not just informative, but 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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is growing up, 18 May 2009
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The idea of an immaterial soul somehow connected to our physical bodies is hard to resist, and not just because it lies at the heart of many religions or because of great thinkers such as Descartes. We all begin life as "natural-born dualists" who "see the world as containing both physical things, which are governed by principles such as solidity and gravity, and immaterial minds, which are driven by emotions and goals." Even those of us who grow up to accept that "we are material beings" - "that the conscious self arises from a purely physical brain" - still use the language of dualism in phrases like "my brain". Throughout this brilliant book Paul Bloom describes these intuitions and challenges some of our most basic assumptions, drawing on discoveries from developmental psychology, clinical research and neuroscience to show the many ways in which we "understand and respond to the minds of other people."

"Babies prefer to look at faces more than just about anything else" and, by their first birthday, they are social beings. Before their second birthday, children "not only understand that people have desires, they also know that others' desires might differ from their own." Three-year-olds can tell the difference between an intentionally and an accidentally created object - they can "think about things in terms of design and purpose" and are beginning to display the "promiscuous teleology" that both enhances and frustrates our understanding of the world. Four-year-olds typically succeed at the "false-belief task" in which they must "reason about another actor's mental state." To pass this test, "you have to hold in your mind two conflicting pictures of the world": the world as it really is and the world as it is imagined by someone else. Throw into the mix the acquisition of language and we can see just how much is going on in those first few years.

It's hardly surprising that child development doesn't always run smoothly. Autistic children, for example, typically show impairments in communication and imagination and, most of all, "in the ability to interact appropriately with others." Psychologists have coined the term "mindblindness" to describe the most extreme form of autism, in which "people are seen as nothing more than objects". Bloom recounts an experience while working with autistic children as a teenage counsellor: "a severely impaired seven-year-old boy walked up to me and placed his hands on my shoulders" in what appeared at first to be a spontaneous act of affection. But then "he tightened his grip, jumped up... and started to climb". The boy was using Bloom as a ladder.

While autistic brains respond to faces as if they were objects, normal brains have a "tendency to ascribe intention to inanimate objects" - we anthropomorphize. Babies can ascribe mental states to geometrical shapes that are moving in a purposeful way and "young children are prone to see much of the physical and biological world as existing for a purpose, consisting of artifacts created by a divine designer". Even sophisticated theologians are seduced by "the argument from design". Resistance to Darwin's theory of natural selection - which explains "complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer" - is not only rooted in scripture but in our psychology: we are "so hypersensitive to signs of agency that we see intention where all that really exists is artifice or accident".

This essentialist way of thinking - ascribing to objects "a nature that transcends their appearance" - "appears to be a basic component of how we think about the world". It "drives us to search for the deeper nature of things" and perhaps underpins our near universal religious impulse as well as our natural curiosity about the world. Modern science, however, is often counterintuitive: evolutionary theory, for example, "violates hardcore essentialism, as it conflicts with the notion that species have immutable essences (they do not, they evolve)".

These fascinating insights into what makes us human prepare the ground for Bloom to explore the idea "that the roots of morality are innate" rather than handed down on tablets of stone. Empathy, for example, emerges very early, and "by the time children are about two years of age, they care about others and will act to make them feel better." Within another year the child gets truly moral and can experience pride, shame and guilt. As we grow and mature, our "enhanced social intelligence allows us to reason about how other people will act and react in situations that do not yet exist, so as to plan and assess the consequences of our own actions." Seeing these situations "from another person's point of view" is crucial for our moral sense.

Eventually, unless trapped by narrow religious or social custom, we "come to transcend our innate, parochial, moral sense" and seek ways to expand "the original moral circle" defined by "kin selection and reciprocal altruism". One hugely important endpoint of such a process is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represents tremendous moral progress. "In both morality and science, each generation has the advantage of the insights of all the generations that have come before" (contradicting writers like John Gray, who have a rather more dismal view of humanity).

Some consider the Golden Rule to be the pinnacle of moral achievement, forgetting that such a crude principle is compatible with, for example, slavery, "so long as you restrict the moral circle so that the Golden Rule does not apply to those you would take as slaves". The good news is that we can work towards expanding our moral circle, through recognizing our mutual interdependence, having increased contact with diverse groups, persuading with images and stories, and gathering moral insight. Bloom admits that, for some, the "notion that our souls are flesh is profoundly troubling" but he ends on a positive note: "only now, with the converging work of philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary theorists, is it possible to be a morally optimistic materialist."
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19 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Inaccurate and imprecise, 6 Aug 2004
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This is one of those books that packs it pages with utterly unnecessary waffle and all 240 pages could be summed up in a page or two. The book includes sentences such as: "About 1.5 million species have been identified and described so far, an impressive number, but the number of patents in the United States alone is much greater: over 7 million." I read the chapter carefully but I still can't fathom his point.

And some of his arguments are very poor. For example, he states: "In a national survey, Americans were asked whether they agreed with the statement: 'TWO PEOPLE from the SAME RACE will always be more genetically similar to each other than TWO PEOPLE from DIFFERENT RACES.' Most adults agreed with this statement [Author's caps]." The key word is, of course, 'always'. I might have chosen two people with wildly different sets of genes within the same race and two people with very similar sets of genes from the two different 'races'. Only one gene perhaps separates them race-wise. Hence you should disagree with this statement.

But Bloom then goes on to say: "In fact, two randomly chosen members of the same race are genetically far more different from each other than the average member of one race is from the average member of another." Really? If he is talking about some measure of DNA, surely there is a good chance that two randomly chosen members of the same race are average and hence are as likely to be close to each other as to any 'averages' between the two different races?

His information is poor too. He wrote, for example: "...when England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 ... farmers rioted because they worried that the lost 11 days would ruin the growing season!" This is just an early urban myth.
There are much better popular science books to buy on Amazon than this.
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3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Easy to read, 22 Jun 2007
This review is from: Descartes' Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Paperback)
This book is generally easy and entertaining to read.

Although I am not sure how scientific the scientific tests are as quoted in the book, the pool of samples seem to be inadequate to represent a general population - the observation on babies is interesting and is definitely hard to justify, but, for example, to claim that most adult would have thought a ball shooting out of a C-shaped tube is going to have a circular projection is rather unbelievable.
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