Saturday, June 28, 2014

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Paul Bloom

I reviewed Paul Bloom's latest book for the December 2013 Literary Review; it is reproduced here with permission.

Why are we good? More interestingly, perhaps, why aren’t we better? As a species we are able to demonstrate astonishing capacities for kindness to others, but only to some of them (to other others we can be perfectly horrid). Explaining why our morality is so selective has been a perennial problem for moral philosophy and these days attracts as much interest from those who probe the mind and brain with scientific methods.

Many of the recent morality headlines have centred around so-called ‘trolley’ problems. Would you flip a switch to change the path of a runaway railway trolley from a track where there are five incapacitated people to a track where there is just one? Probably. Would you push an overweight fellow from a bridge into the path of the trolley if it had the same net effect? Probably not. The growth of ‘trolleyology’ and other experimental methods has allowed psychologists to describe the often trivial factors that weigh on our moral judgements and cognitive neuroscientists to get busy tracing their neural underpinnings.

In his new book, Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Yale, argues that we should not seek the origins of moral behaviour exclusively in either nature (our innate instincts to behave well or badly towards others) or nurture (the assimilation of moral norms through enculturation). Instead, he claims, our capacities for behaving in good ways or bad stem from interactions between what we are born with and what we acquire through experience. Citing the philosopher Adam Smith, Bloom argues that the foundations of our morality – what Thomas Jefferson called a ‘moral sense’ – are an innate endowment crafted by natural selection. These inbuilt capacities are then shaped by experience to form the sense of right and wrong that we rely on as adults. Against this background, getting developmental about morality seems eminently sensible. If you want to know what degree of good and evil we are born with, why not watch how babies behave?

Modern developmental psychology reveals that Jefferson’s ‘moral sense’ turns out to be not so much an impulse to do good or evil as a capacity to make moral judgements. Six-month-old babies are more likely to reach towards a puppet seen to help a ball move up a hill than towards one that had hindered the ball’s passage. It’s not enough merely to be able to tell good from bad behaviour; true morality is accompanied by certain feelings as well. Toddlers will soothe someone in pain or distress, demonstrating that empathy can motivate compassion even very early in life. Little kids are also big on fairness, as any parent will confirm. All is not rosy in the nursery, however: game theory studies show that children only really care about equality if they are the ones to miss out on their fair share. Children’s appetites for punishment and revenge also reflect what Bloom calls the ‘darker side of morality’. A desire for punishment, he argues, is ‘an accidental spillover of a more narrow proclivity toward revenge’ – we retaliate against those who have harmed us and then, through the exercise of empathy, extend that thirst for retribution to those who do harm to others.

There are of course other limits to children’s innate goodness. Bloom spends some time wondering whether racial bias and other forms of bigotry might be parasitic on the biologically adaptive tendency to form exclusive coalitions. When it comes to moralising about sex, the more primitive emotion of disgust comes into play. There is no satisfactory evolutionary story to explain a phenomenon like homophobia (if anything, straight men should thank gay guys for leaving more women to go around). For Bloom, the only explanation that works is that sex is about bodies and bodies trigger evolved reactions of disgust that are subsequently shaped by laws, religion and culture. Moral outrage grows out of more primitive (and scientifically explicable) instincts. Whisper it among consenting adults, but sexual morality isn’t about morality at all.

When your starting points are evolutionary biology and developmental psychology rather than moral philosophy, questions of right and wrong begin to look rather different. Our differing responses to the two trolley problems mentioned before make little sense from the perspective of consequentialism (the idea that we make moral judgements on the basis of their outcomes). The traditional alternative, deontology, proposes that we follow certain broader moral principles even if they lead to worse outcomes. But the idea of a universal moral code can’t account for a phenomenon such as slavery: tolerated and practised for so long and now almost universally reviled. In Bloom’s view, the recognition of the wrongness of slavery was a moral discovery, not the exercise of innate insight (the industry could not have lasted so long otherwise). We create the environments in which the natural moral sense of a baby is transformed into an adult’s sophisticated moral code.

Just Babies reads rather differently from those pop-psychology blockbusters that uncritically seek counterintuitive findings, bombard the reader with neuroimaging or claim that we are all the blind slaves of our passions. Bloom is perhaps not as vocal about the limits of his developmental method as he might have been: the evidence from babies is necessarily patchy, and there could have been more on arguments about what exactly should count as ‘innate’ and why some individuals’ moral capacities fail so spectacularly. ‘Strong is the Power of the Dark Side’, as Bloom imagines Yoda saying, and his witty, elegant account understandably leaves a few questions unanswered. It may not be fashionable, but Bloom’s sober stance at the frontier of the science of morality is much to be admired.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Who's Got Hold of Children's Imaginations?

To the Sage Gateshead yesterday for BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival, and an event with acclaimed novelist Patrick Ness on the topic of 'Who's got hold of children's imaginations?' The discussion was chaired by Radio 3 Night Waves presenter Matthew Sweet (to the left of the picture).

Matthew started the show by asking us about the nature of imagination. I noted that the ability to inhabit alternative realities used to strike psychologists as an odd thing from an evolutionary point of view: why should an organism whose existence depended on representing reality accurately be so good at inventing alternative worlds?

An answer (again from a scientific point of view) is that there is a big selective advantage in being able to represent how the world might be, as well as how it is. If you can create a storyworld, you can make sense of people telling you about things that are not immediately present, and you can use information about what has happened in order to plan what will come next. Here's how I put it in The Baby in the Mirror (with reference to the world of Harvard psychologist Paul Harris):
The storyworlds that children create in making sense of the discourse of others are the same as they use in talking about the past and future, and in creating the imaginary worlds of pretence, role play and narrative. The little scientist is usurped by the little novelist. Or perhaps, in the end, fiction-making has more than a little of science about it. To get on in the world, the child, like the novelist and the engineer, has to build her models and see how they run. 

Patrick then read from his new novel More Than This, which begins with the protagonist Seth's attempts to reconstruct his past life in the moments following his own death by drowning. One interesting thing about this powerful sequence is that Seth is doing his remembering entirely on his own, without the cues that are usually provided by other people. I noted that in many other cases memory is a social process. We talked about how we are constantly negotiating our accounts of the past in collaboration with other people, and how talking about the past with parents might be one of the ways in which children get a foothold into doing autobiographical memory.

The creative, reconstructive nature of memory came up many times in the conversation, as did the clear links between imagination and memory. We talked about the role of children's imaginary companions in helping them to work out how the world might be as well as how it is. We also talked about why children's imaginations can seem so dangerous to us adults, and about whether we should impose any limits on children's freedom to imagine. I mentioned the growing body of scientific research that lends support to what we probably already knew at an intuitive level: that reading fiction enhances empathy (see here for a methodological critique). I think there can be a rather reductionist agenda at work here, the idea that a truth is somehow ‘more true’ if it can be demonstrated neuroscientifically. Books are understood by people; they’re not understood by neurones. As Neil Gaiman recently reminded us in his eloquent lecture for the Reading Agency, imagination, particularly in childhood, should be valued for its own sake.

I was asked to address the question of who controls imagination and memory with a reading from A Box of Birds, my novel addressing the implications of neuroscience for our understanding of ourselves. At the heart of the novel there’s a conflict between the idea that we are autonomous selves, narrating and giving shape to our own stories, and the idea that we are biochemical machines, bundles of chemical reactions and neural firings. I wondered what would happen if you took a character who really believed that her experience could be understood in terms of neuroscientific processes, and saw what happened to that view when things started to happen. I read a short section from towards the end, where Yvonne has been given a device that allows her to manipulate her own memory—leaving her to face some complex moral choices.

I've done a lot of promotion of my non-fiction book this year, and so it was great to read from the novel and hear people's positive reactions. Matthew did a fabulous job of steering the conversation, and Patrick was on excellent form despite a heavy cold. The whole thing was huge fun and generated some very perceptive audience questions. As you'll see from the audio paraphernalia in the above picture, the event was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves programme. It will be going out at 10pm on Friday 8 November.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shortlisted: Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013

Pieces of Light has made the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013.

Here is today's press release:

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist in running for bigger reward

Winner to be announced: 25 November 2013

The six books on the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books are competing for a much larger cash prize this year.  The eclectic and fascinating shortlist books are vying for the world’s most prestigious award for popular science writing.

The prize money for the winner has increased from £10,000 to £25,000 while the authors of each of the shortlisted books will receive £2,500 instead of the previous £1,000 award.  The shortlist, announced today (25 September 2013), is composed of:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, published by Bloomsbury
What it’s like to be a bird
The judges said: “Bird Sense opens new worlds to the imagination through a wealth of passionately observed science. It succeeds in conveying a feeling of what it is like to be a bird.”

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, published by OneWorld Publications
The hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a new world
The judges said: “This book invites you to imagine the unimaginable. It tells an extraordinary tale of scientific discovery and stands out by its ability to speak to people who are not scientists.”

Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen, published by Princeton University Press
The principles of change that shape life
The judges said: “Cells to Civilizations presents an exciting challenge to our thinking on how evolution works. It is unbelievably alive and we could feel our brains growing as we read.”

Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, published by Profile Books
The new science of memory
The judges said: “Our memories of reading this book are exceptionally good ones! It challenges much of what we think we know about memory. It’s a bit like reading a novel, personal and compulsive!”

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, published by Granta
A 21st century bestiary
The judges said: “Henderson taps into forgotten wonder we first felt as children discovering the creatures of our world. It borrows its format from ancient bestiaries and its title from Borges’ extraordinary tales. The book itself is a beautiful object and brings barely imagined beings to life.”

Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)
How our seas are changing
The judges said: “Roberts sets modern conservation in context. For instance he has taken fisheries science and channelled it into the mainstream debate. This book is thrilling: a delightful mix of anecdote, research and polemic.”

Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FMedSci FRS, Chair of the judges, said: “What stood out for us most was the sheer originality and the ambition of the books we selected for the short list. Here are books that have not only new things to say but also novel ways to say them in. We were delighted to be able to select from a wide range of superbly written science books, authoritative, approachable, and moreover, thrilling to read.”

The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on 25th November 2013.

William Hill’s odds for the shortlisted books are as follows:

3/1    Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead
7/2    The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
4/1    Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts
5/1    Cells to Civilization by Enrico Coen
5/1    Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough
5/1    The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

Graham Sharpe, Media Relations Director at William Hill, said: “This year has been one of the toughest to select a favourite – the books are all so evenly matched! One thing is definite, they all make very interesting and fun reads. I think this year’s judges have quite a task ahead of them deciding their winner!”

The first chapter of each book is available to download for free at:

The judges on this year’s judging panel are Jon Culshaw, impressionist and comedian; Dr Emily Flashman, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at University of Oxford; Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FRS (Chair), Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London; Joanne Harris, novelist and author of Chocolat; and Lucy Siegle, journalist and writer on environmental issues.

Commencing in 2011, the global investment management company Winton Capital Management agreed a five year sponsorship deal of the prize. 

The book has also made the shortlist for the Society of Biology Book Awards in the General Biology book section. The prize will be awarded at a ceremony in London on 17 October.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Writers' Alphabet

One fun thing that happened to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was that I was grabbed by the nice people at Guardian Books and asked if I'd contribute to a writers' alphabet they were putting together. All I had to do was come up with a favourite word. Most of the letters were already gone, but they did have a succulent-looking V remaining. I walked around Charlotte Square a couple of times and worked out what I wanted to say. Here's the result. 

You can see the entire alphabet, from Ruby Wax on a-whoring to Shadow Titan on Zulu, by going here.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Three days in Edinburgh

I just got back from my visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival—tired, footsore and with fresh and vivid memories of some lovely new friendships.

On Thursday evening I chaired an event with Neil Gaiman, 'A Treasure House of Story'. This was the first of several events for Neil at the Festival, and he'd arrived in Edinburgh after a gruelling 9-week tour (and the signing of an estimated 75,000 books). The event was part of a theme, 'Reshaping Modern Fantasy', which Neil had curated for the Festival as Guest Selector.

I'd never interviewed a literary megastar before, and I'd worked hard on refamiliarising myself with his work and trying to find a plan for the event that would make sense to Neil and what I knew would be a big crowd. I needn't have worried—Neil proved to be the perfect interviewee. He was funny, warm, articulate and deeply interesting about his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of the powerlessness of childhood, the restless reconstructions of memory, and the pressures that other people put on our representations of the past. Neil said afterwards that he'd enjoyed the opportunity to do something a bit more themed and structured than the usual 'So how much of you is there in this book?'. I loved every moment and was sorry to say goodbye to him as he settled down after the event in front of a long and visibly excited signing queue.

I wasn't quite out of the limelight yet, though, as the guys from Respect Films, who are on the road with Neil making a documentary, caught me to talk a bit about the event while Neil signed away in the background.

You can read a review of the event with Neil here.

On Friday afternoon I was due to chair an event with Susannah Cahalan, a New York journalist whose book Brain on Fire is a funny, moving and pretty terrifying account of a (thankfully temporary) descent into psychosis, amnesia and loss of identity. It was another great event, thanks to Susannah's lively readings and eloquent account of how she put the pieces of her 'lost month' back together. It was particularly interesting to hear her talk about the family context of her story and how she is still negotiating, with her parents and others, their inevitably divergent narratives of what happened. Her story is about the resilience of the human mind and spirit, and it was a privilege to meet her. Here she is pictured in a photograph taken that same afternoon by Festival photographer Chris Close.

My last event was on Saturday morning, and it was a pairing between me and another novelist, the Canadian writer Colin McAdam. Colin has written a deeply interesting book called A Beautiful Truth, which tells of relationships between chimpanzees and humans and performs the (you might think) impossible trick of giving voice to chimpanzees' thoughts. I was very struck by Colin's comment that, in search of self-forgiveness, he found that the only way forward was to think of himself as a primate—at which point the world of chimpanzees began to open up for him.

I read from and talked about A Box of Birds and, although the styles and ambitions are different, it was clear that the books have many themes in common—themes that were expertly traced by our chair, Helen Sedgwick. I talked about how I had wanted to explore how a character would make sense of the world, and herself, if she saw herself solely in terms of neurones and chemical reactions. What would happen to that materialist philosophy when things started to happen; when that character had to make moral choices? Without wanting to give the plot away, I pointed out that I had tried to dramatise that question by giving my protagonist, Yvonne, a challenge of freewill—a dilemma in which you would act differently depending on whether you really believed you were only neurones and molecules, or whether you thought that there was something more to your 'self'.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the very best festivals around: beautifully organised, gorgeously located and with staff who attend to every detail and make writers and audiences feel very welcome. As I expected, there was much laughter and intellectual surprise to be had in conversations in the Authors' Yurt and beyond. I also got a chance to be photographed by Chris Close for one of the author portraits that are put up around the site. I'm not sure if it's gone up yet. It looks like I'm trying to screw my head back on. Did it come detached in the fun? I like to think that books, and conversations about them, could have that power.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Inner Speech: an episode of The Forum

Last week I was at Broadcasting House in London to record an episode of The Forum, the ideas and discussion show that goes out on BBC World Service. The show is chaired by Bridget Kendall, and the other studio guests were the broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski and novelist and short-story writer Aamer Hussein. The programme is broadcast this weekend, first at 23:06 GMT on Saturday, and then again at 10:06 on Sunday and 02:06 on Monday.

The theme of the programme is inner speech: the internal dialogue that makes up much of many people's conscious experience. The conversation began with me setting out some ideas about why we should be interested in inner speech as a phenomenon, and how this kind of mental experience can work both to our benefit and detriment psychologically. As readers of this blog will know, this has been a focus of research for me for a long time: it was the topic of my recent cover feature for New Scientist, and it will form the basis of my next non-fiction book for Profile.

Aleks then talked about her research (documented in her excellent new book, Untangling the Web) into how the internet is allowing us to experiment with new social identities, and what effect that might have on the inner voice. We talked about how social media such as Twitter can function as a kind of online private speech, a means for self-regulation and emotional expression, which is a topic I have written about previously in relation to Vygotsky's theory.

Aamer Hussein's fictions are often preoccupied with the tension between internal and external speech. He writes in both Urdu and English, and has some fascinating things to say about how these different languages afford different kinds of inner and outer speech. His haunting short novel Another Gulmohar Tree tells of an Urdu speaker who struggles to translate his innermost thoughts into a form that his English wife can understand.

Finally, we had a lot of fun with Aleks' suggestion for a Sixty Second Idea to Change the World—a regular feature on the show. While recognising that it lay in the realms of science fiction, Aleks suggested inventing a device that would monitor a speaker's inner dialogue and tell you—by the emission of a certain scent or odour—whether they were telling the truth. We were far too polite to mention it on air, but I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway's famous line:
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
It would be nice to be able to detect other people's bullshit, but it's handy (especially for a writer) to be able to detect one's own as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Next week I'll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a series of events on familiar (for me) themes of memory, identity and narrative.

On Thursday 22 August I'll be in conversation with bestselling author Neil Gaiman about his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of childhood memory, the line between fantasy and reality, and a child's discovery of the secrets of the adult world. The event, which is a sell-out, forms part of the series 'Reshaping modern fantasy', for which Neil has acted as Guest Selector. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a deceptively simple and endlessly surprising novel full of mythic echoes, deep psychological resonances and some pretty scary monsters, and I'm hugely excited about discussing it with him.

On Friday 23 August I'll be speaking to the journalist Susannah Cahalan about My Brain on Fireher extraordinary memoir about her brush with the brain disease, encephalitis. One of the things I love about this book is the author's painstaking efforts to reconstruct this lost period of her life by pulling together a whole range of documents and sources of information, and I'm looking forward to asking her quite how she did it.

And on Saturday 24 August I'll be reading from and talking about my novel A Box of Birds with the Canadian author Colin McAdam, who will be talking about his new book A Beautiful Truth. You can book for the event here.

Hope to see some of you there.