What Babies Teach Us

A fascinating segment of 60 Minutes, titled “The Baby Lab,” aired on November 18, 2012. It described the ongoing research of Karen Wynn, Paul Bloom, and others at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center.  

The researchers have been seeking for an answer to the age-old question, “Are humans born with a sense of right and wrong, or do they learn it from their parents and teachers?” And they devised a very clever way to find out—by showing the babies puppet shows and observing their reactions.

One experiment was done with five-month old babies. The puppet characters were puppies dressed in different colors. In one drama a puppy helped another open a box; then a third puppy prevented the box from being opened. Afterward, the researchers showed the babies the puppies and noted which they reached for—the kind or the unkind one. Seventy-five percent of the babies reached for the kind one. 

The experiment was also done with three-month old babies who were too young to reach, so their gaze was observed. They looked more often, and for a much longer time, at the kind puppy.

Variations on that experiment yielded similar results. For example, one used bunny puppets and a ball. Some bunnies played nicely with their neighbors, but one stole the ball and ran away. Then the babies were shown the thieving bunny trying to open a box. One of his peers helped him; the other prevented him from opening it. Eighty-one percent of the babies preferred the peer that hindered the thief from opening the box. The implication: the babies favored punishment for wrongdoers.

The researchers concluded that infants are not “ignorant” and “unknowing,” as often thought, but instead possess “alarming sophistication,” “subtle knowledge,” and “a universal moral code.” (It’s not all rosy, as you might expect. Other experiments reveal that babies not only prefer people who share their likes and dislikes but also approve mistreatment of those who simply are different from them.)

The interview ended with Lesley Stahl saying that after learning of the Yale studies, she now has “far more respect for babies,” and then adding “who knew?”

My hope is that her report triggers renewed curiosity, not just about the post-natal abilities of human infants, but also about their pre-natal abilities.

Let’s look more closely at what the researchers, specifically Paul Bloom, drew from the baby research. He said he learned that “the seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.” Note that he wasn’t speaking of human nature in the philosophical or theological sense, but strictly in the biological sense.

If he is correct, then those “seeds of understanding” are present from the moment of conception because that is unquestionably the biological beginning of human life. 

When we ponder that fact, even for a moment, it is natural to wonder when that sense of justice and right and wrong first appears. Obviously at some point before the time the researchers identified it. Could it be before birth?

As early as 1975 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare noted that fetal hearing, vision, and taste have been documented at various stages of prenatal development. Also, that fetal response to touch occurs at 7 weeks, swallowing at 12 weeks, and breathing at 13 weeks. If these parts of our biological nature are manifested before birth, it is reasonable to assume that other parts, specifically the behaviors in the Yale study, are also manifested then, at least in a rudimentary way. 

When might that sense of justice and right and wrong be manifested?  In the third trimester? Perhaps even in the second? For that answer we’ll have to wait until researchers develop even more ingenious experiments. But we can, even at this moment, imagine plausible scenarios for how it is manifested.

  •  Suppose the fetus’ mother has a soft speaking voice and a cheerful manner with the people around her. When the fetus hears her voice, it may feel comfort, a sense of pleasure, even joy.
  •  Suppose, in contrast, the father is an abusive man who shouts at his wife, threatens her, and even strikes her. When the fetus hears him, it may feel sadness or fear. And it may shrink from the sound of that voice much as the three-month old child turns away from the unkind puppet.

Is it appropriate to wonder also how the Yale research applies to the 55 million fetuses aborted since the passing of Roe v. Wade? Some would say it is not, particularly those who have had an abortion, or enabled someone else to have one. That is understandable because it is in our nature to be uncomfortable with the thought that what we have done was wrong, even if we have persuaded ourselves that it was not. 

If we allow ourselves to address that difficult issue, it is not unreasonable to speculate that many later-term fetuses not only felt fear at the intrusion of the abortionist’s instruments into their sanctuary but also some level of awareness that the assault was unjustifiable.

Whoever has the courage to pursue that line of thought is likely to realize that a truly civilized country will affirm not only that a fetus is a human being (biology demands that much) but also that a fetus is entitled to be considered a person and provided the full protection of the law.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero (117 Posts)


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