Science Now Saying Humans Are not Born as Blank Slates

Leslie Stahl opens a segment of 60 Minutes with the question, “Are human beings inherently good, are we born with a sense of morality, or do we arrive at blank slates waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong? Or could it be worse? Do we start out nasty, selfish devils who need our parents, teachers, and religions to whip us into shape?”[i]

Paul Bloom, in an article in the New York Times, dated May 5, 2010, and entitled The Moral Life of Babies, says “From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals.”

That viewpoint appears to be changing in the scientific community.

Calling this issue being “at the center of one of the greatest, philosophical, moral, and religious debate about the nature of man”, Stahl talks about studies done at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, directed by Karen Wynn, and lead authored by Kiley Hamlin. They devised a very simple experiment to determine whether or not infants could make value judgments.  And, amazingly, these infants, these tiny, weak, new little blobs of flesh that could not walk, talk, or do much more than lift their heads watched a little morality play of sorts where two stuffed animals were displayed doing behaviors, one kind, and one mean.  And when asked which of the stuffed animals the children like, for the most part they chose the kind one. Wynn said in the piece that this preference to prefer kind and nice individuals over mean individuals was demonstrated in study after study in the literature on the topic.

If you want to find out how they managed to do all this with infants, you should really watch the segment, its fascinating.

In the piece, Paul Bloom, author cited above, carries the conclusion a step further. He says that this preference for liking the nice puppet over the mean puppet shows a case that people are built with a built-in morality. He goes on to say there appears that babies are born with a “subtle knowledge”, and an innate “sophistication”.   He further says that he thinks that there is a “universal moral core that all humans share.”

But Stahl asks the important question, if babies are all born innately good, where does evil come from?  In another study, where babies were given the choice of Cheerios or graham crackers they were able to show that babies liked puppets that chose the same food as they did.  The conclusion was that humans, even as infants, instinctually prefer others who have similar likes and dislikes.   In their study, in fact, they concluded that 87% of the babies went so far as to want the puppets that weren’t similar to them punished.

The conclusion of the scientists involved in these studies is that the dark side of this innate morality is to want dissimilar people punished, that we have a bias that is deep to the point of violence.  And that it is up to society, and especially parents, to intervene.

In another study, again another morality study, but this time involving older children, kids were asked to make an interesting choice. They could either, A) choose a higher amount of rewards that would be given equally to themselves and another child, or B) they could choose to receive a smaller amount that would also mean that the another child would even get less than them.  This is so very interesting: the children did not choose to get the larger amount for both themselves and the other person. For the most part, they chose to get a lesser amount, as long as it was more than the other person. What an interesting comment on human nature.  We are born with this evil.

However, this behavior changed as the children aged. The study found that around eight years old, the children showed more and more to accept the option that gave both of them more, and in equal amounts.

And, by nine or ten years old the trend had completely reversed. More and more the child would choose an option that even gave the other child more.  The conclusion here is that society has educated these kids to the point where they become generous.

The admonition, however, is that the infant tendency to be selfish, wanting more for your self, and the tendency to be biased, choosing to like people like you and “hate” people unlike you never really goes away.  They advise that when people are under pressure they revert to these baser instincts.   Thus we have some scientific insight on how people do bad things, develop bad habits, get addictions, treat people badly, and perhaps routinely lie, cheat and/or steal.

The final conclusion of the study is that the old paradigm that people are born a blank slate is a myth.  They say that kids are born with both “good” and “evil” instincts.

Thousands of years ago the apostle Paul wrote some very interesting words that have a striking similarity to what these scientists have discovered.  Paul writes about how people have both the desire to do good and the desire to do evil in them. He calls it a battle. It is the battle of the spirit versus the flesh:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  (Romans 7:14-25 ESV)

“Sold under sin” refers back to the original sin of Eve and Adam and means that this is a condition that we are born with, and thus we have these competing urges that produce good and evil. Paul says that it is the power of Jesus Christ that delivers us and guides us in society to make a good choice.

So in the 21st-century science has finally come to the conclusion that people are not born blank slates, but with the urge to do both good and evil, and that it is up to society, including the role of religion, to help train people to make the good choice.

Paul wrote about it thousands of years ago.   This is just another reason why  it is important to not get overly excited at whatever science is currently teaching, and to be mindful of the wisdom of the ages.

[i] 60 Minutes (television program), original air date: 7/28/2013, the segment named Morality In Infants

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