Soul/Free Will

Deep history and the robot future


I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI. 

Case Studies from The Twilight Zone

Have you ever wondered what would happen to a child’s brain if you left them in front of the TV all day? What about kids in bright, happy daycare-like situations where there’s no personal attention. What kind of future do they have? How about children who have all the money in the world but no parental attention? Are they really worse off than poor children with no material advantages? Consider the flip side: How do children from career-criminal families differ from other children?

I just read Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential--and Endangered by Maia Szalavitz, a science journalist, and Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist, a great book in which these questions are explored. Szalavitz and Perry track the neuroscience of qualities like resilience and empathy—and the lack of them—through a series of case studies, mostly of children who have been treated by Perry. I met Szalavitz once. She’s a rock-solid science journalist who’s walked where many reporters fear to tread, writing vividly about the more disturbing side of life in The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog and Help at Any Cost. “Born to Love” is in the same vein--many of the stories, which are compulsively readable, have a straight-out-of-the-twilight-zone quality.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Szalavitz and Perry's story of a young girl called Trinity from Los Angeles. Trinity was one of eight sisters from the same mother and father, and many more siblings from her mother and father separately. She survived a childhood of deprivation, abuse, addiction, and the cruel murder of a young family member. That she made it to adulthood is remarkable enough, but even more amazing is the fact that Trinity grew up to be a loving human being. In her adult life, in her job and her family, she gives strength and comfort to many people. How is this possible? Where does resilience like this come from? Szalavitz and Perry bring a wealth of information about the brain and the body and genes to this question. Their investigation of the strange forces that shape people—even the way that attitudes and ideas can influence bodies and brains—is similar in spirit to Norman Doidge’s "The Brain That Changes Itself," but crucially it’s about the most vulnerable population out there, children.

Evolution Special

The New York Times Science section has an excellent evolution special this week. Of particular interest is Nicholas Wade's article on the very recent evolution of human populations. There is more and more evidence that culture has shaped the human genome. Also fascinating is Cornelia Dean's inquiry into what has happened to the human soul. Evolve locally, Science of the Soul.