I don’t usually read Smithsonian magazine.
In fact, to be honest, I never read Smithsonian.
However, recently, a kind neighbor dropped off a stack of Smithsonian magazines, and as I leafed through them briefly, something on the cover of the January issue caught my eye: a huge photo of a baby with the provoking words “The New Morality.”
As a Catholic living in what has been called the post-Christian era, I naturally felt my interest piqued at what a secular magazine would say about morality. Moreover, as a mother, I felt the irresistible attraction to all things pertaining to babies.
I opened the magazine.
What I found was scientific confirmation of our faith. The actual article, entitled “Born to Be Mild,” by Jill Greenberg, detailed recent findings by several prestigious research labs regarding the moral consciousness of babies and toddlers. For babies 3 to 18 months of age, some experimenters put on a puppet show involving two characters, one nice and one mean.
Babies 6 months old and up watched the same puppet show several times, and then they were offered a graham cracker by both characters.
Overwhelmingly, the youngsters accepted the cracker from the nice character. The 3-month-olds, obviously, could not reach for a graham cracker, so scientists timed how long these babies looked at each character; and, once again, the babies overwhelmingly preferred the good character.
The article then went on to chronicle various experiments with toddlers, testing their altruistic interest in helping others.
As a mother, I was not surprised to read that these experiments revealed toddlers’ desire to help others, even when helping meant inconvenience or sacrifice to themselves and when the people they were helping did not ask for help or even appear to notice they needed help.
The researchers’ goal was to discover if people are born with a sense of morality, which is why they included such young babies: so that they could test children before they’ve absorbed the values and social norms of their families.
These babies, one after another, surprised researchers, who believed morality was taught, rather than innate — disproving, Greenberg says, both the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — that man is born a “perfect idiot” — and that of Thomas Hobbes: that man is born a selfish beast.
To me, however, all these experiments echoed the scriptural passage where we are told of “the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them” (Romans 2:15).
Catholics do not need scientific proof that all people have the natural law written in their hearts from birth; we’ve known it all along, from the Bible to the constant teaching of the magisterium of the Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Middle Ages, “The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it, we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given us this light or law at creation.”
Even earlier, St. Augustine spoke of “the law that is written in the human heart.”
More recently, the Catholic Catechism restates this perennial truth: “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in precepts, and its authority extends to all men” (1956).
Of course, the researchers in the Smithsonian article did not attribute the infants’ moral awareness to God’s imprinting his law on their hearts.
On the contrary, they attributed the babies’ moral consciousness to evolution; in fact, University of California at Berkeley researcher Alison Gopnik refused to describe the babies’ responses as “moral,” stating, “There isn’t a moral module that is there innately.”
However, she conceded that “the elements that underpin morality — altruism, sympathy for others, the understanding of others’ goals — are in place much earlier than we thought, and clearly in place before the children turn 2.”
However secular scientists scramble to explain away the results of these experiments, I cannot help feeling a little amused and refreshed at modern researchers’ most recent contribution to science, confirming scientifically one tenet of our faith: that people are born with a sense of right and wrong.
I am not sorry I succumbed to the lure of the provoking magazine cover, and, as I read, I could not help thinking that St. Albert the Great, patron saint of scientists, was smiling.
Agnes M. Penny is a mother of nine children and an author.
Your School of Love is available at TANBooks.com.