I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile. A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences. The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination. We do not arrive in this world as blank sheets, or as all-purpose learning devices. Nor are we the 'products' of our environment. If we want to know what we are, we have to know where we came from. We evolved, like every other creature on earth. We come into this world with limitations and capacities, all of them genetically prescribed. Many of our features—our foot shape, our eye color—are fixed, and others, like our social and sexual behavior and our language learning, await the life we live to take their course. But the course is not infinitely variable. We have a nature. The word from the human biologists bears Darwin out: the way we wear our emotions on our faces is pretty much the same in all cultures, and the infant smile is one social signal that is particularly easy to isolate and study. It appears in !Kung San babies of the Kalahari at the same time it does in American children of Manhattan's Upper West Side, and it has the same effect. In Edward O. Wilson's cool phrase, it 'triggers a more abundant share of parental love and affection.' Then he goes on, 'In the terminology of the zoologist, it is a social releaser, an inborn and relatively invariant signal that mediates a basic social relationship.'
A few years ago, science book editors could think of nothing but chaos. Now they were banging their desks for every possible slant on neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and genetics. I wasn't complaining—business was good—but Clarissa had generally taken against the whole project. It was rationalism gone berserk. 'It's the new fundamentalism,' she had said one evening. 'Twenty years ago you and your friends were all socialists and you blamed the environment for everyone's hard luck. Now you've got us trapped in our genes, and there's a reason for everything!' She was perturbed when I read Wilson's passage to her. Everything was being stripped down, she said, and in the process some larger meaning was lost. What a zoologist had to say about a baby's smile could be of no real interest. The truth of that smile was in the eye and heart of the parent, and in the unfolding love that only had meaning through time.
We were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions. I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats. A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case. If we value a baby's smile, why not contemplate its source? Are we to say that all infants enjoy a secret joke? Or that God reaches down and tickles them? Or, least implausibly, that they learn smiling from their mothers? But then, deaf-and-blind babies smile too. That smile must be hard-wired, and for good evolutionary reasons. Clarissa said that I had not understood her. There was nothing wrong in analyzing the bits, but it was easy to lose sight of the whole. I agreed. The work of synthesis was crucial. Clarissa said I still did not understand her, she was talking about love. I said I was too, and how babies who could not yet speak got more of it for themselves. She said no, I still didn't understand. There we had left it. No hard feelings. We had had this conversation in different forms on many occasions. What We were really talking about this time was the absence of babies from our lives.