My 5-year-old daughter chose to dress up as an angel this year for Halloween. My 7-year-old girl went as a vampire, plastic fangs flashing. That contrast, the elemental pull between light and dark, is one of the most fascinating and enduring mysteries of the human condition. Are we born with an instinct to do good and slowly, inexorably taught to do otherwise? Or are we born, like most of our fellow animals, with a capacity for cruelty that is only fitfully tempered by the imperative of living with others?
After millennia of saints and sinners, scientists think they may have finally gotten close to the answer, and it lies in the mouths (and minds) of babes. Researchers at Yale and Harvard have conducted a series of innovative experiments with infants as young as 3 months old to divine the roots of human morality (“Born to Be Mild”). At my house, we are continuing our own, very unscientific research with twin boys who are almost 3 years old. So far, I can only report that results are mixed: They seem equally comfortable as cherubs or little devils.
The rest of this issue is filled with different kinds of social experiments, many of which also touch on the question of morality. Our intrepid correspondent Joshua Hammer (who has in recent issues hunted Ebola in Uganda and meditated on Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar) ventures into the notorious favelas of Rio to report on Brazil’s new effort to loosen the grip of violent drug lords and provide the growing population with new hope (“Rio Revolution”). Ron Rosenbaum debriefs Jaron Lanier, the digital fifth columnist who warns of the dangers lurking in the grandest social experiment of our time, the Internet. And Kevin Cook rediscovers a semi-magical moment in American social history, the brief shining time when the first interracial casino kicked up its heels in Las Vegas and broke the color barrier there for good (“Viva Moulin Rouge!”).
To celebrate the better angels of our nature and one of the most important moments in America’s racial and social history, we’ve assembled three historic objects connected to the document that transformed our nation forever, the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln signed 150 years ago on January 1, 1863. For a photography shoot he oversaw at the Library of Congress, photo editor Jeff Campagna assembled the library’s draft of the Proclamation; the steel pen with a cedar handle that Lincoln used to sign the final draft, which was flown in from Boston, hand-carried aboard the airplane by the librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Peter Drummey; and Lincoln’s brass inkwell, which made the short journey from the National Museum of American History under armed guard and accompanied by Harry Rubenstein, chair of the division of political history.
Happy New Year.
Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief