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The Domesticated Savage

September 2003
Science reveals a way to rise above our natures
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Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles once classified humans as the “third chimpanzee” (the second being the bonobo). Genetically, we are very similar, and when it comes to high levels of aggression between members of two different groups, as I noted in last month’s column on “The Ignoble Savage,” we also resemble chimpanzees. Although humans have a brutal history, there’s hope that the pessimists who forecast our eventual demise are wrong: recent evidence indicates that, like bonobos, we may be evolving in a more peaceful direction.

One of the most striking features in artificially selecting for docility among wild animals is that, along with far less aggression, you also get a suite of other changes, including a reduction in skull, jaw and tooth size. In genetics, this is called pleiotropy. Selecting for one trait may generate additional, unintended changes. (continue reading…)

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The Ignoble Savage

August 2003
Science reveals humanity’s heart of darkness
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In 1670 English poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: “I am as free as Nature first made man … /When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” A century later, in 1755, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage in Western culture by proclaiming that “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”

From the Disneyfication of Pocahontas to Kevin Costner’s eco-pacifist Native Americans in Dances with Wolves and from postmodern accusations of corruptive modernity to modern anthropological theories that indigenous people’s wars are just ritualized games, the noble savage remains one of the last epic creation myths of our time. Science reveals a rather different picture of humanity in its natural state. In a 1996 study University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi S. Low analyzed 186 preindustrial societies and discovered that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology and lack of profitable markets, not conscious efforts at conservation. Anthropologist Shepard Krech III, in his 1999 book The Ecological Indian, shows that in a number of Native American communities, large-scale irrigation practices led to the collapse of their societies. (continue reading…)

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Bottled Twaddle

July 2003
Is bottled water tapped out?
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In 1979 I started drinking bottled water. My bottles, however, contained tap water and were nestled in small cages on the frame of my racing bicycle.

Tap water was good enough then because we did not know how much healthier and tastier bottled water is. It must be, because Americans today spend more than $7 billion a year on it, paying 120 to 7,500 times as much per gallon for bottled water as for tap. Bottled prices range from 75 cents to $6 a gallon, versus tap prices that vary from about 80 cents to $6.40 per 1,000 gallons. We wouldn’t invest that for nothing, would we? Apparently we would. In March 1999 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published the results of a four year study in which they tested more than 1,000 samples of 103 brands of bottled water, finding that “an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle — sometimes further treated, sometimes not.” If the label says “from a municipal source” or “from a community water system,” it’s tap water. (continue reading…)

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The Science of Good & Evil

June 2003

Michael Shermer’s tour for his book, The Science of Good and Evil, found him here explaining why we are moral, the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments, and how to be good without God.

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Codified Claptrap

June 2003
The Bible Code is numerological nonsense masquerading as science
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In the epilogue of In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred, Lord Tennyson captured the essence of the quest for a single unifying principle and purpose in nature: “One God, one law, one element,/And one far-off divine event,/To which the whole creation moves.”

The noble dream of finding teleological succor in the march of time has become big business, as demonstrated by works from Hal Lindsey’s 1970s blockbuster The Late Great Planet Earth to today’s Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (Both are said to have sold in the tens of millions.) And if you can sprinkle your homiletics with scientistic jargon, so much the better. The latest and most egregious example of the (mis)use of science in the (dis)service of religion is Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code II, enjoying a lucrative ride on the New York Times best-seller list, as did the 1997 original. (continue reading…)

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