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The Science of Good and Evil: Reviews

Endorsements

This is an ambitious book, and it does not disappoint. The questions Shermer addresses are as old as rational thought, but they have taken on a new urgency as we come to understand ourselves through the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. His analyses are sophisticated and filled with good sense, and are enlivened with fascinating material from science and history. The Science of Good and Evil is an excellent snapshot of contemporary thinking about the nature and sources of morality.

—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.

Morality must have arisen long before modern religion came around to lay claim to it. Michael Shermer engagingly brings this controversial topic to life. This is the most convincing argument to date that the origin of our sense of right and wrong is to be found within us, that it is part and parcel of human nature.

—Frans de Waal, author of Good Natured

There is no other volume on evolutionary ethics and its history that is as stimulating, critical, and comprehensive as Michael Shermer’s. All of us are daily challenged by ethical dilemmas, and one’s solutions are rarely satisfactory to everyone; this is particularly true of some of the solutions based on religion and philosophy. In the end, we must construct a Darwinian answer to the daily challenges of living a moral and ethical life. The best guide known to me is Shermer’s profound analysis in The Science of Good and Evil.

—Ernst Mayr, author of What Evolution Is

Reviews

The Baltimore Sun (February 22, 2004 by Michael Pakenham)

To enthusiasts of debunking quackery, Michael Shermer is a premier skeptic — a dauntlessly questioning writer and lecturer who is wonderfully clear in thought and language. His work is a paragon of popularized science and philosophy. That reputation is confirmed by his latest book, The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule.

Shermer, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has a Ph.D. in history. He has written five previous books, and edited others. This volume is the third in a series that began in 1997 with Why People Believe Weird Things, which was followed in 1999 by How We Believe. Both were powerful, learned and scientifically disciplined explorations of the nature of belief and truth. Why People Believe Weird Things is the most persuasive debunking I have ever read of popular mass mysticisms, from faith healing and pyramid power to astrology. In this latest volume, he focuses intently on the capacity of humans to want to do good, and indeed to do it — without ignoring or glossing over their capacities for evil. This raises the most personal and fundamental questions that can be considered by the human mind.

“Evolution,” he writes, at the core of his thesis, “generated the moral sentiments out of a need for a system to maximize the benefits of living in small bands and tribes. Evolution created and culture honed moral principles out of an additional need to curb the passions of the body and mind. And culture, primarily through organized religion, codified those principles into moral rules and precepts.”

Note: religion “codified,” made formal — but did not originate. Shermer’s contention is that human goodness evolved and prevails independent of the existence of — or belief in — a God or gods.

At the core of this primal dispute is the meaning and nature of religion. Shermer defines it as “a social institution, one that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and cooperation, to discourage selfishness and competitiveness, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.”

He is not a believer. Today, he terms himself an “agnostic nontheist” though earlier in his life was a theology student and a born-again Christian. But beyond the question of personal faith, he flatly rejects the many traditional and modern arguments that without a deity, “all ethical systems are reduced to moral relativism or moral nihilism.”

This, of course, rejects the most basic argument of proselytizers for every faith and denomination. Recognizing the historic and immediate role of religious practice in formulating moral values, Shermer raises the obvious question: “Can we lead moral lives without recourse to a transcendent being that may or may not exist? Can we construct an ethical system without religion?”

His answer, it should come as no surprise, is yes, on both counts. Shermer does not ignore or trivialize human propensities to be selfish, cruel and bloody, but he is powerfully convinced that the scientific history of the human race demonstrates it is overwhelmingly more natural to be good than to be bad.

In rejecting the necessity of religion as a foundation for morality, Shermer states flatly that he has logically demonstrated that “evolutionary ethics can be ennobling and morality transcendent by virtue of the fact that the deepest moral thoughts, behaviors, and sentiments belong not just to individuals, or to individual cultures, but to the entire species.”

Many believers will not accept that declaration. But if you do, or if history proves it true, it is the best possible news for the human race. Shermer insists that it means an inevitable evolution that “will lead to greater amity toward members of our own group, and a long historical path toward more liberties for more people in more places, whether they are members of our group or not.”

Shermer is convinced this progressive utopianism does not clash with faith. The backbone of this book is that moral principle and propensities “are the result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies of history.” He contends that “believers need not feel alienated, however, since if there is a God, it is acceptable to believe that He created and utilized the laws of nature, forces of culture and contingencies of history to generate within humans a moral sense, and within human cultures moral principles.”

He explores a wide swath of notorious or celebrated occurrences that can be seen as having acute moral implications: The student massacre at Columbine high school, John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate President Reagan, wars in specific and in general and more.

In many cases, the most engaging elements of these examinations are the arrays of obviously “wrong” explanations that emerged from public debate and even from official investigations. Most of those false attributions arise clearly from the preconceptions of the attributer — failure of parental discipline, violence in entertainment, diet or fanatic fads. Shermer leans toward the simplest or most obvious explanations — and accepts that evil does lurk in the soul of mankind.

His erudition is immense and yet modestly applied; I found not a line of bombast or a hint of cant in the entire book. It is reasonable, while passionately reasoning. There is an exhaustive and valuable bibliography and endnotes that meet scholarly standards. The main points are made in a step-by-step, explanatory manner, rather than by making declarations and then piling on arguments with the sort of triumphalism that so taints most tendentious arguments for everyone but true believers.
Throughout, Shermer writes with a measured voice. He is unequivocal about what he believes and about what he rejects, but he is never cruel in his dismissiveness, except when there is unquestionable evil involved. For a book that oozes sophistication, this work is usually happily conversational. Its most important concepts are, of course, enormously abstract and elusive — human nature, the existence or nonexistence of deity, the meaning of social values and more. But Shermer, a paragon of skepticism (“thoughtful and reflective inquiry”), goes about making them accessible with extraordinary patience, precision and persuasiveness.

Washington Post Book World (February 1, 2004 by Anthony Brandt)

If God is dead, said Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, then everything is permitted. Without religion, in other words, there can be no morality. This has been the position taken by religious conservatives as long as there have been religions, and it is Michael Shermer’s principal target in The Science of Good and Evil. Shermer’s new book is the final volume in a trilogy that began with Why People Believe Weird Things and continued with How We Believe, a critical survey of religious belief systems and their rationales.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Shermer’s books and his past that he is obsessed with religion. Indeed, he makes no secret of it: He was, in college, a fundamentalist Christian, taking a degree in psychology and biology from Pepperdine University, a fundamentalist fortress in the hills above Malibu. Then at some point he turned on the beliefs of his youth and became the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the director of the Skeptics Society, which he still runs. He calls himself an agnostic now, and an evolutionary psychologist. If he has a god, it is Charles Darwin. In 1999 Shermer co-hosted a 12-part series on the Fox Family Channel called “Exploring the Unknown” and devoted it to debunking everything from the Shroud of Turin to spontaneous human combustion. He has made himself into one of the leading spokespersons in the country for the rational scientific approach toward questions of belief and the unknown. That’s quite a switch for a man who cut his intellectual teeth on the Bible.

But Shermer does, as a result, know his enemy, and it gives him a decided advantage in writing a book such as this, which aims to demonstrate that we don’t need God at all to be moral human beings, that in fact human evolution has built a tendency toward moral behavior into our brains. We are moral by nature. He draws upon the work of anthropologists with so-called primitive peoples to make his case, showing that man in a state of nature does not, as Hobbes claimed, behave as if life were a matter of all against all. Rather, Shermer marshals research showing that altruism, cooperation, mutual aid, attachment and bonding, concern for the community and other moral behaviors appear not only among tribal humans but in great-ape societies and among dolphins, whales and other large-brained mammals as well, none of which, as far as we know, is monotheist. Since the doctrine of natural selection cannot account for this behavior — there is no selective advantage to a creature in being altruistic, for example, sacrificing itself for the good of the group — he turns to the controversial concept of group selection, which most strict Darwinists abjure, and quotes Darwin himself in support: “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” “Better” tribes, then, tribes with a greater adherence to principles of justice and altruism and courage, would displace “worse” or more “evil” tribes, and therefore morality would evolve, and natural selection could indeed account for the universal appearance among human beings of moral goodness.

It is an easy step from there to believe in a gradual improvement over time in the moral standards of humankind, and Shermer takes that step. He believes in moral progress and thinks things are getting better. All we need, he seems to believe, is more reason: more Enlightenment. He devotes much of the rest of his book to promoting his own secular system of morality — “provisional morality” in his words — that stands somewhere carefully unspecified between complete moral relativism and the absolute systems of dos and don’ts espoused by various religions. He thinks there are fundamental moral rights and wrongs that hold in almost all situations, but he is wary of absolutism in all its forms. He believes in uncertainty. Nothing is either simply good or bad. Pornography, for example: Yes, of course, anything that depicts the physical abuse of men or women or tries to make us believe that women really like being raped is a bad thing. But not all pornography is like that. We can’t simply condemn pornography. His arguments have a common sense feel to them. They seem perfectly reasonable, middle of the road. Let’s take everything case by case, he says, and not get carried away. He is all for moderation.

It is, in a sense, unfortunate that this should be so, for it may explain why the book, despite its highly charged subject matter, lacks passion. Or it may just be that Shermer is not an eloquent writer. His prose is flat and has a tendency to shift tone and fall into the demotic at odd moments (“bass ackward” is the worst instance), as if he were unclear who his audience is or as if he were writing for television. The result is that he is not entirely convincing. He is a meliorist, but he never persuaded me that human beings had become “better” — better behaved, less filled with hate, less murderous — since the Greeks, say, or since World War II. He is always ready to attack his bête noir, religious absolutism, but there is little evidence in the book that he is well versed in the long, contentious history of moral philosophy or the subtleties of the current philosophical debates about abortion rights or most of the other issues he takes on. He’s in the unhappy position of trying to establish a moral system that is itself rather unsystematic and ad hoc. His system, if that’s the word for it, comes across as reasonable — but perhaps too reasonable, and too relaxed to compel adherence. I finished the book well-disposed toward Shermer himself, clearly a seeker who has found the best answers he can find in skepticism and a purely rational approach to life, but who seems never to have encountered genuine evil face-to-face or seen tragedy up close and personal. The book lacks, in short, a certain emotional depth, and that is precisely what we want when dealing with intransigent moral issues.

Interview

Fortune (October 27, 2003 by David Rynecki)

What makes some people good and others evil? That’s the question Michael Shermer set out to answer in his forthcoming book, The Science of Good and Evil. The founder of the Skeptics Society, a nonprofit group that investigates claims by scientists and historians, Shermer is the author of five books, on topics ranging from Charles Darwin to the paranormal. (He also has a Ph.D. in the history of science and a master’s in experimental psychology, and he is a contributing editor of Scientific American.) We caught up with Shermer to discuss John McEnroe, pyramid schemes, and Mars.

Question: What makes people good or evil?

Answer: All of us have, in our genes, the capacity for great good and great evil. Genetics determines roughly half of our behavioral tendencies, including personality, temperament, and moral and immoral behaviors. The other half is determined by culture and environment, including parents, siblings, family dynamics, teachers and mentors, and especially peer groups. As adults we are particularly influenced to do good or evil by the immediate social context and community. When you’re surrounded by co-workers all hyped about a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme, it is truly hard to resist.

Q: What do you make of the recent tales of immorality in business?

A: Everybody has a capacity and a tendency to be both competitive and cooperative. It wouldn’t have mattered what profession John McEnroe went into — he was always going to be extremely competitive. Immorality comes when competitiveness is pushed too far.

Q: President Bush seems to dwell quite a bit on good and evil …

A: When Bush uses the word “evil,” he uses it as a noun, not as an adjective. Evil, for Bush, is something that exists outside of human actions in some moral ether. For Bush, Osama bin Laden is not a human whose behavior needs to be studied and understood; rather, Osama is “evil,” as if he has a nasty little homunculus inside his brain making him do these bad things.

Q: Is money the root of all evil?

A: Not necessarily, but money is a quantitative way of keeping score of behavior. Research from Emory University on capuchin monkeys shows that their version of money is food. The scientists learned that if the monkeys do the same task and one gets a grape — a treat monkeys love — and the other gets a cucumber chunk, the one with cucumber knows he got cheated. And he’s angry. He doesn’t participate in the next round. Humans behave in a very similar way.

Q: Does all this say anything about how we select and follow corporate leaders?

A: Good leaders have a vision for the larger society. I met the Google guys at a conference. They’re young and rich, and they have these grand visions for colonizing Mars and creating a new society somewhere. They aren’t in it to make money, retire, and play golf. You want a visionary leader who is selfish enough to really want to be successful because that is what will drive the company, but also someone who goes beyond that to think about how to improve society. Bill Gates has that. He wants to end problems in Africa. He’s not building a golf course.

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