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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule Hardcover – February 2, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Skeptic publisher and Scientific American contributor Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things) argues that the sources of moral behavior can be traced scientifically to humanity's evolutionary origins. He contends that human morality evolved as first an individual and then a species-wide mechanism for survival. As society evolved, humans needed rules governing behavior-e.g., altruism, sympathy, reciprocity and community concern-in order to ensure survival. Shermer says that some form of the Golden Rule-"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"-provides the foundation of morality in human societies. Out of this, he develops the principles of what he calls a "provisional ethics" that "is neither absolute nor relative," that applies to most people most of the time, while allowing for "tolerance and diversity." According to the "ask-first" principle, for instance, the performer of an act simply asks its intended receiver whether the act is right or wrong. Other principles include the "happiness" principle ("always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind"), the liberty principle ("always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind") and the moderation principle ("when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice"). Shermer's provisional ethics might reflect the messy ways that human moral behavior developed, but his simplistic principles establish a utilitarian calculus that not everyone will find acceptable. 35 b&w illus.
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From Booklist

The source of morality is the topic under discussion in Shermer's latest book to champion rationalism. Religion received a critique in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (1999) and does so again as Shermer offers propositions on the origin of our ordinary, innate sense of right and wrong. Disposing of religion's rival, moral relativism, Shermer dedicates his effort to convincing readers that his thesis, labeled "provisional morality," makes more sense. What that means is that ethical rules are accepted conditionally and are as falsifiable as any scientific theory. Shermer takes this precept into the realm of evolutionary psychology, drawing applied ethics from such drastically different sources as anthropological field studies in Amazonia and the TV show The Honeymooners. Contending that the source of ethics is solely evolutionary, Sherman conducts his argument in an assertive but not gratuitously aggressive fashion. This stance as well as his populistic bent should earn him the hearing that he clearly hopes believers in God will give him. Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1st edition (February 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805075208
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805075205
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #686,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine ( and the Director of The Skeptics Society. He is a Visiting Associate at the California Institute of Technology, and hosts the Skeptics Lecture Series at Cal Tech. He has authored several popular books on science, scientific history, and the philosophy and history of science, including Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (with Alex Grobman). Shermer is also a radio personality and the host of the Fox Family Channel's Exploring the Unknown. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

232 of 244 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on February 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm torn between the naysayers and the wide-eyed on this one. First, I am a naturalist who believes, like Shermer, that ethics doesn't need god. Unlike Shermer, though, I don't think that this is anything close to a 'science'. Seeing people conflate 'it's a naturalistic explanation' with 'its a scientific explanation' forgets that science is a process, not an ideology. Yes, Shermer gives us a naturalistic explanation, but just like most evolutionary psych, it is simply naturalistic "puzzle filling" of what MIGHT have happened, not experimental and falsifiable conjecture that makes for science.
For his part, Shermer does a decent job (so long as we see his as that of a philosopher, not a scientist; Shermer, I think, would protest this). He presents a case for a naturalistic ethic and goes into a fair amount of detail.
Here's the problem: not only has everything here been proposed before by those more apt than Shermer (Mary Midgley, JL Mackie, Steven Pinker, William James) but the things he says here are quite common, and really in need of little defence.
Shermer's point is that moral 'rules' are naturally endowed by evolution (or so it seems) and are provisoinal - they hold for most people, in most situations; they are more like guilelines for action. Okay, I believe it (just as I believed it when the said authors wrote it). But he really doesn't follow this up with what exactly that means. What are 'most people' and what are 'most situations'? Most troublingly, does merely saying 'evolution did it' and showing that homo erectus shared food (thus enforcing altruism by pasing along their genes) really mean that the theory is 'scientific' (even though it is non-emprical albeit good conjecture?)
I am giving the book a three-star rating, though.
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80 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Dr W. Sumner Davis on January 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In my own studies I have often come across those who believe, for there exists no other term, that religion and a belief in some supreme being are the root, the very foundation of moral behavior. As a student of evolutionary psychology, Ecclesiastical History and later of Divinity, I feel
certain I can address this concept. It is, as history has proven time and again, simply incorrect. A better understanding of the Golden Rule as it has come to be known can be seen in Shermers latest book, as in the white papers of John Nash (especially Bargaining, Zero Sum Games and Economics), in the work of Charles Darwin, (most specifically his later ideas on an evolutionary ethics); the writings of Edward O. Wilson, (especially The Ants), and finaly with even a meager
observation of nature itself. We do bargain, we do make social deals. This is observable in Chimpanzee groups, and so far as I know, they have no religion as we might recognize it. That we have to make golden rules, not out of a religious ideal but for the survival of our species seems obvious to anyone. Shermers time line indicates that morality and a social ethic were in development some 100,000 years ago. This seems about right, as ample social anthropological evidence indicates a turn toward large group hunting, and social coopertation far before this period. That some form of norm is required for an understanding of allowable and un-allowable actions within the group seems at most apparent from simian studies. This seems to me common sense, despite some reviewers inability to follow it. That a divine figure is necessary to explain morality, especially a very human-like human deity, seems to me silly at best. In the fine tradition of Darwin, Wallace, Dawkins and Sagan, Shermer points out that, which once read, seems obvious.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Wyote VINE VOICE on January 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Shermer is a decent writer and a very sharp thinker. I'm in basic agreement with much of his worldview, although I think he's not skeptical enough here and there. He set himself several tough tasks in this book, and I'm not sure he really succeeded at any of them. Yet I don't think he really tried either, his main point was different.

He didn't go into enough depth about the evolution of altruism or cooperation. For that, I suggest you turn to Matt Ridley. He didn't go into enough depth about free-will either, but that doesn't matter to me since I think it's probably an insoluble problem. He does a very good job of covering the pop-culture level of debate on ethics, but I think he should have explored various philosophical positions much more thoroughly, and I would have been very pleased if he had covered the ethical positions that various skeptics have held in the past. His own provisional system of ethics are as reasonable as any other, although his attempt to label them scientific is dubious.

So I guess the point of this book was to engage in the pop-culture debate on ethics, to take on Dr. Laura and the religious right. So he avoided philosophical complications and so on, trying to stay relevant to America in the 21st century. Actually I'm not sure how to go about that project, but I appreciate the attempt.

The book was pleasant reading, and I enjoyed it. I'm sure that there are deeper, more thorough coverages of everything in it, but probably few are so easy to read. If you're new to the idea that a non-religious worldview could be supremely moral, this is a book that will suprise you; if that idea is old news to you, this book will entertain you.

I'd like to add that I think some of Shermer's other work, especially "How We Believe," is much better. I'd recommend reading that before this one.
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