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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule [Hardcover]

Michael Shermer
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)

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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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.

From The Washington Post

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.

Reviewed by Anthony Brandt

Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From The Science of Good and Evil:

Examples of pre-moral sentiments among animals abound. Vampire bats share food and follow the principal of reciprocity. They go out at night in hoards seeking large sleeping mammals from which they can suck blood. Not all are successful, yet all need to eat regularly because of their excessively high metabolism. On average, older experienced bats fail one night in ten, younger inexperienced bats fail one night in three. Their solution is that successful hunters regurgitate blood and share it with their less fortunate comrades, fully expecting reciprocity the next time they come home sans bacon. Of course, the bats are not aware they are being cooperative in any conscious sense. All animals, including human animals, are just trying to survive, and it turns out that cooperation is a good strategy.
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