Customer Reviews: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Holt Paperback)
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VINE VOICEon February 8, 2004
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. Truth be told, I enjoyed it and think its judgments (although better defended, say, by Mackie) are sound (and easier to read than Mackie). Particularly if you are into biology and haven't really done much thinking in philosophy, this book is great! Shermer is an entertaining, and widely learned writer (even though I disagree with some details about, say, group selections power to explain).
If a more detailed, less lay-like book is what you are looking for, I'd suggest: Mackie's "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong", Midgley's "Beast and Man", and even Paul Ehrlich's "Human Natures".
If you've read and liked this book, read Ridley's "Origins of Virtue" and Flanagan's "Problem of the Soul".
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on January 24, 2004
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. Shermer, in the fashion of Carl Sagan, uses plain and simple concepts to explain the formation of a morality, not as a divine order, but as a aid to survival and social progress. The few issues I have with this book are more semantic than substance. I cannot
scientifically, or in this case ?morally? argue with anything put forward in this excellent account the development of modern moral thinking. Clearly hunger motivates us to eat, and pair
bonding (love),besides the obvious advantage for child rearing (seen in avian species as well as many Mammalian)motivates us to cooperative hunting. That some reviewers fail to agree with this straightforward page-turner perhaps speaks more to their own beliefs than the evidence put forth in Shermers book. Sinply put, another brilliant work from a brilliant modern thinker.
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VINE VOICEon January 22, 2005
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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on January 9, 2006
Some reviewers claimed that this book was difficult to get through, and seemed like a text book... i disagree.

Maybe it is because I find this topic very interesting, but I had no trouble getting through this book. It was incredibly interesting and well worth the buy. I kept expecting to hit "the boring and difficult" parts, but they never came.

This is a great book if you are interested in hearing a scientific explanation for morality (that is, if "God did it" doesnt satisfy you).

I highly reccomend The Science of Good and Evil, along with How We Believe and Why People Believe Weird Things.
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on May 13, 2005
I really enjoyed Shermer's earlier book "How We Believe," a well written and engaging book. This one on the other hand feels like a textbook, a labor to get through. He makes some great points, but this is DRY stuff. If you're looking for a scholarly examination of good and evil, pick it up. If you're expecting another informative/entertaining book like "How We Believe," skip it.
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on February 4, 2004
Shermer's discussion of morality in this book is a continuation of that he started in How We Believe, though that book was less dry and more complete. Still, he bravely tackles morality with an approach not unlike Nietsche's (one must drop the crutch of religion and take responsibility for their own morals) only less angry and more scientific (hence the dryness). Shermer does do a fair job of trying to explain the beauty of individual moral responsibility, but the book concerns mainly the historical or 'evolutionary' explaination of morals, in that they serve a societal function. (A good companion book to this would be Sagan's Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors.)
Shermer's lens seems greatly shaped by Darwin. That may be because one of his books between How We Believe and this on was In Darwin's Shadow (about Alfred Wallace), or perhaps Darwin's science is pretty solid stuff. At any rate, to apply a scientific approach to morality is to try and replace thousands of years of mythology which did the job until recently. Can morality be explained without religious ties? That's the interesting part of it.
I was going to give this book 4 stars because of the slight disappointment I had with Shermer's writing style, but the topic is so vast and this book gives one of the best discussions of it I've seen in a long time. So it's a Fiver!
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on March 18, 2004
To a large extent, a book like this (like any book that tries to make some case) should be judged by how well the author succeeds in making their case. In The Science of Good and Evil, Shermer attempts to explain at least three basic things:
1. Why we have certain moral attitudes (e.g. altruism) towards members of our own social group.
2. Why we have moral obligations to members outside of our social group.
3. Why #2 above (or for that matter why we're even obligated to care about in-group members) follows from our biological origins and evolution.
Shermer does a relatively decent job in explaining #1 above(though Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" is FAR superior). He utterly fails in #2 and #3 above however.
Aside from the fact that evolutionary biology gives no reason why people would should care for the well being of out-groups that are competing for resources (especially if our group can kick their group's ass), Shermer runs head first into two seemingly insurmountable problems: The Fact/Value gap (and it's cousin the naturalistic fallacy), and the difference between prescriptive and descriptive ethics.
Shermer attempts to address the claim that without God, moral claims would just be subjective expressions of personal attitude and hence anything would be permissible, since one person's preferences and attitudes are no more objectively valuable than anyone else's.
Shermer argues that morality is grounded in the evolutionary biology of humans, and evolution has generated attitudinal proclivities in humans that have helped our survival as a species (or the survival of our genes, to put it another way). Since such morality is universally based in human biology, then the very nature of humanity would be the objective basis of morality that would still exist even if the idea of God was disposed of.
However, Shermer fails to distinguish betweem "prescriptive" amd "descriptive" ethics. Descriptive ethics merely gives an objective account of moral attitudes and behavior. To say "Jones thinks doing X is immoral" would be an exaple of descriptive ethics, since it just describes a fact about what Jones thinks, rather than saying anything about whether Jones has any actual moral obligation to do X. Prescriptive ethics attempts to prescribe what people ought to do. So a statement like "Jones shouldn't do X, because that would be immoral" would be an example of prescriptive ethics.
Arguing that moral attitudes are a part of human biology is an example of descriptive ethics. It objectively describes something about morality, without talking about what we actually ought to do (i.e. prescriptive thics) in any situation. In other words, so what if the history of evolution has instilled in the vast majority of humans certain moral attitudes? That doesn't say athing about whether I should obey such attitudes or not (assuming one has them). In fact, if we conclude that such attitudes aren't a result of some objective truth regarding right and wrong, but simply the result of countless generations of my genes trying to maintaing their survival, then what good reason is that to respect such attitudes when doing so isn't in one's best interests (e.g. as in when one can steal a large amount of money and get away with it)?
In short, Shermer engages in the naturalitic fallacy: It's natural, therefore it's good. This fallacy is doubly problematic for Shermer since he gives biological reasons for some of our immoral behavior as well. So if both immoral and moral attidues are hardwired in us as humans, why should we follow one instinct when it conflicts with another instinct? Shermer gives no good reason. And in fact, the "fact/value gap" says that descriptions of nonmoral facts acn never result in demonstrating (by itself) what we ought to do or not do.
Then, Shermer makes a giant leap by asserting certain moral values respecting the happiness and liberty of people which he thinks are important, but in no way follow from his evolutionary analysis, nor follow from any other reason he gives. The most he does is "test" the values he proposes by seeing how they work with respect to certain moral issues (abortion, animal rights, etc.). Shermer describes himself as a pretty radical libertarian. What a surprise then that the values he personally espouses (but gives no reason why anyone whould adopt them) produce political results acceptable to a libertarian! Amazing discovery: A libertarian's values entail libertarian conclusions.
In short, Shermer gives no good reason why people should not screw over and exploit others when douing so is in their (or their group's) best interests to do so.
That's not saying there is no reason not to, period. It just says that Shermer's attempt to provide some "sceintific" basis for morality fails.
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on January 29, 2004
Can humans be moral without relying on some divine list of rights and wrongs? This book describes how morality could emerge from the need to optimize in-groups ("us") and coalesce in a common defense from out-groups ("them"). When we are seen as the descendents of hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherers, the idea is that certain lines of behavior might confer reproductive advantage, thus the genes motivating in-group cooperation and mutual defense towards common out-groups would prosper into the future. The rules of such cooperation and mutual altruism become codified into moral systems. A superb book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon April 26, 2013
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer

"The Science of Good and Evil" is an interesting book on the study of morality. It's the study of why humans do what they do, particularly on the social level. Best-selling author and self-proclaimed skeptic Michael Shermer takes a scientific approach to the question of morality. The book specifically deals with the origins of morality and the foundations of ethics. A very sound book published in 2004 that holds up quite well. This solid 368 page-book is broken out into the following two parts: Part I. The Origins of Morality, and Part II. A Science of Provisional Ethics.

1. A fascinating topic in the hands of a master of his craft.
2. A well-written, well-researched, engaging and accessible book. Excellent!
3. Great use of charts and scientific research throughout the book.
4. Shermer is a great communicator. He is a deep thinker with a knack of conveying profound ideas to laypersons. He is not afraid to share his experiences in order to give life to his theories.
5. Thought-provoking look at morality from many angles, particularly scientific ones. "This is why a scientific analysis of morality can be more fruitful than a philosophical one."
6. Shermer has earned my trust over the years. He is genuine, he takes a scientific approach but he is not afraid to tell you how he feels. "Here we cut to the heart of what is, in my opinion the single biggest obstacle to a complete acceptance of the theory of evolution, especially its application to human thought and behavior, particularly in the realm of morality and ethics: the equating of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration."
7. Shermer lays down his thesis and goes to work, "My thesis is that morality exists outside the human mind in the sense of being not just a trait of individual humans, but a human trait; that is, a human universal."
8. The why and how of morality. Shermer covers eight main ideas that encapsulates his interesting theory: moral naturalism, evolved moral sense, evolved moral society, the nature of moral nature, provisional morality, provisional right and wrong, provisional justice, and ennobling evolutionary ethics.
9. The history of the golden rule.
10. The evolution of morality. "In the last 10,000 years, these moral thoughts and behaviors were codified into moral rules and principles by religions that arose as a direct function of the shift from tribes to chiefdoms to states."
11. An interesting look at war and violence. Many great examples. "In this latter sense I claim that there is no such thing as evil. There is no supernatural force operating outside the realm of the known laws of nature and human behavior that we can call evil."
12. Free will and the problem of determinism. The fascinating history. How it relates to the law.
13. Science and theories that pertain to violence. "One of the fundamental tenets of science is that a theory should be able to explain the exceptions to its generalizations. This is a problem for the computer-game theory of violence, as it is for the other theories."
14. Absolute morality, relative morality and provisional morality. Always an interesting discussion. "There is a middle way between absolute morality and relative morality that I call provisional morality."
15. Religion and how it relates to morality. "The belief that one's faith is the only true religion too often leads to a disturbing level of intolerance, and this intolerance includes the assumption that nonbelievers cannot be as moral as believers."
16. The happiness, liberty, and moderation principles. Many case studies: adultery, pornography, abortion, cloning, and animal rights. Interesting stuff.
17. Shermer's interesting conversion to Christianity and deconversion. "...there was a slow but systematic displacement of one worldview and way of thinking by another: genesis and exodus myths by cosmology and evolution theories; faith by reason; final truths by provisional probabilities; trust by verification; authority by empiricism; and religious supernaturalism by scientific naturalism."
18. A quote fest, "Absolute morality leads logically to absolute intolerance."
19. An interesting look at Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism, a form of fixed Aristotelian philosophy.
20. The four tenets of scientific provisionalism: 1. Metaphysics: Provisional Reality. 2. Epistemology: Provisional Naturalism. 3. Ethics: Provisional Morality. 4. Politics: Provisional Libertarianism.
21. Two great appendices.
22. Notes and bibliography.

1. So much has happened since 2004, particularly in the field of neuroscience. The book is dated in those areas but still holds up well.
2. The scientific study of morality is in reality in its infancy, this book is a great start but there is still ways to go. In other words, it's not as science heavy as Shermer may make it out to be.

In summary, I really enjoyed this book. It holds up fairly way for a book that was published in 2004. The scientific study of morality is in its infancy and the book suffers a bit due to the limited scientific knowledge in the field of neuroscience. In other words, the book is not as strong scientifically as one would like but Shermer makes a very strong case nonetheless. Shermer is an excellent author and though this is not his best work, it's a good read and comes highly recommended!

Further suggestions: "The Believing Brain" by the same author, "SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable" by Bruce M. Hood, "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.
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on September 1, 2006
I found this book very informative and provided me with very good arguments for a secular non-theistic ethic foundation. I agree with most of what Shermer expresses.

However, I think it's more a philosophy book that uses scientific facts to prove its points than a science text. So, I think it should be named somethingh like "Good and evil: a naturalistic approach".

Another complaint is about the author's use of "fuzzy logic". I think it's too simplistic just to assign fractions to everything in life: "That act is 0.7 immoral". "That animal is 0.6 conscious". I recommend Shermer (and you) reading Edgar Morin "Complex thought" ideas.

Another thing I found the book lacking is discussion about the diversity of moral issues. Shermer just assumes every act as perceived as "good" or "evil", no matter the cultural differences.

Anyway, although I would like a more complex and deep approach on the subject matter, it is a very interesting book. Read it!

(By the way, I learned the word "unalloyed" from this book. He uses it a lot!)

PS. Sorry if you find some spelling errors. English is not my first language.
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