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

Michael Shermer

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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We have long wrestled with questions of right and wrong, but one field of human endeavor—science—has traditionally sought to maintain a dispassionate distance from such controversies. And yet as evolutionary psychologists, biochemists, and anthropologists have begun to unravel the motives of the human animal, they have instigated a search into the roots of morality and the evolution of our complex ethical systems. Science, it turns out, has a lot to tell us about good and evil.

The psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer has written widely on the nature of belief, and The Science of Good and Evil is a provocative capstone to his work. In these pages, he explores an endlessly fascinating question: how and why did we make the leap from social primate to moral primate? As communities grew from bands and tribes to chiefdoms and states, Shermer explains, humans transformed the moral sentiments displayed in many primate species—shame and trust, for instance—into ethical principles. While gossip, shunning, and other informal methods might work effectively to curtail bad behavior in small groups, religion and formal ethical law worked better in large ones. Our morals and ethics, then, are products not of a divine source, but of our biological heritage and our cultural history.

Closing the artificial divide between morality and science, Shermer draws on a wide array of scientific evidence—ranging from the discovery of food sharing within vampire bat communities to the famous post-Holocaust psychological studies on obedience to authority and from recent anthropological fieldwork that proves our Paleolithic ancestors matched our modern propensity for warfare and ecological wreckage to research by neuroscientists on what is happening in the brain when we make moral decisions. He shows how game theory exposes the foundations of the Golden Rule, how chaos theory profoundly changes our perception of free will, and how fuzzy logic erodes the distinctions between good and evil. And he explores how science can help us address some of today's most difficult moral dilemmas—including debates over abortion, pornography, cloning, and animal rights.

Broad in scope, deep in analysis, and controversial to the core, Shermer's book shows how morality is deeply embedded in our being and behavior, and he develops a more universal, tolerant, and empirically based ethic that could serve all members of our species. 0The Science of Good and Evil is ultimately a profound look at the moral animal, the workings of belief, and the scientific pursuit of truth.


Praise for The Science of Good and Evil

"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

"Michael Shermer's brain is a place where science, history, and psychology meet in the service of common sense. He uses his insatiable curiosity to penetrate the fog of fuzzy thinking, shedding light on the most controversial issues of science and society. Yet another courageous book."—K. C. Cole, author of Mind Over Matter and The Hole in the Universe

"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 if some of the solutions based on religion and philosophy. In the end, we must construct a Darwinian answer to the daily challenge 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

"Imagine there's no Heaven (as John Lennon suggested): what, then, is the foundation for morality? Skeptic magazine editor Shermer seeks to answer that question and to discover a scientific explanation for our notions of good and evil. He quotes Darwin to the effect that all scientific observation must be either for or against some point of view and avers his own viewpoint to be 'non-theistic agnosticism': the decision that, since God's existence is unprovable, he will live and act as if there is no God. The origins of morality and ethics, common to every society on Earth, must then lie in human institutions, Shermer concludes. Over hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors arrived at moral principles designed to maintain peace and order in communities of ever-increasing size and complexity. The earliest 'moral' principles are those that many animals recognize, such as protecting one's mate or young. As human society grew, the needs of larger and larger groups became the basis of morality; at the center of many of them lies something like the Golden Rule, treating others as we would wish to be treated. At the same time, early superstitions coalesced into religions, each of which took on the role of sanctioning the moral principles of its parent society. Shermer goes on to argue that evil has no independent existence but is inherent in human nature. Yet no outside authority is needed to make us moral, he argues; atheists (or temporary doubters) seem no more inclined to kill and steal than the religious. The true dignity of our morality arises from its basis in our common humanity. Shermer draws effectively on familiar instances, from the Columbine killings to the Holocaust, to illustrate and support his thesis. [This is a] thought-provoking and well-honed examination of deep questions."—Kirkus Reviews

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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
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  • Michael Shermer

  • Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, the executive director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology. His books include In Darwin's Shadow, The Borderlands of Science, Denying History, How We Believe and Why People Believe Weird Things. He lives in southern California.
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    Michael Shermer


    Michael Shermer

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