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.


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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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