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

by Michael Shermer

Times Books, 2004

360 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

The Science of Good and Evil builds upon Shermer's last book (How We Believe) and concentrates on two fundamental problems of human endeavor: the origins of morality and the science and foundations of ethics. In answer to the theist's belief that without religion, one cannot have morality, Shermer answers that humans had morality long before religion, and that many secularists and atheists live just as morally, and perhaps more so, than God believers. Shermer (a non-theist) gives us prime examples and offers modified and new moral rules that, to put it bluntly, makes the moral commands in the Bible look like crude ad hoc tenets from intolerant Bronze Age believers who did not have our scientific understanding (my description, not Shermer's).

In his morality section, Shermer makes a strong scientific case that morality exists outside the human mind as a human universal trait. Primitive morality provided language speaking social primates the means to unite members of their own in-group tribe while excluding out-groups. Eventually these evolved in-group moral feelings led to codified morals co-opted by religions for purposes of societal control. According to many neuroscientists, the brain research reveals that the neuronal firing patterns in the temporal lobe can induce the sense-of-presence of a spirit or an out-of-body experience; this could explain a lot about why people attach morals feelings to an outside source instead of recognizing that it comes from within and possibly explains why religion got started to begin with.

Shermer, as well as many other scientists, argue that humans possess an inherent violent nature and that anthropologists and archeologists have found many examples of warfare among our ancient tribal ancestors. Do humans really exhibit an evolutionary violent nature? I remain unconvinced because the example Shermer and others have given occurred well after the rise of male dominated religions. Have we evidence for warfare against members within the same human species in pre-religious times? As Shermer reports, patriarchal chimpanzees possess a far more violent nature than matriarchal bonobos (and humans have similar genes to them), might not the same apply to pre-religious humans or even early goddess worshiping cultures before the advent of male dominated religions? After all, Shermer makes a case that religion may very well create more violence and warfare than secular derived moralities. If we really do have war-like genes, then how can so many people hold to tolerance and anti-war views without any apparent adverse biological affects as would happen if they tried to abstain from sex, or hunger, for example? Regardless of whether or not humans posses a genetic disposition toward war, it doesn't really matter to the theory of morals that Shermer presents, because we know that at least some people, some of the time can change their moral behaviors. And if some people can change, perhaps it simply comes down to education, in which case, many more people might have the ability to change. Shermer's optimistic evidence provides us with that education.

In Shermer's ethics section, he presents us with the idea of provisional ethics that allows various degrees of room to make better moral choices. Humans do not operate simply as good-or-bad, right-or-wrong, but in many variations in-between. Instead of judging based on dichotomies which places everything within Platonic categories, Shermer asks, why not make moral decisions based on the variances of human conduct? (Alfred Korzybski would feel proud.) Science, Shermer explains, operates, not just with Aristotelian excluded middles, but more so with fuzzy logic, a fine tuned method of analysis that recognizes the continuum in physical and human nature. Armed with provisional ethics and the scientific information of how humans actually behave in the real word we can make better decisions about abortion, pornography, cloning, ecosystems, animal rights, and many other modern moral concerns that ancient bibles can't possibly answer.

If a theist challenges you to provide any secular book that provides a better method of morality than the Bible, then simply hand him a copy of this book. For example, consider Shermer's happiness and liberty principles:

The happiness principle states that it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness.

The liberty principle states that it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty.

If you study his moral principles (which came from scientific observation), you will find that they go beyond the Golden Rule (which works for in-group members but can create tensions for out-group members). Shermer's ask first principle provides a simple way to determine the moral feelings of others (simply ask first) and allows one to modify one's own moral actions toward others. Instead of treating others the way you'd like to get treated, Shermer's 'ask first principle' modifies the Golden Rule to: Treat others they way they'd like to get treated.

Interestingly for Christians, Shermer came from a born-again Christian background who then gradually de-converted and evolved into a skeptical thinker. He has thought long and hard about religious and scientific problems and he provides fence-sitting Christians with many answers without ridiculing them. Astute readers of Christian literature will also notice that Shermer offers an alternative to the Law of Nature hypothesis in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (where he assumes that good morality comes from God, as do most Christian theologians). And where Lewis only offers an assumption about a supernatural source for morality, Shermer provides a theory based on scientific evidence.

I would not bring this up except for the fact that this site goes by the title of No Beliefs, so I feel I should say something about this, but Shermer often gets asked, "Do you believe anything?" Shermer considers the question absurd and then gives a list of things in which he believes. Considering that Shermer holds to the view of provisional type thinking, I would suspect that he might eventually change his mind about this (but perhaps not). To use reasoning similar to Shermer, beliefs, like ethics, also varies through a continuum, from mild beliefs to hard-held intransigent beliefs. One might even assign a number to the strength of a belief (from .1 to 1, for example, where 1 represents the most extreme fanatical beliefs). I suspect that as a skeptical thinker Shermer might assign a value of .1 to his beliefs as he might change his beliefs in an instant if better evidence contradicted a previous held belief. But if that proves the case, another word (a more descriptive and accurate word, in my opinion) can substitute for the word "believe." In every case where Shermer uses the word, believe, he could substitute it with the word, think. Think about it. Given that Shermer admits that he does not like to use labels, why not simply use the descriptive term non-believer instead of variable meaning words like atheist, (which he does not use) or the limited-to-theology term, non-theist (which he does use)? Non-belief covers not only, non-theism, but non-ufoism, non-superstitious, and many other non-beliefs that surely Shermer has no belief in at all. One can own no beliefs about anything while still having thoughts about anything. Provisional knowledge trumps belief in every case, it seems to me.

I haven't read such a satisfying book in a long time (perhaps because most of his observations agree with mine, and gives an independent source for the confirmation of our views). All in all, The Science of Good and Evil gives fresh insights about morality and new things to think about. With the death of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, I thought I had lost the best of the science writers. But with Shermer's last few books, and especially this one, I can see that he will continue their work. I hope to read many more books by Michael Shermer. His writings has grown to equal the best that science has ever offered. This book alone provides months of fuel for my daily "Something to think about" section.

A few quotes from the book (well, quite a lot actually):

To be a fully functioning moral agent, one cannot passively accept moral principles handed down by fiat. Moral principles require moral reasoning.

We cannot prove or disprove God's existence through empirical evidence or rational analysis (although, in my opinion, atheists have slightly better arguments for the nonexistence of God than theists have for the deity's reality).

Explanations of the origin and nature of the world and life are not final truths passed down through generations by mendicant monks preserving the knowledge and wisdom of the ancients; instead, they are always provisional and ever changing, and are best couched in empirical evidence, experimental testing, and logical reasoning.

...religion evolved as a social structure to enforce the rules of human interactions before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights.

Humans are a hierarchical social primate species, and as such we need rules and morals and a social structure to enforce them.

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.

...it is not us who created the moral sentiments and behaviors, it was our Paleolithic ancestors who did so in those long-gone millennia.

Transcendent empiricism avoids supernaturalism as an explanation of morality, and yet grounds morality on something other than the pure relativism of culturally determined ethics.

While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved human universal.

Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, but morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion.

I stand before my maker and judge not in some distant and future ethereal world, but in the reality of this world, a world inhabited not by spiritual and supernatural ephemera, but by real people whose lives are directly affected by my actions, and whose actions directly affect my life.

Aristotle described humans as political animals. De Waal has discovered that chimpanzees are political animals as well.

With the exception of the American experiment of separating church and state, politics and religion have always been tightly interdigitated.

To help others was to help oneself. In chiefdoms, states, and empires the biblical admonition "Love thy neighbor" meant only one's immediate in-group. Out-groups were not included.

In terms of evolutionary group selection, religious violence, genocide, and war are adaptive because they serve to unite in-group members against enemy out-groups.

In other words, good intentions apply only to members of our in-group.

Even in the modern world with a population exceeding six billion individuals, most of whom are crowded into dense cities, people find themselves divided into small groups.

That is, long before there were such institutions as states and governments, or such concepts as laws and rights, religion emerged as the social structure to enforce the rules of human interactions. The history of the modern nation-state with constitutional rights and protection of basic human freedoms can be measured in mere centuries, whereas the history of organized religion can be measured in millennia, and the history of the evolution of moral sentiments can be measured in tens of millennia.

People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals.

Theists often ask, "If there is no God why should we be moral?" In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking "Why should we be moral?" is like asking "Why should we be hungry?" or "Why should we be horny?" For that matter, we could ask, "Why should we be jealous?" or "Why should we fall in love?" The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.

But the sense of being right or wrong in the emotions of righteousness and pride, guilt and shame, is a human universal that had an evolutionary origin.

In my theory this sense of feeling good about doing something good for someone else is an evolved moral sense that has a perfectly reasonable evolutionary explanation.

The tendency to use the term at all [evil] comes from our Western Platonic tendency to think in terms of essences, or nonchanging "things" or "types" that are what they are by their very nature.

...evil is not a fixed entity or essence. It is not a thing. Evil is a descriptive term for a range of environmental events and human behaviors that we describe and interpret as bad, wrong, awful, undesirable, or whatever appropriately descriptive adjective or synonym for evil is chosen. To calls something "evil" does not lead us to a deeper understanding of the cause of evil behavior.

If there were no humans there would be no evil.

Good and evil are human constructs.

We evolved to be moral, but have the capacity to be immoral some of the time in some circumstances with some people. Which direction any one of us takes in any given situation will depend on a complex array of variables.

Ironically, Baumeister concludes, the myth of evil itself may lead to greater violence: "The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it.... Belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good."

To achieve true understanding and enlightenment it might help to understand what the other side was thinking. In a less emotionally charged example, if you lived in seventeenth-century Europe and you really believed that torturing religious heretics and burning women as witches would save their souls and restore peace to your community, then from that perspective the Spanish Inquisition and the European witch craze were supreme acts of morality.

If there is a moral module in the brain (and I suspect there is something that as least corresponds to the concept of such a module in the brain, even if it is splayed out over a large portion of the cortex or consists of lots of smaller modules interconnected), then I have little doubt that Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Ata's moral modules were fully lit up on September 11.

In fuzzy logic, shades of gray rule the universe, despite our heroic efforts over at least the past two and a half thousand years to dichotomize the world into Platonic categories.

The evidence is overwhelming that violence, aggression, and warfare are part of the behavioral repertoire of most primate species.

Even when anthropologists have admitted that there is evidence for prehistoric human warfare, they often portray it as rare, harmless, and little more than ritualized sport.

We may always live in a wold with walls; in recent history, however, the stone and mortar walls enforced by men with guns are gradually being replaced by invisible boundaries enforced by social contracts; in the future even these invisible boundaries may be replaced by semipermeable lines of demarcation, kept open through negotiation and cooperative exchange. It is a visage worthy of humanity.

The law requires unambiguous categories in order to reach a judgement of guilty or not guilty based on the defendant's sanity or insanity. Here again we see the type of Platonic thinking that troubled us over the problem of evil.

It is not the fantasy life that is the problem. After all, fiction writers are paid to pour out their fantasies. What matters is whether those fantasies are converted into dangerous behaviors.

Are these elusive creatures and mysterious phenomena in our world or in our minds? New evidence indicates that they are, in fact, a product of the brain.

The problem is not a lack of God, religion, or morals. It is the wedding of extremism, fundamentalism, and absolute morality, coupled with the means of murder and access to masses of humanity that results in the wanton destruction we have witnessed in modern times. And it is only fair to ask, what if religion is not the solution but is actually part of the problem?

Religion codified these moral principles for sound reasons that have nothing to do with divine inspiration. The moral sentiments and principles acme first, evolving over the course of a hundred thousand years of humans living in a Paleolithic environment. Religion came second, co-opting morality and codifying it to its own end, all of which happened in just the past couple of thousand years. What would happen if we jettisoned religion altogether? Would society collapse into immoral chaos?

No, it would not. And we have the two-centuries-long experiment in separation of church and state to prove it.

What the Enlightenment philosophers were arguing, and the U.S. Constitution framers adopted, was the belief that humans have certain rights and values in and of themselves.

Humans deserve life, liberty, and happiness, not because God said so but because we are human. Period.

Does this secular system work? To answer the question, we have only to compare the levels of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the citizens of the United States to those of the citizens of other countries, particularly those still ruled by theocracies.

In reality, and ironically, it is absolute moralities that leave us with nothing but conflicting opinions and no moral compass. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in religion.

Moral judgement is not calculatingly rational. It is intuitively emotional.

When slavery was the social norm, it was simple for proslavery defenders to point to passages such as those in Exod. 21, which outlines the rules for the proper handling of slaves...

The Golden Rule is a derivative of the basic principle of exchange reciprocity and reciprocal altruism, and thus evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors as one of the primary moral sentiments.

But the Golden Rule has a severe limitation to it: what if the moral recipient thinks differently from the moral doer?

We need to take the Golden Rule one step further, through what I call the ask first principle.

The liberty principle is grounded in history and anchored in modern enlightenment valves.

Liberty has yet to achieve worldwide status, particularly among those states dominated by theocracies that encourage intolerance and dictate that only some people deserve liberty, but the overall trend since the early modern period has been to grant greater liberty for more people.

Extremism is almost always a vice that generates countless unintended consequences. Extremism too often leads to violence, terrorism, and even war.

If you are killing people in the name of anything, you are seeking happiness and liberty at the ultimate expense of someone else's happiness and liberty.

I define positive pornography as images that enhance sexual arousal by depicting individuals or couples in non-harmful and non exploitative sexual situations.

Rapists tend to come from sexually repressed environments in which sex was rarely or never discussed, nudity was forbidden, and sexuality was portrayed as sinful. By contrast, nonrapists were more likely than rapists to have experienced pornography while growing up and to have been raised in a family environment in which sex was openly discussed and not shamed into quiescence.

In the 1960s Denmark experienced a surge in pornography. Instead of taking draconian measures to stop it, the government lifted all bans on pornography. Subsequently, there was a dramatic drop in sex crimes. In Japan, levels of pornography are as high or higher than in America, while rates of sex crimes are fourteen times lower than in the United States...

To take away an important source of reproductive control form women by outlawing abortion would be a significant step backward in the historical trajectory of liberty. Thus, given the choice between increasing the liberty of an adult person and the liberty of an unborn fetus, it makes more sense-- historically, legally, logically, and morally--- to grant that liberty to the adult person, the woman.

Most of us are alive because of medical technologies and social hygiene practices that have doubled the average life span in this century.

The mass hysteria and moral panic surrounding cloning is nothing more than the historically common rejection of new technologies, coupled with the additional angst produced when the sphere of science expands too quickly into the space of religion.

Bioaltruism appears to be almost entirely the product of culture, not evolution, and as such it must be learned. In the long run, bioaltruism may be the most important moral sentiment that will save our species, along with other species upon which we depend, from extinction.

If we can win for them [apes and dolphins] basic liberty rights, then we can worry about monkeys, elephants, gods, and parrots. What rights? We can begin with the most basic rights granted by the U.S. Constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Although my conversion to Christianity was sudden and dramatic, as is often the case for those who are not inculcated into a religion in childhood, my "de-conversion" was gradual and evolutionary. The scales did not suddenly fall from my eyes.

There are no privileged priests in science.

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.

Not only is there no evidence that a lack of religiosity leads to less moral behavior, a number of studies actually support the opposite conclusion.

Absolute morality leads logically to absolute intolerance.

Provisional ethics accommodates the range of individual variation found in human populations and suggests that we should pass judgments, make awards, and heap penalties only with regard to our great diversity.

Religious freedoms must always be protected, but the price for this security is the separation of religion from government. Historically, where church and state were wed, individual liberty suffered, including and especially religious liberty.

For the most part I avoid labels altogether and simply prefer to say what it is that I believe or do not believe.


Prologue: One Long Argument
I. The Origins of Morality
1. Transcendent Morality: How Evolution Ennobles Ethics
2. Why We Are moral: The Evolutionary Origins of Morality
3. Why We Are Immoral: War, Violence, and the Ignoble Savage Within
4. Master of My Fate: Making Moral Choices in a Determined Universe
II. A Science of Provisional Ethics
5. Can We Be Good Without God?: Science, Religion, and Morality
6. How We Are Moral: Absolute, Relative, and Provisional Ethics
7. How We Are Immoral: Right and Wrong and How to Tell the Difference
8. Rise Above: Tolerance, Freedom, and the Prospects for Humanity
Appendix I: The Devil Under Form of Baboon: The Evolution of Evolutionary Ethics
Appendix II: Moral and Religious Universals as a Subset of Human Universals
Illustration Credits

To obtain this book, click below:

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

Other books by Michael Shermer:

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, 1999 (hardback) (cassette [abridged])

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997 (hardback), (cassette [abridged])

Teach Your Child Science : Making Science Fun for the Both of You, 1995 (paperback)