The Science of Good & Evil

The head skeptic at his very best.

Michael Pakenham


Published on February 22, 2004 The Baltimore Sun

To enthusiasts of debunking quackery, Michael Shermer is a premier skeptic--
a dauntlessly questioning writer and lecturer who is wonderfully clear in
thought and language. His work is a paragon of popularized science and
philosophy. That reputation is confirmed by his latest book, The Science of
Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
(Times Books, 350 pages, $26).

Shermer, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and publisher of Skeptic
magazine, has a Ph.D. in history. He has written five previous books, and
edited others. This volume is the third in a series that began in 1997 with Why
People Believe Weird Things, which was followed in 1999 by How We Believe. Both
were powerful, learned and scientifically disciplined explorations of the
nature of belief and truth. Why People is the most persuasive debunking I have
ever read of popular mass mysticisms, from faith healing and pyramid power to
astrology. In this latest volume, he focuses intently on the capacity of humans
to want to do good, and indeed to do it--without ignoring or glossing over
their capacities for evil. This raises the most personal and fundamental
questions that can be considered by the human mind.

"Evolution," he writes, at the core of his thesis, "generated the moral
sentiments out of a need for a system to maximize the benefits of living in small
bands and tribes. Evolution created and culture honed moral principles out of
an additional need to curb the passions of the body and mind. And culture,
primarily through organized religion, codified those principles into moral rules
and precepts."

Note: religion "codified," made formal -- but did not originate. Shermer's
contention is that human goodness evolved and prevails independent of the
existence of--or belief in--a God or gods.

At the core of this primal dispute is the meaning and nature of religion.
Shermer defines it as "a social institution, one that evolved as an integral
mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and
cooperation, to discourage selfishness and competitiveness, and to reveal the
level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a
community."

He is not a believer. Today, he terms himself an "agnostic nontheist" though
earlier in his life was a theology student and a born-again Christian. But
beyond the question of personal faith, he flatly rejects the many traditional and
modern arguments that without a deity, "all ethical systems are reduced to
moral relativism or moral nihilism."

This, of course, rejects the most basic argument of proselytizers for every
faith and denomination. Recognizing the historic and immediate role of
religious practice in formulating moral values, Shermer raises the obvious question:
"Can we lead moral lives without recourse to a transcendent being that may or
may not exist? Can we construct an ethical system without religion?"

His answer, it should come as no surprise, is yes, on both counts. Shermer
does not ignore or trivialize human propensities to be selfish, cruel and
bloody, but he is powerfully convinced that the scientific history of the human race
demonstrates it is overwhelmingly more natural to be good than to be bad.

In rejecting the necessity of religion as a foundation for morality, Shermer
states flatly that he has logically demonstrated that "evolutionary ethics can
be ennobling and morality transcendent by virtue of the fact that the deepest
moral thoughts, behaviors, and sentiments belong not just to individuals, or
to individual cultures, but to the entire species."

Many believers will not accept that declaration. But if you do, or if history
proves it true, it is the best possible news for the human race. Shermer
insists that it means an inevitable evolution that "will lead to greater amity
toward members of our own group, and a long historical path toward more liberties
for more people in more places, whether they are members of our group or not."

Shermer is convinced this progressive utopianism does not clash with faith.
The backbone of this book is that moral principle and propensities "are the
result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies of history." He
contends that "believers need not feel alienated, however, since if there is a
God, it is acceptable to believe that He created and utilized the laws of
nature, forces of culture and contingencies of history to generate within humans a
moral sense, and within human cultures moral principles."

He explores a wide swath of notorious or celebrated occurrences that can be
seen as having acute moral implications: The student massacre at Columbine high
school, John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate Precedent Reagan, wars in
specific and in general and more.

In many cases, the most engaging elements of these examinations are the
arrays of obviously "wrong" explanations that emerged from public debate and even
from official investigations. Most of those false attributions arise clearly
from the preconceptions of the attributer -- failure of parental discipline,
violence in entertainment, diet or fanatic fads. Shermer leans toward the
simplest or most obvious explanations -- and accepts that evil does lurk in
the soul of mankind.

His erudition is immense and yet modestly applied; I found not a line of
bombast or a hint of cant in the entire book. It is reasonable, while passionately
reasoning. There is an exhaustive and valuable bibliography and endnotes that
meet scholarly standards. The main points are made in a step-by-step,
explanatory manner, rather than by making declarations and then piling on arguments
with the sort of triumphalism that so taints most tendentious arguments for
everyone but true believers.

Throughout, Shermer writes with a measured voice. He is unequivocal about
what he believes and about what he rejects, but he is never cruel in his
dismissiveness, except when there is unquestionable evil involved. For a book that
oozes sophistication, this work is usually happily conversational. Its most
important concepts are, of course, enormously abstract and elusive -- human nature,
the existence or nonexistence of deity, the meaning of social values and
more. But Shermer, a paragon of skepticism ("thoughtful and reflective inquiry"),
goes about making them accessible with extraordinary patience, precision and
persuasiveness. ---

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