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

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

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by Michael Shermer

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From bestselling author Michael Shermer, an investigation of the evolution of morality that is "a paragon of popularized science and philosophy" The Sun (Baltimore)

A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an "evolutionary ethics," science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to


From bestselling author Michael Shermer, an investigation of the evolution of morality that is "a paragon of popularized science and philosophy" The Sun (Baltimore)

A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an "evolutionary ethics," science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to motivate us to eat) or why sex is enjoyable (to motivate us to procreate), they are now searching for the very nature of humanity.

In The Science of Good and Evil, science historian Michael Shermer explores how humans evolved from social primates to moral primates; how and why morality motivates the human animal; and how the foundation of moral principles can be built upon empirical evidence.

Along the way he explains the implications of scientific findings for fate and free will, the existence of pure good and pure evil, and the development of early moral sentiments among the first humans. As he closes the divide between science and morality, Shermer draws on stories from the Yanamamö, infamously known as the "fierce people" of the tropical rain forest, to the Stanford studies on jailers' behavior in prisons. The Science of Good and Evil is ultimately a profound look at the moral animal, belief, and the scientific pursuit of truth.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Skeptic publisher and Scientific American contributor Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things) argues that the sources of moral behavior can be traced scientifically to humanity's evolutionary origins. He contends that human morality evolved as first an individual and then a species-wide mechanism for survival. As society evolved, humans needed rules governing behavior-e.g., altruism, sympathy, reciprocity and community concern-in order to ensure survival. Shermer says that some form of the Golden Rule-"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"-provides the foundation of morality in human societies. Out of this, he develops the principles of what he calls a "provisional ethics" that "is neither absolute nor relative," that applies to most people most of the time, while allowing for "tolerance and diversity." According to the "ask-first" principle, for instance, the performer of an act simply asks its intended receiver whether the act is right or wrong. Other principles include the "happiness" principle ("always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind"), the liberty principle ("always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind") and the moderation principle ("when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice"). Shermer's provisional ethics might reflect the messy ways that human moral behavior developed, but his simplistic principles establish a utilitarian calculus that not everyone will find acceptable. 35 b&w illus. Agents, Katinka Matson and John Brockman. (Feb. 2) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this concluding volume of his trilogy on the science of belief (following Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe), Shermer applies evolutionary psychology and fuzzy logic to moral questions. Moral behavior, he argues, evolved among the earliest humans as a form of social control, which eventually expanded into an ethical code that allowed greater freedom and more humane treatment for more human beings. People, then, are not simply "good or bad," which calls for a "provisional" morality and ethics, as opposed to a binary (yes/no; good/evil) or absolute ethical system. The author has extensively researched his topic, citing in particular current literature in anthropology (for example, controversies surrounding studies of the Yanomami tribe in Venezuela) and cognitive science (neuroimaging experiments that explore regions of the brain affected by moral challenges); he synthesizes results from disciplines with which he has considerable familiarity. This reach extends across cultures and history to support his argument that while not all moral systems apply to all cultures, this doesn't open the way to moral relativism. Instead, Shermer proposes several principles to test the morality of a particular action. Does it restrict the rights, happiness, and liberty of the other? And since it is so often an individual issue, can one "ask first"? At the same time, the author relies on a rigorous application of statistics and evolutionary logic; there's no place here for a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith." Challenging but engaging reading; recommended for most academic and larger public libraries.-Garrett Eastman, Rowland Inst., Harvard Univ. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine there's no Heaven (as John Lennon suggested): what, then, is the foundation for morality? Skeptic magazine editor Shermer (In Darwin's Shadow, 2002, etc.) 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 Columbinekillings to the Holocaust, to illustrate and support his thesis. Thought-provoking and well-honed examination of deep questions. Agents: Katinka Matson, John Brockman

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.37(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 the next time they come home sans bacon. Of course, the bats are not aware they are being cooperative in any conscious sense. All animals, including human animals, are just trying to survive, and it turns out that cooperation is a good strategy.

Meet the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.

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Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
M_L_Gooch_SPHR More than 1 year ago
As a firm believer in the spirituality of man I still seek answers to the hard questions. I purchased this book as a small part of this quest. I was not disappointed. Michael Shermer - a former Church of Christ (same religion of my childhood) member - provides us finely constructed arguments for the basis of morality and ethics. While I agree with the overall premise of the book, I do question the morality statements and studies that point to relative and provisional morals. For an older view of this area, I would suggest a person may want to read the classic mere Christianity. Knowledge may age but wisdom never does. For a more modern view, I would suggest the recently released Fingerprints of God. Even though he is an atheist (or maybe agnostic) I greatly admire the author. He is a libertarian at heart who seeks to dispel the myths of our cultural histories. However, where I see a divine source, he sees biological heritage. In the end, it doesn't matter if I agree or disagree. What matters is the book has exposed me to other realms of thought and provided a richer understanding of morality structure. I hope you find this review helpful. Michael L. Gooch
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Karlea looks brown hair blue eyes wears black long sleeps with thumb holes black converse and jeans
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im changing my name skinny ligt tan brown hair black shades shorts black tank top and leather jacket throwing knives next to my hip gun in the back of my shorts black army boots flexible can fight tough tattoo on my arm that says fly
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boy Evil Has a black cloak that blends into the surrounings and hat casts a shadow over his face..the only thing you see are his dark piercing gray eyes that seem to look int your soul and see all your fears ad desires...he wears a black t shirt and dark gray pants with black boots and a gray omega symbol on them..he has a quiver of arrows and a silver bow on his back and what looks to he a sword strapped to his waist but you can tell that those are only the physical weopons and that he has other more dark ways of wreaking chaos
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shermer is always a reliable proponent of reason and an entertaining expert at demolishing the nonsense perpetrated by religion. I would recommend Michael Berumen's Do No Evil for a much better philosophical understanding and justification of ethical rules. Like Shermer, Berumen shows how ethics might have originated....but more importantly, he shows how ethical rules can be justified using the concepts of rationality and impartiality, which does not rely on historical or anthropoligical evidence, just simple reason.