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'The Science of Good & Evil': the head skeptic at his very best


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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