College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
Michael Shermer
New York: Henry Holt, 2004

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Despite all the horror, shock and awe, the events of 9/11 did not change the world. Environmental degradation, various genocides, global and domestic poverty, threats of pandemics, technological penetration into all aspects of our public and private lives and the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in all its forms persist unabated. All that really happened in 2001 was that the United States was briefly obliged to take direct notice of the violence that seems endemic in human affairs, and which has too often been unleashed by the United States itself in defence of its “national interests.” The terrorist attacks were a compelling and unconscionable instance of “blowback.” Since the initial trauma, the usual patterns have simply been reaffirmed and, in the related cases of Iraq, Afghanistan and in the unrelated case of Darfur, intensified.

World War II, in the alternative, really did change the world, at least a little. The horror of the Holocaust and some latter-day misgivings about unleashing atomic bombs brought some people, especially in the Western world, to the recognition that something might be amiss in human cultural and possibly even our biological evolution.

We did not seem to learn much from World War II in immediate, practical terms. Yes, the United Nations was founded and seemed for some time to hold more promise than the failed League of Nations, but almost as soon as the dust settled on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were off again to a Cold War that was sometimes too hot for comfort as proxy battles between the “free world” and the “communist menace” were fought in places as diverse as Greece and Guatemala, Iran and Korea, Angola and Vietnam. Not all these battles involved all-out military confrontations. Some were done on the sly with “covert actions” up to and including the incarceration or assassination of heads of state. Still, all were perilous to local populations and, of course, the industrial world had the constant background of the “balance of terror,” the generally accepted and aptly named bipolar nuclear strategy of MAD—“mutually assured destruction”—to keep us safe.

While some academics joined forces with their governments to press the advantage of the superpower of choice, others were genuinely distressed by what had happened at Auschwitz and Dresden and continued to happen across the world.

Social scientists like Theodor Adorno and his colleagues undertook to find out what was wrong. In a massive volume entitled The Authoritarian Personality, they explored the kind of mind that would follow orders—any orders—and both accept and encourage torture and tyranny as a result. Psychologist Stanley Milgram went further. He initially hypothesized that the Nazi crimes represented a flaw in the German national character. He therefore set up a series of experiments to show just how far people would go in terms of inflicting senseless pain on innocent people just because they were told to do so. To ensure scientific rigor, however, he needed a “baseline” that he hoped to establish among a control group of ordinary Americans. He found, to his dismay, that he did not have to go anywhere near Germany to find sociopaths; there were plenty of crypto-Nazis in New Haven, Connecticut.

In time, the work of people like Adorno and Milgram led to research into areas such as the social and psychological factors that encourage acts of obscene inhumanity. By the 1960s, others began to pursue a different set of explanations. They based their research on the proposition that despicable violence, torture and so on are not inhuman at all. They are bred in the bone and constitute part of our collective genetic inheritance. The Hobbesian “war of all against all,” they believed, reflected our essential human nature. First, anthropologists and then geneticists took up the task of explaining why human life has a tendency to be “nasty, brutish and short.”

Picking up as well on the ethological work of Konrad Lorenz, writers—some with scholarly credentials and some without—produced a spate of books with titles such as African Genesis, The Naked Ape and The Territorial Imperative, which were designed to explain and to justify why our species displayed and often took pride in acts of violence, whether as members of street gangs or as of a proud military establishment. Recent comments by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld indicate that their message has not been ignored.

For a time, the source of violence—nature or nurture—preoccupied professionals and the curious public alike. Was human aggression innate or was it learned?

The debate, of course, is as old as written language. The Biblical account leaves little doubt that ours is a fallen race, born in sin and doomed to evil unless redeemed by divine grace. Cynics like Diogenes of Sinope had a different view. They thought that virtue could be taught. I like to believe that Jesus, in his better moments, inclined to the Cynical view, as does the bulk of the Buddhist tradition which endeavours to teach its four noble truths and its eightfold path to enlightenment. Twentieth-century and, so far, twenty-first century history has not been kind to such progressive thought.

The debate between those who think human beings are essentially benign on the one hand or malign on the other may well be a false one; but, in any case, it is unlikely to be either resolved or abandoned soon. It has, moreover, produced some very interesting reading over the decades, if not the centuries. A very nice addition to the dialogue is Michael Shermer’s book, The Science of Good and Evil.

Shermer is the founder and director of the international Skeptics Society. He writes a monthly column for Scientific American. Among his publications is the best-seller, Why People Believe Weird Things. He is described as a psychologist and a scientific historian. He tells a pretty good tale.

This book is essentially a summary of the work of evolutionary biologists and others on no less a problem than the roots of morality and, of course, immorality.

Shermer’s general argument sides with an empirical scientific, rather than a rationalistic philosophical explanation. Morality, he assures us, has its origins in the nature of human evolution. “As an evolved mechanism of human psychology,” he says, “the moral sense transcends individuals and groups and belongs to the species.”

He relies on no god, nor on any transcendental theory of right and wrong. He speaks not of absolutes, whether provided by faith or reason, but is content with “provisional” notions of moral principles, right and wrong actions and what justice may be available at any place and time.

He is also no common relativist. There are no absolute morals in his view, but it is also false to affirm that “moral principles [are] entirely determined by circumstance, culture, and history.” This may strike some as disingenuous. Devoted to the scientific method and happy to attribute moral sentiments to what Darwin called “descent with variation” (the great man did not speak much of “evolution”), Shermer seems to endorse a materialistic view of morality, but also clings to “a sense of the sublime, the sacred, even the mystical.” In Michael Novack’s assessment, Shermer is a scientific “free rider” on the human pilgrimage.

All I can say is that, from his writings, it appears that Michael Shermer is a good and tolerant man, who finds no troubling meaning in his evolutionary discourse, but sees instead an ennobling of ethical thinking precisely because it does not derive from the supernatural, but because it evolves from nature itself.

Social evolution during the roughly 160,000 years in which anatomically modern humans have populated the planet has been difficult to reconstruct. We do know, however, that we have lived collectively in increasingly large and complex societies, moving from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states and now to empires. In our early arrangements, communities consisted of no more (and often considerably less) than a few hundred individuals. Now, there are nations with a billion or more. Imperial orders vary, according to definition, but if globalization is taken into account, we are all part of a culturally fragmented, politically asymmetrical, ethnically heterogeneous empire of Internet users and corporate economies in a world of over six billion vaguely related people.

In this world, we continue to fight for power, influence, material gain, prestige and territory. But our struggles have followed patterns that reflect social and technological transformations. To explain human violence from schoolyard bullying to domestic abuse to global hegemony disrupted by clashes of civilization, it is insufficient to talk of original sin or crime genes. In fact, we must retreat a good deal before offering any hypotheses at all.

Shermer does not offer a very satisfactory definition of either good or evil. This is unsurprising since, at base, moral beliefs are socially constructed adaptations that do not necessarily ensure the “survival of the fittest,” and that may actually become pathological themselves. He does, however, occasionally speak eloquently about the ways in which human beings are challenged by moral notions and have generated forceful moral codes that are elegant, reasoned and occasionally inspirational. He fails, however, to locate morality in any kind of conceptual framework that would allow us to treat moral ideas as anything more than human judgments. There is nothing wrong with this, but such a view is inconsistent with the implication of the book’s title, which at least suggests that good and evil are actual axiological categories that exist independent of human opinion. I do not mean to split hairs here; it matters whether we are discussing how biology and evolutionary psychology influence contingent human ideas or morality as an ontological category outside human experience. What, simply put, is the dependent variable here? A set of what are now cleverly called “memes” or a transcendental basis of judgment. Again, Shermer seems to want to have it both ways.

The effects of this problem become clear when he addresses the so-called “anthropology wars.” As I have written elsewhere (“Nor Commit a Social Science,” The Innovation Journal 7[2], 2002), the iconic battles between nature and nurture, sociobiological and culturalist explanations of human behaviour, norms and their ideological supports commonly fixate on the writings of two pre-eminent anthropological writers of the past century: Margaret Mead and Napoleon Chagnon. Mead famously visited the South Pacific in the 1920s and returned with the ethnographic material that would make her reputation on the basis of her interpretation of idyllic tribal communities living lives of innocence in bucolic, tropical splendour. Four decades later, Napoleon Chagnon spent time with the Yanomamö people of South America and returned with the ethnographic material that would make his reputation as the chronicler of humanity in a Hobbesian state of nature in which humanity fights for life and honour without art and architecture, without literature and law, without commerce and all the attendant attributes of what we proudly call civilization. The notion of innate violence pleased the belligerent and bellicose Chagnon, who once thundered at an ingenuous graduate student who asked if he had found no pacifists among his “fierce people,” that he did not travel all that way to study cowards!

Mead’s research results conformed to her politics and her desire to introduce progressive change into what she deemed a sexually repressed North America; she hoped that permissiveness would produce psychologically healthier modern humans and sought confirmation in traditional societies.

Chagnon’s research results conformed to his politics and his desire to re-awaken robust warrior values in what he deemed a North America gone soft; he hoped that fierceness would restore psychologically healthier modern humans and sought confirmation in traditional societies.

Shermer notes that each had their critics. Patrick Tierney wrote a devastating critique of Chagnon that stopped just a shade short of libel litigation and came close to tearing the American Anthropology Association apart at its annual meeting in 2000. Derek Freedom wrote a devastating critique of Mead that described her as a naïf who had been the subject of a hoax by her mischievous tribal subjects and who had, nonetheless, become an enormously influential public intellectual on the basis of a research project that was flawed to the point of utter incompetence.

Anyone interested in this debate can consult the primary sources; I raise it here to suggest that in this and numerous other cases, Shermer identifies crucial points of debate but tilts his reportage toward evolutionary psychology, sociobiology or whatever specific “naturist” position is at issue when giving appropriate if not necessarily equal time to the opposition.

Shermer also stands on shaky ground when he addresses certain social issues as examples of faulty moral thinking in what might have been a far more compelling inventory of false fears that generate unwarranted actions for ostensibly foolish purposes. For example, he points out that, in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death in men but that it stands 11th in media coverage while the negligible risk factor, illicit drug use, captured 2nd place in public attention. Further, in the 1990s, America’s murder rate dropped by 20%, while “murder stories on network newscasts increased by an incredible 600% (and this doesn’t include O. J. Simpson stories).” He is, it seems, constructing an argument that our perceptions can become distorted when we seek to identify genuine pathologies. So far, so good. He then takes swipes at people who, he claims, misrepresent scientific evidence and manufacture false claims about dangers that are neither clear nor even present. There is, he insists, no evidence that second hand smoke is dangerous. He dismisses the psychological condition widely known as the Gulf War Syndrome. He denies a relationship between television violence and human aggression. He rejects recovered memories of childhood abuse. All, he says, are chimerical. I agree with him in two cases out of four; but, I also admit that such cases remain controversial and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are two problems. The first is that Shermer declines to explore the roots of false fears in political economy. There are social reasons why people are encouraged to be more afraid of muggings and terrorists than is reasonable. Among other things, focusing attention on villainous and hyperdramatic events—a school shooting here, a car bomb there—diverts attention from far more insidious evils and may also gull citizens into willfully surrendering their civil liberties as their contribution to a fictional “war on terror.”

The second problem is that the lines Shermer draws to separate good and evil as philosophical propositions are as fuzzy as the logic he criticizes in others’ descriptions of the real world of alternative dangers and opportunities. Moral standards become blurred in policy debates about practical matters on which reasonable people can reasonably disagree. If (as I think it is) Shermer’s point is that we must dispense with notions of pure evil and comprehend morality as making provisional choices among practical alternatives, there must at least be some situational criteria according to which moral judgments can be made. Here, Shermer is content to reiterate his skeptical commitment to provisional morality. He disapproves of both religious and secular absolutism, and urges moderation and tolerance in all things; but, this begs the question of what ends ought to be pursued, however moderately. Here he falls silent.

Shermer has little time for utilitarianism. Kant’s categorical imperative merits a single dismissive reference. Marx does not win a single appearance in his index. What emerges is the nebulous notion that we should all probably behave as morally as possible under the circumstances—whatever “morally” means and whatever the circumstances may be.

I do not mean to seem harsh. Shermer’s book is a rich compendium of ideas and arguments directly, indirectly or tangentially related to his topic. For the most part, his treatment is nicely written, logically presented and replete with useful information, interesting anecdotes and helpful interpretations of scientific issues that might otherwise elude the understanding of people who approach the book with little background in science.

There is, moreover, enough detail in his rehearsal of both scientific and philosophical ideas to engage the beginner and to keep the attention of the intelligent and informed laity. Generally speaking, he summarizes viewpoints fairly. For instance, in an appendix he deals with the hotly contested issues that separated Darwinians like E. O. Wilson on the one hand and Stephen Jay Gould on the other. Most commentators on their disagreements have been relentlessly partisan, but Shermer gives each their due while simultaneously performing a political analysis that outlines the strategies and tactics of each side as they orchestrated the playing out of a scientific debate in the forum of public politics. In doing so, he shows clearly how important intramural arguments among evolutionists and other scientists are necessarily caught up in or by arguments that put apparently arcane disagreements in the full light of public scrutiny where not only their scientific merits but also their social implications can be seen.

The faults that can be found, therefore, are probably inevitable in a book that covers such a broad topic from many different disciplinary perspectives. If, therefore, I have quibbled, it is mainly because I wish that an already very good effort in the popularization of scientific exploration into an inherently contentious subject had been even better.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology