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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Holt Paperback) [Paperback]

Michael Shermer
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Holt Paperback) + The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions  How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. + Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
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Product details

  • Paperback: 350 pages
  • Publisher: Holt McDougal; Reprint edition (2 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805077693
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805077698
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 462,098 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Shermer founded 'Skeptic' magazine and website ( and is a contributing editor, and columnist, for 'Scientific American'. Michael Shermer frequently appears on television and radio as a scientific expert.

Product Description

The Science of Good and Evil Psychologist and science historian 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. Full description

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
In one of the most starkly honest and existentially penetrating statements ever made by a scientist, Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins opined that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Strong content very systematic approach. 2 Jan 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book shows how men act moral as well as immoral. It is shown morality is not absolute but provisional.
The approach of this book is very systematic, which makes it easily readable.
The different possible foundations of morality are listed: the ask God principle, the ask first principle, the happiness principle, the liberty principle, and the moderation principle. In a large number of examples it is shown how usefull this approach is, and the different principles for the foundation of morality do not result in widely different outcomes.

I found this book more practical than the book of Stefaan Molyneux: "Universally Preferably Behaviour (UPB)", which appreared recently, and which draw a lot of attention.
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3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Following Nietzsche's footsteps 22 Nov 2010
In Nietzsche's masterpiece 'On the Genealogy of Morals' he simply takes a good step back from The Argument and holds up a clean mirror on which he reflects the origins of opinion, thought and moral judgements. By removing himself from the emotions attached to topics such a theology, morality and ethics Shermer, somewhat like Nietzsche attempts to frame these often 'hot' topics in something altogether more transparent than is usually the case. As a rationalist and a logicist I invariably find the unwelcome addition of emotion and emotionally driven cognition to any serious argument or discourse to be utterly unnecessary, very distracting and wholly unwelcome.

In 'The Science of Good and Evil', Dr. Shermer does his utmost to use Nietzsche's mirror and for the most part does an admirable job in examining the source of opinion, conjecture and belief. Although the matter dealt with in this treaties is not really new ('Morals' was written in 1887). It is probably time the debate was dusted off and reopened - especially with the current state of discourse which seems to be based on 'he who shouts loudest wins' - never mind a clear and precise thesis...

Whilst not everyone will agree with either Dr.Shermer's presentation of the facts nor his take on the issues to hand I think anyone with a keen mind and an enquiring nature will appreciate that at the very least his is adding a dose of objectivity and clarity to the debate; his is wiping his sleeve over the bathroom mirror of discourse and debate, which, ever since Nixon, has been steamed up. Steam that has risen, not from hot water of fervoured argument, rather, from that which has spewn from the mouths of politicians, lobbyists and the laughably objective media ever since the as-kicking in Vietnam; to create an environment a la 'Swift boater', where 'yes' has become 'probably in June' and 'no' has become 'a small Mexican dog'.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
226 of 235 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ...But is it "science" simply because it is naturalistic? 9 Feb 2004
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
I'm torn between the naysayers and the wide-eyed on this one. First, I am a naturalist who believes, like Shermer, that ethics doesn't need god. Unlike Shermer, though, I don't think that this is anything close to a 'science'. Seeing people conflate 'it's a naturalistic explanation' with 'its a scientific explanation' forgets that science is a process, not an ideology. Yes, Shermer gives us a naturalistic explanation, but just like most evolutionary psych, it is simply naturalistic "puzzle filling" of what MIGHT have happened, not experimental and falsifiable conjecture that makes for science.
For his part, Shermer does a decent job (so long as we see his as that of a philosopher, not a scientist; Shermer, I think, would protest this). He presents a case for a naturalistic ethic and goes into a fair amount of detail.
Here's the problem: not only has everything here been proposed before by those more apt than Shermer (Mary Midgley, JL Mackie, Steven Pinker, William James) but the things he says here are quite common, and really in need of little defence.
Shermer's point is that moral 'rules' are naturally endowed by evolution (or so it seems) and are provisoinal - they hold for most people, in most situations; they are more like guilelines for action. Okay, I believe it (just as I believed it when the said authors wrote it). But he really doesn't follow this up with what exactly that means. What are 'most people' and what are 'most situations'? Most troublingly, does merely saying 'evolution did it' and showing that homo erectus shared food (thus enforcing altruism by pasing along their genes) really mean that the theory is 'scientific' (even though it is non-emprical albeit good conjecture?)
I am giving the book a three-star rating, though. Truth be told, I enjoyed it and think its judgments (although better defended, say, by Mackie) are sound (and easier to read than Mackie). Particularly if you are into biology and haven't really done much thinking in philosophy, this book is great! Shermer is an entertaining, and widely learned writer (even though I disagree with some details about, say, group selections power to explain).
If a more detailed, less lay-like book is what you are looking for, I'd suggest: Mackie's "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong", Midgley's "Beast and Man", and even Paul Ehrlich's "Human Natures".
If you've read and liked this book, read Ridley's "Origins of Virtue" and Flanagan's "Problem of the Soul".
78 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Rule is a Human construct. 24 Jan 2004
By Dr W. Sumner Davis - Published on
In my own studies I have often come across those who believe, for there exists no other term, that religion and a belief in some supreme being are the root, the very foundation of moral behavior. As a student of evolutionary psychology, Ecclesiastical History and later of Divinity, I feel
certain I can address this concept. It is, as history has proven time and again, simply incorrect. A better understanding of the Golden Rule as it has come to be known can be seen in Shermers latest book, as in the white papers of John Nash (especially Bargaining, Zero Sum Games and Economics), in the work of Charles Darwin, (most specifically his later ideas on an evolutionary ethics); the writings of Edward O. Wilson, (especially The Ants), and finaly with even a meager
observation of nature itself. We do bargain, we do make social deals. This is observable in Chimpanzee groups, and so far as I know, they have no religion as we might recognize it. That we have to make golden rules, not out of a religious ideal but for the survival of our species seems obvious to anyone. Shermers time line indicates that morality and a social ethic were in development some 100,000 years ago. This seems about right, as ample social anthropological evidence indicates a turn toward large group hunting, and social coopertation far before this period. That some form of norm is required for an understanding of allowable and un-allowable actions within the group seems at most apparent from simian studies. This seems to me common sense, despite some reviewers inability to follow it. That a divine figure is necessary to explain morality, especially a very human-like human deity, seems to me silly at best. In the fine tradition of Darwin, Wallace, Dawkins and Sagan, Shermer points out that, which once read, seems obvious. Shermer, in the fashion of Carl Sagan, uses plain and simple concepts to explain the formation of a morality, not as a divine order, but as a aid to survival and social progress. The few issues I have with this book are more semantic than substance. I cannot
scientifically, or in this case ?morally? argue with anything put forward in this excellent account the development of modern moral thinking. Clearly hunger motivates us to eat, and pair
bonding (love),besides the obvious advantage for child rearing (seen in avian species as well as many Mammalian)motivates us to cooperative hunting. That some reviewers fail to agree with this straightforward page-turner perhaps speaks more to their own beliefs than the evidence put forth in Shermers book. Sinply put, another brilliant work from a brilliant modern thinker.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars skepticism, philosophy and so on 23 Jan 2005
By Wyote - Published on
Shermer is a decent writer and a very sharp thinker. I'm in basic agreement with much of his worldview, although I think he's not skeptical enough here and there. He set himself several tough tasks in this book, and I'm not sure he really succeeded at any of them. Yet I don't think he really tried either, his main point was different.

He didn't go into enough depth about the evolution of altruism or cooperation. For that, I suggest you turn to Matt Ridley. He didn't go into enough depth about free-will either, but that doesn't matter to me since I think it's probably an insoluble problem. He does a very good job of covering the pop-culture level of debate on ethics, but I think he should have explored various philosophical positions much more thoroughly, and I would have been very pleased if he had covered the ethical positions that various skeptics have held in the past. His own provisional system of ethics are as reasonable as any other, although his attempt to label them scientific is dubious.

So I guess the point of this book was to engage in the pop-culture debate on ethics, to take on Dr. Laura and the religious right. So he avoided philosophical complications and so on, trying to stay relevant to America in the 21st century. Actually I'm not sure how to go about that project, but I appreciate the attempt.

The book was pleasant reading, and I enjoyed it. I'm sure that there are deeper, more thorough coverages of everything in it, but probably few are so easy to read. If you're new to the idea that a non-religious worldview could be supremely moral, this is a book that will suprise you; if that idea is old news to you, this book will entertain you.

I'd like to add that I think some of Shermer's other work, especially "How We Believe," is much better. I'd recommend reading that before this one.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 10 Jan 2006
By Zachary A. Kroger - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some reviewers claimed that this book was difficult to get through, and seemed like a text book... i disagree.

Maybe it is because I find this topic very interesting, but I had no trouble getting through this book. It was incredibly interesting and well worth the buy. I kept expecting to hit "the boring and difficult" parts, but they never came.

This is a great book if you are interested in hearing a scientific explanation for morality (that is, if "God did it" doesnt satisfy you).

I highly reccomend The Science of Good and Evil, along with How We Believe and Why People Believe Weird Things.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Believable Basis For Morality 29 Jan 2004
By Peter L. Swinford - Published on
Can humans be moral without relying on some divine list of rights and wrongs? This book describes how morality could emerge from the need to optimize in-groups ("us") and coalesce in a common defense from out-groups ("them"). When we are seen as the descendents of hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherers, the idea is that certain lines of behavior might confer reproductive advantage, thus the genes motivating in-group cooperation and mutual defense towards common out-groups would prosper into the future. The rules of such cooperation and mutual altruism become codified into moral systems. A superb book.
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