The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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Shermer on God’s Existence

Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at

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The Rise of the Humans

A review of The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson.

Edward O. Wilson is one of the grand distinguished scientists of our time, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes (for On Human Nature in 1979 and The Ants in 1991) who writes intricate and detailed technical papers and books on the most narrow of topics (e.g., ant ecology) in between penning grand theoretical works about human nature, history, and the environment. He has been mistrusted by conservatives for his promotion of the teaching of evolutionary theory and his conservation efforts to preserve the environment, and he has been vilified by liberals for suggesting that humans have a biological nature that is not infinitely malleable by social engineering. His 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge was nothing short of a clarion call to resurrect the Enlightenment and reengineer it for the new millennium, suggesting that theologians and philosophers have had their day in the court of morality and ethics and that it is high time scientists had a say in what constitutes right and wrong and the good life. Anything that E. O. Wilson writes about is well worth reading, and The Social Conquest of Earth is no exception.

Readers who are already familiar with “big science” works by such authors as Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, covering everything from evolutionary theory through the evolutionary psychology of economics, politics, and morality, will find much of this same well-worn ground reviewed in The Social Conquest of Earth, but with Wilson’s unique perspective as a biologist who studies sociality and the evolution of social species. As such, The Social Conquest of Earth flips back and forth between human evolution and social history and insect evolution and sociality. What is new—or at least different from the other grand works produced by the authors noted above—is Wilson’s endorsement of a controversial idea in evolutionary theory called group selection, in which social groups are the target of natural selection, not just individuals. He describes the process by which groups become cooperative as “eusociality,” or good social groupness, which Wilson contends enables them to compete more successfully against other less-cooperative groups. (continue reading…)

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Coincidences and Certainties

On the morning of Friday, November 16, 2012, I wandered out of my hotel in Portland, Oregon—The Crystal Hotel, an exotic boutique hotel with rooms decorated in the theme of a musician, poet, or artist (I stayed in the Allen Ginsberg room staring at a portrait of the beat poet and realized why I write nonfiction). In search of breakfast, I could have turned left or right as I exited the lobby. I turned right. At the first intersection I could have continued straight, gone left, or gone right. I went left. There were breakfast restaurants on both the left and the right side of the street. I chose one on the right. The hostess asked if I wanted to be seated near the window or next to the wall. I chose the window. About half way through my breakfast I happened to look up to see a man walking by who looked familiar. He looked at me with similar familiarity. I waived him into the restaurant. He spoke my name in recognition. I stuttered and stammered and hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.” He said, “Uh, Michael, it’s me, Scott Wolfman, your agent!” (continue reading…)

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The Alpinists of Evil

Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
magazine cover

IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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Creative Resilience

Michael Shermer sifts through a study of the science of randomness and our responses to it.

A review of Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This review ran in Nature magazine on November 22, 2012.

Unexpected events have brought down civilizations, economies, markets and corporations. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who fleshed out such rare, random ‘black swan’ effects theoretically in Fooled by Randomness (Texere, 2001) and The Black Swan (Allan Lane, 2007), offers a solution to the challenge they pose in Antifragile.

In more than 400 pages of stream-of-consciousness- style writing, Taleb aims to tell us how to live in a world that is unpredictable and chaotic — how to become ‘antifragile’. Antifragility, Taleb stresses, is not the same as robustness, which relates to how well a system can resist change. To be antifragile is to have the capacity to prosper from randomness, uncertainty and disorder, and to benefit from a variety of shocks, especially blackswan events. It is a kind of creative resiliency that Taleb discusses in relation to evolution, politics, business innovation, medicine, economics, ethics and epistemology.

So what are the attributes of antifragility? Take size. You might think that being big — as a nation or corporation — would serve as a buffer to black-swan events. Business schools teach the virtues of “economies of scale”, but Taleb warns that “size hurts you at times of stress”. Large entities cannot respond as quickly to rapid change as smaller one, which tend to be freer to shift strategies. Taleb notes that mergers of major corporations can fail to foster efficiency. Mergers typically show “at best, no gain from such increase in size”. The AOL–Time Warner merger of 2000 and the subsequent split in 2009 is a case in point. Taleb conjectures, too, that big species such as mammoths have become extinct fairly rapidly. (continue reading…)

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