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The Science of Good and Evil: Excerpt

Prologue — One Long Argument: An apologia pro vita sua

Our whole dignity consists in thought. Let us endeavor, then, to think well: this is the principle of ethics.

—Blaise Pascal, Pensées, II, 1670

In 1959 professional astronomers were polled for their opinion on the then undecided debate between two competing cosmological theories. “Did the universe begin with a Big Bang several thousand million years ago?” One-third answered yes. “Is matter continuously created in space?” Nearly half answered yes. Most telling, to the question “Is a Gallup poll of this kind helpful to scientific progress?” one hundred percent answered no.1

The reason for unanimity on the final question is that scientific debates are not settled by consensus opinion. Unfortunately, in complex human and social issues, separating fact from opinion is not so easy, and for no subject is this more apparent than morality and ethics. Thus, throughout this book I apply a principle I call Darwin’s Dictum, which states: All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service. The British naturalist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, in a letter to his friend Henry Fawcett, dated September 18, 1861, responded to an accusation made against him in a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Fawcett, who attended in Darwin’s defense, reported that a critic claimed that The Origin of Species, was too theoretical, and that he should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest.” Darwin’s response is now a classic: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”2

All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service. My approach in this book is to apply Darwin’s Dictum in a judicious use of both data and theory in an attempt to understand both the why and the how of morality, acknowledging that since we are doing science, all claims to any validity for both data and theory are provisional. My methodology is well captured in this observation by the Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman: “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” This applies, I think, both to moral principles and ethical theories that purport to explain the how and the why of moral principles.

This balance between doubt and certainty, between open-mindedness and closed-mindedness, is what I call skepticism. “Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise,” William Shakespeare cleverly noted in Troilus and Cressida (Act 2, Scene 2). In many ways, the search for the origins of morality and the basis of right and wrong moral principles is as important as any discovery we might make; with morality, the journey counts as much as the destination. The two, more so, are inseparable. To be a fully functioning moral agent one cannot passively accept moral principles handed down by fiat. Moral principles require moral reasoning. Unlike many other fields of human endeavor, where one may reasonably hope to arrive at a consistent set of principles, morality is so fraught with complexities and subtleties that no moral principle is without exception, and contradictions are more common than consistencies. While I have struggled mightily to be consistent in my thinking on the issues encountered in this book — many of which are the deepest of all questions of the human condition — I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 observation (in Self-Reliance) that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Walt Whitman, in his elegant Song of Myself, offered this out that I take as my own defense in those (hopefully few) places where constancy does not always carry the day:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself;
(I am large — I contain multitudes).

Given this caveat, as brief intellectual autobiography in the form of an apologia pro vita sua (an apology for one’s own life), the why and the how of morality form the basis of the third volume in a trilogy on the power of belief. The first volume, Why People Believe Weird Things3, dealt with a variety of subjects within the primary penumbra of my job as the Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine and Contributing Editor and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. In exploring, explaining, and occasionally debunking pseudoscience and superstitions, the book lays the foundation for good science and, in showing how thinking goes wrong, shows, by implication, how thinking goes right. Because the book deals with certain subjects uncomfortably close and tangentially interdigitated with religion — such as reincarnation, ghosts, near-death experiences, theories of immortality, psychic mediums who claim to talk to the dead, creationism, and alleged scientific proofs of God’s existence — upon publication I was inevitably challenged to present my views on the nature and existence of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and the relationship of science and religion. At first I was flippant in my responses. “What’s your position on life after death?” a questioner would inquire. “I’m for it” I would quip with a wink. But over the years it dawned on me, after hundreds of public lectures and thousands of letters, that for most people life’s ultimate questions are no joking matter.

A couple of years of serious research and reflection — tying together the experiences and thoughts of a lifetime spent thinking about, reading on, and actively committing myself to a variety of religious belief systems (from born-again Christian to born-again atheist to my current position of agnostic nontheist) — resulted in the second volume in the trilogy, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God4. In this work I explicated the nature of belief systems, particularly with regard to the God question, and outlined the various positions one can take in attempting an answer. The general categories are obvious: Theism is “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” And agnosticism is “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.” I present these common and historical usages from the Oxford English Dictionary because they represent how people have understood and used these terms, not how theologians and philosophers have finely nuanced them (in How We Believe I provide an extensive bibliographic essay just on these terms and how they can be parsed into dozens of finely graded positions). Since I shall be discussing morality primarily from the position of an agnostic and a nontheist, I should clarify what I mean by these terms.

The word agnostic (along with its derivative agnosticism), was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 as: “one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and so far as can be judged unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.”5 Based on this usage, and my own lifelong quest (ending in utter futility) to prove or disprove God’s existence, I defined the God question as the art of the insoluble, and made what I think is an important distinction between a statement about the universe and a statement about one’s personal beliefs. As a statement about the universe, agnostic seems to me to be the most rational position to take on the God question because, by the criteria of science and reason, God is an unknowable concept. We cannot prove or disprove God’s existence through empirical evidence or rational analysis. (Although, in my opinion, atheists have slightly better arguments for the non-existence of God than theists have for the deity’s actuality.) Therefore, from a scientific perspective, theism and atheism are both indefensible positions as statements about the universe. One must think and act on a personal belief or a disbelief, however, so when forced to apply a label (which I generally try to avoid) I call myself a nontheist; if forced to bet on whether there is a God or not, I bet that there is not, and I live my life accordingly. Nontheism has the added advantage of making an end run around a common misunderstanding of agnosticism to mean waiting for more evidence about God’s existence (or non-existence) before making a decision. That’s a position that assumes that additional evidence will (or may) suddenly arise to prove or disprove God’s existence. I could be wrong, of course, and proof may materialize, but until that happens I shall assume that there is no God and that the God question is an insoluble one. “Is there a God?” is not even the appropriate way to ask the question. A better question is this: Is it possible to know if there is a God or not? My answer is firmly negative.

In How We Believe I addressed many more issues than God’s existence or nonexistence, including the nature and structure of belief systems; the psychology, anthropology, and sociology of religion; why people believe in God and why they think other people believe in God; the relationship of science and religion; the origins of myths and the storytelling impulse; the relationship of religion and morality; and how we can find meaning in a gloriously contingent universe. As with my experiences following the publication of Why People Believe Weird Things, the release of How We Believe in 1999 triggered a surfeit of correspondence challenging my claim that the primary function of religion can be found in the two-fold purpose that religions serve in both traditional hunter-gatherer communities and modern state societies: (1) explanation and (2) social cohesion. In fulfilling the first purpose, myths explicate the origin and nature of the world and life, and have been, for the most part, displaced by science. We live in the Age of Science, and Scientism is our mythology. Explanations of the origin and nature of the world and life are not final truths passed down through generations by Mendicant monks preserving the knowledge and wisdom of the ancients; instead, they are always provisional and ever changing, and are best couched in empirical evidence, experimental testing, and logical reasoning.

Despite the triumph of science and the cultural diffusion of scientism, religion thrives as never before. In America in particular, but in many other countries as well, never have so many — and such a high percentage of the population — professed a belief in a deity. Although explanations for this remarkable trend are as varied and complex as the theorists proffering them, a general causal vector can be found in the second purpose of religion, that is, its social mode. Ever since the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, religion has slowly but irrevocably gotten out of the business of explaining the world and instead has focused on what it has always done best — providing a foundation for social order and moral edification. Most people don’t go to church to hear an explanation for the origin of the cosmos and life (and if they did, and they knew something about the findings of modern science, they would be dismayed to be told that the Genesis myth of a six-day creation less than a score thousand years ago was to be taken literally). Instead, most folks go to socialize with like-minded friends, neighbors, and colleagues, to contemplate the meaning of their lives and of life, and to glean moral messages from the homilies presented in stories, myths, and anecdotes of the knotty problems that daily life presents to us all. To date science — even scientism — has had little to do or say in this social mode, and it is here, especially, where we find no conflict between religion and science. When commentators argue that there is a conflict, they are thinking of religion in the explanatory mode where, for example, arguing that the earth is only 6,000 years old will indeed find you in direct contradiction with data from geology and astronomy indicating that it is in excess of 4.5 billion years old. As long as religion does not make quasi-scientific claims about the factual nature of the world, then there is no conflict between science and religion.

This assumes, of course, a God who is not actively involved in some measurable way in the world and our lives. If, for example, prayer induced God to intervene in a person’s recovery from disease or accidents, then prayed-for patients should recover from disease and accidents sooner than non-prayed-for patients. To date, the prayer and healing studies have all proved either nonsignificant or significant but harboring deep methodological flaws. Given this qualification, however, peace should reign in the valley of science and religion … and the sheep shall lie peacefully with the lion.

The Why and the How of Morality

The study of morality is, at its core, the study of why humans do what we do, particularly on the social level, since almost all moral issues revolve around how we interact with others. What do we mean by morality and ethics? I define morality as right and wrong thoughts and behaviors in the context of the rules of a social group. I define ethics as the scientific study of and theories about moral thoughts and behaviors in context of the rules of a social group. In other words, morality involves issues of right and wrong thought and behavior, and ethics involves the study of right and wrong thought and behavior. The first half of this book deals primarily with morality, the second half with ethics. That is, Part I: Why We Are Moral, focuses on the evolution of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions related to what we call the moral sentiments; Part II: How We Are Moral, focuses on the evolution of ethical systems — absolute, relative, and my own provisional ethical theory — and how we can reconcile them with our evolutionary and cultural heritage.

The Science of Good and Evil picks up where How We Believe left off. It defines religion 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. In the first half of this book I shall unpack that sentence in great detail, but for now what I mean is that religion evolved as a social structure to enforce the rules of human interactions, before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights. Long before there were state-enforced constitutional rights for the protection of basic freedoms, humans devised various mechanisms of behavior control to facilitate good will and cooperation, and to attenuate excessive avarice and competitiveness. The religious foundation of human virtues and vices, saints and sinners, in fact, is a codification of an informal psychology of moral and immoral sentiments and behavior. Humans are a hierarchical social primate species, and as such we need rules and morals, and a social structure to enforce them. In the social mode, religion is that social structure, and God — even a God that exists only in the heads of those who believe in Him — is the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

In a study conducted by myself and the University of California, Berkeley social scientist Frank Sulloway (the results of which are presented How We Believe), we discovered that one of the most common reasons people give for believing in God is that without the existence of a deity there would be no ultimate basis for morality. The source of this belief might be that these three components — morality, God, and religion — have been intertwined for so long that there may be an evolutionary foundation that lies beneath the cultural connection between the three. Secular moral principles, such as those expressed in the French Revolution (“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” and the “Rights of Man”) and the American Revolution (the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “all men are created equal”) are centuries old. Religious moral systems such as those expressed in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are millennia old. Evolutionary moral systems such as those expressed by indigenous peoples (the modern remnants of Paleolithic societies) are tens of millennia old. To find out why we are moral in an ultimate sense (and not just a proximate sense) we must return to those long gone epochs when anatomically modern humans were living simultaneously with other hominid species, collected in tiny bands as hunter-gatherers eking out a living and struggling to survive in a physical environment filled with predators, parasites, diseases, and accidents; and a social environment filled with hierarchies, conflicts, and competition for dominance, status, recognition, and mates.

When I ask why we are moral I am asking the question in the same manner that an evolutionary biologist might ask why we are hungry (to motivate us to eat) or why sex is fun (to motivate us to procreate). Why questions are different from how questions. How questions are concerned with proximate causes — the immediate or nearest cause or purpose of a structure or function. We are hungry because when our blood sugar is low our hypothalamus detects this drop and is stimulated to release chemicals that cause a sensation of hunger, motivating us to consume food. The fun of sex is similarly explained through physiological causes, such as the release during orgasm of oxytocin that enhances the bonding between a couple, an especially adaptive function because human infants are helpless for so long that they need the efforts of two parents (rather than one parent and one sperm or egg donor). But these are proximate explanations. Evolutionary biologists are also interested in ultimate causes — the final cause (in an Aristotelian sense) or end purpose (in a teleological sense) of a structure or behavior. We are hungry and horny because, ultimately, the survival of the species depends on food and sex, and those organisms for whom healthy foods tasted good and for which sex was exquisitely delightful left behind more offspring. Since differential reproductive success is the ultimate product of natural selection, and natural selection is the primary driving force behind evolution, we have reached an ultimate level of causal thinking in trying to answer these questions.

Of course, hunger and sex are relatively easy targets for evolutionary theorists. Psychological and social behavior — including and especially moral behavior — is another genera of problem altogether. But this does not exclude it from an evolutionary analysis. Although our species is arguably the most complex on earth (at least in terms of brain and behavior, especially as expressed in social systems), we are nonetheless animals, and as such we are not exempt from the forces of evolution. Ultimate why questions about social and moral behavior, while considerably more challenging, must nevertheless be subjected to an evolutionary analysis. There is a science dedicated specifically to this subject called evolutionary ethics, founded by Charles Darwin a century and a half ago and continuing as a vigorous and viable field of study and debate today. Evolutionary ethics is a sub-division of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior. The fundamental premise of these sciences is that human behavior evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years during our stint as hominid hunter-gatherers, as well as over the course of millions of years as primates, and tens of millions of years as mammals. As such, evolutionary psychology is itself a branch of sociobiology and ethology, the sciences that study all animal behavior. Since we are, first and foremost, animals, the findings from all these fields are applicable to the study of human moral behavior, although humans are unique in the fact that the most advanced primates — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans — show only the most rudimentary forms of moral behavior, or what I call the pre-moral sentiments. Finally, since The Science of Good and Evil is a work of science, it employs the evidence and findings from those allied sciences, including archaeology, history, anthropology, sociology, cognitive and social psychology, neurophysiology, behavior genetics, and evolutionary biology.

This scientific theory of morality will build a case for how humans evolved from social primates to moral primates, and how the foundation of moral principles can be built upon empirical evidence and logical reasoning. That is, this book tackles two deep and essential problems: (1) The origins of morality and (2) the foundations of ethics. This is the why and the how of morality. Embedded within these are questions that have occupied the greatest minds in human history: Is it our nature to be moral or immoral? If we evolved by natural forces then what was the natural purpose of morality? If we live in a determined universe, then how can we make free moral choices? Does good and evil exist, and if so, from whence do they come? Why do bad things happen to good people? If there is no outside source to validate moral principles, does anything go? Can we be good without God? How can we tell the difference between right and wrong?

In Part I. Why We Are Moral: The Evolutionary Origins of Morality, a theory on the origins of morality is presented in four chapters. This part addresses the why question of morality. Chapter 1. Transcendent Morality, presents an answer to the challenge that without a transcendent source of validation (for most people this is God) all ethical systems are reduced to moral relativism or moral nihilism. I demonstrate 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. Chapter 2. Why We Are Moral, presents my theory, based on a model of bio-cultural evolution, to explain the development of the moral sentiments and of moral behavior. The chapter reviews the million years over which the pre-moral sentiments evolved in our ancestors under primarily biogenetic control, the hundred-thousand years over which the moral sentiments evolved in our species alone, the transition about 35,000 years ago when sociocultural factors became increasingly dominant in shaping our moral behavior, and the shift within the past 10,000 years when the moral sentiments were codified into form ethical systems. Chapter 3. Why We Are Immoral, addresses the darker side of humanity: war, violence, and the ignoble savage within, showing that we are both moral and immoral animals. Here I address the classic problem of evil — if God is all-powerful and all good, then why does evil exist? If God is neither all-powerful nor all good, then evil can logically exist; but this is not a deity most believers would profess belief in or make a commitment to. If there is no God, then how are we to deal with evil on the scale of the Holocaust? Do bad people ultimately get away with doing bad things if there is no final judgment? I suggest a way around this conundrum, as well as debunk the myth of the Noble Savage and peaceful native, showing how all humans share a common humanity. Finally, Chapter 4. Master of My Fate, considers how moral choices can be made in a determined universe. I suggest several solutions (since I do not believe that any single one is adequate) to the problem of free will — if God is all powerful, or if nature is ultimately guided by the law of causality (where all effects have causes), then how can we be expected to make free moral choices, much less be accountable for making the wrong moral choices? Both philosophy and science provide viable solutions.

In Part II. How We Are Moral: How to Be Good Without God, we begin in Chapter 5. Can We Be Good Without God?, by addressing head one of the most common arguments made by believers that without an outside divine source of validation and objectification moral principles cannot be universally held or consistently applied. Chapter 6. How We Are Moral, reviews the various absolute and relative ethical systems that have been developed throughout human history, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each one, and concluding that because of the complexity of human society and culture, no single ethical system can be all encompassing or thoroughly consistent; this chapter also presents a science of provisional ethics that is neither absolute nor relative, arguing that moral principles can be applicable to most people, in most circumstances, most of the time. With provisional ethics there is no abdication of moral responsibility, but at the same time there is room for tolerance and diversity in recognizing that although we are all responsible for our moral actions, there is scope for forgiveness and redemption in recognizing the fallibility of humans and human social systems. Chapter 7. How We Are Immoral, examines a number of principles that help us tell the difference between right and wrong, then applies these principles to a number of ethical issues, including truth telling and lying, adultery, pornography, abortion, cloning and genetic engineering, and animal rights. Chapter 8. Rise Above, considers the evidence that our species is on a long evolutionary trajectory toward 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. Out of this analysis arise two recommendations, one on personal tolerance and the other on political freedoms, based on extensive scientific data that demonstrates why and how humans can and should be more cooperative.

Finally, an epilogue presents the results of a survey conducted by social scientist Frank J. Sulloway and I on why people are moral. We attempted to answer this question in two ways: (1) demographically through statistical data collected from our sample, (2) personally through first-person answers to the questions “why are you moral” and “why do you think other people are moral?” Two appendices also accompany the book. Appendix I. The Devil Under Form of Baboon is a history of the evolution of evolutionary ethics and the background to the scientific study of moral behavior, starting with Darwin and working our way to the latest findings from evolutionary psychologists. Appendix II. Moral and Religious Universals as a Subset of Human Universals, supplements Chapter 2 in providing additional evidence of the evolutionary nature of our moral behavior in the form of human universals related to religion and morality.

That’s it. The rest is details. But as the nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert observed, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail,” a phrase astutely (and appropriately, considering his profession) iterated by the twentieth-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “God dwells in the details.” Those details form the sum and substance of this book.


  1. Cited in Ferris, T. 1996. Red Limit. New York: Random House.
  2. I went so far as to elevate Darwin’s observation to a dictum in my first column in my monthly series in Scientific American, April, 2001, entitled “Colorful Pebbles and Darwin’s Dictum.”
  3. Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstitions, and Other Confusions of our Time. New York: W. H. Freeman (2nd edition, 2002, Henry Holt).
  4. Shermer, M. 1999. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: W. H. Freeman (2nd edition, 2003, Henry Holt).
  5. Huxley, T. H. 1894. Evolution and Ethics. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 238.
  6. Pargament, K. 2002. Archives of Internal Medicine. August. Sloan, R., E. Bagiella, and T. Powell. The Lancet, February 20, 1999, Vol. 353: 664–667. “Faith-Medicine Connection Challenged.” News. Skeptic, Vol. 7, No. 1: 8. In general, the methodological flaws in the prayer and healing studies include: (1) Lack of control of intervening variables. For example, most of these studies did not control for age, sex, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, marital status, and degree of religiosity or religious devotion, all of which can influence outcomes. (2) Failure to control for multiple comparisons. For example, in one study 29 outcome variables were measured but only six were significantly altered by prayer, and in other studies different outcome variables were found significant, so there was no consistency across studies.
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