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

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Where Goods Do Not Cross Frontiers, Armies Will

Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will. How a Science of Good and Evil Reveals a Solution to Global Tribalism

In Rob Reiner’s 1992 film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character — the battle-hardened Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup — is being cross-examined by Tom Cruise’s naive rookie Navy lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, defending two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier. He thinks Jessup ordered a “code red,” an off-the-books command to rough up a lazy Marine trainee in need of discipline, and that matters got tragically out of hand. Kaffee wants answers to specific questions about the incident. Jessup wants to lecture him on the meaning of freedom and the need to defend it: “Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” (continue reading…)

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The Domesticated Savage

Science reveals a way to rise above our natures
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Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles once classified humans as the “third chimpanzee” (the second being the bonobo). Genetically, we are very similar, and when it comes to high levels of aggression between members of two different groups, as I noted in last month’s column on “The Ignoble Savage,” we also resemble chimpanzees. Although humans have a brutal history, there’s hope that the pessimists who forecast our eventual demise are wrong: recent evidence indicates that, like bonobos, we may be evolving in a more peaceful direction.

One of the most striking features in artificially selecting for docility among wild animals is that, along with far less aggression, you also get a suite of other changes, including a reduction in skull, jaw and tooth size. In genetics, this is called pleiotropy. Selecting for one trait may generate additional, unintended changes. (continue reading…)

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The Ignoble Savage

Science reveals humanity’s heart of darkness
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In 1670 English poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: “I am as free as Nature first made man … /When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” A century later, in 1755, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage in Western culture by proclaiming that “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”

From the Disneyfication of Pocahontas to Kevin Costner’s eco-pacifist Native Americans in Dances with Wolves and from postmodern accusations of corruptive modernity to modern anthropological theories that indigenous people’s wars are just ritualized games, the noble savage remains one of the last epic creation myths of our time. Science reveals a rather different picture of humanity in its natural state. In a 1996 study University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi S. Low analyzed 186 preindustrial societies and discovered that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology and lack of profitable markets, not conscious efforts at conservation. Anthropologist Shepard Krech III, in his 1999 book The Ecological Indian, shows that in a number of Native American communities, large-scale irrigation practices led to the collapse of their societies. (continue reading…)

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The Erotic-Fierce People

The latest skirmish in the “anthropology wars” reveals a fundamental flaw in how science is understood and communicated
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Another battle has broken out in the century-long “anthropology wars” over the truth about human nature. Journalist Patrick Tierney, in his book dramatically entitled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, purportedly reveals “the hypocrisy, distortions, and humanitarian crimes committed in the name of research, and reveals how the Yanomami’s internecine warfare was, in fact, triggered by the repeated visits of outsiders who went looking for a ‘fierce’ people whose existence lay primarily in the imagination of the West.”

Tierney’s bête noir is Napoleon Chagnon, whose ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People is the best-selling anthropological book of all time. Tierney spares no ink in painting him as an anthropologist who sees in the Yanomamö a reflection of himself. (continue reading…)

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