Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – Why We Are Moral: The Evolutionary Origins of Morality

25-31 – Versions of the golden rule are found throughout the world, dating back at least 3000 years. So where did this idea come from? Moral sentiments evolved from the behaviors of our pre-moral ancestors. Non-human animals display moral-like behaviors proportionate to how human animal-like they are. Dogs, cats, and bats display moral-like behaviors, but not to the extent that the great apes, our evolutionary cousins, do. Cooperative, reciprocity, and other moral-like behaviors have been well documented in the great apes as well as in other animals. [Remember that the DNA of a human and chimp differ less than that between some species of birds. For more see: The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.]

31-40 – Moral ideas and behaviors were codified by religions that arose as societies became larger. As food production and population increased, division of labor developed, and organized religion came of age to, among other things, justify and support political power. Religions provide a means of exchange between humans and their gods for things that political powers cannot give or give only rarely. Traditionally, religion and politics are bedfellows. [Consider this famous quote from Seneca, quoted by Gibbon at the end of his famous work on the Roman Empire: Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.] “In addition to sanctioning political power “religion has also served as an institution of social order and behavior control.” Religions back up their moral authority by claiming that moral codes are divinely inspired. Crucial to the survival of religion is a strong focus on accentuating in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, which are themselves near universal human traits.

40-46 – Formal moral discipline, behavior control, and conflict resolution become necessary when a group reaches about 150 members. In small groups, reciprocal altruism [a well-documented behavior in human and non-human animals] is the primary mechanism for behavior control and is re-enforced by gossip. Eventually religion took over the role of moral enforcer, evolving as the social institution that promoted cooperation and altruism, and discouraged greed and selfishness.

47-56 – The key idea of group selection helps explain how morality evolved, since groups benefit from cooperation while individuals often don’t. S suggests that group selection might be useful in explaining the evolution of morality. But however we explain it, morality is a behavior that has evolutionary origins.

56-60 – Morality is deep in our nature. Some are more moral than others, but feeling good or bad about our actions is a human universal. And the best way to convince others one is moral and thereby gain cooperative benefits is actually to be moral. All this is best understood by considering the prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated PDs demonstrate that cooperation is a good—possibly the best—strategy.

60-64 – Moral universals exist cross-culturally and thus probably have a biological basis. As evidence for this thesis, S lists over 200 universal human traits related to morality.

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