Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter 3 – Why We Are Immoral: War, Violence, and the Ignoble Savage

66-69 – The “problem of evil.” God’s will is not a good explanation. So from whence does evil come? In the first place, evil is not a separately existing thing all by itself, it is not a Platonic essence. Rather, evil is “a physical concept that exists entirely within the natural realm as behavior…Good and evil are human constructs.” 69

70-76 – We all can be good or bad depending on the circumstances; human nature is malleable, as the Millgram and Zimbardo experiments demonstrate. [So there is no mystery why people torture each other or why apparently normal people with power do extraordinarily bad things.] Thus, there was nothing special about Nazi leaders except that they shared: “overweening ambition, low ethical standards, and a strongly developed nationalism which justified anything done in the name of Germandom.75 ” [Does this sound familiar to modern day Americans?] Given different situations the mass murderer could have been a quiet accountant; and the accountant a mass murderer. “From and evolutionary perspective this makes sense.” 75 Both cooperation and competition have been necessary throughout evol history. Human behavior comes in shades of grey.

76-81 – Adolp Eichmann appeared quite normal. Most of us restrain our impulses normally, but we all have the potential for great violence. And the myth of pure evil—that others are evil and we are not—makes it more likely we’ll be violent.

82-91 – Human behavior falls on a “fuzzy” scale and moral principles have fuzzy values. So are we really fierce and violent, or erotic and loving? Are we, or the Yanomamo tribe, fierce or erotic? We are both, we don’t possess a fixed essence but are capable of various behaviors in various contexts. “We have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy.” 89 “Homo sapiens in general … are the erotic-fierce people, making love and war far too frequently for our own good…” 91

92-97 – The beautiful people myth is as mistaken as the pure evil myth. Humans are neither beautiful nor ugly; they are capable of doing most anything. The noble savage is a myth. “The evidence is overwhelming that violence, aggression, and warfare are part of the behavioral repertoire of most primate species.” 97

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