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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 60

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis — Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (book cover)

In this exceptionally important conversation Dr. Shermer discusses at length the background to and research of Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and evolutionary sociologist famous for his study of social networks in humans and other animals. Drawing on advances in social science, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and network science, Blueprint shows how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path—and how we are united by our common humanity. For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions—our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations—we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society. In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples—including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own—Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness. Shermer and Christakis also discuss:

  • his background and how he got into studying social networks and society
  • why evolutionary psychology is an equal opportunity offender (Right: biological creationism; Left: cognitive creationism)
  • the 8-character suite of human nature that goes into building a good society
  • Unintentional Communities like shipwrecks
  • Intentional Communities like communes
  • Artificial Communities like Seasteading
  • love and why it matters for a good society, and not just a good life
  • friends and social networks
  • genes and culture co-evolution
  • boo words like positivism, reductionism, essentialism, determinism and why we need not fear them
  • Hume’s Wall: is-ought naturalistic fallacy
  • engineering new social worlds and governing Mars.

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis is a physician and sociologist who explores the ancient origins and modern implications of human nature. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering. He is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science and the co-author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

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This Science Salon was recorded on March 27, 2019.

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This episode was released on April 2, 2019.

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