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Science Salon Archives

In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time. Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, and TuneIn, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 133

Michael E. McCullough — The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code

In this sweeping psychological history of human goodness — from the foundations of evolution to the modern political and social challenges humanity is now facing — psychologist Michael McCullough answers a fundamental question: How did humans, a species of self-centered apes, come to care about others? Ever since Darwin, scientists have tried to answer this question using evolutionary theory. McCullough shows why they have failed and offers a new explanation instead. From the moment nomadic humans first settled down until the aftermath of the Second World War, our species has confronted repeated crises that we could only survive by changing our behavior. As McCullough argues, these choices weren’t enabled by an evolved moral sense, but with moral invention — driven not by evolution’s dictates but by reason. Today’s challenges — climate change, mass migration, nationalism — are some of humanity’s greatest yet. In revealing how past crises shaped the foundations of human concern, McCullough offers clues for how we can adapt our moral thinking to survive these challenges as well. Shermer and McCullough also discuss:

  • Darwin’s Dictum: All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.
  • the problem to solve: why are people kind to strangers (i.e., origins of empathy, altruism, and kindness)?
  • why we don’t need “divine command” theory to explain real morality, which can be derived through evolutionary theory plus philosophical ethical systems,
  • evolutionary “by-product” theory: when we help strangers in the modern world we are following ancient rules of thumb that worked well enough in a world in which meeting someone for the first time was a reasonably good indicator that you’d meet them again,
  • Frans deWaal and the “thin veneer” theory of human morality and civilization he thinks Dawkins holds, and why our morals are a thick veneer on our evolved nature,
  • Peter Singer’s expanding circle,
  • Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process and his etiquette books advisories,
  • why stranger-adaptation and blessed-mistake theories are too simplistic,
  • a brief overview of the past 10,000 years of moral progress,
  • our evolved human instincts: (1) our social instincts for helping others in hopes of receiving help in return, (2) our instinct for helping others in pursuit of glory, (3) our ability to track incentives, and (4) our capacity for reason,
  • the 7 Ages of human history: Age of Orphans, Age of Compassion, Age of Prevention, First Poverty Enlightenment, Humanitarian Big Bang, Second Poverty Enlightenment, Age of Impact, and
  • the end of poverty, UBI, and other social tools for creating a more just society of strangers.

Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. The winner of numerous distinctions for his research and writing, he is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He lives in La Jolla, California.

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