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Science Salon Archives

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 iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 62

Dr. Mark Moffett — The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (book cover)

In this riveting conversation, Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. Mark Moffett, biologist (Ph.D. Harvard, under E. O. Wilson), wildlife photographer for National Geographic, cave explorer, and world traveler about his new book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, on the nature of societies from a biologist’s perspective. Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but as Moffett argues, our biggest asset, surprisingly overlooked to date, is our ability to be comfortable around strangers. We can walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice, but a chimpanzee, wolf or lion, encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world in vast nations. If we want to compare ourselves to the rest of the animal kingdom in order to define what makes our societies unique, Moffett argues that it’s time we look at ants. Making their way across the African savannah, the Australian coastline, and the American plains, our ancestors moved in small bands of lifelong fellow travelers. Month after month they made their camps and searched for food and water. Rarely did they encounter other human souls. So rarely that outsiders seemed to occupy a realm between reality and myth. Aborigines guessed the first Europeans they met were ghosts. Over time our view of the members of other societies has changed radically; today, foreigners don’t seem outlandish or otherworldly, as they once routinely did. As a consequence of global exploration starting in the 15th century, and more recently tourism and social media, contact between people from far-flung parts of the globe is now commonplace. Outright incomprehension of outsiders is no longer the excuse it often was in prehistory.

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SCIENCE SALON # 61

Dr. Richard Wrangham — The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (book cover)

We Homo sapiens can be the nicest of species and also the nastiest. What occurred during human evolution to account for this paradox? What are the two kinds of aggression that primates are prone to, and why did each evolve separately? How does the intensity of violence among humans compare with the aggressive behavior of other primates? How did humans domesticate themselves? And how were the acquisition of language and the practice of capital punishment determining factors in the rise of culture and civilization?

Authoritative, provocative, and engaging, The Goodness Paradox offers a startlingly original theory of how, in the last 250 million years, humankind became an increasingly peaceful species in daily interactions even as its capacity for coolly planned and devastating violence remains undiminished. In tracing the evolutionary histories of reactive and proactive aggression, biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham forcefully and persuasively argues for the necessity of social tolerance and the control of savage divisiveness still haunting us today.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University. He is the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human and Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. He has studied wild chimpanzees in Uganda since 1987 and received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of the British Academy.

Dr. Wrangham and Dr. Shermer discuss:

  • the paradox of Homo sapiens
  • the two types of aggression: proactive and reactive
  • the evolutionary origins of aggression and the logic behind it
  • the neural pathways of aggression
  • how species can be both artificially and self-domesticated
  • the tyrant/bully problem and how our ancestors solved it
  • war and human nature.

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This Science Salon was recorded on March 5, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 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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SCIENCE SALON # 59

Cass R. Sunstein — On Freedom

On Freedom (book cover)

In this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go — whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships.

In both rich and poor countries, citizens often have no idea how to get to their desired destination. That is why they are unfree. People also face serious problems of self-control, as many of them make decisions today that can make their lives worse tomorrow. And in some cases, we would be just as happy with other choices, whether a different partner, career, or place to live — which raises the difficult question of which outcome best promotes our well-being.

Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed — and shows what it would take to make freedom real.

In addition to discussing his book Sunstein and Shermer talk about what it was like to work in the Obama administration, the issue of free will and determinism in the context of his theory of libertarian paternalism and choice architecture, opt-in vs. opt-out programs related to everything from menu options to organ donations, the electoral college, term limits for Supreme Court Justices, free speech on college campuses (and trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro aggressions), Universal Basic Income, taxes, and terrorism.

About Professor Sunstein’s principle, Dr. Shermer wrote in his book The Mind of the Market:

Libertarian paternalism makes a deeper assumption about our nature — that at our core we are moral beings with a deep and intuitive sense about what is right and wrong, and that most of the time most people in most circumstances choose to do the right thing. Thus, applying the principle of libertarian paternalism to the larger politico-economic system as a whole, I suggest that the default option should be to grant people the libertarian ideal of maximum freedom, while using the best science available to inform the policy that gives structure to the minimum number of restrictions on our freedoms. Let’s opt for more freedom and add back restrictions on freedom only where absolutely necessary and with great reluctance.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on March 4, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 58

Ben Shapiro — The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great

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

In this wide ranging conversation, the noted conservative political commentator and public intellectual Ben Shapiro makes the case that what makes the West great is its foundation in Judeo-Christian values. We can thank these values, Shapiro argues, “for the birth of science, the dream of progress, human rights, prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty.” Shapiro says “Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty and gave billions spiritual purpose. Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As you might expect, Dr. Shermer disagrees on the source of these values, attributing them instead to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and the secular thinkers who used reason and evidence to make the case for human rights and progress. For example:

  • people are never to be treated as a means to an end but as an end in themselves (Kant)
  • people have an inalienable right to life, liberty & happiness (Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence)
  • people have an inherent right to privacy, speech, thought, and action (U.S. Constitution)
  • governments may not infringe on such rights (John Stuart Mill)
  • people should be treated equally under the law (John Locke)
  • punishments should fit the crime and society should be based on the greatest good for the greatest number (Jeremy Bentham).

These are all purely secular moral values derived from Enlightenment science and reason.

Shermer also asks Shapiro how he derives “all men are created equal” from “we were created in God’s image”. Shapiro has a very reasonable answer, to which Shermer read from Thomas Jefferson’s own explanation for the origin of that phrase. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson wrote:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.

Shapiro responded to Shermer’s counter-examples to his thesis, namely successful civilizations that arose before Judaism and Christianity, such as Sumeria, Babylonia, Akkadia, Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, and Christian civilizations that did not flourish, such as the Catholic countries of South America, or historically all the Christian nations in the Middle Ages that never produced anything like a democracy or capitalism.

As two members of the Intellectual Dark Web, Shapiro and Shermer show how people can disagree even on fundamental principles and still have a civil conversation, and along the way find agreement and common cause. Other topics that came up:

  • free will and determinism
  • human nature and sexuality
  • why rates of abortion are higher in the U.S. than other Western countries
  • the increase in rates of suicide and depression in the U.S.
  • unionizing the Intellectual Dark Web and striking for higher wages and redistribution of resources…

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 27, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 57

Dr. Frans de Waal — When Animals Weep (and laugh, love, fight, are afraid, get angry, seek revenge, and other human-like emotions)

Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves (book cover)

Based on his latest book — Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves — the legendary biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal continues his empirical and theoretical work on animal societies, politics, intelligence, sentience, consciousness and, now, feelings and emotions. In this conversation Dr. de Waal and Dr. Shermer discuss:

  • the difference between feelings and emotions
  • the problem of “other minds” (how do we know what other people, much less animals, are thinking and feeling?)
  • why it took a century since Darwin’s book on the evolution of animal and human emotions before scientists took up the mantle
  • the push back from social scientists that Paul Ekman and other scientists, including de Waal, got for suggesting emotions evolved
  • A.I. and emotions (can we program feelings into robots?)
  • the six different emotions and why there are very probably more
  • the nature/nurture debate in the study of emotions
  • primate politics in U.S. elections: a biologist analyzes the Trump-Clinton debate #2
  • is Trump an alpha male or a bully?
  • the difference between sentience and consciousness
  • animal rights and the future of factory farming.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 12, 2019.

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SCIENCE SALON # 56

Dr. Tyler Cowen — How an Economist Views the World

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (book cover) Big Business (book cover)

Big Business, the new book by Tyler Cowen, will be available on April 9, 2019

In this wide ranging dialogue Dr. Shermer speaks with the famed economist Dr. Tyler Cowen, whose new book, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, is “a vision for a society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals.” Dr. Cowen makes the case that…

“Growth is good. Through history, economic growth, in particular, has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun. If we want to continue on our trends of growth, and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for societies that come with it, every individual must become more concerned with the welfare of those around us and in the world at large and most of all our descendants in the future. So, how do we proceed?”

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University where he holds the Holbert C. Harris chair in the economics department. He hosts the economics blog marginal Revolution, together with co-author Alex Tabarrok. He writes the “Economic Scene” column for the New York Times, and now contributes a regular opinion column at Bloomberg View. He has written for the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek and the Wilson Quarterly.

Dr. Shermer and Dr. Cowen also discuss…

  • what it means to be “on the margin,” “marginal utility,” and his blog “Marginal Revolution”
  • trade wars and tariffs and what they really mean for consumers, companies, and countries (China, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), etc.)
  • unemployment is now under 4%, the lowest in decades. Is Trump a savvy economist?
  • why capitalism is a moral system as well as an economic system
  • income inequality
  • universal basic income
  • regulating financial markets
  • immigration: how does an economist think about borders and walls?
  • why incentives matter
  • libertarian paternalism and nudging people to do the right thing
  • social media companies and governmental regulation
  • Jordan Peterson and the power of narrative
  • governing mars: what political and economic systems should we take with us to the Red Planet, and which should we leave behind.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on January 15, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON AMA

Dr. Michael Shermer — The Problem of Evil (AMA # 4)

In this Ask Me Anything, Dr. Shermer performs a postmortem on his debate/dialogue on with Dr. Brian Huffling at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday February 23, 2019. The specific topic was: “Is the Reality of Evil Good Evidence Against the Christian God?” Watch the video of the debate.

This is an exercise in the difference in thinking between a Christian philosopher/theologian/apologist and a secular scientist/humanist/atheist. Dr. Huffling focused on purely philosophical arguments about the nature of God, evil, omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection, whereas Dr. Shermer concentrated on specific examples of evil in the world and challenged Dr. Huffling to explain why God fails to do anything about them. In the end (literally at the end of the debate), when Dr. Shermer pushed him to explain why God allows childhood leukemia and the attendant suffering by children and their loving parents, Dr. Huffling’s answer was “I don’t know.”

Watch previous episodes of AMA. This Science Salon AMA was recorded on February 25, 2019.

Listen to Science Salon Podcasts and AMAs via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 55

Dr. David Sloan Wilson — This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution

This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (book cover)

In this dialogue Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. David Sloan Wilson, the renowned evolutionary biologist and Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His previous books include Evolution for Everyone, The Neighborhood Project, Does Altruism Exist? and Darwin’s Cathedral. He is the president of the Evolution Institute and editor in chief of its online magazine, This View of Life. His new book, out this week, is This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. He and Shermer discuss:

  • what it means to complete the Darwinian Revolution
  • solving the “is-ought” and “naturalistic fallacy” through proper science and philosophy
  • why evolutionary psychology is an equal opportunity offender for liberals and conservatives
  • why both laissez faire and command economies fail
  • what is morality?
  • dispelling the myth of social darwinism
  • policy as a branch of biology
  • solving the tragedy of the commons through game theory
  • the evolutionary origins of good and evil
  • natural selection, group selection, multi-level selection and the debate with Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins over selfish genes
  • why nationalism is like religion
  • how a biologist thinks about immigration, nuclear deterrence and other policy issues
  • the rise of nationalism and what to do about it.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 1, 2019. We apologize for the quality of this recording; it was recorded before Michael moved to the new recording studio. We still have a couple episodes to release from the old studio. Quality of subsequent episodes will be better.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 54

Dr. Michele Gelfand — Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (book cover)

In this wide-ranging conversation Dr. Shermer talks with the author of the new book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, Dr. Michele Gelfand, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her pioneering research into cultural norms has been cited thousands of times in the press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Science, and on NPR. As a cultural psychologist, Dr. Gelfand takes us on an epic journey through human cultures, offering a startling new view of the world and ourselves. With a mix of brilliantly conceived studies and surprising on-the-ground discoveries, she shows that much of the diversity in the way we think and act derives from a key difference—how tightly or loosely we adhere to social norms.

Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”

In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.

Dr. Shermer and Dr. Gelfand discuss these and other interesting topics:

  • examples of tightness and looseness in everything from parenting to international politics
  • the motivation of suicide terrorists
  • globalization and why it has been so disruptive
  • Trump and why he won
  • how Liberals and Conservatives think
  • why gum is not allowed in Singapore but guns are allowed in America
  • lessons from Jack Nickolson’s speech in A Few Good Men
  • George Lakoff’s theory of moral politics and how that relates to tightness-looseness
  • Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral foundations and how that relates to tightness-looseness
  • Alan Fiske’s Relational Models theory and how that relates to tightness-looseness.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud.

This Science Salon was recorded on February 13, 2019.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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