By Michael Shermer

The following opinion editorial is based on my theory of the evolution of morality
in The Science of Good and Evil.  To order or read more go to http://www.skeptic.com

Los Angeles Times Opinion Editorial, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004, p. B15

The Divinity of Politics
Throughout history, leaders have claimed a supernatural link.

By Michael Shermer

George W. Bush says he prays before making his most important decisions. He
sprinkles his speeches with religious references and often thanks God for
blessing our country. Perhaps, then, this is a good time to reflect on what science
tells us about why political leaders throughout history have linked
themselves to the divine. It has to do with the evolution of morality.

For the first 90,000 years of our existence as a species, humans lived in
small bands of tens to hundreds of individuals. In the last 10,000 years, these
bands evolved into tribes of thousands; tribes developed into chiefdoms of tens
of thousands; chiefdoms coalesced into states of hundreds of thousands; and
states conjoined into empires of millions. How and why did this happen?

By 10,000 years ago, our species had spread to nearly every region of the
globe and people everywhere lived where they could hunt and gather. This system
tended to contain populations, but agriculture allowed them to explode. With
those increased populations came new social technologies for governance and
conflict resolution: politics and religion.

The moral emotions--guilt, pride, shame, altruism--evolved genetically in
those tiny bands of 100 to 200 people as a form of social control and group
cohesion. One means of accomplishing this was through reciprocal altruism--
"I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine."

But as Lincoln noted, men are not angels. People defect from informal
agreements and social contracts. In the long run, reciprocal altruism works only when
you know who will cooperate and who will defect. This information is gathered
in various ways, including through stories about other people--more commonly
known as gossip.

Most gossip is about relatives, close friends, those in our immediate sphere
of influence and members of the community or society who have high social
status. It is here we find our favorite subjects of gossip: sex, generosity,
cheating, aggression, social status and standings, births and deaths, political and
religious commitments, and the various nuances of human relations, particularly
friendships and alliances. Gossip is the stuff of which not only soap operas, but
also grand operas are made.

When bands and tribes gave way to chiefdoms and states, religion developed as
a principal social institution to accentuate amity and attenuate enmity. It
did so by encouraging altruism and selflessness, discouraging excessive greed
and selfishness and revealing the level of commitment to the group through
social events and religious rituals. If I see you every week participating in our
religion's activities and following the prescribed rituals, that indicates you
can be trusted.

As organizations with codified moral rules and the power to enforce the rules
and punish their transgressors, religion and government responded to a need.
Church and state have always been tightly interlocked. The "divine right of
kings" was not the invention of European monarchs. Every chiefdom and state
society known to archaeologists justified political power through divine sanction,
in which the chief, pharaoh, king, queen, monarch, emperor, sovereign, prime
minister or president claimed a relationship to God or the gods, who allegedly
anointed him or her to act on behalf of the divinity. Bush is part of a long

Consider the biblical command to "Love thy neighbor." In the Paleolithic
social environment in which our moral sentiments evolved, one's neighbors were
family, extended family and community members who were well known to all. To help
others was to help oneself. In chiefdoms, states and empires, the decree
meant only one's immediate in-group. Other groups were not included. This explains
the seemingly paradoxical nature of Old Testament morality, where on one page
high moral principles of peace, justice and respect for people and property
are promulgated, and on the next page raping, killing and pillaging people who
are not one's "neighbors" are endorsed. Deuteronomy 5:17 admonishes, "Thou
shalt not kill," yet in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, the Israelites are commanded to lay
siege to an enemy city, steal the cattle, enslave those men who surrender and
kill those who do not.

The cultural expression of this in-group morality is not restricted to any
one religion, nation, or people. It is a universal human trait common throughout
history, from the earliest bands and tribes to modern nations and empires.
The long-term solution is to view all people as members of our in-group: the
species Homo sapiens. We have a long way to go to get there. Reform begins with
recognition of the cause, which science gives us. Resolution comes through
social action, which democracy gives us. We can change. As Katharine Hepburn
explained to Humphrey Bogart in the 1951 film "The African Queen": "Nature, Mr.
Alnutt, is what we were put in this world to rise above."

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is a columnist for Scientific
American and the author of the just-released book, "The Science of Good and
Evil" (Henry Holt/Times Books).

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

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