He also ran a poll asking people in their own words to describe if they believed, why they believed, and why they thought other people believed. The most interesting result was the difference between the reasons they gave for themselves and for others. For themselves, it was a rational reason, often a variation of the Argument from Design (the world is too well-made for it to be an accident - the watchmaker's argument). For others, though, the leading reasons given were emotional ones, that others needed the comfort of a God or an afterlife. Basically, it was often thought that _other_ people might be weak and use religion as an emotional support, while one's own reasons were always rational.
One other fascinating factoid that he mentions is that humans are
hard-wired to have a limit of 150 people that we consider as part of
"our" group. "Psychologist Robin Dunbar, in his book,
I thought this was really interesting because it explains why anarchic forms of government fail when groups grow larger. As Shermer notes, "in these small groups, cooperation is regulated through a complex feedback loop of communication among members of the community." (p. 160) However, larger groups of people require formal hierarchies to sustain their functioning. What works at a low level "tribal" level, can not work on the level of a city, state, or nation, because there are just too many people. Of course, this really puts the kibosh on my idealistic theories of anarchism, but oh well.
Shermer's last chapter is also thought-provoking. He introduces the
concepts of contingency and necessity, growing out of his reading of
This idea is very evident in the world of high-tech: Jaron Lanier mentions it in his idea of sedimentation at a talk of his I went to. And we've seen it over and over again: QWERTY keyboards, VHS over Betamax, Microsoft uber alles. Applying the same idea to biology is not unthinkable, but it introduces some interesting questions.
Apparently, a controversy arose because by placing evolutionary choices into the realm of contingency, Gould removed the possibility that humans were an inevitable result of evolution. Humans were no longer what all of nature was striving for, but instead a species that appeared for no particular reason that happened to have what it took to stick around. And we don't like thinking that way about ourselves.
But Shermer uses it as a departure point for glorifying our choices. I'll let him speak for himself: "The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest." (p. 236) And: "The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us - indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff and biomass, how special life becomes. If the tape were played again and again without the appearance of our species, how extraordinary becomes our existence, and correspondingly, how cherished." (p. 237)
It was a glorious ending to the book. And an inspiring one.