Festival of Books: Science writers debate -- Is there a morality gene?

The moral sense of right and wrong far predates religion, argues Michael Shermer at #bookfest

If there's no God, would a moral society exist?

Michael Shermer thinks so.

The moral sense of right and wrong far predates religion, the founder of Skeptic magazine said during a Saturday panel on science and identity at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

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Even primates have a moral compass, Shermer added.

Religion puts things that seemed obvious into context, he argued, such as the Golden Rule (in essence, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you").

If religion was at the heart of morality, Shermer asked, why did religious texts leave out key rules?

"Why didn’t the Bible get rid of slavery?" he asked. "There’s nothing about raping. In fact, rape is one of the great benefits of leaders in the Old Testament."

Science writer Jennifer Ouellette had a similar idea. Behaviors are not traits, she said. We all have a set of genes, but multiple factors affect behavior, such as social influences.

Asked about whether there is a "morality gene" or whether there would be morality without religion, Ouellete said all of these things -- genetics, social influence, environment -- "work together to determine … certain kinds of behavioral patterns."

Shermer was a bit more blunt.

There is no morality gene, because we have "different behaviors in response to social contacts," he said. There’s an inherent instinct related to moral behavior.

"The culture you're raised in tells what you should feel guilty about," Shermer said. "But why is there a sense of guilt? Of jealousy? That’s where the evolutionary model comes in."

Emotions are proxies for something else, he explained, the same way hunger triggers people to eat.

"The gene doesn't matter," he said. "The idea is that we are born with these things -- they’re not plopped down from a supernatural law giver."

Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.

MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS:

How authors tackle truthfulness in memoirs

T.C. Boyle, on his newest novel about gun violence

Tavis Smiley's travels with his mentor, Maya Angelou

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