The Bonobo and the Atheist

Frans de Waal


The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates continues de Waal’s argument that human morality comes not from God, not from reason, not from science — it comes from our biology, and we share much of it with our fellow primates.

I enjoyed de Waal’s book. He writes clearly and with passion. However, he does tend to lose sight of his topic from time to time, and The Bonobo and the Atheist suffers from a too frequent lack of focus.That said, the rather loosely-connected parts of the book are worth reading.

The catchy title reflects de Waal’s central contention: despite the belief of many that you can’t have real morality without God’s law, the opposite is true, in that religion was adopted as a way of securing morality in ever-larger human social groups. We always have been moral, de Waal believes. Only when our societies became too large for the troop or clan-based morality that we share with other primates did we begin to need an all-seeing, all-judging external moral arbiter. So we invented one, or them, and called it God, or the gods.

Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before current religions arose, which occurred only a couple of millennia ago. Biologists are unimpressed by that kind of timescale.

De Waal acknowledges that many of us, including many smart people who really should know better, would dearly love humans to be a completely separate kind of animal, a creature so special that we can acknowledge our evolution while at the same time reserving for ourselves a wholly special place in the scheme of life. It’s an old argument — one that, in Darwin Deleted for example, accounts for the post-Origin reaction that accepted evolution much more readily than its mechanism, natural selection. But it’s an argument that de Waal rejects:

No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. Just like us, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we have computers and airplanes, but our psychological makeup remains that of a social primate.

De Waal devotes considerable space, in several parts of the book, to the core argument that philosophers and theologians are wrong to assume that “we reason ourselves toward moral truths. … a top-down process in which we formulate the principles and then impose them on human conduct.” Instead, he argues, morality comes from our existing biology:

Would it be realistic, for example, to urge people to be considerate of others if we didn’t already have a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice if we didn’t have powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took had to be vetted against handed-down logic.

He asserts  that “rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection, we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals.”

Science fares no better than religion and pure reason: “Even if science helps us appreciate how morality works, this doesn’t mean it can guide it anymore than that someone who knows how eggs should taste can be expected to lay one.”

It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don’t know how to behave and that someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level?

De Waal is a primatologist, and he often hears criticism that we cannot just transfer traits that we observe in animals to ourselves. “Animals are not people.” Yet de Waal points out that  it is equally true that people are animals. “To minimize the complexity of animal behavior without doing the same for human behavior erects an artificial barrier.”

That said, de Waal acknowledges that there is more to human morality than can be derived from animal studies. But animal studies can and do show us the origins, the shared bases of our own “higher” reasoning.

I don’t believe that watching chimpanzees or bonobos can tell us what is right or wrong, nor do I think that science can do so, but surely knowledge of the natural world helps us understand how and why we came to care about each other and seek moral outcomes. We do so because survival depends on good relations as well as a cooperative society.

But not all cooperative societies will serve our comparative needs. De Waal believes that we have to stay close to home, to study our nearest relatives, if we are to understand the origins of morality:

Previous attempts at biological explanations of human behavior have suffered from too much emphasis on genes, and too many comparisons with social insects. Don’t get me wrong, ants and bees are wonderful cooperators, and the study of them has greatly advanced our understanding of altruism. It is a triumph of evolutionary theory that its logic applies across such a vast array of species. Yet, insects possess none of the neural circuitry that mammals evolved for empathy and caring. Even if insect behavior resembles ours on the surface, it doesn’t rely on the same processes.

The Bonobo and the Atheist concludes with a rather throwaway section of “advice” that the bonobo can give to the atheist, but the book that precedes this flat ending is a good read, one that makes a good case for the insights we gain when we contemplate the natures and behaviours of our nearest animal kin.


One thought on “The Bonobo and the Atheist

  1. This is fascinating. I’ve added it to my reading queue. No doubt it will give me more answers to debating the “would there still be incentive to be good without religion?” Of course; it’s a biological and survival imperative for our species!

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