The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal

Eric Michael Johnson reviews the argument that human moral feelings have been shaped by natural selection

April 25, 2013

Bonobos could teach God a thing or two about morality. If you have heard of these great apes, it is probably because their libidinous nature evokes that of a better-known primate depicted by Hieronymus Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights. However, one of the late 15th century’s most famous works of art might not have been a commentary on the sin of sexual immorality as commonly supposed. Rather, it can be seen as a critique of Church priorities amid the more heinous moral crimes embraced during the notorious reign of the Borgia popes. Given that it was priests, soldiers and nuns who were emphasised among the damned, Bosch does not appear to be condemning the sins of the flesh so much as mourning the paradise that is lost when a dysfunctional moral system is imposed from above.

In Frans de Waal’s insightful and accessible book, the eminent primatologist builds on his fellow Dutchman’s sceptical view of institutionalised religion to argue that the evidence from our ape relatives reveals a morality that lies deep within the human character. In contrast to self-proclaimed moral authorities - both religious and secular - who argue that human nature is ultimately selfish with only a veneer of altruism, de Waal contends that natural selection has honed human moral feelings the same way it has fashioned the intricacies of the eye. Like Charles Darwin, who thought morality grew out of social instincts, writing that “it would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness”, de Waal has spent 30 years looking for the precursors to human moral behaviour in two highly social species that both share about 99 per cent of our DNA: bonobos and chimpanzees.

Natural selection has honed human moral feelings the same way it has fashioned the intricacies of the eye

On the tropical island that was once the vacation resort of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s sadistic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, de Waal and his colleagues have refashioned this nefarious locale to study the ethical lives of apes. Behavioural experiments have shown that bonobos willingly assist strangers by opening a heavy metal door that allows access to food, even when they have nothing to gain themselves. While our ape relatives are certainly not free from conflict, extensive observation has revealed that both bonobos and chimpanzees regularly engage in reconciliation behaviour - comprising ritualised gestures of rapprochement and extended grooming bouts - after two members of the group have had a fight. What’s more, members of both species have individuals that voluntarily serve as “keepers of the peace”, mediating disputes and attempting to calm any rising crisis. Not only is empathy a regular feature of our primate heritage, so is community concern.

However, while science may have found the building blocks of morality, de Waal is sceptical of those, such as the so-called New Atheists, who think science can determine moral laws or whose “militant” approach to non- belief could replace one dogmatic framework with another. His preference would be for atheists to follow the bonobo way, with tolerance towards outsiders leading to a tense, albeit respectful, coexistence. The model he suggests is what Stephen Jay Gould once proposed to reconcile science and religion with his term “non-overlapping magisteria”, or two separate domains of teaching authority dealing with empirical reality and moral values. But with only three individuals mentioned by way of critique - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens - whose militancy amounts to a few books and a handful of public talks, it is difficult to see how this movement has anything approaching the power of institutionalised religion. It would also seem that these magisteria regularly overlap, especially in the US where creationism continues its push into science classrooms, citizens are denied equal rights because of the sexual orientation they were born with, and information on family planning is heavily curtailed in the most religious parts of the country. Perhaps the tolerance that de Waal seeks ought to come from the other direction?

With the Catholic Church again wrapped in scandal - from shielding sexual predators to alleged collaboration in Argentina’s “Dirty War” - and while faith-based terrorists kill innocents from Benghazi to Wichita, it is increasingly difficult to view religion as being synonymous with morality. But, as de Waal argues, the problem may not be so much religion as dogmatism. By viewing morality as a bottom-up process, emerging as an adaptation to social interactions over evolutionary time, we can perhaps let go of absolutist religious hierarchies while still retaining the principles that sustain and nurture a moral society.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

By Frans de Waal
W.W. Norton, 304pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780393073775
Published 26 April 2013

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