In The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal confirms the pro-social behavior of great apes (e.g., chimpanzees and bonobos) since they express emotions, engage in communal activities and tasks, present and maintain codes of behavior, and demonstrate care and concern for others (all the while evincing individual personalities). Mustering his own research and work from others, one of de Waal’s repeated points is that primate altruism need not involve cost (need not be reciprocal), that is it based in empathy, and is automatic. The thrust of de Waal’s claim is that our moral and ethical behaviors are rooted in nature and come from within us through our own evolutionary history and continuities with primates. What we deem moral and ethical are not special designs handed down from an outside source; this is important since we have over the course of our recent history and culture (whatever the culture) evolved belief systems often related to moral codes. While de Waal is critical of millstone-like, normative religious codes nevertheless, he maintains – against atheism – that we have (evolved) religious beliefs and values for a good reason and that they cannot be dismissed or dismantled wholesale (citing for example, failed communist experiments).
As in some of his other books, such as Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996), Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006), and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009), de Waal’s driving theme is that we are overwhelmingly (though not always) caring and cooperative creatures and that we have evolved those tendencies (evidenced in our living, primate cousins). This focus on the biology of morality and empathy is evident, too, in work he has done with Jessica C. Flack and Stephanie Preston, to name a few. De Waal marshals evidence of spontaneous good deeds – e.g., where one chimp continually over a long period of time helps an old (unrelated) one walk and get water (and where similar instances of animal empathy occurs in canines, elephants, rodents, and even in birds) (5-6). The Bonobo and the Atheist is nicely produced, with eight chapters, notes, a bibliography, and an index. The book sports a nice color photograph (on the dust jacket) of a three year old boy and a three year old bonobo. In addition to a number of black-and-white drawings and illustrations hand-crafted by de Waal, there are also black-and-white close-ups of a key painting by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (to which de Waal makes repeated reference), and fourteen black-and-white plates (photographs) of apes. One of the appeals of reading de Waal is being treated to his many stories about great apes, some sad, many touching, and a few quite humorous.
For the most part, the style of the book is colloquial, with gratuitous references to (ephemeral) current events (Occupy movement) or such people (Al Sharpton). Chapter four digs into de Waal’s personal history regarding religion, which only adds to the chatty tone. The Bosch painting (de Waal was born in the Dutch city of Den Bosch) weaves a thematic thread in the book and links human and ape behavior along with medieval (religious) and evolutionary thinking. Through the course of the book we learn that R.A. Fisher was a eugenicist, and that while de Waal likes work by Stephen J. Gould, Patricia Churchland (Braintrust), Philip Kitcher, Jonathan Haidt, Christopher Boehm (Moral Origins), and David Hume, from a human standpoint he is skeptical of the so-called impartiality of Adam Smith’s impartial spectator. De Waal is critical of Christopher Hitchens’ atheistic Marxism, Sam Harris’ atheistic Reason, and Richard Dawkins’ atheism because any religion is merely a dangerous Delusion. De Waal is a bit softer on Daniel Dennett and credits him with at least bringing up the evolutionary importance (or not) of religion. Peter Singer and Utilitarianism have no place in de Waal’s one-on-one morality (and we should mention that Peter Singer is a contributor to the stimulating Primates and Philosophers). B.F. Skinner comes under question several times (but this is not surprising since Freud, Kohlberg, behaviorism, and the standard social science model have been eroded by evolutionary psychology). Skinner did not consider emotions connected to behavior and believed, rather, that all behavior was molded or modified by repeated reward or punishment conditioning. We know now that much behavior is innate (e.g., Paul Bloom and the moral life of babies), or cognitive (Steven Pinker), and can become permanent based on only one experience. (See, e.g., pages 97 and 136.) For those who are familiar with de Waal’s books, his tone is inviting since, in spite of his (often justified) criticism of others, he is always diplomatic, never cynical, and always optimistic.
As Hume famously puts it, reason is a slave to the passions. And de Waal says that (contrary to Hume, i.e., Kant and kin) moral philosophy is misdirected in its top-down approach: “Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took had to be vetted against handed-down logic [reason]” (17). We have an innate moral sense that has guided us, long before codes and rules, about which behaviors to approve and which behaviors to disapprove. Nevertheless, de Waal’s point in the book, in addition to persuasively arguing for moral sentiments that are products of natural selection and are continuous with primates (and to some degree mammals), is to question why atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris insult religious people in the name of science when scientists typically are not interested in dictating human behavior (19). Far more interesting (as per Barbara King and Pascal Boyer) de Waal implies, is to understand why we have religious beliefs, values, and rituals in the first place (and why they have persisted). Who can disagree with de Waal’s assessment (about atheism): “the (non) existence of God . . . strikes me as monumentally uninteresting” (21). De Waal, understandably, is incredulous with atheist rampaging militancy (84) in light of the fact that they are literally fighting for nothing. Citing Stephen J. Gould and his notion of magisterium, “science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge,” the one dealing with the stuff of the world, the other dealing with our existence in the world (105). De Waal strikes out at the militant atheists, insisting that the “enemy of science is not religion” but is dogma over intelligence (109). While the material about the evolution of morality and empathy derive from previous work by de Waal freshly restated, his stand-off with the militant atheists adds a sometimes distracting (but well integrated) twist.
In terms of historical background, de Waal provides a concise summary, and goes through the lineage of moral thinking (since Darwin, though he does bring up Lamarck), handily covering (and dismissing) T.H. Huxley (who was closer to Hobbes in seeing ethics as imposed on an otherwise unruly human behavior). Ernst Mayr, J.B.S. Haldane, William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, G.C. Williams, and Robert Trivers are also discussed. The reaction and antidote to Huxley was, of course, Petr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (1902) which demonstrated life as one of cooperation in nature and not, according to Huxley (whose influential views spread far and wide for quite some time until Mayr) contest and conquest (38). De Waal has covered this material about Huxley previously, but it is worth repeating and fits in very well with the design of his argument. De Waal is critical of Michael Ghiselin (“scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and even G.C. Williams who, broadly speaking, assess nature as immoral and therefore seem to (unwittingly) ascribe a “moral agency” to evolution (39). On the contrary, Darwin seems to see that while the course of evolution can be brutal, non-teleological designs that grow out of this process can be quite beautiful (such as helping and caring tendencies).
According to de Waal, genetic information suggests that chimpanzees have changed over time more than humans (60). We split from the chimpanzee via an unknown type, but surely an ape – e.g., there is Ardipithecus ramidus (the “oldest known undoubted hominins” according to Richard G. Klein, The Human Career), which is less chimp-like. De Waal wonders why paleontologists have not traced our descent from a bonobo stock (which bears resemblance to ramidus in its less developed canine teeth) (60-61). De Waal says that the chimpanzee, therefore, might be (in our diverse and divided descent as we can so far chart it) “a violent outlier in an otherwise peaceful lineage . . .” (61). This is not to say that bonobos cannot be violent, but the cases of killing documented (in the wild and in captivity) are much fewer compared with such lethal incidents among chimpanzees (63). Bonobos have serious “conflicts” and tension but make a concerted effort (through sex) to reach reconciliation, and while they can be aggressive hunters, it is for small game of another species (64-65). Our human ancestry, based on the most current DNA genome project) puts equal weight on bonobos in our heritage (and not only on chimpanzees) (81). Though there is a common ancestor, bonobos were cut off geographically (the Congo River) from chimpanzees and gorillas; bonobos share more recently (two million years ago) ancestry with chimpanzees, but was that ancestor more chimpanzee or bonobo (and from whence we human beings derive) (81)? For instance, not only is the distress recognition area of the bonobo brain “enlarged,” its brain also has more developed neural patterns that would be implicated in controlling aggression (80-81).
Citing research by Ulf Dimberg (not published until 1990 because of resistance to its findings), de Waal strongly suggests that empathetic responses are unconscious and do not require deliberation; i.e., empathy is a response to “bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions” (132). Empathetic response is apparent, based on de Waal’s extensive research, in apes, and there is “no sharp dividing line between human and animal emotions,” as experiments with mice and rats attest (137, 142-143). Some psychologists (Jerome Kagan comes to mind) are a bit reluctant in sharing de Waal’s certainty about human-animal continuities. This is not to say that thought processes are completely absent from helping behavior; de Waal has some four thousand observations of chimpanzees and says that quite often help is given through a combination of emotion (empathy) and cognition (filter) (144).
At the same time, chimpanzee society is quite hierarchical socially: who is the first to get food or to mate. De Waal characterizes such a hierarchy as a “system of inhibitions . . .” since one is required to control his or her needs and desires. De Waal suggests that archaically we had a similar system, which ultimately helped us develop moral systems (to use Richard Alexander’s phrase). A system such as this is built not on instincts (fairly consistent and somewhat inflexible) but on emotions (variable), and so primates and certainly human beings are capable of, in some cases, deliberation (152-153). (See work, e.g., by Joshua Greene in this regard.) De Waal sees that the social system is reinforced in two ways: internally, with empathy, to avoid conflict; externally, with punishment, to correct violations to the group norms (160). These two underlying struts are connected and make sense from an evolutionary perspective, says de Waal, since each individual desires “integration” and not “isolation” (161). At least for human beings, very often a decision is made emotionally and only later justified by some rational explanation. Although we are motivated, for the most part, by needs and desires, and not exclusively by reason or abstract ideas, we exhibit on a daily basis an extraordinary degree of self-control. And so do apes. Based on his many years of research and observation of chimpanzees and bonobos, de Waal notes that these creatures “respect each other’s possessions . . .” to such an extent that on many occasions he witnessed high-ranking males beg for food (rarely using force) (161).
The upshot (de Waal covers ape grieving and ritual) is that there is evolutionary evidence (since by studying our ape cousins we can step back in time) for a biological origin of morality. This evidence does not, de Waal is clear to stress, discount the importance of religion in building communities of caring and trust. Morality is a case of basic biology (observable in the natural world): “The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved . . . to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend” (228). The complex social interactions, reactions, and relationships we see in the animal world are not based on rules imposed from above but have evolved from within the animal kingdom across many species, and that includes Homo sapiens sapiens. So while de Waal is critical of religions that want to take the lion’s share of credit for a basic moral system evident in the animal world, i.e., fairness (what we call justice), he is even more critical of atheists who discredit and discount the apparent need we have for religious social ritual.
- Gregory F. Tague
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