The Bonobo and the Atheist: in Search of Humanism Among the Primates
© 2013 Frans de Waal
Frans de Waal has written extensively on moral instincts within the great apes, in books like Good natured and Primates and Philosophers. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, he reviews his experience with chimpanzees and bonobos over several decades with an eye for what they might teach us about human morality. His express purpose is to find hope for building a moral human society outside the bounds of authoritarian, belief-dependent religion, but he’s more interested in examining the basis of natural morality than in condemning religion. Taking a cue from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, he acknowledges that religion and human culture have thus far been inextricably bound. His studies of chimp and bonobo behavior, and studies of human behavior, indicate to him that there is more to morality than simple genetic-biased altruism; we are bound to our communities, kin or no, through deep social instincts, and it is these that are the basis of our morality.
Throughout the book, de Waal explores moral impulses revealed in the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos. Although chimpanzees have a reputation for violence, even they discipline one another for failing to practice self-restraint: a challenger for an alpha position can’t bite with impunity, nor can adults bully the young who have not yet learned appropriate behavior; violators of these norms and others, like stealing or cheating, are punished with a round of shrieking and beating. Their morality isn’t limited to instinct; it is also informed by their intelligence. As mentioned, youngsters are ‘taught’ appropriate behavior, indirectly; chimp youths can chase females in estrus, but as they start to become ‘teenagers’, they’re regarded as potential challengers by the reigning males and taught their place, even if they’re not yet capable of reproduction. Other cases demonstrate that chimpanzees can take stock of what they’ve done and remember it later; a chimpanzee who bit a trainer’s finger off was later visibly ashamed, isolating itself and covering its eyes; when the human saw him again, the chimp recognized him and attempted to examine the hand.
These behaviors may be safely assumed to be evolutionary boons to a social species, helping mitigate physical damage caused by struggles for power, or preventing competition within the group from destroying it. Moral instincts and acculturation allow a tribe to work better together, and the same holds true for humans. Once our morality would have been guided by the same measures: our every indiscretion would be noticed by the people we lived among, and remembered; we could be directly accountable for our behavior. Once human populations became too large for these tribe-level measures to handle, however, religion became useful, and for that reason not a single human culture today is without it. Even in the modern era, increasingly secular, we are forging a new path in the form of a civic culture that attempts to foster healthy behavior without the necessity of believing in elaborate creeds. It is de Waal’s hope that the humanist approach, of practicing a moral culture for the sake of human needs, informed by human experience, will prove workable, though presently its most vocal proponents are men who have limited their advocacy to merely attacking religion, which is fruitless and makes as much sense as ‘sleeping furiously’. Still, he is hopeful that natural morality will prevail eventually; it does have the advantage of being instinctual. Humanity has as much hope of purging itself of its conscience as it does of becoming asexual.
Although most of de Waal’s own experience comes from observing bonobos in an artificial environment, a spacious exhibit in Arnhem Zoo that prevents some pertinent aspects of behavior from manifesting themselves, he couples it with the studies of other populations in the wild. The Bonobo and the Atheist, like its title, is an interesting discussion that combines primate behavior and the evolution of religion. What is missing, I think, is any mention of Natural Law, which would have given his mention of civic culture considerable heft. Humans have been attempting to discern moral convention from nature since Aristotle, both inside religion and out of it. A comparison between declared belief in the Rights of Man according to constitutions and charters and the inferred rights in religious texts (“Thou shalt not kill” inferring a right to life, for instance) would have been most interesting. Both in de Waal’s view would be expressions of humanity’s inherent moral instincts, but civic belief has the quality of being open to change when necessary; a humanistic moral culture would not be limited by dogma. Simply creating a healthy moral culture won’t make religious domination a thing of the past — it has other virtues, other contributions that must also be made good for — but it would be a start in creating a world more concerned with the needs of people than power, priests, and convention, and less dependent on something as volatile as beautifully dangerous religion.
de Waal’s observations and insight prove again remarkable.
- The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (whom he quotes from)
- Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton (mentioned)
- Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, Primates and Philosophers, Our Inner Ape, etc. Frans de Waal