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

By Starin, Dawn | The Humanist, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Starin, Dawn, The Humanist


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

by Frans de Waal

W.W. Norton & Company, 2013

304 pp.; $27.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As handsome, beloved Amos lay dying, Daisy did her best to make him comfortable. Daisy seemed to grasp Amos's situation and, being part of a tight-knit community, Amos could count on affection and assistance from relatives and non-relatives alike.

Blind and deaf Kitty risked getting lost in a building full of doors and tunnels, so protective Lody gently led her to her favorite spot outside in the morning. And in the evening, taking her by the hand, he led her back indoors.

These are not-unusual examples of social life--the social life of captive apes. Amos, Daisy, Kitty, and Lody, along with many other members of the animal world, are described in expert detail by primatologist Frans de Waal in his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.

Throughout, de Waal demonstrates that compassion, understanding, and empathy are not uniquely human characteristics, nor are they the result of a religious belief. Rather, they're an intrinsic part of our evolutionary past. In clear, concise prose, using engaging examples, de Waal shows that our lineage contains dominance and submissiveness, care and kindness, xenophobia and acceptance. All of these so-called human traits are natural behaviors that we share with other social primates.

Weaving the entertaining and heartfelt soap operas of captive and wild animals in and out of his discussions, arguments, and philosophical analyses (informed by anthropology, biology, psychology, and even art), de Waal provides plenty of evidence for the biology that underlies our human interactions. "Morality predates religion" he contends, "certainly the dominant religions of today. We humans were plenty moral when we still roamed the Savannah in small bands. Only when the scale of society began to grow and rules of reciprocity and reputation began to falter did a moralizing God become necessary." In de Waal's view,

   It wasn't God who introduced
   us to morality; rather it was the
   other way around. God was put
   into place to help us live the
   way we felt we ought to. We
   endowed him with the capacity
   to keep us on the same straight
   and narrow that we'd been following
   ever since we lived in
   small bands.

In short, de Waal has no fear that society will fall apart or descend into utter chaos if our old superstitions disappear, since the compassionate ties of society are older than religion. It's quite clear that he believes in the possibility of a more compassionate society, a humanistic society, and he wants us to join him. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal (an atheist himself) calls for "a reduced role of religion, with less emphasis on the almighty God and more on human potential." What he takes issue with is dogmatism; both religious dogmatism and atheistic dogmatism. While his voice is mostly one of calm and reason in these shouty times, this book seems to have created a tsunami of opinions. This is unfortunate because the discussions over whether de Waal has been too hard on atheists have flooded the ether and it seems to have overshadowed the main gist of the book, which is to show that the seeds of our morality stem from our animal past and not from some religious belief. …

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