Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

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

Article excerpt

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. By Frans de Waal. W.W. Norton, 304pp, Pounds 18.99. ISBN 9780393073775. Published 26 April 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 notori-ous 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.

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. …

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