Review / critique: Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

I’ve just finished Frans De Waal’s excellent new book, which is a combination of a popular science exploration of primatology and the origins of human morality, and a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. De Waal, a nonbeliever himself (as a scientist, he finds the question of whether or not God exists ‘uninteresting‘), nevertheless finds the confrontational style of the New Atheist movement ill conceived, counterproductive, and probably futile.

Anchoring the themes of his book is a series of reflections on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Traditional interpretations of the painting, De Waal writes, are generally based on the view that human beings, ever since the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are naturally wicked, prone to cruel and hateful behavior, and it’s only by straining hard against our sinful nature that human beings can hope for redemption by adhering the moral code provided by God through religion .

De Waal has a different interpretation, seeing the painting thorugh the lens of his own understanding of human nature. His lifelong study of primate behavior, especially of bonobos and chimpanzees, reveal a tendency to prosocial behavior that strongly resembles human morality in many important ways. De Waal concludes that not only does morality predate religion, since it’s rooted in the same social instincts we share with our cousins the great apes (as well as other social animals), but it’s most accurately viewed as a key component of human nature. Based on modern findings of human psychology and evolutionary biology, ‘It is now widely assumed that we are designed in body and mind to live together and to take care of each other, and that humans have a natural tendency to judge others in moral terms. Instead of being a thin veneer, morality comes from within.’ (De Waal, p 42).

Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution.jpgBosch’s painting, De Waal thinks, actually reveals his humanism, the idea that the human race is naturally good and worthy of admiration in it own right. The figures frolicking in the garden in the center panel enjoy the best that the world has to offer, especially the joys of one another’s company. The figures being punished in the hell of the right panel, revealingly, are not being punished for sins against religion. Rather, they have trangressed the moral laws pertaining to just and fair treatment of one another, such sins as greed, gambling, and cheating, and those pertaining to the proper care and comportment of our own bodies, such as gluttony and drunkenness.

In this, De Waal agrees with the bonobo (in this book, the bonobo represents the naturally moral side of all social creatures), the humanist Bosch, and the atheist: human beings are moral beings, and ‘sins’ are those tendencies and behaviors which lead individuals to act against the interests and moral codes of the group. He provides a wealth of evidence, from his own years of fieldwork, experimentation, and research, that prosociality and morality are natural phenomena without which human beings and their social cousins would fail as a species. Morality originates as an evolutionary adaptation, giving us the ability to transcend our individual limitations, to thrive as a species through cooperation, sharing, and mutual protection.

However, De Waal has found himself disturbed by the militancy (as he sees it) of the so-called New Atheist movement: their rhetoric that disparages religion, calling for its immediate demise, ridiculing it as entirely outdated, useless, stupid, and destructive, and for their ‘dogmatic’ God-denial, and their tactics of anti-religious propaganda and political activism. He quotes A.C. Grayling, who compares militant atheism to ‘sleeping furiously’, asking: ‘What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?’ (De Waal, p. 84) He finds that the New Atheist movement shares this with religious fundamentalists: they both misunderstand the origins and nature of religion, which originated and still functions as an evolutionarily useful social tool, encoding and helping to enforce moral behavior.

I found De Waal’s book a refreshing and entirely approachable summary of the best of our current knowledge of human psychology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior. I also admire the evidence of his knowledge and understanding of philosophy, which he applies to and compares with the findings in his own field. He admires Hume, the prosocial moral philosopher, and both agrees and disagrees with Kant: the moral law is indeed within, as Kant says, but altruism is not confined to those behaviors that are devoid entirely of self-interest, as Kant defines it. It’s actually a good thing that altruism, though it does carry a personal cost, also benefits the altruist, as De Waal sees it: it firmly grounds altruism as a natural product of a human nature that is more social than selfish. (This is not to say that human nature is not selfish as well. It’s rather that we have methods of making sure selfishness does not run amuk and result in mutually assured self-destruction of the human species.) All in all, De Waal offers a compelling and persuasive view of the natural origins of morality and that the good rules human nature more than the bad.

It’s De Waal’s critique of the New Atheist movement and of atheists overall with which I find myself only in partial agreement. I do agree that too many prominent atheists refuse to publicly acknowledge that religion appears to be a product of natural adaptations, and a historically (and prehistorically) useful one at that. Many other atheists, however, do acknowledge this, notably Daniel Dennett, who De Waal sometimes lumps in with the New Atheists, though he does give Dennett some credit for his view of religion as a natural phenomenon. (De Waal, p 94) I also agree with him that an overly confrontational attack-oriented approach is unlikely to be overall as effective as a more humanism-positive, common-ground seeking approach, based on what we know about human psychology and belief formation (Kahneman, Haight, Ariely, and others have done extensive work on this recently; even in antiquity, Aristotle revealed how well he understood this aspect of human psychology).

But contrary to De Waal, I think that atheism, as a movement, does have some important things to offer. When he criticizes atheism as lacking in substance or utility since it’s an ‘anti-‘ stance, he fails to account for the historical abusive and destructive applications of religion. As well as promoting good behavior and bonding within groups, it’s also been used to persecute out-groups of religious minorities and non-believers, to oppress women, children, and the poor, to prop up and protect corrupt regimes and clergy (dictatorships and absolutist monarchs, the sale of undulgences, murderous popes, rapist priests), and as a justification of cruel and oppressive practices (the institution of race-based slavery, the punishment of heretics). There are plenty of ‘anti-‘ groups and ideologies that have plenty to offer precisely because they arise out of opposition to destructive or morally repugnant institutions, belief systems, and natural forces: the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery), the feminist movement (anti-oppression of women), various organizations that combat disease (anti-AIDS, anti-cancer, etc). To ignore what the atheist movement as a whole has to offer is to ignore the history of how and why the atheist movement originated, and that it’s generally united in humanism-derived values and goals (equal social and political rights and protections for non-believers and religious minorities, for example). In his blanket dismissal of atheism as ideologically empty, De Waal fails to adhere to the same standards of applying evidence and history to this issue as he does for the rest of the scientific and philosophical issues he discusses in his otherwise excellent book.

Work Cited:

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

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