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

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

5.0 5
by Frans de Waal

View All Available Formats & Editions

In this thoroughly engaging book, leading primatologist and thinker Frans de Waal offers a heartening, illuminating new perspective on human nature. Bringing together his pioneering research on primate behavior, the latest findings in evolutionary biology, and insights from moral philosophy, de Waal explains that we don’t need the specters of God or the law

…  See more details below


In this thoroughly engaging book, leading primatologist and thinker Frans de Waal offers a heartening, illuminating new perspective on human nature. Bringing together his pioneering research on primate behavior, the latest findings in evolutionary biology, and insights from moral philosophy, de Waal explains that we don’t need the specters of God or the law in order to act morally. Instead, our moral nature stems from our biology—specifically, our primate social emotions, which include empathy, reciprocity, and fairness. We can glimpse this in the behavior of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors, and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to their own food. Building on a wealth of evidence, de Waal reveals that morality is not dictated to us by religion or social strictures. Rather, it is the inevitable product of our biological nature.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Primatologist De Waal (Our Inner Ape) seeks to move beyond the faith-vs.-science divide in this reflection on the origins of morality, drawing from his famed work studying apes. De Waal’s name is particularly associated with bonobos, which provide a matriarchal, relatively peaceful, and sexually uninhibited contrast to chimpanzees, a violently competitive and male-dominated ape not unlike human patriarchy. He compares aspects of both species to humans, finding glimmers of supposedly unique qualities of human intelligence in both bonobos and chimps. Bonobos, “primate hippies,” are unmistakably touchy-feely, but the book also finds traits like friendship, inhibition, and empathy in the less obviously sensitive culture of chimps, as well as other kinds of apes and mammals. Readers will enjoy De Waal’s affectionate, colorful accounts of animal behavior, and those of religious faith will especially appreciate the author’s respectful attitude. While De Waal argues that morality is derived “from within,” not “from above,” he depicts the dilemma between rationalism and religion as a false one, urging fellow atheists to be more conciliatory toward believers. His personal, even idiosyncratic book—Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights forms a recurring motif—will likely not be received as the last word on its subject, but readers shouldn’t miss De Waal’s specific form of expertise. 12 illus. Agent: Michelle Tessler, Tessler Literary. (Mar.)
Jonathan Haidt
“De Waal’s decades of patient work documenting the ‘building blocks’ of morality in other animals has revolutionized not just primatology but moral psychology. By revealing our commonalities with other species, he gives us more compassion for them and also for ourselves. It’s impossible to look an ape in the eye and not see oneself, de Waal tells us, and this beautifully written book is one long riveting gaze.”
Matthieu Ricard
“Frans de Waal offers us a wealth of inspiring observations from the animal realm, combined with thoughtful reflections on the evolution of morality. He makes a convincing case for the natural foundations of a secular ethics that is fully independent of religion without being dogmatically against it.”
Kirkus Reviews
Is morality a learned aspect of human nature, or is it innate? Are thinking and acting morally behaviors exclusive to humans? Drawing from decades of fieldwork and research, influential primatologist de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, etc.) explores the roots of empathy and altruism, concluding that neither religion (despite its historical influence) nor law (despite its ideological heft) is the root cause of the human inclination to act morally. Instead, the author argues, biology is responsible for our instinctual understanding of right and wrong. Weaving together poignant anecdotes of his work with bonobos, a great ape that was long overlooked as a close genetic relative of humans, and philosophical discussions on morality through the lens of religious history, the author makes a cogent argument that moral instinct must precede current civilizations and religions "by at least a hundred millennia." Examples abound of behavior by animals--not just bonobos, but also elephants, chimpanzees and mice--displaying social emotions like gratitude, facial recognition, an awareness of the permanence of death and a willingness to help each other even at personal detriment. De Waal also presents research that indicates a social culture marked by matriarchal hierarchies and sexual freedom, as well as a largely peaceful and conflict-avoiding ethos. This may suggest something altogether different about human participation in the evolution of religion and law than a thesis citing those entities as responsible for providing mankind with a moral center. The author avoids belaboring any one aspect of morality's applications, however, and instead provides an intimate and joyful series of proofs that the "ingredients of a moral society…come from within." A well-composed argument for the biological foundations of human morality.

"We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach." For decades, Nobel Prize-winning Dutch-American primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal (Chimpanzee Politics; Our Inner Ape) has been studying the behavior of our closest evolutionary cousins. In this thoughtful narrative, he traces the biological roots of human morality. (P.S. De Waal is no Richard Dawkins. His view of religion is not hostile; indeed, he emphasizes the beneficial humanistic role it can play in a well-functioning society.)

Meehan Crist - New Republic
“A writer marshaling the evidence of his life, particularly his life as a scientist, to express a passionately held belief in the possibility of a more compassionate society.”
The Economist
“A primatologist who has spent his career studying chimpanzees and bonobos, two of humanity’s closest living relatives, Mr. de Waal draws on a lifetime of empirical research. His data provides plenty of evidence that religion is not necessary in order for animals to display something that looks strikingly like human morality.”
Christopher Boehm - Nature
“A tour de force.”
Robert Sapolsky
“The perpetual challenge to atheists is that moral behavior requires religion—all that prevents tsunamis of depravity is a deity or two, some nice hymns, and the threat of hellfire and damnation. De Waal shows that human morality is deeply rooted in our primate legacy, long predating the invention of that cultural gizmo called religion. This is an immensely important book by one of our most distinguished thinkers.”
Desmond Morris
“Frans de Waal’s new book carries the important message that human kindness is a biological feature of our species and not something that has to be imposed on us by religious teaching.”
Library Journal
De Waal (psychology, Emory Univ.; director, Living Links Ctr., Yerkes Primate Ctr.; The Age of Empathy) is known for his work on moral behavior in chimpanzees and bonobos. Here he explains that unlike their aggressive cousins, chimpanzees, bonobos avoid aggression when possible, employing mutual grooming and sex play instead to ease social tension. Both chimps and bonobos help others, even without hope of gain. This is evidence, de Waal argues, that morality isn't rooted in top-down reasoning or rules but in bottom-up "gut" behavior. From these observations, de Waal segues to an intriguing but less convincing argument against dogmatic atheism (e.g., as defined by Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchins). That atheism, de Waal argues, leaves us nothing to hold on to, but we need something. VERDICT This intriguing book is a hybrid: half science, half personal speculation. Given the persistent view that all animals, even human ones, are motivated solely by self-interest (what de Waal calls "veneer theory," i.e., moral outside, amoral inside), this is a book worth reading. It's also exceptionally well written. It should appeal to the lay reader who enjoys keeping up with today's scientific discussions.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Read More

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >