Is Human Morality Found in Our Primate History? A Review of The Bonobo and the Atheist

There is a species that is approximately 99% genetically similar to human beings. They are self-aware, often walk upright, and empathetic. They are known for being peaceful and using sex for conflict resolution. Like humans, they frequently mate face to face and they are the only other species to do this. They understand that death is permanent, but have trouble accepting it when it is one of their own. They are adept at using computers to communicate. They understand novel sentences (sentences used for the first time, requiring a strong intellect). They make and use tools. They can even figure out how to use a lighter to start a fire—with the added bonus of roasting marshmallows, which they also can do by themselves.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal W. W. Norton & Company, 2014 320 pages (Paperback)  Source: Amazon Available: Amazon

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
320 pages (Paperback)
Source: Amazon
Available: Amazon

This is the bonobo. It’s an endangered species. We’ve known very little about it until researchers began studying them relatively recently. As early as the 1930s, our very limited exposure to the ape meant we thought it might be a chimp. They are, in fact, closer to humans than any other creature on earth.

In The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (the paperback edition was released this year), Frans de Waal looks at the bonobo and the chimpanzee with the goal of finding clues to the origins of human morality.

“Contrary to the customary blood-soaked view of nature,” says de Waal, “animals are not devoid of tendencies that we morally approve of, which to me suggests that morality is not as much of a human innovation as we like to think.”

Throughout the book there are studies and anecdotal observations of chimps and bonobos that will push anyone who rejects evolution to pause.

For example, when a sick chimp, Amos, withdrew himself indoors to hide his weakness or risk being overthrown as the alpha, his community came to his side. Researchers cracked open a door where he sat, allowing the other chimps to find him. They regularly visited him. A female, Daisy, gently groomed him and pushed “large amounts of excelsior through the crack. This is a wood shaving that chimps love to build nests with,” notes de Waal.

“They arrange it all around them and sleep on it. After Daisy had given Amos the wood wool, we saw a male do the same. Since Amos was sitting with his back against the wall and not doing much with the excelsior, Daisy reached in several times to stuff it between his back and the wall.”

This seems to indicate the possibility that chimps can understand another perspective. Daisy, who de Waal refers to as an “excelsior maniac” had “probably extrapolated from how she feels leaning against excelsior” and felt Amos would also enjoy having some—a sort of chimp Golden Rule.

De Waal says he’s “reluctant to call a chimpanzee a ‘moral being.'” This is a category he reserves for humans who “strive for a logically coherent system.” Other animals are driven primarily by that which affects them directly, but humans “move toward universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring, and punishment.” And yet, de Waal’s point is also that while there is a difference between chimp or bonobo and human, there is also a strong connection.

There’s no shortage of studies showing how violent a chimp can be with other chimps, but so far no “lethal aggression” has been recorded within bonobo society. This is where the bonobo fondness for an orgy comes into play, as it serves to preemptively halt violence.

Bonobos can be “unfriendly to neighbors,” says de Waal, “but soon after a confrontation has begun, females have been seen rushing to the other side to copulate with males or mount other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into socializing.” Males are also known for resolving conflict through sex with each other—there is no single sexual orientation or age boundary for bonobos.

They are extremely empathic and this allows them to quickly be aware of when things could go terribly wrong. As de Waal writes:

It is only recently that we have learned how the brain of bonobos reflects this sensitivity. The first hint came from a special type of neuron, known as a spindle cell, thought to be involved in self-awareness, empathy, sense of humor, self-control, and other human fortes. Initially, these neurons were known only in humans…Then came a study that compared specific brain areas in chimpanzees and in bonobos. Areas involved in the perception of another’s distress, such as the amygdala and anterior insula, are enlarged in the bonobo. Its brain also contains well-developed pathways to control aggressive impulses.

De Waal is not suggesting that humans follow the bonobo social system. Evolution has given us our own way of handling these things, he notes. But he insists that ideas like compassion and empathy are far from being unique to our species. “Morality predates religion,” he says, “…we humans were plenty moral when we still roamed the savanna 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.” At this point, he engages the research of Ara Norenzayan in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (see my review here).

This is the bottom up approach to morals that is the central point in The Bonobo and the Atheist. Religion says right and wrong are handed down from above and carved into stone. This is not so for de Waal. Morality began on earth, as he sees it, and is part of our species’ development, which is why it can be found in other animals.

In this 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, confirming Voltaire’s quip about our need to invent him.

In other words, if the world lost its religion and embraced a humanist ethical system, there is no reason to assume that earth will become a bloodbath. “Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are,” says de Waal.

The Bonobo and the Atheist offers helpful criticism of New Atheism’s approach to religion and religion’s approach to morals. This is why, in part, it has found criticism on both sides of Abraham’s Bosom.

Christians, for example, understand humans as high above the animals in every way. Often it is the human capacity for love, creativity and imagination, right and wrong, self-awareness, etc. that is seen as a staple of our uniqueness and indicators of having a soul— the imago dei, as theologians often call it. And yet, every study on apes—and other animals, like the elephant—show that these characteristics are not unique to us. We might just have them in different levels of sophistication. Does that change things for theologians?

It is during these critiques that I find the least structure to the book. There are interesting points and valid questions being raised in his criticism, but his excursions into the discussion (while thought-provoking) tie into the subject matter less effectively than the other chapters. Nevertheless, it is a book that anyone interested in the origins and nature of human morality should read, if at the very least to confront new information and (perhaps) evolve.

  • Lars

    The Wikipedia entry for Neanderthals (referencing Science Mag) notes that we share 99.88% of our DNA, vs 98.8% with chimps. Was God monitoring our evolution for just the right time along the development of self-consciousness and abstract reasoning to suddenly make our species alone accountable, or is morality rooted in the ability to experience empathy? And if the latter, did God play in a role in that as well?

    This is such an interesting question because, for me, it’s gets at the necessity for a God that is either a) interventionist or b) an isolationist (or simply an invention or our imagination since the results would be the same). It seems that with ‘a’, the door of intervention must be fully open and material reality is an illusion since its laws can be manipulated at any moment by supernatural forces for good and bad. Believing that prospect should either give you great hope or drive you mad!

  • You’ve definitely been giving it some thought. I like the fact that you are willing to entertain the range of possibilities that you do, though I do imagine that the having the laws of nature mean nothing would definitely drive me mad.

    I’m guessing we’d have some interesting conversations in person.

  • Lars

    Seems we’d both be in good company in that case! As long as coffee or beer (or both, could be a long day) are involved, count me in.

  • Archie Meijer

    Morality shouldn’t be limited to empathy nor to anything else.

    Morality is just how we think ourselves and others should behave. That’s how the term’s been used since forever so let’s keep using it that way.

    That includes considerations based on empathy obviously but also considerations based on innumerable other factors such as promoting the survival of the group or one’s family or even one’s self, and honoring social agreements meant to guarantee justice, or to protect privacy or autonomy.

    EDIT: I also take issue with the statement: “Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are”. I can certainly decide whether or not to be empathic. I don’t always think about it beforehand but like most humans I do think about “does he or she deserve X or not?” and also weigh in my own needs. Though I suspect bonobos probably do that too.

  • Lars

    Agreed! I think this article makes that case as well. (Other animals are driven primarily by that which affects them directly, but humans “move toward universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring, and punishment.”).

    Ultimately, morality was either handed down by God or it somehow evolved. This book strives to make a convincing case for the second premise – that morality’s origin may have started with empathy, but as you noted, certainly doesn’t end there.

    I also think empathy can be overridden by selfishness, and that both are inherent in equal measure. The quote woks just as well if it says: “Humans don’t decide to be selfish; they just are.” My son knocks over his milk reaching for the biggest cinnamon roll but a few hours later will give his sister the last fudgsicle. Though relatively harmless in youth, it’s this this same internal conflict that also leads to genocide and soup kitchens.

In search of belief changing ideas