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


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3 stars
De Waal documents the evolutionary foundation of our moral capacity, but fails to advance moral discourse beyond that

In his 2013 work The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal lays out the evidence that morality is not a “thin veneer” covering our immoral animal nature, but that the brainier social animals (especially primates) have been equipped through evolutionary selection to act morally and with empathy for others.

Whether it’s the idea that we should get the same reward for the same effort, that kids deserve extra leeway for their inevitable infractions, or that certain behaviors must be met with punishment or ostracization, evolutionary selection has favored a “moralistic” view of the world. Humanity’s codes and beliefs are simply more elaborate expressions of this innate moral capacity and of what De Waal calls our “empathic potential”.

De Waal has studied bonobos extensively (they are closely related to chimpanzees and were long thought to be the same species) and recaps how bonobos de-escalate conflict and tension through sex. But he also explains that chimpanzees, in spite of their greater propensity for violence and aggression, also follow clear moral codes in their behaviors.

The book is strongest in these descriptions of primate behavior, which are well-sourced and explained through clear examples. The rest of the book tries to make the case that any attempt to displace religion must address the emotional gap it fills in people’s lives.

De Waal anchors much of the essayistic book in his perspective on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, repeatedly referencing parts of the triptych (which overflows with symbolism and bizarre images) to underscore his arguments. Some readers may enjoy these passages; I found them ultimately overbearing.

In his moral argument, De Waal is very critical of the “neo-atheist” movement he identifies with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, accusing them of pointless and needlessly confrontational advocacy. There is little nuance in this criticism. For example, he briefly references Hitchens going after Mother Teresa, as if it was self-evident that such an accomplished figure should be above criticism, in spite of, e.g., her relentless crusade against abortion and contraception.

This reflects De Waal’s own upbringing, which he briefly recounts: having grown up under liberal Dutch Catholicism, he writes that he departed religion gradually and still appreciates its cultural legacy in music and art. The idea that this might give him a somewhat rose-colored view does not, however, seem to occur to him. Instead he is quick to conversely diagnose outspoken atheists as the victims of trauma. Is it not possible that some of those critics have simply taken a more rigorous look at religion’s effects than De Waal has, irrespective of its effect in their own lives?

While De Waal acknowledges the danger of religiously motivated anti-science efforts like creationism, his view is that science and religion can and do inform each other, while our morality is at its core defined by our biology and environment, not acquired through reason. He identifies dogma in all its forms, not religion per se, as the biggest impediment to human progress.

I find it hard to disagree with that, but a core argument by atheist advocates is that the failure to intellectually challenge moderate theism or deism alongside its more extreme manifestations gives religion too much of a pass in public discourse, makes it more difficult for a deep understanding of the world to take root, and creates fertile ground for extremism to continually re-emerge from the same scripture quoted by moderate believers. This is an argument De Waal does not acknowledge.

I also missed a more explicit discussion of the interplay between beliefs and the development of empathic potential. Doctrines like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” are far from mere abstract beliefs; they are direct recommendations for specific parenting actions with specific psychological effects. But De Waal makes no effort at an empirical assessment of how religion could perpetuate beliefs that have a limiting effect on our capacity for empathy.

Most importantly, in spite of the word “humanism” in the book’s title, there is in fact very little discussion of humanism as a philosophy and practice. It’s fair to argue, as De Waal does, that atheism is not an especially interesting philosophy by itself, but many atheists embrace secular humanism as a system of values today. They view atheism simply as a necessary foundation of their moral outlook, not a sufficient one.

Humanistic charity and relief work, community events like Sunday Assemblies, emphasis on pluralism and rejection of dogma, awe and wonder as sources of inspiration, and so on – these are all pillars of humanism today. De Waal’s book could have given voice and visibility to this growing global effort to create an expansive, inclusive humanism; instead it barely acknowledges its existence.

The Verdict

In short, De Waal offers a decent summary of primatological findings that are in fact entirely consistent with atheistic and humanistic philosophies, while adding little insight beyond that. On balance, there may be better uses of your time. For a closer look at the empathetic capabilities of animals beyond the primates, I recommend a look at Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (reviews).