Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist, By Frans De Waal

Who are you calling a dumb ape?

As an atheist, I've always found it insulting when religious people claim that human morality is handed down from upon high, the implication being that if you don't believe in God then you are free to behave as badly as you want. It has always seemed self-evident to me that morality stems from our emotions, and that behaving morally works for the betterment of society. So I was delighted to read Frans de Waal's compelling book, which blows the idea of top-down morality out of the water.

De Waal is a world-renowned primatologist and the book's subtitle, "In Search of Humanism Among the Primates", outlines his purpose. And, not to put too fine a point on it, he finds humanism in bucketfuls among the primates.

Trawling through decades of research and observation, he describes all sorts of behaviour in bonobos, chimpanzees, and monkeys (as well as non-primates such as dogs, elephants and dolphins) which clearly indicate that they have a well developed sense of right and wrong. Time and again, experiments have revealed that primates understand the value of co-operation in specific tasks; that they have a strong sense of fair play, an awareness of the permanence of death, and use their own experience and imagination in order to empathise with others.

De Waal argues coherently that this behaviour has evolved over millennia within social groups of mammals for the better survival of the group – and that human morality has similarly evolved. Furthermore, the author makes a pretty good argument for the reasons for the evolution of religion in humans: as our social groups got bigger, we had to invent a larger dominant figure to explain and maintain the hierarchies we had already created. This is inevitably speculative, but De Waal's considered approach makes his arguments more persuasive than the confrontational neo-atheism of Richard Dawkins et al.

This is a strangely scattershot book. De Waal is clearly a thinker of depth and breadth, but he presumes rather a lot of the reader, while there were elements that seemed superfluous. I could have done without the returning motif about the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, for example.

And there are not enough bonobos. These hippies of the primate world, as De Waal calls them, live in a matriarchal society that uses sex instead of violence as a method of social control. But because of access and scarcity issues, the vast majority of primate research has been with the more violent and patriarchal common chimpanzee.

Even so, the chimpanzee overwhelmingly displays so many aspects of what we originally considered human nature, that the idea of humankind being in any way special or separate from the rest of the animal kingdom is surely dead.