WW Norton £18.99
Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist, By Frans De Waal
Who are you calling a dumb ape?
Saturday 20 April 2013
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.
TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies
Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tourist films plane's descent just metres above packed Caribbean beach
- 2 Indian woman creates 'Marriage CV' after parents put her on dating site: 'Definitely not marriage material. Won’t grow long hair, ever'
- 3 World Book Day: Boy 'excluded' from school after dressing up as Fifty Shades' Christian Grey
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 GamerGate: developer Tim Schafer provokes rage with joke about online gaming activists at industry awards
The 9 rules every Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon had to follow are wonderfully pedantic
Toy Story 4: Pixar promises a romcom storyline 'separate' from the much-loved trilogy
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
World Book Day: Boy 'excluded' from school after dressing up as Fifty Shades' Christian Grey
The world's most beautiful libraries: Introducing Franck Bohbot's House of Books project
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Elif Shafak: Turkish author warns against rise of British nationalism
Ex-head of MI6: 'We shouldn't kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy'
Most people think legal tax avoidance is just as wrong as illegal tax evasion, poll suggests