The Bonobo and the Atheist

Our closest biological relatives are chimpanzees. They’re not as cute as you might think; often nasty and violent. How nice then to have discovered the bonobo — an equally close cousin, but a much better role model. Anatomically chimplike, bonobos behave very differently, very social, peaceable, and they’re sex fiends. A lot of humans are in love with the idea of the bonobo, seeing them as living in a prelapsarian paradise of free love, undarkened by sin. They’re even matriarchal. How politically correct can an animal get?

This evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Margaret Mead’s idealization of Samoan sexual promiscuity (which turned out to be fake news).

De Waal (at right)

The book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems to have been written by the bonobo. Actually by primatologist Frans de Waal, who’s studied them. He likes them. Atheists, not so much. Even though he is one himself.

A self-hating atheist, then? No, he sets himself apart from atheists who make a big deal of it. His own attitude is nonchalant — “I don’t believe that stuff, but if others do, so what?” Too many atheists, he feels, are overly obsessed with the question of truth, which he deems “uninteresting.”

De Waal’s critique of assertive “new atheists” (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) has become familiar. We’re told they do the cause no favor by insulting religious believers. I’ll make three points.

First, through most of history, religious dissent was not only taboo but cowed into silence by the threat of fire. Subjecting religious ideas to serious intellectual challenge is long overdue.

Second, about those fires: many atheists believe religion has done great harm, being a wellspring of violence, and we’d be better off without it. (I recently reviewed a book arguing the contrary.) This too is a debate we need to have.

And third, when billions do believe in religious dogmas (with vast impacts upon human society), their truth is hardly an “uninteresting” matter. Even leaving aside the violence, such beliefs dominate one’s entire engagement with the world. You cannot have a sound conception about the human condition and the issues facing us while being fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of reality. That truth matters.*

But back to bonobos. For de Waal, they’re Exhibit A for the book’s main point — that morality and altruism do not come from religion. They long antedate religion’s beginnings and in fact are seen among other animals. The bonobo “too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.” De Waal relates an observation of two young chimps quarreling over a leafy branch. An older one intervenes, breaks it in two, and hands a piece to each youngster! And in a famous experiment, chimps would happily perform a task for cucumber slices, until seeing other chimps getting grapes, a more coveted reward. Then, offended by the unfairness, they spurn the cucumber and go on strike. (Some grape receivers even joined them in solidarity.) The Occupy movement sprang from the same primordial feelings.

Altruism evolved because it was beneficial within the groups that practiced it. De Waal reminds us that the most conspicuous form of altruism throughout nature is often overlooked: parental nurturing and even self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the basic trait extends beyond just one’s own progeny.

Altruism is commonly defined as doing something for another at cost to oneself. Yet if that makes you feel good, is it really costing you? And why are we programmed to feel good when acting altruistically? De Waal points out that, logically enough, nature makes it pleasurable to do things we need to do — like eating and copulating. Altruism falls in the same category.

The idea that humans need religion for morality is actually insulting to us. And ridiculous. While religionists say without God anything goes, we could all rape, steal, and murder, nobody wants to live in such a world, and most of us recognize that that means we don’t rape, steal, and murder. Which we wouldn’t do anyway because of our nature-given moral instincts. God is irrelevant.

De Waal doesn’t join those who wish we could be more like our bonobo cousins about sex. He explains that their promiscuity makes it impossible to know who anyone’s father is. That diffuse paternity creates a certain kind of societal structure. We humans went down a different path, with pair bonding and clear paternity, so fathers are invested in protecting and raising their offspring. Emulating bonobos would wreak havoc in human society. Indeed, to the extent some people do emulate them, it does cause social havoc.

De Waal also discusses the religion-versus-science thing. No contest, really; religion comes much more naturally to us, fulfilling deep needs. Science does not, and is a far more recent and fragile invention. He says a colony of children left alone would not descend into the barbarism of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but would develop a hierarchical society as apes do — and likely some sort of religion — but not science.

De Waal suggests that when humans lived in small bands, moral instincts could serve their function effortlessly because everybody knew what everyone else was doing.** But not when societies grew much larger. Thus were gods invented to keep “sin” (i.e., antisocial behavior) in check.

Religion serves other needs too. Some go to church for the donuts. That’s shorthand for all the social togetherness religion entails. For many it’s a matter of finding meaning in an otherwise cold cosmos, and in their own lives. And of course palliating fear of death.

And what’s truth got to do with it? It turns out truth and reality actually rank pretty low on many people’s priority lists. Indeed, many seem to have a fuzzy grasp on the concept. We see this in the political realm, where tolerance for lies is far greater than I once imagined. In religion, people believe things mainly because they want to; and this extends to other aspects of life.

But I’ll repeat: you cannot live an authentically meaningful life if its foundation is lies. And as de Waal recognizes, humanism does enable us to find meaning in life while embracing its reality rather than cocooning ourselves in fairy tales. The essence of humanism is the recognition that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, that our purpose is to live it as well as we can, and to make it as good as we can for everyone.

De Waal argues that religion is deeply embedded because of its roots in our biology. But we have overcome innumerable constraints imposed by nature. He does acknowledge a “giant experiment” in Northern Europe’s recent and really remarkably rapid turning away from conventional religion. And these societies have seen nothing whatsoever of the negative consequences that religious apologists warned about for eons. Those Europeans who have largely freed themselves from religion are not going to Hell — neither figuratively nor literally.

* An example of how this messes up thinking is strong support for a moral creep like Trump among the devout, who forget, among much else, the commandment against lying.

** Note the importance of language. If one chimp mistreats another, no one else may know. But in human society, with talking, word gets around. This raises the stakes for violations of social norms.

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2 Responses to “The Bonobo and the Atheist”

  1. Evelyn Says:

    The racist DONALD TRUMP said to Fox News “I believe HITLER was RIGHT”. dgp Donald Trump is a racist with SEWER and the DailyStormer, he listens to satanic 666 sexist music… just google “Donald Trump SEWER 2154” and see FOR YOURSELF!! THE MUSIC xb VIDEO IS about the KKK and Adfolf Hitler raping a 12 year old African-American WOMAN OF COLOR in front of her parents and then hanging MLK with Emma Watson and Taylor Swift!! TAYLOR SWIFT the racist white privileged cvnt said she voted “for donald trump twice” in her OWN WORDS!!! Say no to hate, say no to SEWER, say no to l DONALD TRUMP and EMMA WATSON and Tatylor Swift !! Deport racism today fzk.

  2. Greg Says:

    Very well written, Frank. And very correct, in my opinion. Empathy and altruism must surely have evolved from our need to fit into a social community. Religion then, would be a natural way for early human societies to spread common codes of behavior over wide geographical areas.

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