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Frans de Waal


In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
A friend has told me of a strange sight he saw in Greece. Several stray dogs were eating some food they had found, when down the road came a solitary dog who was blind. At his approach the pack moved aside to let him eat in peace.

I found it hard to believe that this was evidence of true altruism. I posted the story on an evolution newsgroup and someone suggested that perhaps the pack were confused by the abnormal behaviour of the blind dog, who was not giving out the signals that a normal strange dog would do when approaching a group. That seemed plausible, but having read de Waal's book I am beginning to wonder if it was the right explanation. It seems we have good evidence for ethical behaviour in many kinds of social mammals, including dogs.

De Waal is a Dutch/American primatologist who has done a huge amount of work with chimpanzees and bonobos. He is an atheist, but not, as he emphasises here, an aggressive one. (He has some interesting comments on Dutch Roman Catholicism and how it differs from religion in the USA.) Unlike Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists, he is not hostile to religion and does not think it should, or can, be eradicated. Science will not displace it; religion comes naturally to humans, scientific thinking does not. Here he takes the same position as Taner Edis in The Ghost in the Universe.. I am sure that both are right.

So this book is certainly not an anti-religion rant. At the same time, de Waal's purpose in writing is to show that religion is unnecessary for morality. Religious people often say that a society in which faith is in decline and there is widespread disbelief in God is bound to be in a state of moral decay. We often hear the argument that Western Europe is living on the legacy of more than a thousand years of Christianity, but that inheritance is now running out and we are all doomed unless we recover our faith.

De Waal holds almost the mirror image of this view. It is not religion that sustain morality, it is morality that gives rise to religion. Ethical behaviour is natural to humans because we are social animals. Its beginnings can be seen in many other species, including, of course, the primates, but also dogs, wolves, and elephants among others. Religions do no more than express and codify attitudes that are already imprinted in humans by evolution.

To make his case, de Waal gives a great number of examples of behaviour in animals which it is difficult to avoid calling ethical. To cite just one: an alpha male bonobo in a zoo took care of an elderly blind female who was in danger of getting lost in their living quarters. In the morning he would gently bring her to her favourite sunny spot on the grass; in the evening he would take her by the hand and guide her back indoors. If she had one of her epileptic attacks he would refuse to leave her side.

It might be objected that this behaviour occurred in captive animals, but similar behaviour is recorded in the wild for bonobos and chimps.

There may even be the beginnings of religion in non-human species. The ecstatic 'rain dance' of chimpanzees, first described by Jane Goodall, is often cited here. Chimps and elephants both show awareness of death, though whether they extend this to a knowledge of their own mortality is difficult to know. And apes give evidence of make-believe, both in captivity and in the wild. For example, captive chimps play with toys in the same way as small children, and a wild chimp has been seen to cradle a log as if it were a baby.

Throughout the book, de Waal seeks to counter the view that, left to themselves, humans exhibit unrestrained selfishness. "Everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature. On the contrary, our evolutionary background lends a massive helping hand without which we would never have gotten this far."

22 July 2013

%T The Bonobo and the Atheist
%S In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
%A de Waal, Frans
%I W.W.Norton & Company
%C New York and London
%D 2013
%G ISBN 9780383073775
%P 289pp
%K evolution. religion
%O illustrated with plates and drawings.

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