One of the few compensations of having a long commute for me has been the freedom to range widely in audio reading over topics I’d be unlikely to find time for in my office or study. 2013 saw the appearance in both print and audio of a new book by one of my favorite writers, the primatologist Frans deWaal. Although I wasn’t sure de Waal would have much more to say after all of his writing on the natural underpinnings of moral philosophy in books including Good Natured (1997) and Primates and Philosophers (2009), I bought and downloaded The Bonobo & The Atheist anyway because I’ve found everything I’d read by him so stimulating. Not only did the book fail to disappoint me, but it wound up stimulating my interest in the evolutionary underpinnings of religion so that my next two commuter reads also ended up being on the topic.

Towards the end of The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal presents an imaginary dialogue between a member of the ape species called bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, and a human professing disbelief in a sentient creator god. The interaction of the two mindsets indeed pervades much of the book, with de Waal bridging the gap. As a scientist, he admits, he himself cannot believe in a creator.  But much of his discussion is directed at the hubris he feels is displayed by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, and clearly de Waal feels more empathy for the apes whose social and emotional lives he’s studied for decades. In the book Our Inner Ape, for example, de Waal detailed the differences between the two chimpanzee species—bonobos’ more matriarchal social structure, less aggressive males, and liberal use of sex in social bonding relative to chimpanzees stand out—and argued that we humans may have inherited both bonobo-like and chimp-like features from the last common ancestor we three have in common.

By appeal to behavioral studies of chimps, other apes, and monkeys, as well as to recent neuroscience research on our own species, de Waal has argued effectively in past books that morality is largely innate. So it comes as no surprise that one of the early themes in The Bonobo and The Atheist is a critique of the medieval Christian notion that humans would descend to the amoral status of beasts but for the moral light provided by religion. Part of the argument is that not all beasts are all that lowly. Not only other primates but also many other mammalian species exhibit innate tendencies to form social bonds, so de Waal views the Latin saying “homo homini lupus est” (man is a wolf to man) as an insult to wolves. With moral sentiment already part of our natures and something that we can strengthen through appropriate social influences, it’s unconvincing to argue that only the threat of eternal damnation stands between us and 24/7 malevolence.

Yet de Waal doesn’t dismiss out of hand the idea that one of religion’s functions has been to buttress pro-social inclinations. Hunter-gatherer groups appear remarkably egalitarian compared to gorilla and chimpanzee societies with their steep vertical hierarchies and male dominance of females, but their equilibrium is achieved in part by the threat of violence, and human beings clearly are capable of harming one another for their personal or genetic advantage. De Waal speculates that as societies grew larger and more complex, the loosening of the constraints imposed by the watchful presence of the small set of foraging band members with whom our remote ancestors lived may have left a deficit in the set of social controls, one that religions then helped to fill. The fact that some northern European societies appear to be doing quite well on social harmony indicators in recent years, despite having large majorities of self-professed atheists, is in de Waal’s view an interesting but quite recent exception, the sustainability of which remains to be seen. 

Interestingly, Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct, which, along with Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, has numerous overlaps with de Waal’s book, takes a slightly different stance: It suggests that modern societies’ states, prisons and police forces may largely substitute for the social watchfulness of the band, thus making religion less, not more, necessary than in foraging societies. The respective roles of informal social pressures, formal authority structures, and systematized moral systems in achieving tolerable levels of social harmony is a fascinating topic for further consideration.

Possibly the most interesting part of de Waal’s discussion is the evidence he marshals that the scientific worldview does not come naturally to the large majority of human beings, whereas religious and other meaning-imparting narratives are quite second nature.  Both late 18th century French revolutionaries like Robespierre and 20th century Communist propagandists suspiciously reprised the tropes of religion even when ostensibly propagandizing against it. And there’s reason to suspect that militant atheists’ apparent need to win over converts to their side springs from the same impulses that brought us Christianity, Islam, and other dogmas.    

The human need for meaning is a pervasive theme also in another book on the topic, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2007), which I went on to read after reading de Waal’s. Dennett concludes his book with an injunction that is at one and the same time an appeal for open debate and tolerance, a humane recognition of the need just mentioned, and a warning that denying it opens the door for harmful extremism to fill the gap. “We must have faith in our open society, in knowledge, in continuing pressure to make the world a better place for people to live, and we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning. The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least nonmalignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions.”

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