The Bonobo and the Atheist (a Personal Review)

Does God imply morality or vice-versa?

Posted Jun 19, 2013

God is indeed a jealous God

He cannot bear to see

That we had rather not with Him

But with each other play.

— Emily Dickinson

This is not a completely objective review. Few are, truth be told. I’m on record as an admirer of Frans de Waal, though I’m also on record disagreeing with some of his conclusions about the evolution of human sexuality. In fact, it was the disagreement that led me to admire the man as much as his work. I’ll explain.

When we were nearing the end of writing Sex at Dawn, Cacilda and I decided fairness required us to offer to send passages from the manuscript to a few authors and researchers with whom we disagreed, but whose work was integral to our argument—none of whom we knew personally. We wanted to give them a chance to tell us where we were mistaken or perhaps being unfair in our assessment of their views. We only made this offer to a few people, most of whom either never got back to us or politely declined. (One was offended, claiming it was somehow "intellectually dishonest" to have made the offer.)

Only Frans de Waal was willing to take a look, so I sent him the material. After a few days, he responded, asking if we’d considered this paper or that book that might enrich our discussion a bit. We had, and the conversation went back and forth a few times—always respectful and without a trace of ego on his part.

Keep in mind that this was a world-famous scientist with half a dozen published books and scores, if not hundreds, of scientific papers taking the time to correspond with someone he’d never heard of and who was suggesting he was wrong about important things. After half a dozen exchanges, he wrote, “Who knows? You may be right. In any case, you clearly have an exciting book on your hands, whether people agree with it or not: these are issues that will need debating over and over before we will arrive at a resolution.” Cringing inside, I asked if I could quote him publicly saying this, and he replied, “Sure, you can use it as a blurb, if you like.”

You write to a famous scientist telling him you think he’s wrong about something and he ends up helping you promote your book. That’s the sort of guy Frans de Waal is.

Now, I know this sounds more like a love letter than a book review, but full disclosure is important and—in this case—illuminates the book in question: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Is there a clearer case of an alpha male going out of his way to help a low-status, unrelated male with little to offer in exchange, and a potential competitor, to boot?

According to the prevailing view of human interaction—the one de Waal challenges in this book, such an exchange shouldn’t exist. He quotes Micael Ghiselin, an American biologist whose stark assessment is often cited in the literature:

No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation … Given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [a person] from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering—his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a "hypocrite" bleed.

This assumption of psychopathy as the cold heart of human nature is central to most of the literature of evolutionary psychology (see, for a very recent example, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and/or this stinging critique). Indeed, the assumption that our uncivilized animal nature is our “original sin” and that only institutions of authority can keep us from raping and pillaging each other into oblivion has fueled the propaganda of power courtesans cheering on colonialism, slavery, and forced conversion ever since Hobbes famously declared that human existence before the state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So this is no small question that de Waal proposes to answer: Are we good to each other because religions force us to be, or are religions merely institutionalized expressions of our innate desire to be good to each other?

In arguing for the latter position, de Waal cites a growing literature (of studies focused on both human and non-human primates) showing that “our first impulse is to trust and assist; only secondarily do we weigh the option of not doing so, for which we need reasons.”

Still, this is not another anti-religion book in the tradition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. De Waal's argument is far more subtle and inclusive. He agrees with Einstein that religious belief is “preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook of life.” In fact, De Waal ultimately asserts that “The whole purpose of God is … to keep us on the same straight and narrow that we’d been following ever since we lived in small bands.”

God isn’t dead; He's just beside the point.

I found The Bonobo and the Atheist to strike just the right chord. Frans de Waal isn’t telling religious people that they’re wrong to love their fellow humans (and non-humans) because God tells them to. He’s just explaining why the rest of us feel the same way, whether God speaks to us or not.

About the Author

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is the co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.

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