The Way We Weren’t

Frans de Waal
The Bonobo and the Atheist:
In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

(W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)

It’s not strictly true to say that humankind came from apes—after all, apes aren’t what apes once were—but it is accurate to point out that we share a common ancestor both with chimpanzees and with bonobos. The single fact commonly learned about bonobos is that they engage in polyamorism with partners of both sexes. That such promiscuous behavior is enjoyed by a species so closely related to our own, genetically speaking, has a way of turning a mirror on ourselves—onto our system of concocted taboos and accepted social paradigms, on our received wisdom and our tradition of “revealed” morality. In fact, bonobos employ sex acts to substantiate peace and quiet in their community: sex is a tool of conciliation. Compared with the more violent, male-dominated Chimpanzee culture, with which we also share genetic history, matriarchal bonobo society is a harmonious one. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the word humane means “1. having what are considered the best qualities of mankind; kind, tender, merciful, considerate, etc. 2. civilizing; refining; humanizing: as, humane learning.” Does that mean bonobos are humane? No, not exactly. Rather, it implies that our genetic, and thus, our moral inheritance is something of a pastiche, developed over billions of years of evolution and inter- and intra-species procreation. How we get to what is best in us necessitates taking a close and continuous look at what it is we consider “the best qualities of mankind.”

In The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal seeks to normalize the idea that human morality—not the revealed sort, dependant on a deity, but the endemic sort, our innate impulses—should be figured into a vast gradient of mental, experiential, and cognizant stances on life, in which we all independently co-evolve. Bonobo society, harmonious, and often intimate, represents a valid, innate attempt at moral society. It is an attempt nonetheless. Likewise, human morality is not static, it evolves and turns back on itself, confounds and reinvents itself. Sometimes the community protects the moral individual, and sometimes it isolates and punishes him. Consider the lives of our most moral figures: in many we find not saintly idols etched in glass, but real men and women who are human, after all.

De Waal, a primatologist and professor of primate behavior in the Emory University psychology department, has been writing on chimpanzee and bonobo societies since the 1970s, when he took up a long-term research project at the Arnhem Zoo in his native country, the Netherlands. For this installment of his ongoing bonobo saga, de Waal and his publishers have gone high-gloss, with a prose style suitable for easy excerpting on blogs and a dust jacket photo that is ready-made for international airport bookstores. Variously referencing Eminem, The King’s Speech, Justin Bieber, and Lord of the Flies to exemplify human behavior, de Waal depicts other primate forms in The Bonobo and the Atheist as sharing with humans certain psychological predispositions including “emotional control,” “inequity aversion,” “community concern,” and “reciprocal altruism.” These are the basic ingredients of morality as we know it, but the cocktail is always being remixed. Morality is not revealed, but concocted. In an apparent nod to this concept, de Waal pairs the text with a humanist painting, Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It is a device that several notable science writers have employed recently, as when Edward O. Wilson used Paul Gauguin’s work to marvelous effect in his excellent book, The Social Conquest of Earth. De Waal, however, is at his best when he sticks to primate genealogies. As he writes:

Our northern brethren [Neanderthals] buried their dead, were skilled toolmakers, kept fires going, and took care of the infirm just like early humans…Survival of the weak, the handicapped, the mentally retarded, and others who posed a burden is seen by paleontologists as a milestone in the evolution of compassion. This communitarian heritage is crucial in relation to this book’s theme, since it suggests that morality predates current civilizations and religions by at least a hundred millennia.

One role of science is to help us unlock the mechanics of morality—what tools we use to transmit, conceive of, contextualize, and employ correct action. Using science to develop an understanding of the true nature of the universe, its physical realities and laws, allows us to understand our fellow creatures and ourselves, and provides the best paradigm through which we can discuss and codify moral behavior.

It is only recently that we have learned how the brain of bonobos reflects this sensitivity [e.g., close care for the injured and sick]. The first hint came from a special type of neuron, known as a spindle cell, thought to be involved in self-awareness, empathy, sense of humor, self-control, and other human fortes. Initially, these neurons were known only in humans, but…they were subsequently also discovered in the brains of apes, including bonobos…Why does a spider repair her web? It’s because she has an ideal structure in her mind, and as soon as her web deviates from it, she works hard to bring it back to its original shape.

So there is an inheritance in all creatures—a lust for life, and a beckoning towards best-case scenarios, which infer a capacity for judgment in all creatures.

The evolution of humanism has recently given rise to a bundle of ideas, the so-called New Atheism movement, and the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. In that discourse, contemporary science and philosophy have coalesced on questions about the nature of human morality, its sources, its limitations, and the components it shares with the behavior of other animals.

Oddly, de Waal disparages New Atheism, believing it an ignorant line of pursuit. While he appears to have a certain amount of adulation for Hitchens’s work (his first reference to Hitchens, best known for his 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is on page 2), he also seems to be haunted by the author. He is repulsed by the late gentleman’s surety on a number of scientific and moral issues.

Though de Waal tells a personal narrative of his loss of faith in The Bonobo and the Atheist, he also insists on asking the somewhat banal, if conversation-starting question, “What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?” In a way, de Waal’s entire book is figured as a response to the rise of atheism in contemporary discourse. This is somewhat ironic because, as Sam Harris has stated, “Atheism is not a belief system. It is the rejection of a certain style of dogma.” While asserting tangible facts about the evolution of primates, and by extension, primate morality, de Waal encourages us to reside in a space of uncertainty, doubt, and humility with regards to the nature of the universe, and the sources of good and evil.

This space has also time and again been the province of artists, including Hieronymus Bosch. In a flight of art criticism, de Waal relates how, “by putting emerging species next to Adam and Eve, [Bosch] seems to suggest a connection between modest life forms and the creation of humanity. Often portrayed as a devout Christian, Bosch nevertheless sprinkled his works with the seeds of skepticism.” In this respect, the book seems confused about its own motives. Ultimately, de Waal believes and states explicitly in the book, “activist atheism reflects trauma” in the psychological make-up of the atheist. One of the most important questions of our time he blithely dismisses as unworthy of further discussion.

The central issue of atheism, which is the (non)existence of God, strikes me as monumentally uninteresting. What do we gain by getting in a tizzy about the existence of something no one can prove or disprove?

For a work of popular science, The Bonobo and the Atheist is big on popular culture, art, and literature, and somewhat scanty on science. Hampered in certain passages by his own creative analogies, such as the boorish and unfruitful section, “My Life as a Toilet Frog,” de Waal reminds readers that the production of first-rate science writing is as rare an event as any in the observable universe. Though somewhat distracting, the inclusion of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is helpful for the book, in the sense that it demonstrates the dynamic and evolving nature of human views of morality. When we measure ourselves morally against other animals, especially our fellow primates, it should be with a slide rule: we are evolved species and will continue to evolve; our moral life will evolve along with us. Ongoing research in primatology, in which de Waal is a leading figure, proves that what was once a truth claim about human genesis and morality (the Eden myth) is now a resolutely metaphorical claim about the nature of existence. Put somewhat differently, before we can know the truth of the way we were, it is helpful to delineate, from a rubric of mythologies, the way we weren’t. 


Allen Guy Wilcox

ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, NY, and grew up on his parents’ farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005.