THE BONOBO and The Atheist: In Search
Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal
Norton, 2013; 313 pp 
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters 


I find a pop-science book like The Bonobo and The Atheist a refreshing change from my humanities outlook. Mired in literature, critical theory and contemporary poets, I feel on terra firma while being lectured by a charming, old world primatologist. Scientists busy themselves sometimes answering questions with experiments, data, and field observations, questions that we literary types poke around, grasp as if blind, or inject with meaning. Not that one way of knowing/believing is necessarily better or more enlightening than the other. But all too guiltily, I've made summations, or asked uninformed rhetorical questions that a quick cursory trip to Project Muse could have solved or at least brightened.

Why are we greedy sometimes? Why do we tribalize? Why do we ignorantly fall for bullshit? Why do we have morality (and what is it?)? These questions beg for explanation. Morality, for instance, is a thing, one that occurred sometime before now, and after the Big Bang. De Waal attempts to narrow down the search.

De Waal's argument, one that he picks up from his other nine books, including The Ape and the Sushi Master and Our Inner Ape, almost all of which investigate humanity through the primate eye, is that bonobos and chimpanzees show clear and well-documented signs of empathy. Whether it’s watching a deceased comrade being wheeled out of their enclosure, grooming injured apes, performing tricks that earn rewards for another, or guilt at a misdeed, apes seem very attune with a human sense of morality. Ape societies have clear delineative behavior, rules of the road, and punish themselves accordingly.

Why? The better to get along, my dear. This is a group-centered adaptive argument that many scientists have been reluctant to make (wrapped up in Richard Dawkins's Selfish Gene ideology and others perhaps). De Waal doesn't shy away, employing ample explanation too mildly dense to reproduce here.

The crux? Don't be surprised if a group of children marooned on an island develop their own mores and, Zounds!, even society. Four-year-olds, by the way, have about the same cognitive functions as an adult chimp. The Lord of The Flies scenario seems less likely, then, because children, like apes, have a sense of fairness, compassion, and camaraderie. Tigers and sharks we are not.

The upshot is, De Waal, a good lapsed Catholic, is somewhat a defender of religion, or at least antagonistic to the puritan streak he sees in the neo-atheism of Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and the others. The enemy isn't atheism, nor is it religion, nor bonobos, Chuck Darwin, nor Science, according to De Waal. The enemy (and this language of good/evil would strike him as unnecessarily religious) is Dogma. Sealing oneself within a realm of purity, where one group of people is guided by the light while another is mired in the muck, is a sure sign one may have given up the tenants of dogma, but not its outlook. Let us learn from the chimp and bonobo as we fight and fornicate and make some messy, human middle ground.