Weapon of Choice: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
by Frans de Waal
Slow clap, Frans de Waal. I can’t find a single thing in your book I disagree with. Doubly impressive since you made bold, paradigm-shifting cases about morality’s innermost fount and the blow-your-mind similarities between humans and bonobos (and chimpanzees, too).
de Waal is one of the world’s most famous primatologists. He is the Director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre and a Professor of Psychology at Emory University. In the academic world, this man is a big deal. Check out his TED Talk for an overview of his current research program, relevant to The Bonobo and the Atheist.
For me, the primary message of The Bonobo and the Atheist is that the building blocks of morality are far older than humanity itself. Morality’s origins are so old, in fact, that they can be clearly seen in our closest living ancestors: chimpanzees and especially bonobos.
I admit that I’m already very sympathetic to these ideas, but I gather that some folks may still have a hard time with this notion. For adherents of the human exceptionalism school, de Waal paints a fairly undeniable picture of other species acting “morally”: female chimps who drag reluctant males toward each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands; high-ranking chimpanzee males prodded awake to act as impartial arbiters in disputes gone bad; evidence of Neanderthals caring for those unable to take care of themselves; gratitude and moralistic aggression among apes. And one of my favourites: groups of female chimps confronting sexually aggressive males.
So, morality’s really old. Check. But why did those moral building blocks develop in the first place? de Waal discusses two main founts. First, maternal care, which gave rise to a more general mammalian need to nurture. Second, the desire for social integration. Social integration is a desirable thing since it increases an individual’s chance of survival; however, to reap the benefits of group life, we need to compromise and be considerate of others. So primates and humans evolved to do just that.
As “belonging” is in our evolutionary interests, it feels good to do the things that help you belong. In other words, it feels good to be good. Nature made it so because getting kicked out of the group for not playing nicely also means you don’t get to pass along your genes. On the next level up, social integration is also good for the group since there’s strength in numbers. Group selection for social integration would produce an impulse to want to keep others in check, as well as a corresponding susceptibility to that normative pressure when exerted by others. Humans have become so receptive to this normative social pressure that experiments show we’ll act more generously even when under the watchful gaze of a picture of eyeballs.
Like other apes, de Waal says, “humans are group animals who rely on each other, need each other, and therefore take pleasure in helping and sharing”. In my view, individuals for whom this is not the case are either battling their instincts OR they are sociopaths. Either way, steer clear.
Of course, in the past few thousand years, humans have elaborated on these ancient moral building blocks to a degree that would make a Neolithic time traveller spontaneously combust with disbelief. In addition to organized religion, we have things like social work organizations, the welfare system, international aid, courts, and even moral philosophers.
Contemporary intellectual output about morality is probably the weirdest development of all. It’s basically pornographic in its explicitness and volume. Untold millions of pages have been written about justice, fairness, and the requirement for impartiality in moral judgments.
A well-deserved target of de Waal’s ire are moral philosophers – a.k.a. those people who should have the best understanding of morality’s roots. Turns out, only scientologists best them in the wacky department. Yes, the ontological commitments of most moral philosophers are even more incomprehensible than Catholic priests.
de Waal’s point is that morality’s pull comes from within us, not from an ephemeral source outside ourselves. But many moral philosophers will have you believe that there is an impartial moral law, out there in the world waiting to be discovered, that applies to you whether you like it or not, or believe in it or not. But unlike priests, moral philosophers believe this moral law is “in force” even without a god to enforce it. That’s the really weird part. At least adherents of organized religion can fall back on “god commanded it”. But moral philosophers posit moral truths that sound an awful lot like divine commands, and then try to explain it without reference to a god. These moral laws, they say, have been there since the beginning of the universe, waiting patiently to apply to humans once they evolved. Deeply nutty stuff. Most current moral philosophy is, at best, highly sophisticated nineteenth-century thinking.
The Bonobo and the Atheist also shows that, like morality, religion is also way older than we think. Religion’s roots run so deep that we’ve likely co-evolved with it. That means shaking it off may be WAY trickier than rabid atheists believe. Religion is obviously “false” — but truth isn’t the underlying point of religion. Community, comfort, and competitive advantage are, and religion has delivered that in spades, over and over again, to the point that people have probably evolved religious tendencies.
The final take-home message of the book is this (and we can’t be friends if you disagree): given the unparalleled, irreplaceable, and kaleidoscopic understanding we gain about our hominid natures from bonobos, you’d think we’d do a better job protecting them.
Relative to their importance, very little is done to prevent their continued decline. This may have more to do with their relative obscurity than with indifference. I admit that five years ago, I knew bonobos only as “the sex monkeys”. But aside from the fact that they are just beautiful, special animals, bonobos are important because they tell us far more about ourselves than do the hominid fossil remains that occupy so much scholarly attention. Of course, the pre-2 MYA fossil record is magnificently important, but it pales in comparison to the magical carpet ride into the past that bonobos can put you on.
Unfortunately, wild bonobos are only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most insane, doomed regions on Earth. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “civil unrest and increasing poverty in the area around the bonobos’ forests have contributed to bonobo poaching and deforestation. Though the size of the bonobo population is largely unknown, it has likely been declining for the last 30 years. Scientists believe that the decline will continue for the next 45 to 55 years due to the bonobo’s low reproductive rate and growing threats”. Fuck.
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