In this lively and illuminating discussion of his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal argues that human morality is not imposed from above but instead comes from within. Moral behavior does not begin and end with religion but is in fact a product of evolution.
For many years, de Waal has observed chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors and bonobos share their food. Now he delivers fascinating fresh evidence for the seeds of ethical behavior in primate societies that further cements the case for the biological origins of human fairness. Interweaving vivid tales from the animal kingdom with thoughtful philosophical analysis, de Waal seeks a bottom-up explanation of morality that emphasizes our connection with animals. In doing so, de Waal explores for the first time the implications of his work for our understanding of modern religion. Whatever the role of religious moral imperatives, he sees it as a "Johnny-come-lately" role that emerged only as an addition to our natural instincts for cooperation and empathy.
But unlike the dogmatic neo-atheist of his book’s title, de Waal does not scorn religion per se. Instead, he draws on the long tradition of humanism exemplified by the painter Hieronymus Bosch and asks reflective readers to consider these issues from a positive perspective: What role, if any, does religion play for a well-functioning society today? And where can believers and nonbelievers alike find the inspiration to lead a good life?
Rich with cultural references and anecdotes of primate behavior, The Bonobo and the Atheist engagingly builds a unique argument grounded in evolutionary biology and moral philosophy. Ever a pioneering thinker, de Waal delivers a heartening and inclusive new perspective on human nature and our struggle to find purpose in our lives.
©2013 Frans de Waal (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
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The book really should have been titled "The Bonobo and Human Empathy". The two pillars of all philosophy are empathy and reciprocity. He completely examines the first pillar, empathy, by illustrating empathetic behavior in Bonobos (and other animals) and linking it to our behavior.
He's such a good writer even when he wrote about things I completely disagreed with I would find the book thought provoking. I thought he trivialized the arguments of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and John Stuart Mill. But, I'm not bothered. I believe what I believe and I appreciated the different perspective.
The narrator did a perfect job.
The book is much better than most pop science books I have listened to and I'm much richer for having listened to this highly entertaining book and can definitely say because of this book I'm much closer to my goal of understanding our place in the universe. He does talk about philosophy but I enjoyed those parts as much as I did about bonobos.
(P.S. Matt Ridley's book, "The Rational Optimist", fully covers the second pillar of human philosophy, reciprocity. Also, my personal take on the author he seemed like an apologetic atheist and he didn't want to offend anyone. But as I say, I wasn't bothered by this, but I disagreed with him regarding those sections. Also, he seemed to characterized the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill in a comic book fashion. Once again I wasn't bothered but I don't want to leave the impression that I agreed with him on those two points).
I suspect I'm being a little generous with 4 stars. It isn't that I don't enjoy the writing of de Waal; I do. I read de Waal's Age of Empathy (2009), which is why I moved on to The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Age of Empathy contains a good many anecdotes from research about animal empathy, which are informative and entertaining. The Bonobo and the Atheist is more meditative. de Waal considers matters of atheism and religion intellectually, but with much less research. Jheronimus Bosch is his companion in these meditations time after time, using the paintings as a guide in his reflections. There are some research-based anecdotes, one of which was so surprising to me that I immediately sought out a companion with whom to share it. (Did you know a juvenile chimpanzee used a log for hours as a proxy baby chimp, cradling it and gently placing it in a night-time nest? Imagination is alive in other primates.) However, that doesn't alter the overall meditative tone on atheism and religion from the European secular perspective rather than harder science. I just happen to like the European secular perspective and de Waal's thoughts about those matters.
I'm a big fan of the author and really enjoyed "Our Inner Ape." I enjoyed this book less. The writing is interesting but the book has an unstructured, unfinished feel to it.
He draws on his vast primatology experience to address the question "how can we have morality without God?" Using many insightful stories about chimps, bonobos and other monkeys he demonstrates that evolution has given us an innate moral sense that only recently (in anthropologic time) has been transplanted to the institution of religion.
He never clearly lays out this very delicate and complicated argument. His style is more throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I never had a sense of what would be coming next and there was no systematic refutation of possible objections. As a student of philosophy I expect a clear premise and a well structured argument to back it up. I agree with most of what he says, but I honestly don't see how you could attack his argument if you didn't. There's no "If A, then B and if B then C. Now I'm going to prove A and B." Instead he gives us detailed analysis of several medieval paintings and anecdotes from his research.
I did appreciate his bristling at Hitchens and Dawkins' confrontational atheism. I like(d) them, but both frequently get a pass because of their divine status in the atheist pantheon.
In the end "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and he hasn't brought that.
It is one of my favorites because of the subject matter and the humanist views held by the author.
The chimps and bonobos referenced
There was less science and more opinion than I thought there would be.
De Waal’s stories about apes, which were weaved throughout his book, were fascinating and enlightening. De Waal is, after all, an expert on the subject. Not as enlightening, however, were his insights about atheists and atheism. He was dismissive of great thinkers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, often quoting them out of context in order to make a point. Yet, I often had trouble understanding what point he was trying to make as his arguments were contradictory: moral norms exist in primates and other mammals and are in inherent in humans, yet human society requires religion to enforce moral behavior; religion is a man-made concept, yet we should continue to pretend that it’s not because it brings comfort and thus is an essential and necessary part of human existence.
I don’t enjoy this narrator as he comes across as condescending.
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