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.
Frans de Waal is a brilliant researcher when it comes to the Bonobos and Chimpanzees that are his primary research subjects, and I absolutely loved the chapters talking about those subjects.
Unfortunately, he spends about half of the book ranting about various human authors and speakers (Notably, Hitchens, Harris, and D'Souza). On these sections it is clear that he has only a nominal familiarity with the subjects, and in some cases he even grossly mis-characterizes the views or arguments of the humans in question. There was even one case where the author points out in his book "people will probably accuse me of saying X, but that is not what I am saying at all..." and goes on to elaborate and explain the point in greater detail. Yet de Waal still accuses that author of saying X, and spends most of a chapter explaining why the author is ignorant and mistaken. de Waal also spends a good deal of time critiquing American culture, but in such a way that I seriously doubt he really understands what is going with any of the groups in question.
I would have loved a book on ethics than contained not only good science (which this book definitely does), but also something intelligent and cogent to add to the philosophical topics of Ethics. In this case, the book definitely does not deliver.
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.
l'enfer c'est les autres
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).
This is my first de Waal listen. The bits about primates are interesting, informative, amusing and thought provoking. The guy knows his stuff and I wish there had been more of it.
The bits about the art of Hieronymus Bosch are a bit here nor there for me. They probably serve to give some kind of framework to the observations on morality, empathy etc from the primate bits but to be honest the whole "etenal verity of art" vibe goes straight past me in a blur. I'm sure the paintings are fascinating to study but I felt that they added little to this work.
The atheism bit was depressing.
In a world where people are still in the thrall of imaginary beings to the extent that they are willing to kill each other over them, de Waal's characterisation and interpretation of the "neo-atheists" is at best disappointing and at worst dangerous. He cites primate examples showing where, how and why this mindset can be evolved and completely misses the point that the local and small scale sanctions imposed by a troop of chimps or bonobos loses its efficacy if the bad chimp is armed with an AK-47.
In a world where an evolved brain has discovered the chemical formula for cemtex it is depressing to meet an intelligent man who thinks that "why can't we all just get along together" is an appropriate response to the kind of mental backwater that produces religious fundamentalism.
Some of his characterisations of the work of the so called militant atheists are completely at odds with my own reading and interpretation of those works. I am perfectly willing to accept that mine may be the erroneous view but am left with a bad feeling that an intelligent man has, at some level, stepped back from a position just because he has faced an argument that he has no chance, at the moment, of winning in a society that is overly reverent of mythical thinking.
And most of the bits about primates are about Chimps rather than Bonobos.
Theme seemed force. A good read, as always, on primate behavior but the addition of the authors thoughts on atheism and "new atheism" just seem out of place. As if the author used the book as a platform to vent on his displeasure for outspoken atheists.
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.
The author clearly has a thorough understanding of primate behavior and offers a compelling argument for a natural, evolved origin of our innate, instinctive human morality.
Frans de Wall wrote one of the most sensible books imaginable that explores the roots of morality through his intimate and wide experience with our closest living relatives. The legacy of religion may well be rooted in our species' propensities to live socially as tribes. This is one of the most intellectually satisfying books that I have ever "read" (OK - listened to).
It is one of my favorites because of the subject matter and the humanist views held by the author.
The chimps and bonobos referenced
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.
I had very high hopes for this book - and found them sorely disappointed. Frans de Waal is no doubt a great expert on animal behaviour and has countless interesting observations and anecdotes to draw from. Sadly he is not a deep and careful thinker, and has a tendency to over-generalize and jump to unjustified and unjustifiable conclusions. A typical example might be the passage where the author blames "science" and "scientists" for the atrocities committed during Hitler's holocaust. Not only is this utter nonsense, it is insulting to scientists. And that is not an isolated example of dubious assertions made in this book in areas where the author is hardly an authority being presented as fact. All this in order to investigate the "biological mystery" of pro-social behaviours, which really isn't that hard to understand at all. (If creatures need to reproduce to persist down the generations, and if reproducing is easier in groups where we watch each others backs rather than stabbing them, the evolution of pro-social behaviours is hardly unexpected. What's the big deal?) All in all a laboured and unconvincing treatment of a non-problem, and the odd interesting story about our closest relatives was not enough to save it. I could not make it past the first half of the book. If you are interested in this sort of subject, you are likely to be much better off with Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of Our Nature".
"Sheds light upon our beautiful Bonobos!"
Yes, we are not alone in having a sense or morality in the world. Bonobos are clearly very intelligent and should be cared for and protected (as the rest of the animals on this earth should be) by us humans.
The stories of the Bonobos lives were amazing as they showed that Bonobos have a sense of Morality.
Allowed me to listen whilst on the go. Perfect narration.
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