Close by in the Evolutionary Tree

Smarter: What Atheists (and Anyone Else) Can Learn from Chimpanzees

Peter McCarthy
Frans de Waal, Primatologist / Photographer: Catherine Marin
Frans de Waal, Primatologist / Photographer: Catherine Marin
GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Invited to dinner with a distant cousin you’ve never met, would you go? Just out of curiosity?

What if your cousin was a fun-loving bonobo chimpanzee?

Okay, then, what if your cousin was atheist?

The Bonobo, The Atheist and the Rest of the Gang

Guests at Frans de Waal's Table

Frans de Waal's  The Bonobo and the Atheist isn't a book for readers who struggle with facts that threaten cherished beliefs. It’s a book for openminded types willing to follow knowledge wherever the latest science may take it.

Studying Evolution's Tree for Clues and Understanding

De Waal is a primatologist. He teaches and conducts studies at Emory University in Atlanta. 

Fortunately for us, he is also an excellent writer with a gift for storytelling. His sense of humor plays well among reports yielding insights into chimpanzees and their atheist descendants.

Collating information from his own studies and those of other scientists, de Waal drills home with clarity a message of unity among all primates, and especially among humans and our ape ancestors and cousins.

What makes his book such pleasant reading are the countless engaging anecdotes told with compassion as well as humor. 

A scientist who loves the bonobo colonies with which he’s closely associated, de Waal tells their stories with a thoughtful eye out for what we can learn from watching.

There are the senior members of the bonobo clan that form a kind of moral police. 

They prevent randy adolescents from having sex whenever the impulse strikes, and they enforce order in the interest of colony stability.

(Community codes prevent them from frightening pre-adult chimps.)

But even more telling are touching stories of disabled and elderly chimps who are cared for and protected at no personal gain to the caregivers — just as humans are.

Brutish and Short?

De Waal bristles at the suggestion that, without religion, humans are brutish, self-serving beasts. 

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is that morality, empathy and fairness are traits born in us but also in similar species on evolution's primate branch.

He cites examples of not just apes, but dogs, elephants and others that practice qualities we find admirable in people. Our not so distant cousins, however, do it without religions or other established moral authorities.

Morality, he shows us, comes from within. It's a significant revelation that compassion preceded religion.

Atheist, Religions, Bonobos

As for religion, de Waal agrees with Voltaire: if there isn't a God, we'd have to invent one because the attributes we assign to religious teachings are so ingrained in us.

Religion, he believes, is here to stay, and he views militant atheists drive to push people away from it, taking a line from novelist Amy Tan, as like "trying to save fish from drowning."

While he values science and wonders why all the benefits it has brought haven't earned it more respect, he has little patience with militant atheists efforts to denounce religion, using science as a cudgel.

In short, he thinks it's a waste of time.

In a humorous aside, he notes that it makes little sense to get so worked up about something atheists say doesn't exist. If God doesn't exist, why fight over Him?

De Waal suspects motives of less than scientific virtue.

Conclusion

But while the author is wise enough to cover all the bases in the current debate, his appreciation and reporting on the lives, loves, decency, kindness and occasional cruelty of our ape cousins is so compelling and interesting to read, the battles for and against religion become less important by comparison.

Stories from cooperative communities of primates may give you a warm feeling. It’s another reminder that we are not alone in nature.

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