I’m not sure I want to provide a full, free-standing review of Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I can give some excerpts and thoughts, especially because I’m four-fifths of the way through the book. But unless it changes drastically in the last 40 pages, I think I’m on pretty good ground in saying that while the book is interesting, and has some good stuff on animal behavior, not much of it is new (having been covered in de Waal’s previous books). What is new–his repeated attacks on atheism–are jarring, inaccurate, and devalue the book considerably, at least to me.
The strange thing about the book is its lack of a coherent message. Much of it consists of anecdotes about and experiments on primates and other vertebrates, showing that these species have a rudimentary “morality”– that is, they show evidence of caring for strangers, empathy, a sense of fairness, and other aspects of what humans think of as ethical behavior. His point, which is a good one, is that our “innate” feelings of morality and empathy don’t come just from human culture, but are also genetically rooted in our ancestors. Considering actions that look as if they’re motivated by morality occur in our relatives, as in chimps caring for unrelated chimps that are ill, de Waal argues that the genes behind these behaviors (if there are genes) are homologous: the same genes that cause similar behaviors and feelings in us.
That is, our morality is partly derived from our evolution in small bands of individuals who knew each other intimately. When that was the case, “reciprocal altruism” could evolve, and led to the kind of “innate” moral feelings that people like Francis Collins think can come only from God. de Waal, admirably, wants to dispel the notion that only religion can make us moral. (He’s an atheist, but was raised as a pretty pious Catholic.) And he’s not wedded to a purely evolutionary explanation, either, recognizing (as Paul Bloom and Jon Haidt have as well) that human culture acts to both tame and filter out the more inimical behaviors that evolved to keep primate groups in harmony.
Some of the best parts of the book are de Waal’s description of animal behavior in both zoos (he works at Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia) and the wild. With his evolutionary background, he’s one of the best people to raise the evolutionary implications of the behaviors he sees at work every day. For this perspective the book is worth reading.
What is strange about the book , however, is its recurrent focus on atheism, or rather,its persistent denigration of atheism. While it’s perfectly proper, given de Waal’s desire to debunk the notion that morality must come from religion, for him to question religious “morality” (he doesn’t do that, by the way), it’s not at all obvious why he has to come down repeatedly–and hard–on atheism. It’s not as if atheism claims that morality comes from the divine. Indeed, most of us, I think, would agree with de Waal: morality comes from some secular combination of evolution and learning, the latter often based on rational consideration.
Nevertheless, the tone of the book is marred by not only the constant dissing of atheism and de Waal’s perception that it’s like religion, but also by his assertion that everyone but he misperceived the nature of animals–mostly seeing it as innately bad. It was not until de Waal came alone, he implies, that the scales fell from everyone’s eyes and behavioral biologists realize that social species have a core of goodness. (Of course he studies mostly social primates, precisely the group in which evolution would promote reciprocal altruism and the genetic trappings that could be the nucleus of our own morality. Tigers aren’t so “moral”!)
Further, but I’ll talk more about this tomorrow, de Waal often engages in the form of faitheism that is meant to level the ground between science and faith: pointing out the problems with science and scientists. At times, he almost seems to say that there is little difference between the two.
I am not a psychologist, but Anthony Grayling, in a critical review of this book in Prospect, has imputed some of de Waal’s softness toward religion to his Catholic upbringing. I can’t say I disagree, but that’s speculation. It also seems that de Waal, like Steve Gould in Rocks of Ages, has a strong desire to be perceived as the “nice guy middle-of-the-roader,” neither hard-line atheist nor religious, but someone who sees more clearly than others, and is sympathetic to both sides. Of course, that’s the point of writing a book: to advance one’s own ideas, but the claim that de Waal saw more clearly than others, both in biology, morality, and the science/religious debates, comes all too often, and is annoying. It’s as if he’s standing on nobody’s shoulders, but reached the heights on his own.
The classic xkcd cartoon is apposite:
Here are a few of de Waal’s quotes on atheists:
(p. 84) “In my interactions with religious and non-religious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat then religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexsitence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously?”
That last quote, by the way, was from an interview of Grayling in which he makes fun of the term “militant atheist.” His sentiments were precisely the opposite of de Waal’s.
But what has all the atheist-bashing to do with de Waal’s thesis: the roots of human morality? Exactly nothing. It is meant to show that he’s more perceptive than other people.
As for what atheism has to offer that makes us passionate about something like nonbelief, Grayling lays that out admirably in his own review, and I have little to add:
Well: here is the answer to de Waal’s question. Some atheists are evangelical because religious claims about the universe are false, because children are brainwashed into the ancient superstitions of their parents and communities, because many religious organisations and movements have been and continue to be anti-science, anti-gays and anti-women, because even if people are no longer burned at the stake they are still stoned to death for adultery, murdered for being “witches” or abortion doctors, blown up in large numbers for being Shias instead of Sunnis… One could go on at considerable length about the divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion, though the list should be familiar; except, evidently, to de Waal.
Indeed, de Waal may say a few negative things about faith, but he has far more negative things to say about atheism. A good editor would have prevented these unseemly digressions, but of course atheist-bashing sells (after all, the title is “The Bonobo and the Atheist”). One is still forced to wonder why, exactly de Waal took this tack.
But that’s only one de Waal quote of many. Here’s another, distinguishing “private” versus “public” atheists (there’s no doubt which one de Waal favors:
(p. 87): Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. THese atheists don’t think that disbelief should be locked up in the closet. The speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their religiousness wa a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world.
(pp. 18-19) Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens), or is a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The neo-atheists call themsleves “brights,” thus implying that believers are not as bright. They have replaced St. Paul’s view that nonbelievers live in darkness by its opposite: non-believers are the only ones to have seen the light. Urging trust in science, they wish to root ethics in the naturalistic worldview. [JAC note: so does de Waal!] I do share their skepticism regarding religious institutions and their “primates”–popes, bishops, megapreachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis–but what good could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?
Hold on, Dr. de Waal: the atheists you mentioned, and most other “militant” ones, don’t spend their time insulting people, but questioning, and yes, sometimes insulting, their misguided and harmful beliefs. I find it hard to believe that de Waal doesn’t recognize the difference between insulting people and questioning their creeds. Believers may see no difference, but academics and rationalists like de Waal should!
But wait! There’s more!:
(p. 102) But all this talk about how science and religion are irreconcilable is not free of consequences. It tells religious people that, however open-minded and undogmatic they may be, worthy of science they are not. They will first need to jettison all beliefs held dear. I find the neo-atheist insistence on purity curiously religious. All that is lacking is some sort of baptism ceremony at which believers publicly repent before they joint the “rational elite” of nonbelievers. Ironically, the last one to qualify would have been an Augstinian friar growing peas in a monastery garden.
He’s referring to Mendel, of course. de Waal is curiously unreflective here. Even “hard-liners” like me don’t say that one can’t do science and be religious at the same time. Apparently de Waal hasn’t pondered another kind of incompatibility: the incompatibility of discerning truth through reason, experiment, and observation versus through revelation, dogma, and wish-thinking–with the obvious differences in outcome of what one considers “truth.” There is one brand of science with general sets of (provisional) consensus truths in each subfield, while there are thousands of religions, all with different “truths,” many of them diametrically opposed. Presumably there is a reason why de Waal is an atheist, though he never tells us. (He says only that he left religion behind when he went to college.)
And one more:
(p. 204): To insist, as neo-atheists like to do, that all that matters is empirical reality, that facts trump beliefs, is to deny humanity its hopes and dreams. [JAC: Yeah, we just LOVE to do that!] We project our imagination onto everything around us. We do so in the movies, theater, opera, literature, virtual reality, and yes, religion. Neo-atheists are like people standing around outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo diCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic. How shocking! Most of us are perfectly comfortable with this duality.
And there you have, it, ladies and gentlemen: the double indictment of scientism and the characterization of scientists as unimaginative, cold, robotic, and eager to destroy the life of romance and emotion.
What all this is doing in a book on the roots of human morality is beyond me. Not only does de Waal take gratuitious swipes at “neo-atheism,” but they’re incorrect. His characterization of neo-atheism is completely off the mark. Why de Waal feels compelled to drag this stuff into a book that is largely about chimps bespeaks a not-so-hidden agenda. Where it comes from eludes me; it lies in the real of psychology, psychiatry, and perhaps, as Grayling insists, in the realm of childhood indoctrination with Catholicism. But never mind. The stuff simply doesn’t belong in his book.
Tomorrow, if I can take it, I’ll discuss de Waal’s disquisition on the harms inherent in science.