I’ve now finished Frans de Waal’s book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, and my final evalution is what I said yesterday: it’s a decent disquisition on the evolutionary “roots” of human morality–roots discerned in behaviors like empathy, altruism, and concern for equity in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. The book is useful reading for its eye-opening tales of ape “morality,” with the creatures evincing forms of compassion that we might not have expected.
Did I learn something from the book? Well, there are anecdotes about chimp compassion and altruism that are new to me, but I had already accepted the proposition that humans evolved an innate set of moral “rules” and emotions based on our millions of years of living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. It’s not at all hard to believe that natural selection would mold not just behaviors, but emotions (which of course underlie many such behaviors) that would impel us to take care of others, and to be better to those who behave better, while punishing “free-riders” and miscreants. And it’s not news to me that other primate groups have “proto-morality,” though it might be to others who haven’t read de Waal’s other books.
I disagree, though, that the behaviors and genes that make chimps and humans compassionate to “in-group” members are homologous–that they are genes inherited from our common ancestors. As I learned at a recent meeting in Oakland University, primate “morality” does not map neatly onto primate phylogeny. Orangutans, for instance, don’t show the sense of equity demonstrated by capuchin monkeys, even though orangs are more closely related to us than are capuchins.
It seems likely, at least to me, that natural selection independently molds behaviors based on how a species lives: orangs are solitary, capuchins gregarious. And other species, distant from us, show behaviors that look altruistic (whales, dolphins, dogs, and so on). So if we’re innately solicitous to members of our in-group, as I think we are, this may have evolved in our own lineage after we separated from the chimp lineage, and chimp and human behaviors are convergent, not homologous. This is supported by the very different forms of altruism and caring shown by bonobos vs. chimps, who diverged only about 1-2 million years ago, versus the 5-6 million years ago that our lineage diverged from that of both species of chimps. Social behavior is evolutionarily malleable. We may be able to learn about the evolution of altruism and cooperation in chimps by studying them, but not necessarily learn much about the evolutionary basis of morality in our own species. Remember that we did not descend from modern chimps or bonobos, but from common ancestors whose social system may have differed from all of ours.
What I learned most forcefully, though, was de Waal’s strong animus against “neo-atheists,” which he appears to define as atheists who actually criticize religion in a public or passionate manner. He sees that as an unseemly disturbance of people’s private behaviors, as an exercise in futility (“religion will always be with us”), and an unnecessary diversion from humanism, which he sees as the “right” way to effect change. de Waal, apparently, can decry the foolish beliefs of religion but almost never mentions the harm it continues to do to the world. Indeed, he sees even the morality of nonbelievers as being based on that of their religious forbears. I deny that. I come from a long line of people who barely believed in God, and most of my moral education has been secular. That’s just an anecdote, of course, but time will eventually tell. Whatever “moral” influence religion exerts on nonbelievers (and de Waal claims, rightly, that religion is not a source of morality but can help perpetuate it), will wane as society becomes more secular. If you want to say that Danes and Swedes, though largely nonbelievers, are still moral because of their Christian ancestors whose ethos remains in their society, all your work is before you. For humans were, I think, moral long before they were religious.
At any rate, de Waal’s continual dissing of atheists may sit well with the public, but it detracts from the message of his book. After all, atheists largely stand with him on the source of morality. It is the religious people who make the claim that morality comes from God, and that religion is largely a moral enterprise. Why, then, de Waal’s obsession with running down people like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Sam Harris (I also get a swipe)? Who knows?
Things get pretty bad in the book’s last section, itself called “the bonobo and the atheist”. In the last few pages, de Waal imagines what a smart and loquacious bonobo would tell an atheist. It’s the usual blather: religion is with us, tread gently, be an “advocate” rather than a “protester,” and so on. It’s condescending, especially putting de Waal’s own sentiments in the mouths of a bonobo. If a smart bonobo really could talk to an atheist, it would probably say, “Give me some bananas, you heathen!”
Is the book worth buying and reading if you’ve read de Waal’s other works? My final judgement is “no.” de Waal’s earlier books have the same message without the annoying and superfluous atheist-bashing. The book is curiously disconnected and could have used considerable tightening. It is also infused with a kind of hubris that may be more detectable if you’re a scientist, for it’s clear to one in the field how de Waal holds himself up as the paragon of the insightful and middle-of-the-road scientist, unswayed by extremists about human nature, and a forger of the reigning “consensus” view about human nature. That, too, I found annoying, especially because he takes others to task so often. de Waal has a very high opinion of himself.
But if you want to read nice anecdotes about bonobos, be my guest. And do remember that my reaction may be conditioned by de Waal’s continually use of what I see as misguided arguments to attack my own form of nonbelief. But, of course, he’s an unbeliever, too! There is fertile material here for a sociologist: why do some atheists love to attack other atheists more than the religious beliefs that all atheists reject?
I close with two quotes from the book that got my dander up. The first is de Waal’s reaction to the television exchange between conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly and David Silverman (president of the American Atheists); it’s the exchange in which O’Reilly infamously said that the tides could be explained only by God. But de Waal also sees problems on the atheist side.
(pp. 88-89) All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay. [JAC: in another place, de Waal imputes the zeal of “neo-atheists” to earlier trauma!] In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion? Take Christopher Hitchens, the late British author of God is not Great. Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all the worlds troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti-Vietnam War to chneerleader of the Iraq War, and for pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa.
Some people crave dogma, yet have trouble deciding on its contents. They become serial dogmatists. Hitchens admitted, “There are days when I mis my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,” thus implying that he had entered a new stage of life marked by doubt and reflection. Yet, all he seemed to have done was sprout a fresh dogmatic limb.”
It is this brand of grandfatherly tut-tutting, equating new causes and changes of mind as “serial dogmatism,” that infuriates me about this book. de Waal, of course, is above it all: never wavering, never wedded to a “dogma” (what we would call a “conviction”)—because, of course, that would make him as bad as both the religionists and atheists he decries.
On the next page he talks about a debate at the Ciudad de los Ideas conference I went to in Puebla, Mexico: Hitchens and Sam Harris debated religion against Dinesh d’Souza and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach:
(p. 90.) The circus-like atmosphere left me with my original question about evangelical atheists. It’s easy to see why religions try to recruit believers. . . But why would atheists turn messianic? And why would they play off one religion against another? Harris, for example, biliously goes after the “low hanging fruit” of Islam, singling it out as the great enemy of the West. Throw in a few pictures of burqas, mention infibulation, and who will argue with your revulsion of religion? I am as sickened as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? [JAC: Maybe because some religions are more harmful than others? And Harris hardly leaves other religions alone! Remember the title of his second book: Letter to a Christian Nation?] Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to findf valleys in the moral landscape.”
Note the inflammatory language (“biliously,” “low hanging fruit”) as well as the willfully ignorant claim that all religious harms are equal. If you had the choice to be a Muslim male circumcised at birth or a Muslim female subject to genital mutilation, is it six of one, half-dozen of the other? If you think so, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Is Islam no worse than Quakerism? Give me a break. Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit is the most poisonous fruit, as it was in the Garden of Eden. It is this painting (or rather tarring) atheism with a broad brush, this deliberate mischaracterization of its “militant” opponents, and the deliberate avoidance of New Atheist arguments, that makes de Waal seem less of a scientist and more of a sophist.
But the chimp stories are good, and de Waal’s speculations about the source of morality are worth pondering.