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The Bonobo and the Atheist

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Posted on Jun 20, 2014

Photo by W.W. Norton & Company

By Alexis Camins

To see long excerpts from “The Bonobo and the Atheist” at Google Books, click here.

“The Bonobo and the Atheist”
A book by Frans de Waal

Ken Ham, head of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., went toe to toe with Bill Nye the Science Guy at a creation versus evolution debate in February. Yup, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, this is still in debate.

Though he needed no help, the Science Guy might have had an even more convincing victory had he consulted Frans de Waal and his book “The Bonobo and the Atheist.” De Waal’s novel approach would have stunned Ham into silence (or so one would hope): The author posits that religion is actually an evolutionary trait human beings have acquired as necessary for survival. It’s the ultimate atheist backhanded compliment: Yes, religion is great, so great that we humans acquired it through the natural process of evolution.

Score one for the atheists.

In his engaging, often humorous “The Bonobo and the Atheist,” de Waal argues that religion spawned from a biologically innate need for fairness. Rather than the top-down morality of religion, which may have begun as human populations grew in size and required a more all-present authority to maintain order within society, de Waal proposes that religion stemmed from a bottom-up morality, innate in all social animals: an instinct for fairness, order and even for altruism and forgiveness. It is this morality that created religion, not the other way around.

De Waal uses a painting by Hieronymus Bosch as a jumping off point. Dutch like de Waal, Bosch painted during the Middle Ages and is most famous for his triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In his painting, according to de Waal, Bosch is speaking less about the dominant religion of his time, and more about the very seed of religion itself. Hidden behind the surreal and fantastical images of earth, heaven and hell is a version of the world that points to a deeper morality and of a human being with a basic sense of right and wrong, beyond religious edicts. 

De Waal does an admirable job playing art historian, going back to the painting at various points in his book, as the artistic expression of his ideas on morality. His view of the painting and the many critical writings relating to it provide some very vivid color commentary. But using Bosch’s work as a lens is unnecessary, because de Waal’s argument is captivating all on its own.

After playing down the debate between atheists and creationists, he introduces his Exhibit A: the bonobo. Most of us have heard of our closest ape cousin and its strangely human sexual proclivities: promiscuity, homosexual partnering and masturbation. But de Waal insists that “the more one watches bonobos, the more sex begins to look like checking your email, blowing your nose or saying hello. A routine activity. We use our hands in greetings . . . while bonobos engage in ‘genital handshakes.’ . . . We associated intercourse with reproduction and desire, but in the bonobo it fulfills all sorts of needs.” 

Sexual behavior is not the only thing we humans have in common with bonobos. De Waal points to a special neuron in the brain called a spindle cell, “thought to be involved in self-awareness, empathy, sense of humor, self-control,” that was initially known only in humans. This neuron was only recently discovered in the brains of apes, including bonobos. In a subsequent study comparing the brains of chimpanzees and bonobos, it was found that regions in the brain “involved in the perception of another’s distress, such as the amygdala and anterior insula, are enlarged in the bonobo. Its brain also contains well-developed pathways to control aggressive impulses.” The findings “suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.”

Ironically, bonobos’ sexual openness provides a key to their moral sense. To the bonobo, sex is religion.

De Waal then provides some vivid illustrations of whales, elephants and of course, chimpanzees, as proof that highly social animals know the difference between right and wrong, at least in terms of the code of their social group. Contrary to our idea of wild animals, unable to control their basest impulses, these creatures actually inhibit certain behaviors, knowing how violators are punished if they don’t. It’s this expectation of punishment and reward, and the inhibition of behavior, that de Waal argues is the basis of morality. 

One of the many eye-opening examples de Waal provides involves a group of 15 chimpanzees at the Tama Zoo in Tokyo. A caretaker would often throw macadamia nuts to the chimps from a rooftop. Macadamia nuts were one of the few nuts that female chimps could not crack with their teeth, and this group of chimpanzees had no males. The female chimps proceeded to collect all the nuts they could, and sat at different parts of the enclosure, all oriented toward the “cracking rock.” Then, de Waal recalls:

“One chimp walked up to the station . . . placed the nut on the rock, lifted a metal block and hammered until the nut gave up its kernel. . . . Having finished her pile, she then made room for the next chimp, who placed her nuts by her feet and started the same procedure.”


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