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THE BONOBO AND THE ATHEIST by Frans de Waal

THE BONOBO AND THE ATHEIST

In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

By Frans de Waal

Pub Date: March 25th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-07377-5
Publisher: Norton

Is morality a learned aspect of human nature, or is it innate? Are thinking and acting morally behaviors exclusive to humans?

Drawing from decades of fieldwork and research, influential primatologist de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, etc.) explores the roots of empathy and altruism, concluding that neither religion (despite its historical influence) nor law (despite its ideological heft) is the root cause of the human inclination to act morally. Instead, the author argues, biology is responsible for our instinctual understanding of right and wrong. Weaving together poignant anecdotes of his work with bonobos, a great ape that was long overlooked as a close genetic relative of humans, and philosophical discussions on morality through the lens of religious history, the author makes a cogent argument that moral instinct must precede current civilizations and religions "by at least a hundred millennia.” Examples abound of behavior by animals—not just bonobos, but also elephants, chimpanzees and mice—displaying social emotions like gratitude, facial recognition, an awareness of the permanence of death and a willingness to help each other even at personal detriment. De Waal also presents research that indicates a social culture marked by matriarchal hierarchies and sexual freedom, as well as a largely peaceful and conflict-avoiding ethos. This may suggest something altogether different about human participation in the evolution of religion and law than a thesis citing those entities as responsible for providing mankind with a moral center. The author avoids belaboring any one aspect of morality's applications, however, and instead provides an intimate and joyful series of proofs that the "ingredients of a moral society…come from within."

A well-composed argument for the biological foundations of human morality.