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If Apes Could Talk to Atheists: How Religious Life Has More to Do With Animal Instinct Than You'd Think

Frans De Waal's new book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates" hits some hot button issues.

Photo Credit: W.W. Norton , 2013


The following is a review of The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans De Waal. (W.W. Norton , 2013)

For centuries, a dominant majority of western philosophers and intellectuals have asserted that humans are the “rational animal.” Our ability to reason, so the logic goes, is the one thing separating us from the plethora of other animals on the planet. Instinct, passion, and emotion, traditionally assigned to the animal side of life, often meant that being “good”—being the sort of human who behaves morally—required a removal of the animal or “beastly” nature that resides somewhere deep within our fleshy bodies.

In recent decades, however, this fragile logic has been falling apart. It’s become increasingly clear that while our digital technologies behave quite rationally, they are often deeply cruel. And on the other side of the ledger, the accumulation of data on animal behavior makes it more and more difficult to support the claim that “goodness” is something that only humans exhibit.

Primatologists, who study our evolutionary kin, have been in the vanguard of researchers and thinkers to upset the territorial boundaries that demarcate a spotlessly pure sort of human life. Jane Goodall’s fieldwork in chimpanzee communities allowed her to witness things like a young male chimp doing a rhythmic dance in front of a waterfall. It appeared, to Goodall, reverent and seemingly purposeless. She’s speculated that this might be evidence of something like ritualistic religion in the lives of other primates.

Public debates about religion in the contemporary U.S. are still rooted in debates about belief. Prominent public atheists like Richard Dawkins speak about religion as though it’s something we need to understand rationally. How would these public debates change if we were to start thinking about the animal edges of religious life—the ways in which religious life has more to do with so-called animal instinct than we’ve often imagined? This is, precisely, where primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book  The Bonobo and the Atheist (W.W. Norton, 2013) appears to be intervening into these hot-button conflicts.

People like Dawkins, says de Waal, are going about things in the wrong manner. “The question is not so much whether religion is true or false,” he writes, “but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place if we were to get rid of it the way an Aztec priest rips the beating heart out of a virgin.” What this violent metaphor is meant to gesture towards is “the gaping hole” that would be left by “the removed organ’s functions.” It seems to suggest that religion is some serviceable physiological element in the human body politic.

But de Waal isn’t really trying to “save” religion from atheists like Dawkins; there’s much about religion that de Waal finds troubling and problematic. The big targets for de Waal are what he calls “top down morality” and human exceptionalism. Top down morality is linked to the assertion that morality comes to human life from somewhere “on high,” which might be taken to mean that human life receives its morality from a transcendent, out-of-this-world, divine.

But de Waal notes that top down morality isn’t a purely religious problem. He attacks, for example, the philosophical presumption mentioned earlier, that morality is a matter of reasoning—that we reason our way “up” to moral action or decision. Likewise, de Waal takes issue with human exceptionalism—the idea that morality is something that only humans are capable of—regardless of its origin. Religion is a target, for de Waal, to the extent that it supports each of these presumptions.