Frans de Waal – The Bonobo and the Atheist

April 01, 2013

You hear it a lot from religious believers: Faith is about doing good works, bringing about good in the world, and showing compassion.

In fact, some go further and argue that you can’t really be moral without religion.

Well, says primatologist Frans de Waal, they really ought to take a look at our close cousin the bonobo—in his new book The Bonobo and the Atheist.

For that matter, De Waal continues, those defending a faith-only version of morality ought to look at any number of moral, empathetic behaviors throughout the animal kingdom, in species ranging from dogs to elephants.

De Waal’s conclusions from all of this, for atheists, though, are controversial. He wants a more secular morality, but also thinks you can’t just wipe religion away, because it is too closely wrapped up with our evolved morality and our group allegiances.

So we wanted to interview De Waal about the latest science on morality—and about what it means for those who want the world to try running a more secular operating system.

Frans de Waal is a celebrated primatologist who directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and is the C.W. Candler professor of psychology at Emory University. He has written widely about our primate relatives, in books that include Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape and The Age of Empathy.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, April 1st, 2013, on this week’s show, we talked to primatologist France The Wall. About his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. We cover a lot of ground from morality to primates to religion. And we ask a big question, is morality uniquely human? 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, the think tank Advancing Reason, Science and Secular Values in public affairs and at the grassroots. If you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and also on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. 

You hear it a lot from religious believers. Faith, they say, is all about doing good works, bringing about good in the world. 

Showing compassion. In fact, many go farther and argue that you can’t really be moral without religion. Well, they really ought to take a close look at our close cousin, the bonobo, or so says primatologist runs the wall in his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. For that matter, the wall continues. Those defending a faith only version of morality ought to look at any number of moral, empathetic behaviors throughout the animal kingdom. In species ranging from dogs to elephants. Yeah, that’s right. Morality evolve probably to facilitate child rearing and bind animals social groups together. The walls conclusions from all this for atheists are controversial. He wants a more secular morality, but he also thinks you can’t just wipe religion away because it is too closely wrapped up, he says, with our evolved moral emotions and our group allegiances. So we wanted to interview the Wall about the latest science on morality and about what it means for those who want the world to try out a more secular operating system. France the while. Welcome to a point of inquiry. 

I’m happy to be there. 

It’s it’s great to have you. So, you know, we want to talk about your new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist Destry, which is a great title. 

And you make the point in the book repeatedly. Humans are not the only species to show compassionate moral behaviors. You pretty much say evolution gave us morality. I think that there’s so many examples in the book. Is there any that you think really bring this out in the you know, in chimpanzees or bonobos? 

Well, I discuss the origins of empathy, which I think is mammalian. So basically, it’s not even limited to chimpanzees. And moreover, all the mammals are sensitive to the emotions of others. The reason we have dogs and cats in our homes is because we like that in mammals, that they are sensitive to our emotions and we are sensitive to theirs. 

And I discuss the sense of fairness and sense of justice for which we have now increasingly sanes in the great apes and in monkeys, and which means that the two pillars of morality, which are usually the sense of justice and compassion, so to speak, and that we find signs of those and other animals, which means that morality, poverty is much older than our species. 

Why have you talk a lot in the book? 

You say that evolutionary thinkers in the past have not been open to this and they’ve had a very bleak view of the relationship between morality in nature or evolution. Why did they feel that way and why is there been such a turnaround? 

Well, I think we’ve had a period in the previous centuries of scientists proclaiming that biology could not produce morality, that evolution could not, as that evolution is all preoccupied with competition and selfish tendencies. And they have forgotten that Darwin himself saw the continuity’s. Darwin is very much in agreement that evolution could produce morality and that animals show at least signs of it. But that was forgotten, and I don’t know why that was forgotten. Partly it is a sort of religious impulse because, of course, our current religions, they tell us that we are born bad and that we worked very hard. We can be good. And so that was sort of reflected in these viewpoints, even though they were not necessarily presented this religious. And I think in the year 2000, everything changed. Around two years, 2000, the anthropologists started playing the ultimatum game all over the world, which tests fairness, and they found it in all populations. The neuroscientists were saying that we feel good when we do positive things for others. The economist said we were more co-operative than they had ever imagined. And primatologists such as myself, we started saying that, that you can see certain moral tendencies in other animals. And so I think the last 10 years, the picture has completely changed. And we’re now all sorts of sort of on the same line, which is the line that Darwin had, which is that evolution can produce something like morality and that it ends up being a blur. 

I mean, between us and other species, it’s sort of it’s lots of great ations, as Darwin described that rather than any firm difference. Raymond, chimpanzees, you say they have impulse control. 

They can hold off from doing something that they might, you know, be compelled to do. They can control immediate gratification. 

Yeah, they actually test it as Mr. Delayed Gratification task that we use for children. 

You know, you can give the child a marshmallow and you walk out of the room and you see if you hold on to this marshmallow, you will get a second one. And so you come back in a minute later, some children will have eaten the marshmallow. But many children will have left it alone. It’s a very, very torn between doing that and eating it. And the same sort of thing has been done in its service primates. And so, for example, experiments with, among other things, in chimpanzees where they drop a candy into a container every 30 seconds. And so the container gets fuller and fuller. And it’s it’s dropped. The day will get if they don’t touch the container. And so if the apes are capable of holding off for almost 20 minutes. So for 20 minutes, they have these candies dropping in and then they take the container because if they do it earlier, they will have far fewer. And so impulse control, which is now being tested systematically, is not limited to our species. And it’s often mentioned as a key feature of our moral sense that we can control our emotions. 

And then there’s empathy. And you you talk a lot about bonobos. I understand from the book we’re about as closely related to them as chimps. 

And they really I mean, they’re sort of these left wing hippie apes. I mean, that’s not a myth. It seems to be who they are. 

And they’re so bonobos exactly as close to us as chimpanzees, and they’re often forgotten. In that period in which there’s so much this emphasis on selfishness and competition and warfare and all of this, the chimpanzee was sort of the ideal example because a chimpanzee is very dominant. I am an aggressive and they kill each other sometimes in the fields and so on. And no one knew what to do as the bonobo there was sort of marginalized in some that discussion, because even though people knew about the bonobo and exactly equally close to us as the chimpanzee, they are female dominated. There are far more peaceful. There’s never a report. There’s never been a report of one bonobo killing another bonobo. They are much more sensitive. They resolve their conflicts with sex. And so the anthropologist really didn’t know what to do with them. They were all into humans. Came this far because we killed everyone else, including the Neanderthals and so on. And so they were not ready for the Bonneau voicing. 

I wanna remind our listeners that France, the Walls new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist in Search of Humanism among the Primates, is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot org. Now, related to you know, this theme is also the idea of morality is being emotional. 

In other words, it’s rooted in evolved emotions that we’re not even fully in control of. It’s not something that’s primarily cognitive. Is that what you’re saying? Yeah. 

And there’s been this tendency of sort of making something cognitive out of morality in the sense that the first philosophers have been very much involved in that. This is seeing that we reason ourselves to ask moral pince principles and then we apply them. I called it all top down views of morality in the sense that the underlying assumption is that that the average human doesn’t know how to behave and someone needs to tell them. And so the philosophers will tell us what the moral principles are that we should follow. Of course, before the philosophers, we had the religious leaders doing the same thing because God would tell them what we should be doing. 

And all these views, they are Top-Down views of morality, whereas I am part of a wave of new studies, including neuroscience studies, that has a much more Bottom-Up future where we say, well, we have all these impulses and tendencies, some of them good, some of them bad. And we saw through them. And yes, there is some cognition involved, especially when we tried to formulate it into basic principles. But most of the time, already in young children and in animals, you can see that the death penalty sentences have to be weighed against each other and they are doing that. And so that’s much more a bottom up sort of emotional view that also goes back into philosophy. Goes back to David Hume, basically, who already advocated that view. 

We also had on this show someone who whose work I know you know, Jonathan Height about a year ago. He’s in he’s very, very consistent with what you’re saying. But he does say that, you know, when he talks about morality and he talks about it has evolved to he’s got these other moral emotions or moral senses that we wouldn’t call that, quote, moral, such as respect for authority, loyalty to your ingroup versus your outgroup, emotions of disgust. 

I mean, you know, the evolved morality has aspects to it that some people would say on. That’s unnecessarily such a good thing. 

No loyalty to their friends. That’s a very interesting one. And I addressed that a little bit in my book. And I agree he also is hated because he he has very strongly argued that we tend to think when we make moral judgments that they are rationally made. And that’s because post hoc, that’s what we do postdoc. We’re very good in making some justification for our behavior. But the way we generate our behavior is probably largely emotional and then later on becomes the reasons. And so loyalty is such an interesting one because we don’t always associate that necessarily. This is moral decisions, especially if let’s say if I favor my sister giving her a job, for example, we would not necessarily consider her very moral decision that I’m making. But loyalty is very important and it’s recognized in our moral systems. For example, I am the father of a child and I don’t provide child support. We don’t consider that particularly moral. Or if I don’t, for example, my parents live next door and they need me. And I say, well, you have to fend for yourself. We don’t consider that a particularly moral position that I take. And so you do take loyalty into account and we value loyalty highly. And that’s, of course, in direct conflict with people like Utilitarians who who have no loyalty in their system because it’s a caring issue, is that you need to create happiness for as many people as possible. And so if I create happiness for a child that is not mine, that is equally valid as happiness if my own self. And so the Utilitarians, they don’t recognized loyalty but hate. This isn’t right. It’s part of our biological heritage. And it needs to be part of our moral systems, I think. 

So given that there is this continuity between, let’s say, human morality and morality and our close cousins and then all the way through. You talk about all you talk about elephants. What does Marcus apart? What really is unique to us then? 

Yes, I do. The reason I don’t call necessarily chimpanzees moral beings is because they don’t try to arrive at objectification of the system, so to speak. So. So they’re worried about how the how the rules in the society applies to them, maybe to their best friends and their relatives, but they’re not interested in as a sort of third party, seeing something going on between other chimps and then having a moral opinion about it like we humans do all the time. We feel that the rules that apply to us need to apply to everyone in society equally, even even our enemies. 

We are now including we have the Geneva Convention, which gave rights to our enemies. Well, that’s a big step. I don’t think chimps are ready for that. That to give rights to their enemies. And so there are these objects, implications of rules that are going on in our species, which require a lot of brainpower, which we have. 

And that makes for quite a different system. 

So, you know, there’s also a lot of talk about religion in the book and talk about Athie ism, including new Athie ism, and, you know, a lot of people, as in this show, know about the debate over new eighth years and versus, you know, what some call accommodationist Athie ism. I mean, my, my, my. 

What I didn’t understand about the book is how is it that, you know, understanding that morality is evolved, digging a Darwinian approach to it, essentially. I mean, why does that lead you to be critical of atheists? Because you might you might think these are the people who are most likely to agree with you. I mean, they love evolution. They love science. I mean, I think they’re going to be very open, though, what you’re saying. So why is it that you find the need to be so critical of them? 

Well, I’m not critical of 80 years in general. I’m not a believer myself. And so I fully understand that people say that they don’t want to believe. I also fully understand that people say they want to believe. And I’m open to all of that. But it’s the new ideas that have sort of drowned out the debate by being so vocal against religion and seeing how bad religion is in all regard. And so as a result, we now have this these two camps, the sort of polarization between religious people and the new atheists, which don’t leave a lot of room to explore other options because atheists are really doesn’t offer many options. Ageism is basically denying the existence of God. And that’s not sufficient to know how you should lead your life or what a moral life is. So the existentialist questions that we have still exactly remain the same. You’re just saying I’m not going to solve them, this religion. So you have to solve them in some other way? I suppose so. So I needed to make some room in the book to discuss the origins of morality. And I do that by pushing religion a little bit aside and say, well, I don’t think religion is the source of morality. And by pushing the neo atheists to say, does it stop shouting and and start listening to what is possible in a human society? And maybe one of the solutions will be secular humanism. Well, actually, that’s probably the one I’m most in favor of. But. And the new atheist position is absolutely not helpful, I think. 

Well, let’s say sober. There’s little more you do. I mean, one could read your book as being very, very favorable to what a lot of atheists or secular people believe in, because you’re definitely you definitely taking religion as taking morality away from religion. You say it’s been there much longer and they they aren’t the primary source of it. So does that mean that you can build a secular morality because you’re also afraid of of tearing religion away too fast? 

Yeah, and the experience in our modern societies was removing religion has have not been good, you know. 

So the communists tried to do that. Stalin. Stalin put thousands of priests and bishops against the wall and shot them. And so he tried to create a society without religion. And others have tried that. And that particular experience has not been good. I must say, that doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that it cannot be done. But it may need to be done more gradually rather than this sort of oppressive transition that people tried to have. And I’m I’m hopeful that we can build a morality that is not based in religion. Maybe share some values with some religions, but it’s not necessarily dictated by religion. And so I’m optimistic that it can be done at the moment, of course, in northern Europe. I am from the Netherlands and just back from the Netherlands in northern Europe. We are trying to do that. And so I sort of struck by when I was in the Netherlands doing a tour for this particular book that no one even mentions religion in 80 years. And I think it’s such a money issue in my country, my home country, that people basically don’t see that as a topic of discussion. 

Whereas in the U.S., of course, it remains a very big topic of discussion. 

Well, you so you define yourself as an atheist and you do think that we can no, no, I’m I’m not finished because ageism has now come to stand for being fairly strongly opposed to religion, which is really not what I am. 

I’m I’m preferred call it the read to a nonbeliever or erm test, meaning that the agnostic doesn’t know if God exists. Atheists denies the existence of God and I basically don’t care. I don’t think it is an important or interesting problem to discuss God. And as a scientist I absolutely don’t know what to do as the God question because it will never be resolved, certainly not by science. 

OK, fair enough. And I understand. But I mean you do want to sort of you do say that a secular morality would be good and that religion is not the source of morality. So, I mean, what role then do you think that religion is playing? 

If you’re worried about moving too quickly, I mean, you seem to be saying that there is some kind of evolutionary reason we have religion, that it’s doing something. 

Yeah. So are all human societies believe in supernatural powers? There are really no exceptions to it. And not all of them have moralizing religions or moralizing gods. But certainly they all believe in supernatural powers. And so that’s a puzzle that we face. And as a biologist, you would think that there’s probably something good about it, because we usually assume that if something is widespread in the species, it provides some benefits. And then the question for our societies is why do we have moralizing religions and are actually people who study the effect of religion and behavior? And the thinking there is generally that for very large societies of the scale that we have with thousands of people and millions of people, you cannot operate by the simple principles that, for example, primates operate by where everyone knows everyone and keeps an eye on everyone. And so you punish bad behavior because you see bad behavior happening. That’s not something that in these large societies is possible. And that’s maybe why we installed a moralizing God who keeps an eye on everybody. So let’s just thinking is that to keep a high level of cooperation going in large societies. You mean needs religion the way we have it? And it doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that this cannot be done without religion, with maybe removing religion properly. 

It’s not a good thing to do is in other words, it’s it’s shared beliefs are providing a social cohesion role. Yeah. 

Social cohesion and also a watchful eye in the sky. And that’s why so many religions maybe depict God as an eye in the sky. And so that’s actually the experiment. If you if you glued two eyes to the wall for people who have to donate money, they give more money because there’s two eyes glued to the wall, pictures of two eyes. And people are affected by these things. 

So in other words, this is sort of the Durkheim view. Religion is is not just about the content of the beliefs. It’s about, you know, all the trappings that make you follow rituals and hang out with your community. 

And those rituals, of course, and and the belonging part, those are also primate characteristics in the sense of primates like to belong to a group. 

If they don’t belong to a group, they’re really in deep trouble because they cannot survive on their own. So. So belonging to a group and being part of it and having collective rituals and bonding rituals, that’s all part. They don’t have religion the way we have. 

But then the bonding part, of course, is very much present in the planets. 

What’s the scientific status of this idea that religion might exist for a reason or a reason? 

You know, I think Richard Dawkins says, you know, theory of memetics, that would suggest that it’s it’s not for a good reason and efforts. Steven Pinker lecture where he was saying that it’s an evolution. It might be an evolutionary Spandau. In other words, some things that you find in the world are not there because they served a survival purpose. They’re just there because of more of an accidental reason. 

Yeah, I’m not sure. Spaniel’s come from Stefan J. Gold. And it’s not a particularly supported the idea in evolutionary biology. 

I might have gotten it wrong, but he was kind of saying that you have things in evolution that directly advance survival. Right. But then you have things that might happen because of other things that directly advance survival that sort of emerge but are not directly enthusing. Religion could be one of those things. 

Yeah. And those are basically non explanations, you know, like them. People sometimes say we have such big brains that all sorts of things happen, including, I don’t know, language or whatever the characteristic is that you talk about. But those are not really explanations of why things are there. Does that sort of arm waving stuff? And I think for religion, we are on our way to to building theories about it. Have. Social cohesion and levels of cooperation. And so if you read, for example, David Sloan, Wilson or Ramsey, I am the psychologist. You can see it has a book coming out actually soon on that. You can see series forming now gradually of what religion may be good for in society. And again, I’m saying that without saying that we that means we need religion. I’m not convinced of that, that we should be very careful. And actually everyone who thinks about it deeply. For example, Freud, Freud had a whole booklet on why religion is bad and low, believing in God is nonsense and so on. And then A.A. said. But I don’t know what happens if we remove it, because maybe we will then have a system that resembles religion. And this may be worse than religion because people have a tendency to follow leaders and to follow rituals and so on. 

And we may fallen in that trapping maybe. 


So given all of your your research and how much you’ve learned about what morality actually is and how it ties us to other species, I mean, if you wanted to supplant religion, how would you have to do it? There should. There maybe there’s some prescriptive advice here for actual secular morality and community building. 

That’s exactly that’s the sort of topic that I discussed a few times when I was in the Netherlands, where it was people were he said, well, if you if you want to build a moral society without religion, what is it that you need? And I think most of the people felt that you need a thoughtful discussion. There’s all parties and consensus building and maybe you need some leaders. There will not be religious leaders, but some moral leadership in a nation like that where you discuss what what sort of society do you want to build and what sort of society do you want to live in? And is it possible for us to build that? And so it will require an enormous amount of talking and consensus building that maybe in the old days was done by religion who would basically impose its will on the public. And now it will have to be done by the public itself with community building is very much part of that, is that you need to feel part of a community and have a stake in that community, and then you’re willing to sacrifice certain privileges for them for the larger hole, which is really what moral systems always asked you to do. 

I feel like the secular community, at least as I know it, has always tried to build community. Right. There’s a word, but it’s often struggled to do so in the way that religions seem to do. 

Do you think that religions have it easy in that regard? Because when people subscribe to a religion and enter it, they start following orders to some degree, you know, people will tell them what to do. And that’s, of course, not in the secular society. That’s not what you want to happen. So it’s a it’s a more difficult process. But I don’t think it’s an impossible process. And so I’m optimistic on that. And I think my studies on the primates and other animals, what they show is that we have all the right tendencies in place and all the capacities for picking up fairness and and being interested in others. We have all these capacities in place so we don’t need to invent them or encourage them necessarily. They are already there. We just need to guide them in the right direction. 

Just one more question here. You talk again, you talk about all these moments of let’s call it morality in let’s say bonobo’s, I mean, I’m thinking about a moment where, you know, if I remember right, one bonobo hurts somebody, bites somebody, and then it feels feels really bad about it. 

In other words, as says guilt or remorse there. 

Yeah. But others are very sensitive to others, including the victims of their aggression. And so did the case that I described is actually was a human error, but never did enough to finger of a human centered veterinarian and felt it was extremely subdued in the presence of that individual after that has happened and which gave the impression that he regretted what he had done. And I think that’s something that actually also among bonobos, it’s not unusual. Among the numbers is that the one who beat somebody else rushes over to lick the injury for half an hour. Collegiately is showing that he he didn’t mean to do it or something like that. So these bonobos often have that impression is that they are very sensitive to each other’s. And so they have these complex emotions maybe which are very hard to measure for us. 

And so it’s it’s more speculative than that. They have hard evidence for that. 

Well, sir, then here’s my question is, if people more widely knew, I mean, maybe you need to see in the way you’ve seen it, if people in more widely seen are close relatives showing behaviors that are so obviously moral. I mean, how would that change us? Or, you know, what do you think you would have an effect? 

I think I think it has to have an effect in the sense that instead of looking at morality as something we invented or something we reason ourselves towards, as people have been doing for centuries. We need to look at it is built on very basic tendencies that our presence, some from the beginning of our species that you can also recognize. For example, in young children, there are no experiments or babies less than a year old showing that they have moral judgments and that they have preferences for partners who cooperate versus partners who don’t cooperate and so on. And so the tendencies we’re talking about are extremely basic. And so I think our view of morality has to shift instead of looking at morality as a triumph of a nature, which is how it was depicted by biologists who would say morality is something that we culturally introduced to keep our nature under control. Now we have a totally different view, and I think that’s also hate. Jonathan Hates is very much part of the same picture. We have this view of morality being continuous with human nature, basically. 

Well, I think it’s fascinating and important. 

And I guess, you know, I’ll just conclude the interview by saying, you know, thank you for the work that you’re doing. And I really enjoyed reading the book. And I think the stories of the animals being moral are really touching. So thank you for sharing. Great to have you. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org and leave your comments. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org by email. And you can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

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Chris Mooney