Taking Morality for Granted // The Bonobo and the Atheist

Humans have this strange, special ability to look at an action and immediately, instinctively categorise it as selfish or altruistic. A selfish action benefits you and disregards others, and an altruistic one costs you something, but is done for someone else – you get no benefit out of it. We all sometimes do nice things for others, altruistic things that cost us time, energy, and sometimes considerable effort. But don’t we benefit from doing these things – don’t they make us feel good, see ourselves as a good people, and because of this, do they really feel like they cost us that much? Doesn’t that mean these actions are actually selfish? 

The Bonobo and the Atheist is a fascinating take on morality and altruism, and provides a basis for morality that gracefully bypasses these traps of reason. Frans de Waal explores these concepts through anecdotes of how bonobos and chimpanzees make empathic decisions and enforce social rules in their groups. We share a common ancestor and close to 99% of our DNA with both these species, and have temperaments and ways of organising our societies that are both strikingly similar and quite different. 

Although we are commonly sold a simplistic picture of chimpanzees as murderous and violent, and bonobos as docile and loving, both these species are capable of both classes of actions, just as humans are. Both bonobos and chimpanzees seem to exhibit a kind of proto-morality, surprisingly similar to ours in some ways, that makes distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. They exhibit ‘good’ behaviour without provocation or incentives, behaviour like caring for their old, convincing group members to reconcile after a fight, and sharing food with those lower in rank. They also recognise ‘bad’ behaviour like rank transgression, and punish it harshly by ostracising offending members, or acts of extremely brutal violence.

It seems like our morality has a lot in common with these tendencies, and likely evolved from them. Our capacity for cruelty is clear, history is littered with war, rape, murder, and genocide, but it seems like we had instincts for altruism too. Fossil evidence of early humans suggests they cared for weak, handicapped and incapable members of their tribes well before the earliest religions were established. De Waal argues that our capacity for goodness is more innate than we are led to believe, and that our sense of right and wrong is actually biologically fundamental, predating the ability to consciously reason and the earliest religions.

Our ability to get along in large groups, just like the primates, requires some moral framework to keep things going smoothly, so this must have developed long before any of the ideas and stories we built around it. Our conception of a higher being who is always watching also seems like a remnant of our primate ancestry – the threat of consequences from someone higher up, whether that’s the alpha primate in the hierarchy or a deity, can be a powerful deterrent for certain behaviors. There’s an easy elegance to this idea, that religious and scientific approaches to morality are built around our naturally evolved instincts for it.

Another interesting aspect of the book is de Waal’s particular flavour of atheism. He identifies as an atheist, but unlike most atheists (or at least most vocal ones), his lack of belief is not in opposition to religion. He has a measured respect for religious belief and its role in shaping humanity. In recent history, science has been taken wildly out of context, used to make questionable claims and justify atrocities in much the same way that religion has. In his view, both have their place. The two frameworks deal with different problems, and it is unnecessary to compare and contest them, because “the enemy of science is not religion… The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection and curiosity with dogma”. De Waal’s perspective reminds us to stick to using science to describe what is, and, to paraphrase the philosopher David Hume, refrain from using what is to make claims about what ought to be.

Frans de Waal illuminates morality from a unique, optimistic, and surprisingly simple perspective. What we consider ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a broad sense is deeply embedded in our evolutionary history, and has enabled us to collaborate on impressive scales to shape the world into what it is.  We are much more likely to be altruistic if it feels good to us, and the threat of bad consequences can be a powerful deterrent to harmful selfish behaviour. Although it doesn’t propose what morality should look like (and perhaps no book can), The Bonobo and the Atheist is a compelling nod to the idea that morality isn’t built on reason, but flows organically out of our evolutionary past. It puts less pressure on us to try to reinvent the wheel, and we can be in a better position to understand why we do what we do.

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