The Bonobo and the Atheist: Book Review

Category: Book reviews

Book Review

The book "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates" (2013) by Frans de Waal is an important work that investigates human morality, its origin, and principles. Throughout history politicians, philosophers, and priests had discussed this subject. The understanding of evolution has given an opportunity for the subjective study of people's moral behavior. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates focuses on human genetic relatives and their behavior, which helps to realize from where people's morality originate as well as to understand the correlation of one's primal and modern self.

Philosophers have differed from one another in opinion about the human nature. Concerning religion, it has penetrated into society. Moreover, some people often contend that only religion prevents modern society from sinking into the world of violence. Throughout human history people considered themselves to be unique compared to other species due to self-awareness, consciousness, and empathy.

In the book by Frans de Waal, the prominent primatologist studies behavior of apes (bonobos and chimpanzees). He searches for precursors to human ethical life in these two species, which the majority of people perceive to be highly social and which share approximately 99 percent of human DNA. The author stresses the evidence from the primates' life, proving that morality lies deep within the character of humans. De Waal writes that morality has developed from social instincts. In fact, the author of the book does not make rigorous arguments but describes how bonobos and chimpanzees display empathy in different forms. Reading the book, one can observe various examples of altruism and various ways of conflict resolution within the group. Moreover, behavioral experiments held by de Waal and his colleagues have shown that the apes willingly help strangers, for example by opening a heavy door that gives access to food, even though they do not gain anything from this. The reader gets a sense of how "peacekeepers" these species are. One can even say how "apelike" people are in their social laws and moral norms.

The author investigates a long evolutionary process that defines human ideas of justice and intercommunication. He also considers that rash adaptation of social Darwinism to questions of coordination among people does not make sense. There is a rather controversial point of view that competition is the motive force for social cooperation; it results in people's need for the social contract in order to restrain true human nature. De Waal finds it quite disputable because having observed human genetic relatives he concludes that their behavior does not follow the above-mentioned statement.

On the one hand, observation has shown that both bonobos and chimpanzees are not free from conflicts. On the other hand, the book reveals that human ape relatives regularly demonstrate reconciliation behavior that includes various ritualized rapprochement gestures and bouts of grooming. Moreover, the groupings of both species have so-called "peace keepers", who voluntarily try to calm any crisis and to mediate disputes. De Waal notes that empathy is the public concern since it is a common feature of human primate heritage. The author is skeptical of the statement that science may determine the cornerstones of human moral laws. Moreover, he criticizes New Atheists who consider that science can explain morality. Thus, he suggests that atheists follow the bonobo way, which supposes respectful and tolerant coexistence.

Having studied animal behavior de Waal came to the conclusion that morality is something inherent in social animals, including apes, elephants, and humans (so-called "bottom-up morality"), unlike the existing theory of "top-down morality", according to which, humans must be taught such things as cooperation and justice. In addition, de Waal concludes that these things are part of evolutionary necessity for animals that live in social groups.

Supporting this theory, the author gives examples of how different animals cooperate in order to obtain a treat. For instance, the reader learns about elephants who work together pulling two ends of a rope to get some food. Consequently, due to cooperation, they finally manage to get the reward. The other experiment shows sciences who gave two apes a box containing a treat. However, only one chimpanzee is able to access the box and the other ape has the tool that opens it. In such a way, it is possible to open the box only if the second chimpanzee passes the tool to the first one. Thus, if apes had only selfish motivations, the first animal would keep all the food for itself since the second ape is not able to access the treat. However, the first chimpanzee shares the food with the second ape.

The book also touches the urgent problem of reconciliation of science and religion. De Waal does not believe that science is able to replace religion because these two systems have different purposes. The book reminds that people's behavior is unexplored. Moreover, its similarity to human primate relatives can tell where people's morality comes from.

As a matter of fact, it has become extremely difficult to view religion as a source of morality because the Catholic Church is constantly involved into scandals (i.e. shielding sexual predators or collaboration in Argentina's "Dirty War"). However, de Waal defines the root of the problem, which is determined rather by dogmatism than religion. As a rule, being dogmatically atheist similarly to being dogmatically religious is not helpful because it usually leads to protests and crusades. However, the book does not preach about what is right or wrong.

In summary, the book appears to be of great importance since the research held by the author is significant to the understanding of human nature. The essential point of the book is that people have developed the morality that has evolved over time, conforming to specific needs and desires of a definite environment. Therefore, such traits as taking care of each other and helping other people are results of evolution.


De Waal, F. (2013). The Bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates (1st

ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.