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The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review

Today I’m reviewing the amazing book The Bonobo and the Atheist by Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal. The author takes a soft, humanist approach to atheism and morality, focusing on the study of human and ape (and even mammalian) nature and focusing more on the similarities between us and other animals than on the differences.

This book crushes human exceptionalism and argues that complex human morality, just like our limbs and body parts, comes from earlier, simpler forms. In other words, the book treats morality as the product of natural selection and as a strictly natural phenomenon.

The Question of “Selfish Genes”

The book defines and cites examples of both altruism and reciprocity, both of which are seen in nature and evolved among animals. It is perhaps unfair to limit morality to altruism and reciprocity (or as interpersonal ethics expressed in terms of help / harm), but as we must begin somewhere and as the book is premised on the idea that morality, being a natural phenomenon, evolved from simpler and more rudimentary forms, these are good starting points–which also imply that morality(ies?) must be subject to evolutionary pressures, and evolve with the species.

There underlies animosity against the “new atheists” in the book, although the author admits that he himself is an atheist. They are characterized sometimes as narrow-minded, even bigoted, but not for the reasons that religious people would argue. The book rebels against scientism and against the “doctrines” established by biologists and other scientists. The author argues insistently that genes are not merely selfish, as Richard Dawkins and other brilliant biologists have argued. Yes, they do serve selfish purposes, but it is unfair and uncritical to argue that, if a behavior does not serve an obviously selfish motive, that it is unnatural, or a “misfiring” of a vestige instinct, or some other “error” of nature.

In this, the anthropologist is reminiscent of the ancient Epicureans, who often sought more than one interpretation of data and accepted them all, as long as they did not contradict each other and as long as they did not contradict the evidence. For instance: Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura, specifically argues that body parts evolved, and only later acquired their various purposes, functions, and uses–which may be varied, and not mutually exclusive. (See the Section in Book IV that says “No speaking ere the tongue created was“, or read this blog).

The author also argues that those that engage in atheistic activism may have experienced trauma earlier in life, which might be true for many, but then he goes as far as stating that he is anti-conviction, as if it was wrong to have definite views on things that are demonstrably clear. I don’t know if this is the answer to the problem, but he clearly is tackling some of the same issues that I tackled in Atheism 2.1.

He does have a point when he argues that philosophy is distinct from, and a necessary companion to, science.

Anti-something movements will go way of the dodo unless they manage to replace what they dislike with something better.

The author also engages in a bit of religious apologetics when he describes the play behavior of some apes who play with dolls. Some religious “make-believe” behavior that we see in humans cannot be compared with the innocent play of a human girl or an ape. Deeply held religious beliefs do have (sometimes awful) repercussions, and to confuse make-believe with proven truth–like religious people do–is infantile and irresponsible. As theater, or as play behavior, make-believe is fine.

Hedonic Kindness

The author coins the term “hedonic kindness” to speak of how doing good deeds and being altruistic releases feel-good hormones, citing maternal care as the possible source of this adaptation.

Invariably, nature associates things that we need to do with pleasure. Since we need to eat, the smell of food makes us drool like Pavlov’s dogs, and food consumption is a favorite activity. We need to reproduce, so sex is both an obsession and a joy. And to make sure we raise our young, nature gave us attachments, none of which exceeds that between mother and offspring. Like any other mammal, we are totally preprogrammed for this in body and mind. As a result, we barely notice the daily efforts on behalf of our progeny and joke about the arm and leg that it costs.

Not only does the author reject the “selfish gene” view that exceptional acts of altruism (like adoption of an unrelated creature) are errors, vestiges, or “misfiring” of our instincts, he also reminds us that human brains are wired for empathy, unlike insects. Social animals in the insect kingdom are highly efficient and have complex systems of communication and social interaction, but they do not have the neural complexity of a mammal. We are social and altruistic and moral in a different way from collectivist insects.

Part of the thesis of the author relies on a view of morality as a faculty, and therefore as somewhat unconscious. He uses the example of incest to argue that “moral decisions arise from the gut, they are irrational, visceral”. Modern biologists can of course reason why incest makes people so uncomfortable, but primitive man always had taboos against incest, long before geneticists pinpointed the need for genetic variation.

In order to understand hedonic kindness, we must first understand the mechanisms by which people experience empathy. This is where the science gets interesting: the author argues that these mechanisms are physical and neurological. He discusses processes of bodily synchronization, contagion of happiness or sadness, and yawn contagion which are seen in nature among many primates, and what is known as mirror neurons that “fuse people at a bodily level”.

… we activate neural representations of motor actions in our brain similar to the ones we perceive or expect in the other … Frowns induce sadness, smiles happiness. Ulf Dimberg, the Swedish psychologist who conducted this research, told me about the initial resistance, which made it hard to get his findings published in the 1990s … at the time, empathy was viewed as a complex skill under cerebral control. We decide to be empathic, so the thinking went, on the basis of deliberate simulations in our head of how we would feel in someone else’s situation. Empathy was seen as a cognitive skill. Now we know that the process is both simpler and more automatic. It’s not that we lack control (breathing is automatic too, but we are still in command), but science looked at empathy entirely the wrong way. Empathy stems from unconscious bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions. Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are.

One uniquely human instinct that strongly correlates with morality is blushing, which is a physical signal sent when one experiences shame. The author reminds us that bodily indicators of shame are also seen in great apes. The role of shame in a naturalist morality was discussed in my reasonings about Confucius’ Analects. Like other forms of humanism, Confucianism focuses on the need for good role models: wholesome leaders inspire wholesome citizens and individuals, and the fear or shame tied to the disapproval of these role models is one of the main incentives for moral behavior. The author of The Bonobo and the Atheist provides numerous examples of this from ape societies, and also cites the “the prestige effect” that is observed in primate societies: how apes and humans like to imitate those in higher social standing (role models, alphas).

Without getting too off-track–as this is not in the book, I should cite that gossip is theorized to have a role in instilling shame and building trust among humans and, although it is sometimes looked down upon, gossip behavior seems to also be part of our moral instinct. It helps to enforce shame and guilt when anti-social behavior is observed, and strengthens societal cohesion.

We are reminded that one of the founders of our School, Hermarchus, posited a doctrine that natural kinship contributed to our moral choices and avoidances: this doctrine strongly resonates with our anthropologist’s hedonic kindness. Hedonic kindness reminds us that logic and syllogisms are not the source of moral judgment, and that we must study empathy as an unconscious phenomenon in order to better understand our moral faculty. This also brings us back to our Cyranaic Reasonings, which concluded with the recognition that our way of philosophizing is rooted in the body, its instincts and drives.

External Reinforcement

Moral instincts are innate, but reinforced socially–both in hierarchical and egalitarian models of relationship. We see that respect for authority figures and alpha (fe)males is part of what keeps society in order and that, through bullying, through not sharing resources, through shame and other methods, individuals in a group internalize the rules.

Conflict is needed to reinforce the rules, but after conflict happens, we see in ape communities a huge amount of time and attention dedicated to repairing relationships, making amends via grooming, sharing a meal, and other behavior.

Egalitarian relations also exist among the great apes. The author explains that initially, anthropologists hesitated to use the word friendship for the relationships between unrelated members of a species that were always together, fearing that the term was too anthropomorphic. In reality, friendship is no exaggeration, as friends in ape societies have been observed to mourn after one of them dies.

The ultimate example of external reinforcement in human societies comes in the form of the death sentence, which has acted in human society as a form of artificial selection for certain moral traits: we have been killing off sociopaths for millennia, in doing so removing their strains from modern human DNA and producing an increasingly domesticated variety of human.

The Is / Ought Question

From a biological point of view, basic emotions are … nature’s way of orienting us to do what we prudently ought. The social emotions are a way of getting us to do what we socially ought, and the reward/punishment system is  away of learning to use past experiences to improve our performance in both domains. – Patricial Churchland, in “Braintrust”

The author argues that morality exists without reason, and is based mainly on instinct and emotion, and says that “the tension between (is and ought) is felt much less clearly in real life than at the conceptual level at which most philosophers like to dwell. They feel that we can not reason ourselves from one level to the other, and they are right, but who says that morality is or needs to be rationally constructed? What if it is grounded in emotional values?”

In other words, it is unnecessary to go from is to ought. Instead, we can study nature and base our choices and avoidances on what we know about nature–flow with it, not against it–because (and this is one of the key premises of this book) we really ARE good-natured.

The book closes by speaking up against top-down morality. If in fact morality, like our limbs, comes from simpler forms and we are good-natured, then we can speak of grassroots virtue or morality, a subject that I discussed in my Contemplations on Tao as tied to the virtue of naturalness. If we are authentic and true to our nature, we will naturally develop wholesome qualities.